Title: Non Fidelis
Summary: Mulder and Scully investigate in Probity, NY, where naughty men suffer!
Comments: Many thanks to Lisa (L.A.Adolf) for countless discussions of character and for invaluable feedback
Carl Healy clipped the leash onto the Golden Retriever's collar, listening for the familiar click as the snap closed. The anxious dog panted, her eyes widening in expectation of the trip outdoors, and imploring her owner to hurry. His hand briefly stroked her head, scratching behind her ears, and then he called, "I'm taking Princess for her walk now, Sara." He waited a moment, listening. "Did you hear me?"
"I said 'Okay'!" came his wife's voice from the living room where she played Life with their two children.
"Back soon!" he called again, not really caring if she heard.
Healy needed to only move his foot toward the door, and Princess was up and trotting. He let the leash sag between them, knowing the dog knew the routine and would only challenge him if a cat or another dog strayed across their path. Though they walked every night, this particular route was traveled four times a week and had been for over five months now, and the dog knew a reward there awaited her, too...although Princess's reward was far different from Carl's.
He opened the outer door, which led into the driveway, and was greeted by a slap of cold, wet air. A chilly breeze remained after that evening's thunderstorm, and sprinkles still streaked to the ground. Carl zipped his windbreaker up to the neck, cussing the weather. "What I do for love," he chided himself.
He and Princess stepped out to the sidewalk and turned left. He stopped, letting the dog relieve herself, and then they continued their journey. He observed that the neighborhood was quiet this night. Its modest homes lined the street and spilled yellow light from closed, curtained windows, but no one was out at nine-twenty-five after a storm. Few streetlights lit his way and helped the night's darkness seem unusually black. And that was all the better for Carl.
He reined the dog to the left after four blocks, and they proceeded down a sidestreet. Probity, New York was not that big a town in terms of commerce, but its neighborhoods harbored copious families.
As he heard his and the dog's feet slap on the wet sidewalk, a tinge of guilt crept into his mind. He really shouldn't be doing this. At thirty-five, Carl Healy had what every WASP in America supposedly dreamed of: a comfortable, mortgaged home; a pretty wife; two children: Tad, an outgoing ten-year-old, and Brenda, his twelve-year-old who badly wanted to be the next Spice Girl; a secure job at the local bank as a loan consultant; a college education; and a winter bowling team. Life had been good to him, and he shouldn't have been willing to screw it up. But he had.
Princess tugged the leash to the right. "Sorry, girl," he told her, following.
"My mind was wandering." They crossed the road, entering another sidestreet, and once they rounded a curve, he could see her house. It was at the end of a roundabout, probably a quarter of a mile away. He strained his eyes and felt his heart leap. The blinds were halfway down in the living room window, and they were closed. The lamp to the right was the only one lit in the front of the house. It was the signal that she was waiting for him. He quickened his pace.
Thoughts of Sara, Tad, and Brenda jettisoned from his mind, overcome by lusty thoughts of his woman's home, her perfume, her hair, her breasts.
He would shortly be with her, wrapped in her arms, her body. They'd listen to the dog snoring when they were finished, and he'd yet again resent that he had to leave her, to go home to his mundane life, to eagerly await Tuesday night when he'd get to see her again.
If only he could ditch his wife....
A blue car passed him and slowly circled the roundabout. Carl pulled his Yankees cap down over his forehead as far as he could. He thought the car stopped for a moment, but he wasn't sure. It began to inch forward, coming toward him. He looked away as its headlights flashed across his face; he didn't want to be recognized, didn't want anybody getting back to Sara with news.
He'd have to tell her someday; she'd leave with the kids, and he'd be free....
The car continued on past him and disappeared where he and Princess had turned minutes before.
The cold breeze increased, and Carl broke into a jog. If he'd not been slightly overweight, he'd jog this trip each of the four nights and get there sooner, have more time to spend. But he couldn't waste the energy. With her, he needed all he could conserve.
Rain began to pelt him. He put up the umbrella he carried, but it did little to shield him as gusty torrents now drove straight into his face. Autumn leaves blew from their trees, creating a patterned blanket which nearly obscured his vision.
Carl had at least two blocks to walk, and he debated making a run for it or ducking under an eave until the latest drenching let up. Another gust hit, splashing his glasses so badly he couldn't see. That was his answer.
He knew he was in front of the Haverlings' old house which had been vacant for two months. He jerked Princess's leash to turn her, and they quickly took cover at the back of the house where the deck's roof overhung the steps. He and Princess stood there in the mud as sheets of rain hammered everything unprotected. If his clothes dried at all during his interlude, he'd have to think up a good excuse to tell Sara.
Suddenly, Princess barked, and barked again. He could barely see her ears standing straight up, her attention focused on something before them.
"Oh yeah, why don't you find something to chase now in this crap?" he mumbled to her and tightened his grip on the leash. "In a few minutes, you can go have your treat...and I can have mine. Just hold on, girl."
But the dog's tension didn't ease. Now she began to growl, louder and louder until she broke into a whine as if someone had slapped her.
"Princess?" he wondered aloud.
"Carl Healy?" said a voice from in front of him.
"What? Who--?" Carl's eyes searched in vain for the speaker of the words. The voice had been close, too close for him not to see its owner.
And it had sounded like a whisper in the wind. He felt the leash--now somehow unclasped--hang in his hands and dumbfoundedly stared as Princess bolted, tail between her legs. "What the--"
"Carl? You're a very naughty man, aren't you?" the voice asked, even closer.
Healy reached out, trying to touch whoever spoke to him, but his hands met nothing but air and rain.
"Aren't you, Carl?"
"Who are you? Where are you?" He felt panic creeping up his spine as he wondered who had followed him. Or had they gotten out of that car to wait for him? Was he going to be mugged in a backward town like Probity? And how would he get Princess back? What would he tell Sara if he returned without the dog? He pleaded, "Tell me what you want?
Please. What do you want?"
Carl's mouth dropped wide open as shock and pain hit him. He'd been stabbed! Something very sharp poked into him in the middle of his torso, right below his ribs. "What-?" he groaned as he felt the object push into him, harder and further. He gasped for breath, his hands involuntarily raising to clutch his chest. He fell to his knees and then onto his face, down into the slimy mud.
As life seeped from him, he heard the voice say, "You're all the same."
Princess barked in the distance. And Carl's last thought was of the treat he would never get again.
FBI Special Agent Dana Scully sat in her usual chair, alone in Fox Mulder's office. Her fingers slowly, gently massaged her lower right jaw as she again checked her watch. It was ten-thirty, and she'd just gotten in to work, having taken a few hours to visit the dentist. Her partner had definitely been in the office. She could tell because the lights had been left on and the door was open; plus, she'd tried to tidy his desk Friday afternoon before leaving, but already this morning, it looked as if a whirlwind had hit it. She wondered if the wind had taken him since she had no idea where he was. Scully had checked the length of the office, looking for his suitcoat, and since it was absent, too, she figured Mulder had been called upstairs. She hoped he wasn't in trouble again, but she could think of no Bureau rule he'd broken lately.
She ran her tongue around her bottom row of teeth, sad the novocaine was already wearing off. She would have welcomed more at the moment.
And then she heard it: footsteps which could only be his. She'd recognize the sound of Mulder's particular brand of swagger any day. She sat up a bit straighter but didn't let go of her jaw; it hurt too much.
"Hey, Scully," Mulder greeted her as he came through the door. His voice failed to hide his happiness to see her. "Nice you could stop by. How's the tooth?"
He moved past her, patting her left shoulder as he went. She noted his pressed navy blue suit, light blue shirt, and white-striped navy blue tie. He was a sharp yet conservative dresser, and she could not figure out how someone whose appearance was so meticulous could maintain such a disorganized office. He looked awake and energetic this morning, and she could suddenly smell a new case in the offing.
"My tooth," she responded, "hurts like hell."
"Bummer," Mulder replied, watching her smile. His partner didn't look as if she was in pain, but then, Scully could hide things well, particularly pain.
She wore a maroon suit, her skirt allowing a glimpse of her knee where her legs were crossed. She was so professional, and she appeared ready to begin no matter what physical problem she suffered. "Thought you went to the dentist to get rid of the pain," he told her as he tossed a file folder on top of his chaotic desk, then plopped down in his creaky chair. He leaned back, clasping his hands behind his head.
"I thought I had, too," she agreed. "Turns out the cavity was very deep and wide. Dr. Springfield says if the pain hasn't gone away in two weeks, I'll have to have a root canal."
Mulder's face twisted into a grimace. "Two weeks?" he asked incredulously. "You'll be ready to yank it out yourself by then."
"Well, I can go back sooner if I need to."
The grimace remained. "There's no ache like a toothache."
"Tell me something I don't know," she said, nodding; then she indicated the file he'd brought in. "What's that? Where were you?"
He sat up and handed the folder to her. "Skinner's office. He called me in at nine-thirty sharp."
Scully opened the file and scanned eight-by-ten glossies of three different corpses. "What, no slides?"
Mulder grinned; she liked to tease him about his frequent slideshow introductions to cases. "Sorry," he replied. "You got here too soon."
She put the photos together in a pile. "Since I assume we'll be travelling somewhere shortly, Mulder, and I'll have time to read the autopsies and police reports then, why don't you tell me why we have this case? Looks to me as if all three victims were stabbed just below the sternum, and my wild guess would be the murder weapon skewered their hearts.
Depending on the holes created, death was instantaneous to a few minutes."
"Anybody ever tell you you're good, Scully?" he asked, getting to his feet, beginning to pace. "You're right, of course. Meet Hugh Kellogg, Paul Van Zandt, and Carl Healy. All from the small town of Probity, New York-"
"Probity? Where's that?" she interrupted.
"Near the Adirondacks," he replied, his back to her as he faced the wall where countless reports, clippings, and posters were tacked. "These guys were killed within five weeks of each other, the last murder being Healy's which happened two weeks ago. Local law enforcement-a Sheriff Keeler-could find no motive whatsoever. Each victim still had his money, credit cards, and jewelry on him, and there was no evidence of any struggle. In fact, there was no evidence of anything-just blood and a dead body. No weapon. No hair or fibers. Not even a gum wrapper. Each murder was committed at night, and-coincidence or not-nights on which there were rain or thunderstorms, and each was committed on vacant property. Healy was walking his dog when he was killed. The dog was found the next day, perfectly fine, collar intact. Healy still held its leash in
his hands." He was behind her, near the door.
Scully frowned. "Okay. But how is this an X-File, Mulder? Sounds like some sort of careful serial killer to me."
"New York State Troopers, BCI, Sheriff Keeler-they're all stymied by the complete lack of evidence."
"It's not that uncommon in the rain. And it's certainly not that uncommon for a murderer to take the murder weapon with him or her-"
"True," Mulder said, coming back to sit on the front edge of his desk so he could face her. "But it *is* unusual for a murderer to not leave so little as one footprint in the mud during a rainstorm."
She scowled. "Maybe local law enforcement just needs to look a little harder." She saw his confident look and knew he already suspected something. "What's your theory, Mulder? Phantom arrows shot by dwarves? Alien harpoons perhaps?"
Her partner grinned. "I won't know until we have a look for ourselves.
Feel like flying?"
She returned the smile. "I'll grab a bottle of Motrin. When do we go?"
"I thought you said it was in the Adirondacks," Scully observed as they passed the green sign on which "Probity" stood out in white letters.
"No, I said it was *near* the Adirondacks," her partner replied, his eyes scanning the town for the police station.
"It's not *near* anything," she complained. "Not near an airport. Not near any city." She checked her watch. "Mulder, it's taken us longer to drive here from Syracuse than it did to fly there from D.C."
"Would you rather have flown to Vermont? Maybe we could have parachuted to Probity." He checked to see her reaction, then smirked.
"We aren't a little cranky because of our toothache, are we?"
"Just drive, and shut up," she told him. He was right, though. Her tooth and entire jaw ached worse with every passing tree. To take her mind off it, she looked out her window, noting the white church steeple rising amid red, yellow, and orange maple leaves. "Looks like a calendar photo. At least it's a pretty town."
"That's better," he teased her. "Now you're cheerier."
"Oh yeah, that's me," she smiled. "Cheery."
Mulder squinted against the sun, having forgotten his sunglasses. Through the windshield, he noticed a post office, two mini-marts, a grocery store, a bank, a bowling alley, a couple of hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and several rows of residential streets. He urgently felt the need to exit the car and stretch, his long legs cramped by the extended drive. He checked his watch, too. "It's nearly six o'clock, Scully. What say we find a motel, get a bite to eat, and start fresh in the morning? We can use the evening to review what we know so far, or maybe we could familiarize ourselves with the locale."
She stretched her arms forward. "Sounds fine, although to be honest, Mulder, I could go for that bite to eat first."
He nodded, secretly glad to hear her choice. Airplane peanuts just didn't satisfy hunger. "There were two places back there. Wanna flip a coin?"
He pulled into a driveway next to what had once been a house but was now labeled a library. Checking behind him, he backed into the street and started the return to the heart of town.
"Let's see which smells the best," Scully suggested.
"And which one will puree its food for you," he joked.
She sighed loudly. "Keep making fun of my tooth, Mulder, and you may wear your supper."
"Sorry," he said, not meaning it. "Don't know what comes over me." He pulled the rented Taurus into a parking space along the street and turned off the motor. He directed her attention to either side of the road.
"There's the...Copper Kettle, and that's the...Probity Cafe. Original name, huh?"
Scully followed where he pointed. "Copper Kettle gets my vote. The other looks a bit dingy."
Mulder was too hungry to argue even if he'd wanted to. "Let's do it," he replied, grabbing the keys and unfolding himself from behind the wheel.
As he stretched outside the car, he felt the cold, crisp, October air of the northeast. "Feels like the old days in Massachusetts," he told her. "Maybe I'll run tonight. Wanna go with me?"
Scully shook her head. "I think a bath sounds nice. Lots of hot water. And maybe an early night."
"Ooo, exciting," Mulder droned as he reached back into the car for his suitcoat then put it on as he and Scully approached the restaurant.
Inside, a handful of people sat either in booths along the side of one rosy pink wall, on stationary stools at a counter, or at wood-topped tables in a center aisle. Two waitresses dressed in white blouses and black jeans hurried in and out of double kitchen doors. At the agents' entrance, the conversations of the customers didn't come to complete halts, but they did become hushed, and at least fifteen sets of eyes turned toward the two who were quite over-dressed for this hometown business.
Scully rolled her eyes and headed for a booth near the front window.
Mulder gave a nod to those who watched and then joined her.
"So, you don't like the spotlight?" he asked as he slid onto the wooden bench behind the table.
She was arranging her coat on her bench, neatly folding it and being sure she'd not put it on anything that could stain. "I love feeling like the freak show that just hit town with the circus," she replied.
Mulder smiled. "Yeah, but the freak show is usually the best part." He looked up quickly as he glimpsed someone approaching.
"Hi, I'm Colleen, and I'll be your waitress." The speaker was a small, teen-aged brunette who couldn't weigh more than ninety pounds. "You're new in town. Just stopping by?"
Mulder looked at his partner who seemed to be intensely studying the salt and pepper shakers. The reply was up to him, and he glanced up at Colleen. "We're here for a few days. A little business."
"You must be the FBI agents."
Scully's eyes widened, and she turned them toward the waitress. "How'd you know that?"
The girl giggled. "Reed said BCI called in the FBI-he said that's two I's he didn't need."
"Reed?" Scully asked, unamused.
"Reed Keeler. Sheriff Keeler." She shrugged. "Anyway, you two are more dressed up than anybody around here, so I just figured." She handed each of them a laminated, double-sided menu.
Mulder started to scan it, then off-handedly asked, "Did you know the victims, Colleen?"
"Sure." She stood straighter, flattered to be asked for more than the day's specials. "Everybody knew them. I know their kids. Those guys had their faults, but they were okay. The murders have us all kinda spooked."
Mulder turned the menu over to check out the back. "What do the townspeople think happened?" he asked her, feigning mild interest.
She put her palms down on the table and leaned in a little closer. Her voice was low when she spoke. "People 'round here think the wives might've hired somebody to-you know-kill 'em."
Scully looked up again. "Why?"
Colleen checked over her shoulder, then returned her focus to them.
"'Cause those guys were kind of naughty. They weren't real-faithful-you know?"
"Each of the victims was having an affair?" Mulder asked, eyes still on the menu.
"How do you know?" he wondered.
"Stories go around. It's a small town."
"Did you ever see any evidence of these stories yourself?" Scully asked.
"Me?" Colleen seemed surprised anyone could think such a thing. "No way. I'm just telling you what I've heard."
Mulder nodded. "Burger and fries...and water, please."
Colleen blinked, then shook her head quickly, grabbed pen and pad from her apron pocket, and hurriedly wrote down the order.
"Tuna on wheat for me," Scully said. "And coffee."
Their waitress scratched that down, too, took their menus, smiled, and headed toward the kitchen.
"That was abrupt, Mulder," Scully scolded. "You could have at least thanked her."
"I'll leave a good tip," he replied. "We need a little more than rumor, Scully."
"Certainly could be a good motive if it's true," she countered, pulling the sleeves of her sweater down level with the sleeves of her blazer.
"But it doesn't explain how no evidence was left," her partner argued.
"And it'd be a risky move, don't you think, to plot three murders in five weeks? A small town's *got* to think *that's* strange."
"You don't think it's strange that the three men who were killed may each have been having an affair?"
Mulder spread a napkin on his lap then met his partner's eyes. "Of course I do. I'm not saying the affairs don't figure into it-if those rumors are even true. I just have a hard time believing the wives plotted the murders."
"Why? Because there'd be nothing paranormal in that explanation?" She tried to smile but winced. Her hand went to her jaw. "What's that quotation? 'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned?' Mulder, each of these men had a family-a wife and kids. Any woman can get insanely jealous if her man strays. Does the name 'Lorena Bobbitt' mean anything to you?"
For the second time that day, Mulder grimaced. He also sat up straighter.
"Ouch. You really know how to hurt a guy."
She half-smiled. "Sorry. How about Amy Fisher? She wasn't *Mrs.* Buttafuoco, of course, but her jealousy caused that shooting. Hey, maybe the mistresses in Probity arranged the murders. That's possible, right?
Anyway, history's full of such cases either way. I don't have to tell you that."
"History's full of other kinds of cases, too," he replied. "In 1972, in Huntington, Vermont, for instance, four men were killed in the same way as our three guys. How'd you say it? 'Skewered their hearts'? No weapons found, no evidence turned up. It became an X-File and is still unsolved."
Scully's sore jaw dropped. "You're kidding...." When he merely stared back at her, she shook her head. "What were the theories then?"
Mulder rested against the high back of the booth, his lips pursed. He knew how she'd react when he told her. "Ghost," he finally said, matter-of-factly.
"Ghost? A *ghost*?" She laughed without mirth, her expression both incredulous and doubtful. "Oh yeah, that's a lot easier to believe as a culprit than a jealous wife." She put a napkin in her own lap. "Mulder, please tell me you're not chasing a ghost here in Probity."
"It would at least explain why there were no footprints."
"Sure. The ghost wears Nike Airs, right? And what, it comes back every twenty-five years? Terrorizes different towns for the heck of it? What motive would a ghost have, hmmm? Somebody stepping on his sheet?"
She shook her head at him and opened her mouth to continue.
"So you're the FBI agents BCI called in, huh?"
Surprised, Mulder and Scully both looked up at the man who'd interrupted them. Grey and balding, overweight, undertall, dressed in a red plaid, flannel shirt, green jacket, and blue jeans, he pulled up a chair and sat at the end of their table.
"And you are...?" Mulder asked, annoyed but polite.
"Reed Keeler. Sheriff of Probity since 1977. Don't believe I caught your names."
"I'm Dana Scully, and this is Fox Mulder." She held out her hand, but instantly didn't like the way he shook it. He smiled at her in more than a professional manner. She pulled her hand away.
"Agent Muller." Keeler offered his hand.
"It's *Mulder*," the agent told him as he also clasped hands with the Sheriff. "You were sitting back there when we came in."
"Yes, I was. Colleen told me who you were. Thought I'd come over and make your acquaintance."
"We just got in," Mulder said. "We were going to find your office in the morning."
The Sheriff's gaze shifted back and forth between the two agents. "Ah, in the *morning*." He raised his eyebrows, giving them a cheesy smile. "I see."
Mulder glanced at Scully, mentally sharing her sneer. He ignored Keeler's insinuation. "So what's your theory on this case, Sheriff?"
Keeler shook his head. "Well, I'll tell ya, it's a damn shame we lost Hugh, Paul, and Carl. But it'll all come out in the wash. Eventually, I'll get to the bottom of it."
"We've heard rumors each was having an affair," Scully declared. "Any truth to that?"
The Sheriff looked offended. "Nah. That's bull. Who told-?" He frowned.
"Colleen? Damned high school kids, you know? They believe anything.
Spread any tidbit they get, whether it's true or not. Colleen's a sweet little thing, but her mouth's bigger 'n her brain."
Mulder pulled the ketchup and mustard which were to his right, closer toward his placemat. "Will the wives be willing to speak with us tomorrow, Mr. Keeler? Or should we make an appointment with them?"
"*Sheriff* Keeler, sir, and I don't think you should bother those ladies.
They've been through enough already."
Scully allowed a sardonic laugh. "We do have to investigate, Sheriff.
Starting with the victims' families only seems logical."
"You can read my interview transcripts with them. In fact, read all of my report; it'll save you time *and* convince you there's nothing else to be found. It's gonna be one of them mysteries that'll be unsolved. Probably make it to that Robert Stack TV show one of these days."
"*Sheriff*," Mulder exaggerated, disdain in his voice, "after only a few weeks you're ready to declare this case unsolveable? Aren't you giving up just a little too soon? You have to prevent other murders if you can, not to mention bring the murderer to justice."
"I didn't say *I* was giving up," Keeler spat, red creeping into his puffy face. He glared at the younger man. "What I would like is for you two to put in a day or two here to make it look good to BCI. Then go back to Washington, and I'll work the way I work best. Alone. If everybody'd keep their noses out of my business, I could do my job."
Scully was about to give him the "we're here to help you in whatever way we can" standard FBI speech when Colleen returned and placed their food and drinks in front of them. Scully thanked her, then gingerly took a bite of her sandwich so she could avoid speaking to Keeler.
Mulder accepted the responsibility. "Sheriff Keeler, I assure you we're here to assist in your investigation, not get in its way. But we have our job to do, and we're not going to pretend we've done it and go home. It'll be a lot easier and far more beneficial if Agent Scully and I can work *with* you. That *is* why we're here."
"Nope," Keeler huffed coldly. "You're here because the State Troopers didn't want to put in their time and because they'd rather call in the big shots than admit I'm capable of solving these murders. They tend to underestimate local law enforcement." He shoved his chair back and stood. He looked at his watch. "I've got things to do." Without another word, he turned and left the restaurant.
Mulder watched him go, then turned to Scully. He shrugged as he squeezed ketchup onto his burger and fries. "Guess we won't be on his Christmas card list."
"He won't be on mine either," she said angrily. "What a creep." She suddenly winced as chewing on the wrong side of her mouth sent lightning streaks of pain through her jaw. She closed her eyes against it, riding the wave till it faded.
"You okay, Scully?" Mulder asked around a mouthful of burger.
Her eyes blinked open. "Of course I am."
"Scully, if you'd rather go back to D.C. to your dentist-"
"Mulder, what are you talking about? A toothache is hardly life-threatening. My tooth and jaw suffered some major trauma this morning. It'll take more than a few hours for them to recover."
"But you're in pain-"
"So? I don't fold to pain-"
"I know that."
"You'd better," she warned him. She bit another corner of sandwich, careful to chew only on the left. Glancing at her partner's embarrassed expression, she said, "Thanks for your concern. I'm fine. Besides, I get the feeling Sheriff Keeler will be more of a pain than what I'm feeling."
"And not a pain in the tooth," Mulder agreed, brightening.
She sipped her coffee. "Can't wait until you tell him there's a murderous ghost haunting his town."
Mulder popped two fries into his mouth then wiped ketchup off his lower lip. "At least it'll be easy to find," he quipped. "How many ghosts do you know who wear expensive sneakers?"
Mulder panted rhythmically as his feet smacked the concrete sidewalk.
Occasionally he could see his breath in the glow of the streetlights along the sleepy avenue. The air had turned chilly, and he doubted he'd be comfortable in his sweats if he weren't running. But he'd done at least three miles and was warm enough for now.
He'd managed to find each of the streets on which the first two murders had occurred, noting the vacant properties he and Scully might visit in the morning. Now on Langor Avenue, he approached the empty house behind which Carl Healy had lost his life. Mulder slowed his pace, bringing himself to a walk by the time he reached the front of the property. He checked the vacant street and roundabout surrounding him, then casually drifted into the shadows beside the house.
The grass was shin-deep. He recalled the police report saying the Haverlings had moved out at the end of August, and obviously, no real estate agent had deemed mowing the lawn a help to selling the house.
Mulder glanced at the dark, blank windows then at the skeletal branches of trees whose leaves had dried and dropped away. At the back of the house he stood, not stepping past the corner since he wanted to see the area untouched when daylight revealed it. But he listened, hearing only the quiet *whish* of the breeze in the cold October night. He tried to imagine Carl Healy's thoughts before he died, and he shuddered at the image of the stabbing.
Mulder turned and retraced his steps, slowing when he saw someone waiting just out of the yellow glow of the nearest streetlamp. It was a small woman huddled into a long coat.
"You there!" her voice called. "What're you doing?"
The voice sounded old, and as he stood before her, Mulder saw the woman had to be in her eighties. Her hair might have been blond once but was now grey. Braids wrapped around her head in a circle and were secured tightly with bobby-pins. Behind wire-rimmed glasses, her lively, bright blue eyes shone in the lamplight.
"Oh, I know who you are!" she suddenly smiled before he could speak.
"You're the FBI agent!"
Mulder's eyebrows raised, but he couldn't stop a grin. "How'd you know that?"
"Saw you come out of the Copper Kettle tonight. And news travels fast in a small town."
He nodded. "My name is Fox Mulder."
"'Fox'?" she chuckled, dimples showing alongside wrinkles. "Guess that's better than 'Woodchuck'. How on God's green earth did you get that name?"
Mulder laughed, too. "Long story," he told her. "And it's too cold for you to stand out here and listen to it."
"Most likely," she agreed. "I'm on my way home, but I saw you back there. And what with all the killings 'round Probity lately, I just wondered what you were up to."
"Sorry I aroused your curiosity," Mulder apologized. "I didn't think anybody was out here."
"I may be old and small, young man, but I don't like being overlooked."
She gave him a smile to let him know she was joking.
"You mentioned the murders-um, your name?" he asked.
"Elsie. Elsie Hubbard," she supplied, her face sobering. "Yes, I did.
Terrible things. I especially feel sorry for the ones left behind."
Mulder raised his right foot behind him, grabbing his ankle to stretch muscles that were beginning to tighten. "You don't have sympathy for the victims?"
"Well," Elsie replied, "yes and no. Sorry they died; sorry they died that way. But from what I hear, they were naughty men. Put their wives through hell in life and death. In a way, maybe they deserved their fates."
Mulder stretched his left leg. "So you heard each was having an affair?"
"Oh, it's common knowledge 'round here." She watched him continue to loosen his muscles, then said, "I mustn't keep you from your pretty wife. I reckon she's waiting for you back at the motel."
Mulder paused for a moment till he figured out what she meant. "No, no, she's not my wife," he shyly told her, then hurried to correct the wrong impression Elsie's scowling face revealed she now had. "She's an FBI agent, too. She's my partner."
Elsie's knowing smile returned. "Partner in other things, too, isn't she?"
He could feel himself blushing as he shook his head. "No, Mrs. Hubbard.
We're partners and good friends."
She winked at him. "The body language you two have when you're together says otherwise."
"That means-" she began.
"No, I know what it means-"
"It's late, young man," Elsie laughed. "Go back to the motel. Say hello to your *partner* for me. And next time I see you, call me 'Elsie'." She started to walk away, limping and leaning slightly on an old wooden cane.
Mulder called after her. "Would you like me to walk you home?"
She waved her hand. "Sixty years ago, yes. Now-I may be old, but I'm not helpless."
Mulder watched her for a few moments then bent to touch his toes. After he felt the backs of his legs pull, he stood then resumed his run.
At the center of the roundabout, he saw the only car he'd seen parked at the curb on all of Langor Avenue. The light blue Thunderbird rested in front of number 3336, a house that didn't look too lively. One light at the right of a window in its front room shone out from beneath a closed blind pulled halfway up. Mulder shrugged and headed back to the motel, noting that Elsie must have reached home already.
"Who?" Scully asked as they left their parking space outside the Copper Kettle. The morning was cool and bright, and wisps of fog still hovered beside the streets. Scully had slept miserably, her tooth bothering her throughout the night. She'd welcomed daybreak and the chance to do something other than focus on pain.
"Elsie Hubbard," Mulder repeated. "Nice little old lady-stereotypical grandmother." He yawned; he'd not slept much either, but because he couldn't shut down his overactive reasoning.
"She said to say 'hello' to me? Why?"
One thumb beat a rhythm on the steering wheel. "'Cause she saw us together and knows we're partners."
Scully shook her head and rolled her eyes. "And you met her in the dark while you were running. Anybody ever tell you you're weird, Mulder?"
"You're the first today," he replied.
Scully didn't try to hide her amusement. "How was your run anyway? Did you see the ghost?"
"It wasn't raining," he told her. "It only comes out in the rain."
"Ah, a waterproof sheet," Scully teased.
He flicked a crumb of the Copper Kettle's toast from the sleeve of his charcoal grey suitcoat. "I did see three crazily jealous women racing through the streets with knives, though."
Scully's expression turned sarcastic. "Wow, must've been some run you had."
"Told you, you should have come with me," he grinned. "The things you pass up, Scully. And all because of a bath and an early night."
She sipped coffee from her take-out cup. "Actually, I didn't have an early night."
Mulder sobered and shot her a worried glance. "Your tooth worse?"
Scully's head snapped back against the headrest. "Oh God, Mulder, do I have to hear that again all day today?"
He tried to look impish. "Sorry. I was just..." He decided not to further irritate her by saying "worried" or "concerned." He settled on, "So what were you doing?"
"Going over the coroner's reports and the autopsy photos. Your 'three crazily jealous women' couldn't have been carrying knives."
Mulder again glanced at her. "What was the murder weapon, then? Those guys *were* stabbed."
Scully pursed her full lips as she remembered. "The wounds were round and small, maybe a quarter inch in circumference. The weapon was straight, but its sides were blunt or smooth. The path it made was a puncture, obviously, but there was no-chewing up or sawing of tissue, skin, or muscle like a serrated or sharpened edge would cause." She let him digest this, then couldn't resist adding, "Maybe the ghost used a chopstick."
Mulder was deep in thought and missed the joke. He put the turning signal on, then pulled into the small parking lot of the Sheriff's station, stopping beside a light blue Thunderbird. Besides it and their rental, the only other car was the Sheriff's green and white cruiser. "Scully, how tall do you think the murderer is?" He seemed distracted even though he asked the question.
She watched him, perplexed at what might be going through his mind. It wasn't uncommon for him to act like this when new or contrary thoughts came into his head, and she tolerated and respected that. "I don't think it's really possible to say, Mulder."
"What's your best guess?" He stared at the Thunderbird.
Scully let herself observe the red brick of the one-story Sheriff's station, noting the narrow windows obscured by closed blinds. "The angle was a straight slant upward to the heart. Technically, I'd say the murderer was short to medium height. But he could as easily have been a taller person who just knew what he was doing. But then, there were no deviations, no mistakes in any of the cases. Whatever his height, our guy knew exactly how to kill quickly and neatly."
Mulder nodded and turned full attention back to her. "Okay. C'mon, let's go find out how happy Sheriff Keeler will be to see us."
"Can't wait," she intoned as she followed her partner out of the car.
They didn't get far before Keeler exited the building and met them on the crushed stone of the parking lot.
"I've called the wives," he informed them stiffly. "Only Sara Healy agreed to meet with you. But you keep it short and don't harass her none. She's a sweet little gal, and she doesn't deserve any crap. I'll take you over there."
"Hey, Sheriff," Mulder said dryly as he looked down into the face of the man who obviously despised him, "do you live over on Langor?"
Keeler's jaw dropped then closed into a scowl. The color drained from his face. "No." He quickly waddled toward his cruiser.
Mulder opened his door and idly fumbled for the right key. "I went jogging last night and saw this car-"he indicated the Thunderbird, "on Langor Avenue. It's yours, isn't it?"
"I doubt the Ford Motor Company only made one blue T-bird in 1990, Mr. Mulder," Keeler grumbled.
"No doubt." The younger man persisted as he caught the Sheriff's hateful glance. "By the way, that's *Agent* Mulder. Tell me, who else in this town owns a car like this? As Sheriff, you must know."
Keeler got into his cruiser and started the engine. "My car have something to do with this investigation?"
Mulder shrugged. "I don't know. Does it?"
The Sheriff's disgusted expression was vivid. "Sara lives on Greenwich Street. Number two-ninety-nine. See if you can find that," he spat. He slammed his door and took off, spraying tiny stones from behind his tires.
Scully tipped her head, her interest piqued. "What was that all about?"
Her partner grinned at her over the Taurus's top. "Can't you feel it, Scully? Sheriff Keeler and I are bonding."
"Please come in." Sara Healy stepped to the side to let her guests enter.
Her short brown hair was almost a boy's cut, and it framed her features, highlighting what had been a quiet beauty. But that was sidetracked now by puffy, tear-ridden eyes and pale skin which betrayed her grief's tenacity.
Mulder followed Scully, noting that she and Sara were the same height and that Keeler was only a few inches taller than the women. Mulder distractedly wondered if, at six feet, one inch, he towered over everyone in Probity. But as he entered the mostly green living room and sat on the other end of the couch he shared with Scully, he forced his focus back to the questioning they were about to begin.
The Healys' house was an average, middle income, family home, small but with two stories. Its lemon yellow vinyl siding only hinted at the clean, well-kept haven within its walls. It reminded Mulder for the millionth time that bad things happened to decent families, and no one owned control over that.
Scully watched as the Sheriff guided Sara to an overstuffed chair and then took a rocker for himself. Sara's hands clutched a damp Kleenex, and Scully decided to get started before the woman broke down. "Mrs. Healy, we're sorry to intrude on you, but we have to ask you a few questions."
She kept her voice sympathetic but firm.
Without looking up, Sara nodded.
"We understand you and your children were playing a board game when your husband left the house the night he was murdered. Am I correct?"
"When did you stop? When did your children go to bed?"
Sara twisted the Kleenex in her fingers. "We played until ten-thirty. They were in bed by eleven. They're young, but Carl...and I let them stay up until eleven. Maybe that's wrong, but...."
"Mrs. Healy," Scully interrupted, "what time did you expect your husband to return?"
"He was always back by eleven," she almost whispered. "But it was raining that night...."
Mulder moved up to the edge of the couch. "He always walked the dog for an hour and a half?"
Sara smiled as if some fond memory had come to mind. "Four nights a week, he did. Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. The other nights, they just went for a half an hour. Carl said Princess needed the longer walks to keep her happy."
"Mrs. Healy, did you ever think your husband might be doing something else on those nights?" Scully asked, ignoring the glance of contempt Keeler aimed at her.
Sara looked up, her eyes searching the female agent's face. "What do you mean? What else would he do?"
Mulder jumped in before his partner could tell her of a possible affair.
"Did Carl ever say anything about those walks?" he asked, getting Sara to look at him. "For instance, did he ever mention meeting someone or maybe noticing somebody following him or watching him?"
Sara's eyes stared blankly as she tried to recall. "No...no, I don't think so."
"Was yours a happy marriage?" Scully inquired.
Again, Sara seemed stunned by the question. "Of course." She glanced from Keeler to Mulder for help and then back to Scully. "What-do you think I did this? That I would kill my Carl? How could you think I would do that?"
"That's enough." Keeler stood and moved to the couch as if to intimidate the agents into leaving. "They think Carl was having an affair, Sara."
The woman's hands rose to her open mouth. She doubled over as if someone had kicked her stomach. "No! No! No! Carl? No!"
Mulder and Scully exchanged looks and then got to their feet. There were so many more questions to ask, but Keeler's unwelcome revelation to Sara Healy had now made her hostile toward them. To press on at that point would negate their chances of ever getting candid answers.
"Thank you for speaking with us, Mrs. Healy," Mulder said quietly. "I'm sorry if we've upset you." He touched Scully's back lightly to usher her ahead of him as they set off toward the door leading to the driveway.
"I told you this was a mistake, Sara," Keeler scolded behind them. "Just you forget about this crap they're trying to tell you, honey. Just you forget about it."
"Does everyone think I'm stupid?!" Sara's sudden outburst turned the agents back to her. She was on her feet, tears streaming, hands wringing each other. "I go downtown, and people smile to my face, but as soon as I pass them I hear them whispering! Whispering about me, about Carl! He wouldn't have done that! He wouldn't have cheated on me! Do you hear me?" Her eyes seemed to bore into them.
Mulder slowly nodded though his face was non-committal. Scully simply returned the gaze
then resumed her exit.
Outside, she folded her arms, shivering despite her grey blazer. "Which was it, Mulder? Denial or innocence?"
Her partner's tie and topcoat flapped in the wind as he neared the car.
"Good question. Sheriff Keeler's quite a protective fellow, wouldn't you say?"
"You know," Scully observed, following his train of thought, "he's the one who set this up. If he told her talking to us was a mistake, I wonder what else he told her."
"And what else he told Mrs. Kellogg and Mrs. Van Zandt."
"If he told them anything at all," Scully agreed. "We can't be sure he even talked to them."
She seatbelted herself in as he got behind the wheel. "I'll re-check the addresses," she told him. "Let's get out of here before the good Sheriff warns us off this 'crap'."
Cecelia Kellogg lived in a block house painted white. Her neighborhood mirrored the Healys': middle class, sheltered. And the sidewalk leading to her house was lined with dying marigolds and petunias. The cement steps of the porch were chipped and cracked, and the screen of her door was ripped as if a bird had flown into it, thinking the door was smoke-filled air and finding out differently.
Mrs. Kellogg's shifted-sands figure fit the door-frame when she responded to her doorbell. Her grey-streaked blond hair fell to her shoulders but didn't re-capture her youth as she may have hoped. She was forty-five at the least; either grief or anger had lined her face in the past weeks, and she appeared older than her actual age. She viewed the agents outside with apprehension.
"Mrs. Kellogg? I'm Fox Mulder with the FBI, and this is my partner, Dana Scully," Mulder said through the ripped screen. "I don't know if Sheriff Keeler mentioned that we were here to investigate the murders that have occurred in Probity, but we'd like to ask you a few questions if we could."
Her jaw set, and she regarded them coolly. "Reed told me not to say anything. He said you'd just make a big deal of everything, and I really don't need any more embarrassment."
"Your husband was murdered, Mrs. Kellogg," Scully replied, hiding annoyance with sympathy. "How would that embarrass you?"
"Well," the woman replied, a sarcastic laugh emerging from her lips, "hasn't anybody told you where he was going when he was murdered?"
Scully shook her head. "I don't believe so, no. But we will keep your answers to our questions confidential."
Cecelia laughed again then swung the door open. "To hell with Reed. You might as well come on in. I don't suppose the jokes around town or the stares I get can be any worse than they already are." She let Mulder hold the door for his partner so she could lead to the living room, take a seat, and wait for them. Again the agents shared a couch at opposite ends.
"You see," Mrs. Kellogg began, waiting briefly for them to settle. She suddenly seemed happy to have guests and to share her story. "I figured Hugh had something going." She picked up a framed photo from the coffee table. The frame had been turned down, and as they accepted it, they saw the glass in it had been shattered. The photo was of Hugh and Cecelia Kellogg and was recent. He had been a dapper dresser; his hair had greyed, but he had a finely sculpted moustache and a classically handsome face. Cecelia continued. "He was still nice-looking. I know he resented my weight gain, but he never appreciated my attempts to lose it.
Apparently, eventually, I must not have been good enough for him."
"Why do you say that, Mrs. Kellogg?" Mulder asked softly.
"Surely you've heard." She looked at both of them but was given no sign that they had. "Hugh was playing around," she said bluntly. "It finally dawned on me after two months."
"How?" Scully wanted to know.
"How? Well, every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday at
nine-twenty-five sharp, off he went. No excuse. Oh-at first he said he wanted to check the neighborhood. You know, like a crime-watch thing.
But then he managed to skip that a few nights a week. I asked him one time if he wasn't going to go patrol. He didn't say anything. Next night he started the 'gonna take a walk for my health' business. 'Cept at only three nights a week, I decided he didn't want to be too healthy." She paused to take the framed photo back from Scully, and she put it face down on the coffee table again. "Then I started overhearing conversations at the grocery store. You know how sometimes you can stand in one aisle and hear things being said in another? Well, I heard-several different times-about Hugh and the hussy-"
Scully's eyes nearly popped. "The who?"
"Hussy. It's a slut, harlot, whore-"
"I-I-know what it is," the agent said. "I didn't realize you had such things in a small town."
Cecelia grunted. "Oh, honey, this one doesn't take any money for her services. She just takes men from their wives and kids."
"Do you know who this woman is?" Mulder asked. He hid his amusement over Scully's shock. "Or that your husband definitely was seeing her?"
Mrs. Kellogg's intelligent eyes blinked a few times. "I can't prove that's where he was going, no. But he was killed between here and there on a vacant lot. That tells me he was cutting 'cross-lots to get there; otherwise, he would've been on a sidewalk, wouldn't he?"
"Possibly," Scully answered. "Who is this-hussy?"
"Name's Gretchen, but I don't know her last name. Rumor has it she's moved around a lot-probably got chased out of every town she's been in.
She came to Probity in March, I think. Lives over on Langor Avenue.
Number thirty-three-thirty-six. It's common knowledge. Obviously Carl Healy knew it, too. And Paul."
"How many others?" Scully wanted to know. "Any idea?"
Mrs. Kellogg smiled smugly. "I don't gossip. You'll have to find that out for yourselves."
Scully clasped her hands around her crossed knee. "You don't think your help might stop other murders?"
Cecelia shrugged. "Hey, I hate to tell you this, but as much as it hurts to have Hugh gone, I think he got what he deserved. He didn't care if he hurt me or if he embarrassed me. And when he broke our vows, he didn't mind. If someone hadn't beaten me to it, I might have killed the bastard myself. And if other S.O.B.'s are pulling this on their wives, let the same fall to them!"
Mulder bit his lower lip as he watched the woman. He noticed how her right hand twisted her wedding ring, faster as her words tried to persuade them of her detachment from Hugh. He hoped Scully also observed it. A part of Cecelia had died with her husband, and Mulder was certain she'd not committed murder. He finally asked, "Do you have any idea who might have killed your husband?"
"No," she blurted. "But I'd like to thank him."
"You're sure it was a him?" Scully inquired. "Couldn't it have been a jealous wife?"
"Sure," Mrs. Kellogg replied. "And it could have been another boyfriend who wanted the tart all to himself. I don't really give a damn."
"Where were you that night?" Scully's voice hardened; she didn't care for Cecelia's attitude.
"I was right here. Monday nights my son calls. He's attending R.I.T., and he calls at nine-thirty every week. He was right on time, and we talked until ten."
"Can anyone confirm-"
"The night Hugh died," her partner interrupted, "when did you first notice something was wrong?" He avoided Scully's annoyed glance. He fully believed Cecelia innocent and saw no reason to make her feel like a suspect.
Cecelia caught the slight tension between the agents, but she liked Mulder's questions and angle better. Her eyes turned to him. "Hugh was always back by eleven. By midnight I was pretty pissed off. I got dressed and went looking. But it was raining, and I only went half a block. I called Reed, and he said he'd get around to it in the morning if Hugh hadn't come back. I was so mad at Hugh I figured, 'Fine. Whatever.' The next day, I got a call at seven-thirty. Some kids spotted his-body-on their way to school." She twisted the ring even faster.
"How did you react to his death?" Scully's tone betrayed her disdain.
"Well, I jumped for joy," Cecelia spat. "How would you think? At the time, I cried my damn eyes out. Now I'm glad I don't have to think about him anymore. Twenty-three years of marriage ended by his folly!"
Mulder suddenly rose to his feet and extended his hand to the woman who now looked ready to cry. "Mrs. Kellogg, we appreciate your help, and you have my assurance that nothing you've told us will go beyond these walls."
Cecelia shook his hand but now aimed her eyes at Scully. "So am I a suspect?"
"Absolutely not," Mulder said before Scully could reply. "Please realize that as investigators, sometimes we have to ask questions we'd rather not.
Agent Scully and I need to look at all aspects of a case before we can speculate on what happened. You've been very generous to give us your time. We'll let you get back to your privacy."
As Scully offered her hand, she had mixed emotions about Mulder's graceful exit. She knew he still had some unbelievable ghost on his mind, and she would have grilled this woman a bit more. On the other hand, she couldn't alienate Cecelia, certainly not this early in their investigation.
She followed her partner to the car. "Where now, Saint Mulder?" she said, trying to keep her dissatisfaction from her voice. "Mrs. Van Zandt?
Or Gretchen, the wonder tart?"
He glanced at her and grinned. "'Saint', huh? I don't think you mean that."
"Mulder," she chided as she slid her seatbelt around her, "why shut off a line of questions that could pin her in some conspiracy to commit these murders? You heard her yourself; she made no secret of being glad her husband's dead. But you just ignored it."
"Scully," he replied, his tone one of strained patience as he arranged himself behind the wheel, "every time she said 'mad' or 'pissed off', she was really saying 'hurt' or 'humiliated'. She's dealing with his death by holding back the real emotions. It's easier to hate him than to try to understand why he did this to her. Anger can substitute for anguish and paranoia about what caused him to stray."
"And anguish and paranoia can cause killing," she reminded him.
Mulder started the car and backed from the driveway. "Just think about it.
Hugh Kellogg's body was out behind a vacant house, actually where two opposite back yards meet. I went there last night. At nine-thirty on a rainy night, this man cuts across people's yards to get to his mistress's house.
He would have had a head start on her, but you believe she followed or caught up to him and killed him without leaving a trace?"
"How do we know she didn't leave the house earlier and wait for him?"
"We don't. But you're talking about two wide lawns here. Do you think she could have known exactly where he'd come across them, wait there, and still leave no marks?"
She had to agree he had a point, but she had other theories. "Still doesn't rule out her and the others hiring a murderer. If this routine went on for two months, anyone could have known Kellogg's steps-or Healy's."
"Still should have left some marks."
"Not in grass. And nine or ten hours later, after a storm, how much evidence would remain?"
"There were no footprints in the mud around Healy," Mulder reminded her.
"At least as far as we know," she countered. "Let's remember the good Sheriff has been less than honest with us already." Both paused, not wanting to back down, yet respectful of the other's opinions.
As they neared the Van Zandt house, Scully remembered something else.
"Thirty-three-thirty-six Langor Avenue. Carl died near there."
"It's two blocks away from where Van Zandt died, too." Mulder pulled the car into the driveway. "And it's where Keeler's car was parked last night."
Scully's eyebrows raised. "Do you think our Sheriff Keeler is-pinning his badge on Gretchen?"
"I don't think he's deputizing her," Mulder replied as he shut off the engine. "No wonder he doesn't want too much outside attention focused on his naughty little town."
"He might not want too many others' attention focused on his naughty little hussy either," Scully said with a half smile. She glanced out the windshield and uttered, "Uh-oh. Trying to escape?"
Mulder followed her gaze, noticing a tall, too-thin woman with black, obviously dyed hair, emerging from a garage door. She pushed a stroller inhabited by a child whose knitted bonnet had slid nearly over her eyes.
Nancy Van Zandt wore an olive green barn jacket and rings on each of her hands' ten digits. Make-up had to have been applied with a trowel. She was staring into their car, scowling. "Look, Scully," he murmured beneath his breath, "I think Mrs. Van Zandt has a toothache just like yours!" He didn't see his partner's mocking sneer as he left the car.
"Mrs. Van Zandt?" Mulder asked, stepping onto the black-topped driveway.
"Yeah, I know who you are. FBI. Cecelia called me. Look, I'll make this easy for you." She stood before Mulder, and her expression was stony, her brown eyes unflinching. "Yes, my husband was having an affair. For three months, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. He'd leave the house at seven-twenty-five and not come home until nine I did follow him once. I saw where he went. Was I angry? Was I hurt? Devastated?
You're damn right I was. I had our daughter because he thought a child would strengthen our marriage. What it did was saddle me with a burden so he'd feel free to roam. Bastard. Sorry, buddy, but all men are the same, I swear." She glanced away as Scully got out of the car and came around it to stand beside her partner.
Nancy gave both agents the once-over, then continued. "The night he was killed, I was at my mother's. We had a wedding shower for my niece. I've got fifteen witnesses. I don't know who killed Paul or why. When I came home and found he wasn't there yet, I went searching but didn't see him. I called Reed at ten-thirty, but he said he'd look into it in the morning if Paul wasn't back yet. I thought at the time, 'why wouldn't Paul be back by then?' I sat up all night, and by morning, Reed came over to tell me Paul had been killed out behind the Stevens' old house. They moved out last year." She knelt down to adjust the baby's bonnet then stood, assuming a stance that showed she was ready to take off. "Yes, I grieve, and yes, I'm sorry he's dead. But I was in the process of filing divorce papers anyway. His insurance covered the funeral, and it saved me a bunch of money for lawyer fees. And none if this would have happened if he'd stayed home where he belonged." She gave them a mirthless, fake, big smile. "Okay? Answer your questions?"
Mulder pursed his lips and nodded. "That about covers it. Thank you."
"Well, not completely," Scully said, her voice stopping him from getting back into the car. She noticed Nancy didn't appear happy to be delayed.
"How'd your husband react to the idea of a divorce?" she asked.
"He didn't know," Nancy replied icily. "Not yet. I was waiting until my lawyer gave the word to tell him. But I don't think Paul would have been upset. More like relieved."
"Didn't you try to talk about his affair with him? Maybe try to save the marriage?"
"For what?" The woman's eyes burned into Scully's. "He strayed once.
He'd have continued or strayed again. Why put myself through that? I wanted out, and I wanted away from here."
Scully nodded, not yielding to Nancy's contempt. "Okay. How much of the insurance money did you get to keep?"
Mrs. Van Zandt wasn't rattled. "That's one good thing about Paul. He was money conscious. I'm expecting a check for ninety thousand. And I have a buyer for the house, too. That'll net about eighty thousand. I'm set for life. Good reasons to kill him, eh?" She leaned toward Scully. "But I didn't. And I wouldn't. I came to hate him, but he sure as hell wasn't worth spending the rest of my life in jail for-or facing lethal injection for.
I was perfectly happy to let him have his fun; I just wasn't staying around to be the butt of everyone's jokes or sympathies."
"Scully," Mulder stopped her. He again avoided her accusing stare, and he again nodded to Nancy. "Mrs. Van Zandt, I know this wasn't something you wanted to do. We appreciate your time and patience." As he watched Scully nod reluctant appreciation and then return to her side of the car, he added, "Good luck." Then he joined his partner.
As they started up the road again, Scully exhaled heavily. "Mulder, may I ask what you're doing? I mean, can't you see how these women can be suspect? Or are you so wrapped up in this ghost idea that you can't see past its sheet?"
"Are you so wrapped up in your theory of murderous wives that you can't see past their anger?" he countered. Then he glanced at her and found she stared straight ahead. She was frowning, her hands clenched in her lap.
Sometimes she could be so contrary, yet always for good reason. His own fingers tightened on the steering wheel but then relaxed. He, too, sighed heavily. "Look, Scully, let's shelve our own theories for a minute." Her expression softened, and he knew she'd be receptive, their tension with each other now over. "Two people's names keep appearing in all three of these cases. What two names are those?"
"This Gretchen...and Keeler." She looked over at him and nearly smiled.
"So if we wish to consider a third theory, we suggest Keeler wanted to be her one and only. Gretchen supplies information as to when each 'guest'
arrives and from where he comes, and Keeler waits to stab away one of his competitors."
"Wouldn't necessarily have to be in conjunction with Gretchen," Mulder replied thoughtfully. "Both Mrs. Kellogg and Mrs. Van Zandt called Keeler when their husbands didn't come home on time."
"And he said he'd look into it in the morning if they weren't back by then.
Maybe he just 'found' them and killed them."
"Possibly," Mulder agreed.
"Or," Scully continued, enthusiasm growing, "that could take us back to my theory that the wives worked with someone. They had Keeler kill their husbands. They called him-"
"Scully, I really don't think the wives took part. I think each of them was truthful with us."
He said this with such naked honesty that his partner decided not to argue.
"So we focus on Keeler-"
"And we go meet Gretchen." He turned the car onto Langor Avenue and gave her a half-smile. "Think we should have called for an appointment?"
Shortly after Scully's knock, the door opened. And both FBI agents' eyes widened as they looked upon the object of so many men's attentions.
Gretchen stood five feet five inches and was slender, her age between twenty and thirty. A tight, black, leather skirt stretched around her shapely hips and revealed long nude-stockinged legs that ended in black stiletto heels. A cascade of tight blond curls fell from her head to her waist, partially obscuring a knitted white V-neck sweater. Her delicately featured face and bright blue eyes could be easily overlooked as they were now, though, because of her bulging, voluptuous bustline-which Mulder found amazing, and which Scully mused to herself would make Dolly Parton envious. Both agents forced their eyes back to Gretchen's face.
"Hi!" she said happily. "You're the FBI agents, aren't you? The whole town's talking about you." She glanced at Scully briefly, and then her gaze slowly took Mulder in from head to toe and back. Her eyebrows raised, and her lips pouted. She made no secret that she liked what she saw. "Do all male FBI agents look like you, Mr. Mulder? I'm moving to Washington, D.C. if they do. You *are* a fox!"
Scully rolled her eyes, shifted her weight, and avoided a look at her partner to see if he was enjoying this. She cleared her throat. "How do you know our names? And that we're from D.C.?"
Gretchen's eyes didn't move from Mulder's face. "Reed told me, Agent-?" She glanced down at Scully. Her eyes narrowed, and her expression mirrored her easy brush-off of the female agent. "I'm sorry, I don't remember *your* name."
"Special Agent Dana Scully," Scully replied coldly. "You've talked to Sheriff Keeler about us? Why would you do that?"
"Reed and I are good friends." Her eyes returned to their appreciative stare at Mulder, again wandering over his body.
"We've heard you had several friends, and unfortunately, they've all been murdered." Scully now looked to her partner whose arms were crossed, holding his topcoat closed, and whose gaze was directed toward the house on their left. "Weren't they on their way to see you?"
"Actually, Paul was on his way home." Gretchen sidled to her right where she leaned back on the porch railing near Mulder, her back arching to expose more of her talents.
"Is it true these men were having sexual relations with you?" Mulder asked, his gaze now meeting Gretchen's.
Scully didn't think it possible, but the woman blushed and pointed her pelvis out even more. "Why, yes, I was." Gretchen licked her lips. "I can't help it; I like men."
"Especially married men?" Scully wanted to know.
"No, they don't have to be married. Sometimes single men visit." She glanced at the female agent and sneered. "Their other ladies bore them or are...um...frigid. My friends *need* me."
"Or else they're losers," Scully allowed herself to say before recovering her equanimity. "How can it not bother you that you ruin marriages and families?"
"I don't ruin anything. I don't force them to come to me. Men are all the same. They see someone they like, they go after her. Nothing hard about that-pardon the pun." She looked back to Mulder. "No offense-Fox."
She winked and smiled teasingly. "If I like what I see, too, I don't turn anyone away."
"How do you meet these friends of yours?" Mulder asked, stepping down off the top step. His eyebrows were knitted, but otherwise, he showed no reaction to Gretchen's advances. "And it's 'Agent Mulder'."
Gretchen stood straight and clasped her hands behind her back. "Fine, Agent Mulder," she replied sweetly. "I meet them around town. Carl worked at the bank; he helped me get a loan for my car. Hugh managed the bowling alley. Paul worked at the Post Office. And-" She stopped, touching her fingers to her lips. "Ooops, Reed told me not to tell you about the others."
"Reed told you, huh?" Scully moaned. "Why would Reed say that?"
"Well, Reed's a friend. I thought I heard a prowler one night, so I called Reed, and he came 'round but didn't find anything...at least not outside the house." She giggled at her own joke and slowly sobered. Seeing that neither agent appreciated her humor, she answered the question. "Reed called and said if I gave you names of anyone else, you'd go right to their houses. He doesn't want you to do that."
"Tell me, Gretchen," Mulder said, buttoning his topcoat around him as a cold breeze stirred, "any of these guys ever talk about marrying you, ever promise they'd get divorced and take off with you?"
She smiled proudly. "Every damn one of them. But I always tell them not to bother. I'm free, and I like it. I'd hate to be pinned down to one guy."
"Yeah, heaven forbid," Scully mumbled under her breath. Louder, she asked, "Must be difficult scheduling, isn't it? After all, so many men, so little time. Have you ever needed to-get rid of a few? You know, to make room for others?"
Gretchen glanced quickly at Mulder. "No. Never. I can always accommodate new additions."
Mulder ignored her. "Where do you work during the day?"
"At Gerty's. That's the grocery store. I'm a check-out clerk. But I only work part time and a few days a week. I go in today at one o'clock."
Scully looked incredulously at the light yellow clapboards of the attractive two-story house. "Must pay well."
"Well enough," was the icy response. "How I pay my bills is none of your business."
"Maybe it's the law's business."
Gretchen folded her arms beneath her ample bust. "Entertaining friends is no crime, Agent Scully. I don't get paid for it, if that's what you mean."
"Gretchen, where are you from?" Mulder interruped. "We were told you moved here in March."
"Almost seven months ago. Yes, that's right." The woman's voice became pleasant again as she returned her attention to him. "But I've been in several states." Suddenly, her eyes shifted to the Avenue. "Oh, look!
There's Reed now!" She raised her hand and waved excitedly as the cruiser pulled to the curb.
"Is Reed married?" Scully wondered aloud.
"Yes," Gretchen replied. "But his wife's a real bitch. She hen-pecks him constantly." She waved again as the Sheriff exited his car. "Hey, Reed!
Keeler's face reddened as he shuffled toward the porch. His breath puffing, he angrily stomped up the steps, halting on the top so he could almost look eye-to-eye with Mulder. "Listen, buster!" he spat, leaning closer. "You don't go meandering around my town without my permission or without me. Do you hear me? You're not gonna bother my people!"
Mulder's expression and body remained calm. He returned the Sheriff's stare and simply replied, "We will do what we have to, to investigate this case, Sheriff. And since you've not been honest with us already, we don't have any other choice."
"What do you mean? You think I've lied to you?" Keeler moved so his nose was almost touching the younger man's.
Mulder refused to be intimidated. He didn't budge. "Actually, Sheriff Keeler, yes, I do think you've lied to us."
"How? What lies have I told?"
"I don't think this is the place to discuss that."
"No! I want you to tell me! Now, you S.O.B.!"
Mulder pursed his lips. "Agent Scully and I have to visit the murder sites.
Why don't we meet you back at the station in an hour or so?"
"Nope. You tell me right now. You big hotshots! You come in from D.C.
and think you know it all, think you know what's best for my town! You tell me how I lied, or I'll call your superior and get you called back home!" The man's eyes nearly bulged from his head.
"Don't threaten me,"Mulder replied simply, but a warning note tinged his voice. "If you really want to play hard ball, I can get you in some trouble.
Obstruction of justice, just for starters." He watched Keeler struggle between the great desire to denigrate the FBI agents and the need to be prudent in word and action since he knew the younger man was right.
"Reed, sweetie," Gretchen suddenly cooed, protectively putting her arms through Keeler's, right above his holstered gun, "don't be so rude to Fox-I mean, Agent Mulder. He's only trying to help."
The Sheriff's attention quickly diverged toward Gretchen when he heard her mention the agent's first name. He did a double-take between Mulder and Gretchen, and jealousy crept over his features despite his efforts to hide it. "Gretchen-?"
"Why don't you come on in, and I'll make you some coffee. It's your break time, isn't it?" She pulled Keeler toward the front door. "We'll let the agents get back to work, okay?" Turning back to Mulder, she smiled broadly, revealing perfect, white teeth. "If you need any more information-or *any* kind of help, Fo-Agent Mulder," she giggled like a teen-ager, "you come back, okay? I'd be glad to see *you*."
"I'll bet you would," Scully mumbled as the door closed, leaving the two agents alone on the porch. She turned to her partner whose face revealed no emotion. But his eyes were angry, his wrath fueled by Keeler. "Well, Mulder," she told him as they both descended the steps, "guess this is your lucky day. You've just been propositioned by what, I suppose, is every man's dream, you've upset Sheriff Keeler-hey, if you find the ghost you'll be three for three!"
But her partner was deep in thought. "She reminds me of someone, Scully."
"No, really?" Dana chuckled sarcastically, adding, "Probably she stars in those videos you've got in your office. You know, the ones that aren't yours?"
Mulder wasn't laughing, maybe wasn't even listening. "I've seen her before...or someone like her....I just can't place her."
Scully refused to give up, her wrath fueled by the town's hussy.
"'Someone like her'? In a Victoria's Secret catalog, maybe? Frederick's of Hollywood? *Gretchen Gropes Green Bay*, perhaps?"
Her partner checked his watch, then continued to think aloud as he again folded himself behind the steering wheel. "It's quarter to twelve. Let's go check out the murder sites, get some lunch, then go see the Sheriff. Is that okay with you?"
She closed her door and nodded. A glance at his face again showed her he hadn't heard or noticed her. But this was nothing new. His mind had focused on something. He'd hopped aboard its train of thought, and she could talk to a brick wall until that train came back to the station. She just hoped Gretchen wasn't aboard it, too. "My tooth is killing me, Mulder," she said in truth but also to test him.
"Yeah," he replied, shifting the car, "we'll go over to the Haverlings'
Scully rolled her eyes and decided to wait for him on the depot's bench.
By the time they had finished eating, they'd found nothing new. Each crime scene had suffered too many weeks of exposure to reveal any clues.
Quiet had pervaded lunch at the Copper Kettle, Mulder lost to his own thoughts, Scully silently suffering in pain even though she'd eaten tomato soup and soggy crackers. Now as they returned to the Sheriff's office, the sun had given way to overcast skies, and the darkening day increased their dissatisfaction at having to again deal with Keeler.
"Any chance you could come back to earth now, Mulder?" Scully asked as they entered the local police station.
"What?" Mulder shook his head as if physically trying to dislodge his distraction. "Scully, how's your tooth?"
She half-smiled. "It's fine. Thanks for caring."
Keeler's place of work had a small reception area whose white plaster walls held nothing but a large, glassed-in display of embroidered police patches from across the United States. Behind a high partition were two desks, one neat, one sloppy. A young man in his early twenties sat behind the neat desk with a nameplate identifying him as Deputy Tom Dawson.
His fresh-face, brush-cut, and big trusting eyes made him look like an overgrown ten-year-old. He stood as they waited at the partition, and his skinny body climbed to its six feet, five inches length and sauntered closer.
"Help you?" he asked in a pleasant voice.
"We're here to see Sheriff Keeler," Scully told him, noting simultaneously Keeler's nameplate on the sloppy desk.
Suddenly, the young man's eyes got bigger. "Oh, you're the FBI people!"
he exclaimed. "Wow, never expected to see the FBI in Probity. This is cool."
"Is he in?" she wondered, hoping the kid wasn't going to ask for autographs next.
"Um, yeah," Dawson replied. "The cruiser's out front, right?"
"Yeah, he's out back...in the bathroom. He'll be here in a couple." He stared at Scully and became a believer in love at first sight. "Are you married, ma'am?" He shot a jealous glance at Mulder.
"Deputy Dawson," Mulder began, trying to save his partner, "did you help investigate the recent murders here?"
Dawson's attention returned to the detective. "Well, Reed had me go with him to take pictures."
Mulder leaned closer so he could speak confidentially. Dawson leaned in closer, too. "Between you and me, Tom," he said, "did the Sheriff ignore or kind of hide anything about the crime scenes?"
The young man stopped to think, his expression taking on a self-important look. "No, sir. He called me at home all three times. He found out before we came into work."
"Which is when?" Scully asked.
"We start at nine and work until five."
"Don't you get a cruiser?" Mulder wanted to know. "Do you have a car?"
"I only live two houses from here, sir. I just walk over every day."
"How'd you get to the crime scenes?"
"Well, Sir, Reed came and got me."
"Anything strange about him when he picked you up?" Scully inquired.
"Anything strange about the car?"
Tom's hand went to his jaw as if he now were in deep thought. "Nope.
Only thing that was strange was the crime scenes. How there wasn't a thing around 'em."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, ma'am, no shoeprints-other 'n what we matched to the victims.
But even they were pretty flat. And we'd had some bad rains those nights, so that was surprising."
"Tom, how long have you worked with Sheriff Keeler?" Mulder asked.
The Deputy beamed. "I started two months ago."
"How do you like Reed?" was Scully's question.
"Oh, Reed's a cool guy. He's real helpful to people 'round here. Treats me just like family. Has me go over and keep his wife company some nights during the week so he can come back here and get some paperwork done. Even picks me up and takes me home. Y'know, I swear that's the most admirable thing about Reed-friendliness and all the time he puts in here at the station." He missed the agents' quick glances at each other.
"Do you know this-Gretchen-?" Mulder prompted.
"Gretchen Smith? From Gerty's?" An appreciative smile spread across Tom's features. "I've talked to her, yes. She's real pretty, but-" he shyly looked at Scully, "I've seen prettier."
From the hallway off the reception area, they suddenly heard a door open, then a toilet flush. The unmistakable sound of Reed Keeler clearing his throat came toward them, and both agents tensed for confrontation.
As Reed wobbled through the door, he saw them and scowled. He took his place behind his desk, leaning back in his chair and clasping his hands around his large stomach. He glared at the agents while saying, "Dawson, don't you have work to do?"
Tom's embarrassment was obvious as he hurried back to his own desk, shoulders stooped. He started shuffling papers as if looking for an important document.
Meanwhile, Keeler continued to snarl though he seemed to have a new confidence. "I believe you accused me of lying, Agent Mulder. I'd like to hear your reasoning on
But Scully stepped to the partition, leaning her elbows on it and snarling.
"With the exception of Sara Healy, Sheriff, each wife confirmed her husband's affair with Gretchen Smith. You told us rumors of those affairs were just high school tidbits. A small town sheriff investigating three murders knows better than that, don't you? After all, Ms. Smith also admits to having...a certain friendship with you, sir."
"You told us neither Mrs. Kellogg nor Mrs. Van Zandt wanted to speak with us," Mulder put in. "That was news to them."
"What are you hiding, Sheriff Keeler?" Scully wondered. "Do you want us away from here so badly you'll obstruct justice?"
"I'm not obstructing anything," he grumbled. "I'm doing my job my own way. In time, things will be okay."
Mulder's hands clutched the partition as he addressed Keeler. "You know what's really happening, don't you? The true explanation. Do you think the murders will stop if you hide it? Do you think keeping it secret will prevent it coming after you?"
Scully glanced at her partner, wondering how he'd decided on these questions, why he chose now to delve into the ghost.
Keeler's face clouded briefly before macho bravado masked it. "I called around instead of eating lunch, Agent Mulder. Hear you chase aliens and monsters." He chuckled loudly, nervously, a few snorts escaping through his nose. "Hear that, Tom?" Keeler looked at his Deputy who was already staring at the agents. "These two investigate the paranormal. Your tax money at work, kid. The FBI sent us its weirdos. Ain't we lucky?"
"Answer my questions, Sheriff," Mulder said evenly. "Tell me what you know."
Keeler seemed disappointed his words had had no visible affect on the agent, so he flatly replied, "Listen, you idiot. All I know is you're wasting my time. You want to investigate this case, go for it. Lots of luck. Call me when you've got it solved."
"Are you sure you'll be alive to take the call?" Mulder asked, sobering Keeler further. Then he reached into his topcoat and removed a card, which he tossed onto Dawson's desk. "Tom, that has my cell phone number on it. I don't trust your boss. Remember, son, the FBI has authority here now. I want you to keep us informed of any new information. Is that clear? You wouldn't want to be guilty of standing in our way, too, would you?"
Dawson picked up the card and put it in his shirt pocket. He refused to look at the Sheriff, who now glared at him.
"More will die, Keeler," Mulder warned. "You want that on your conscience? We'll listen when you're ready to cooperate. You can't have too much time left yourself, can you?" He pushed back from the partition and stalked from the station.
Scully stared after him, then turned back to Keeler, mystified. "Sheriff, unlike my partner at this point, I tend to think of you more as a suspect.
You knew of each man's disappearance, you were first to investigate each crime scene, and you spoke to each of the wives, trying to stop them talking to us. You and Ms. Smith have been carrying on a relationship even though her dance card's quite full. Can you tell me where you were when each murder was committed?"
Keeler's eyes and voice were stone. "Home. With my wife. And I'll tell you something else. Don't you even try to implicate me. Take your stupid, ghost-chasing partner back to D.C. now. If you don't, you'll be sorry.
Phone calls can accomplish many things."
She returned his glare. "Maybe you'll be the one who's sorry, Sheriff."
She nodded to Dawson, then followed Mulder's path, finding him already in the car when she reached it. She sat quietly for a few moments, thinking of their short visit. "Well, that certainly smoothed things over," she stated when he put the car in reverse. "You seem to keep cutting us short on this case, Mulder. I don't understand why this ghost business has such a hold on you."
"And I don't understand why, after all you've seen, all *we've* seen, you can't admit at least the possibility of a ghost's existence, Scully."
"Well, for a start, I don't believe in ghosts-"
Her voice rose after being interrupted. "Because common sense-"
"Common sense is an illusion."
"All right, Mulder," she seethed. "Why don't you tell me why you *do* believe ghosts exist?"
They turned onto the main road and headed back to town. Mulder paused, hoping her anger would subside. "Because many have been sighted, many have been witnessed-"
"And Milli Vanilli 'sang' many songs. Talk about illusions."
"Scully, how do you explain the ghosts of Flight 401? Plane crash in 1972 that killed one hundred and one people. Salvaged scraps from the plane were later used in other aircraft. Numerous people since have reported seeing the ghosts of the captain and the flight engineer in the planes using those salvaged parts. The ghosts reportedly want to prevent any more crashes of L-1011 planes. And apparently they have. Did you know that no L-1011 has crashed since 1972?"
"Yeah, TV movie. I saw it, too." She looked at her partner. "That's your only evidence of Casper?"
Mulder almost looked annoyed. "Abraham Lincoln. Scully, even Churchill and JFK saw *his* ghost at the White House. And what about-"
"Mulder, wait," she interrupted. Her lips parted, eyes narrowed, she asked, "Why do you think Keeler knows about this ghost?"
Surprised at her change of tone, he answered, "Several reasons...the least of which is his refusal to go out at night-in the rain-to look for those missing husbands."
"You think being afraid of the dark or of getting wet indicates knowledge of ghosts?"
"No, I think it indicates Keeler's knowledge that the ghost knows who's playing around, and that he-Keeler-might be on its elimination list."
Scully considered this with a half-smile. "Sure sounds believable to me.
Must be a jealous ghost, eh? Gotta say one thing for you, though, Mulder.
You must have spooked-" she glanced at him quickly, knowing his feelings toward his nickname among most in the FBI, "sorry-you must have *bothered* Keeler. He basically threatened to harm us in some way by making a phone call...you know, for me and my 'ghost-chasing partner'." She saw Mulder's eyes blink as he bit his lower lip. "I'll bet you're shaking in your boots."
Mulder shook his head. "Those were his words? 'Ghost-chasing'?" At his partner's nod, he observed thoughtfully, "Interesting. I never mentioned a ghost to him."
It was Scully's turn to be surprised. She mentally replayed Mulder's conversation with Keeler, then slowly nodded agreement. "You're right; you didn't. Who else knows you suspect that?"
"Just you," he replied. "The only others suspecting a ghost were a few cops in Huntington, Vermont...in 1972."
"Well, I'm sure there's an explanation for the good Sheriff's words," she decided. "Why don't we go back to the motel? I'd like to link-up with headquarters and take a look at Mr. Keeler's background and the origins of Gretchen Smith, amongst a few
"I'll drop you off," Mulder told her.
"Why? Where are you going?"
"To the town's library. Maybe even to the town clerk's office. I have a 'few other things' I'd like to 'take a look at,' too."
Twilight descended early in Probity, aided by accumulating storm clouds.
In the waning light, Mulder exited the car, annoyed that he'd had to park at least ten vehicles away from his and Scully's motel rooms. How many people could be staying at the low-budget motel in autumn? What was the attraction?
He slung his folded topcoat over his shoulder, then bent into the car to retrieve several full paper bags which he placed atop the roof until he could pocket his keys and lock the doors. When loaded again, he glanced at the darkened sky and headed for their rooms.
"Hello, Fox," came an elderly voice.
He'd failed to notice Elsie standing by the wall of the motel's office. "Mrs.
He grinned and shook his head. "Yes...Elsie. What brings you out on a night like this?"
"Exercise, Fox. I love a good walk. Keeps me lively."
"I know the feeling," he confided. "But I'm going to skip my run tonight.
Don't like the looks of those clouds."
Elsie followed his gaze. "Little rain never hurt anyone. But they do look like doozies." She stepped forward, a twinkle in her eye. "How's your lady friend?"
"You mean my partner," Mulder replied. "She's okay as far as I know.
I've been at the library most of the day. She stayed here to do some work on her laptop."
"How is your investigation going?" Elsie wondered. "Any closer to figuring out who the murderer is?"
"Certainly no further away," Mulder replied. He liked the little old lady, but he wouldn't share case details with her. He did, however, wish to learn more information. "Elsie, have you always lived here?"
She pulled her old grey coat around her as pride crossed her features.
"I've been in existence here since 1917, young man. Oh, I visited a few places, but Probity's my home."
"Then, in your memory, have there ever been other serial killings-any series of murders like those of the last few weeks-in Probity?"
"Oh, good heavens, no," she replied, surprised he would think such a thing. "Probity is a fine, upstanding town, usually."
"Okay. I was just wondering." Mulder stepped onto the chipped sidewalk leading to the twelve motel rooms of the Probity Inn. "Look, Elsie, we're what...four blocks from Langor Avenue? Would you like a ride home?"
She hobbled to his side to walk with him. "No, Fox. I'll be fine." She eyed the bags he carried. "Besides, looks to me as if you and your lady are about to have supper and an evening in. I won't stand in the way of that."
"I could take you home in just minutes-"
"No," Elsie chided sweetly. "Thank you anyway. It's good of you to offer.
You're a good man."
He chuckled. "There are some who would disagree with that," he told her.
"Maybe they should learn differently." She watched him stop at Scully's door, and she winked. "You have a good night, now. Say hello to your partner for me. I'll see you around."
He decided not to try to change her mind about him and Scully. He felt too tired, too hungry. And already the food was cooling. Besides, human nature dictated that one would believe only what one wanted; even if he swore on a stack of Bibles, he knew Elsie wouldn't alter her opinion. He kicked three knocks on Scully's door. "Yeah, good night, Elsie," he called to his aged acquaintance. "Get in before the rain starts."
Scully suddenly opened the door, and her expression showed pleasant surprise. "Mulder-you found a Chinese restaurant in Probity?"
"Yeah, I hope you're impressed. They don't have an extensive menu, but how can you go wrong with lo mein, fried rice, and sweet-and-sour chicken?"
She looked at the number of bags in his hands. "What'd you do, buy a ton of each?"
He gave her a quick look of mock-annoyance, and replied, "Well, there were a few other foods offered. And I'm starved. Wanna we eat in your room or in mine?"
Scully opened the door wider and took a few parcels from him. "I ordered pizza," she said, indicating the large red and white box on her bed. "I was beginning to think the ghost had gotten you, and I wasn't about to miss supper for that. And since you had the car, I was left to my own devices.
Guess we'll have a feast now." She set the bags on the bed, then took his topcoat, hanging it on the coat rack by her door. "I heard your voice outside. Who were you talking to?"
Mulder pulled two styrofoam plates and two sets of plastic forks and spoons from a bag, handing Scully one complete set and a few napkins.
"Elsie Hubbard. She said 'hello' to you again."
"She gets around, doesn't she?" Scully smiled as she opened parcels and smelled the warm, intriguing aromas. "How old is this old woman?"
Mulder did the math. "Eighty. She's lived here all her life."
"Well, we shouldn't fault her for that," Scully laughed. "Has she seen the ghost?"
"Don't know. I didn't ask." Mulder helped himself to a serving of lo mein, using his fingers to arrange all the noodles onto his plate. "How's your tooth?"
She sighed but decided to answer. "It's been painful. I took some ibuprofen, though, and that's numbed the ache fairly well." She took fried rice and a piece of pizza, letting the cheese string from the box to her plate before she broke it, winding the excess around her fork. She sat in a wooden chair at the small round table by the window, and she indicated that Mulder should join her in the other seat. "How was your day? Did you get a library card?"
Her partner grabbed two pieces of pizza, sweet and sour chicken, and two egg rolls, then sat at the table beside her. "No, and there wasn't a great amount of research material either. I don't know if you've noticed this, Scully, but small towns have small libraries. Harold Robbins and Dannielle Steele. Not much else."
Scully winced as a burnt piece of pepperoni nudged her sore tooth. "So where have you been all this time?"
"There. I read a bunch of ghost stories, and I looked through a list of available items the county historian has compiled about the area and its history. The county seat is about thirty miles away, and I thought maybe we could pay a visit there tomorrow. I'd also like to go to Huntington, Scully. The librarian said that's only two hours from here."
"What are you looking for? A history of ghost activity in the area?" she asked.
"Maybe. I'd also like to find a motive. If my theory is correct, this ghost *has* to have a reason to kill."
She shook her head, her smile condescending. "What a lovely concept. If you can't get revenge on someone in this life, come back and keep trying.
You know, Mulder, if you put as much energy and time into finding a logical explanation for things, you'd accomplish so much."
He rose and grabbed another bag from the bed. From it, he took two cans of iced tea, tossing one to her and opening one for himself. "That sounds like a line straight from the Bureau's brass," he said softly.
"It does, doesn't it?"she replied apologetically. "Sorry. I didn't mean it that way. While you were reading *The Amityville Horror* today, though, I found out a few interesting things through headquarters."
His curiosity aroused, Mulder returned to his seat. "Such as?"
"For starters," she said, pausing briefly to drink and swallow, "Sheriff Keeler hasn't been a good example of law enforcement for some time."
She downed a forkful of fried rice.
"Yeah-how?" Mulder asked impatiently.
Scully wiped her lips with a napkin. "There have been complaints about him fixing tickets, tampering with juries, making profits off fines, and operating with overall incompetence. Word is, he's a big shot who likes having a big shot job title, but he shirks the duties involved."
Mulder stashed a huge bite of pizza in one cheek. "Have there ever been formal charges?"
She shook her head. "The complaints are always-mysteriously-dropped within a week of their filing. And the townspeople continue to re-elect him."
"And no word on why the complaints are dropped?"
"Most of the complaint writers say they were just angry about their situations, and that once they thought about things, the complaints just didn't seem justified."
Mulder nodded and swallowed. "And probably none of them mentioned a visit from good ol' Reed. Anything else?"
"No, just that he's a local boy. Born and raised in Probity."
"How about Gretchen? Any information on her?"
Scully reached to the dresser, lifting her small notepad. She reviewed the first page's contents, then answered, "She's adopted. A Henry 'Hank' and Mary Smith were granted the adoption in 1974 when Gretchen was two.
They lived in Albany at the time, then moved to Binghampton, Buffalo, and finally Poughkeepsie over the next twenty-three years, but Gretchen was in and out of juvenile detention centers throughout that time. It seems she has a history of stealing, abusing drugs, and being-how shall I say this?-promiscuous. The Smiths disowned her when she was sixteen; they couldn't take the shame, apparently. Tough love failed. Hank, however, now sends her a rather substantial monthly check just to keep her away from them. She arrived in Probity after spending five years in a minimum security facility in upstate New York. She was one of several who beat a man nearly to death outside a bar in Utica. She's no angel, Mulder, and she's no ghost. And I don't think we'd have to stretch to see her as capable of murder."
He pursed his lips and cast his eyes downward as he considered her words. His fingers traced the top of the can of tea until he again looked at her. "Why was she adopted? And from where?"
Scully didn't have to check her notes. "I couldn't find that out. The adoption records are sealed."
Mulder nodded. "Why Probity? Why after all those years in jail or in large cities, would Gretchen Smith choose tiny Probity as her home?"
"Maybe she was tired of crowds," Scully suggested. "Plus, law enforcement doesn't seem to be a priority in this town."
"No," Mulder said distractedly. "There are plenty of towns where the only law enforcement are state troopers based an hour away. No, there's a reason for her coming here. We just don't know what it is." He thought for a moment before quickly getting to his feet and heading to the nightstand and the phone, his movement startling Scully who inhaled sharply and reached for her gun. He didn't notice, though. He'd already grabbed the receiver and punched in a number. He glanced back at her as he waited. "The answer's in that sealed adoption record, Scully. I can feel it." His eyes brightened as he turned back to the phone and said to whoever had spoken into his ear, "Yeah, it's me. We're in a little town called Probity. In New York. I want to switch this to the speaker." He punched another button and put the receiver down. "There. Can you hear me?"
"Loud and clear, Mulder." The unmistakable voice of the Lone Gunmen's Frohike slithered into the room. "We can play that game, too. There.
We're on speaker at this end now. Is your lovely partner with you?"
Scully's grin was hesitant as she said, "Hi, Frohike. How's it going?"
"My days are always happy if I can be in such beautiful company as yours," came the reply.
"Down, boy," Mulder commented. "Flattery will probably get you nowhere." He saw Scully laugh, and then he asked, "Are you guys up to a hacking challenge?"
"Mulder-" Scully scolded, but then she fell silent. This wouldn't be a normal investigation for them if Mulder did everything by the book. She sighed, sat back, and waited for him to breach protocol.
"Sure, dude," Frohike was saying. "If it's typed in black, then we can hack."
Mulder groaned. "That was really bad."
"Yeah, well, we're working on it," Langly's voice put in. "What's the flavor of the day?"
"Adoption records. Sealed for everyone's protection," Mulder replied.
"Piece of cake," said Byers. "How soon do you need them?"
"Okay. Just tell us whose. We can have the whole file ready to download for Scully's laptop by the time you rise in the morning," Byers promised.
Mulder grinned. "You boys are the best. Gretchen Smith. Adopted by Henry and Mary Smith then of Albany, New York, in 1974. We need to know who she was before that, where she came from, and why she was given up. Think you can help?"
"What's in it for us?" Langly asked.
"Perhaps an evening of dining and dancing with the always delectable Agent Scully?" Frohike pleaded.
Mulder looked at his partner, noting the revulsion in her eyes. "Yeah," he replied. "I think that can be arranged."
"Mulder!" Scully chided, throwing her notebook at him and hitting his shoulder.
"Excellent!" Frohike celebrated. "The divine Dana will not be disappointed."
"Well, *you* might be," Scully replied. "Don't get your hopes up."
"Or anything else up," Mulder warned. He tossed the notepad back at his partner. "We'll check e-mail in the morning, fellas. Thanks."
After he replaced the receiver, Mulder returned to his food. He was about to say something when a wicked flash of lightning flooded the room, and a quick, accompanying boom of thunder followed. He pulled back the window's curtain and peered out toward a streetlight where he could better perceive the fall of a drenching rain. "Nice night, huh?"
Scully finished her meal, still chewing gingerly. "Nice night for that hot bath and early bedtime." She yawned and stretched. "Pain reliever's kicking in; I'm getting sleepy."
Mulder stuffed his last bit of pizza into his mouth. "You didn't eat much, Scully. That tooth is really bothering you, isn't it?" He saw her try to look disgusted at the question, but the way she held her jaw betrayed her pain.
He stood and lifted the ice bucket from the dresser. "I'll be back." He headed for the door.
"Back in a minute," he told her as he darted from the room. He hunched his head and shoulders against the torrent that pelted him. But he ran quickly, and in seconds, he reached the shelter of the enclosure where the vending and ice machines resided. He filled the bucket with ice, but before he could run again, in the streetlight's glare, he saw a man walking hurriedly, huddled beneath an umbrella. The man swore loudly, finding it difficult to balance the umbrella while buttoning his brown trenchcoat in the pounding rain. He word a fedora with a bright gold buckle on its right side. Mulder shook his head at the man's poor choice to walk on this night, and then he took off for Scully's room.
She gazed at him as he re-entered. Not gone for more than two minutes, he was wet, his hair plastered across his forehead, his clothes soggy from the downpour. She took the ice bucket from his extended hands. "Thank you. You didn't need to."
He nodded. "No problem. Maybe an ice pack will help. Are you starting your early night now?" When she confirmed that she was, he glanced at the food on the bed. "My room has a fridge; do you want any more of this tonight?"
"I don't want any more of it at all," she told him. And as he gathered his topcoat, the pizza, and Chinese food in his arms, Scully opened the doors between their adjoining rooms. "I appreciate the ice, Mulder."
"I hope it helps."
"Can't make it any worse." She watched her partner drop his armload onto his own bed and turn on his lights. "Sleep well," she told him. "See if you can dream about ghosts so you can get them off your mind."
He tore off another piece of pizza and grinned wickedly at her. "And may you dream of dining and dancing with the ever-handsome Frohike. Or of enjoying a root canal. Whichever is worse."
Scully returned his smile, then closed the doors.
The drenching rain flushed Leonard Scalpetta along the sidewalk, sopping his pantlegs and socks, flowing into his leather shoes and drowning his toes. Along with the splashing of puddles on the flooded concrete, he could hear the "splurt, splurt" noises made by the trapped water oozing around his plodding feet. Torrents flowed over his umbrella, which failed to defend him much from the downpour, and his brown trenchcoat flapped in the wind.
He cursed the black night illumined only by scant streetlights and dramatic lightning. He cursed the wind as he struggled to hold his umbrella tightly while fumbling to pull his coat closed around his chilled, soaked body. He cursed the thunder as its sudden, horrific explosion scared him, making his stomach lurch and his knees weaken. He cursed his own stupid desire which caused him to be outdoors on a night like this in the first place.
Gusts fought his efforts to button his coat, and he moaned loudly when the rain slithered down his face and neck. His umbrella lurched from side to side in the wind. No part of him, other than the top of his head, was dry. His scalp was protected by the old brown fedora, a gift from Lucy after their first date back in 1981. They'd seen *Raiders of the Lost Ark* and had fallen in love before the final credits rolled. Had it really been sixteen years? Funny how time could change so much. He almost felt guilty wearing that hat tonight. But Lucy would never know-not if he could keep it fairly dry.
She worked the three-to-eleven shift at a nursing home forty-five minutes away. He'd enjoy his evening and be ensconced in his own bed again by the time she returned home. His clothing would be dry with help from the dryer in their basement, and, as usual, no one would know of his activities-no one, that is, but he and his new love.
If he thought about that girl, he could ignore the pelting rain and polishing wind. He could think of her soft, warm body, her long, golden tresses, her stunning, huge breasts. He could envision her scarlet satin sheets which would welcome his soaked clothing-free body and hers for their hours of ecstasy. But as another drenching gust hit him, he startled from reverie, finding himself in the dark, hellish night, and he wished he was on her porch, waiting for her to open the door.
Leonard still struggled with his coat buttons. A door slamming to his right instinctively made him glance toward the sound. He neared the front of the Probity Inn, and he could see a tall man in shirtsleeves and tie dashing to the ice machine. Had it been another night, Leonard would have laughed at the guy's apparent need to "get lucky" with his chick in the motel. Leonard had gone that route a few times himself. But tonight he envied this guy-at least for the reason that, most likely, his fun was about to begin. The man was also relatively warm and dry. Leonard watched him fill the ice bucket but looked away when he turned as if feeling Leonard's eyes upon him. And Leonard sloshed on past the streetlight, hurrying off toward Langor Avenue.
The paranoia he'd felt the last few weeks when he'd visited her was absent tonight. No murderer would come out in this rain. He'd heard about the coincidences, how Hugh, Carl, and Paul were each killed on rainy nights in the vicinity of Langor, so Leonard had stopped taking short cuts through back yards. He'd started walking the sidewalks, but as he'd hurried toward Langor, he'd remained tense, questioning every shadow, every sound. But not tonight. Not out in what seemed to be the base of Niagara Falls.
Watery fingers slid beneath his clothing, chilling him until he shivered.
He'd already walked ten blocks; six remained. Oh, how he wished he could drive the distance, but he wouldn't park anywere near her house-small town news travelled fast-just close enough to avoid this exhausting trip. But then, he had no vehicle. Lucy had seen to that. "Let's trade both cars in," she'd pleaded. "We'll get an S.U.V.-it'll be perfect for my trip in the winter, and you'll have it for weekends and when you go hunting." At the time, the idea had been palatable. Both of their Sunbirds were worn out anyway. But he'd wondered if she'd suspected something-if denying him a vehicle represented her last attempt to stop his flings. Well, he'd not be denied.
He didn't know when things had gone wrong between him and Lucy.
Maybe they'd married too young, too soon. At age twenty and six months after *Raiders*, they'd married in the Probity town clerk's office, and then they'd gone to Niagara for a three-day honeymoon. But by twenty-five, his eyes had started to roam, and eventually, neither Lucy nor anyone could keep the bull behind the gate. And now with Lucy working evenings and being exhausted at night, what else was he supposed to do? He wasn't even forty yet, and he wasn't about to retire.
And Gretchen understood that. Gretchen knew what a real man needed.
Gretchen made him feel alive, special, manly. From the minute her voice welcomed him until the minute she said, "See you next time," he felt desired, important, sexy. And she was everything a man could want-or handle. Her energy and skill took him to zones he'd never known existed.
Every touch of her lips or fingers sent him into hyperspace. She never was satiated. And if Gretchen were his wife, he'd never stray again.
Leonard realized his legs were pumping faster, his breaths puffing past his mustache. He turned onto Bently Street and broke into a run. But even that didn't help against the elements. The wind roared, swirling forcefully about him. Suddenly his umbrella turned inside out and flew out of his hand. Before he could grab for it, his hat swooshed from his head, flying into the darkness. "Damn!" he yelled as he stopped and turned back to find it.
Leonard's hair slid over his forehead as torrents of rain coursed over his scalp. He stepped past a row of shrubs which shielded the small lawn in front of the Newtons' old house; Probity Realty had been trying to sell it for a year and a half. The lawn was high, but from the glow of the streetlight across the road, he could see where his umbrella had lodged.
He retrieved it, then saw the fedora in the shadows at the corner of the house. He neared it, but the wind moved it farther into the darkness, and he followed.
Beneath an untrimmed willow, Leonard stopped to lift his hat. The slight respite from the endless rain felt good, and he hesitated. He let his breathing return to normal, then put the fedora on his head.
He jumped, instantly freezing as a voice hailed him.
"Y-y-yes...who...?" His voice shook almost as badly as his body.
"Leonard, you've been a very naughty man, haven't you?"
"What?" He stared blindly around him. The darkness beneath the tree seemed to grow blacker. His heart pounded in his chest; surely the neighbors would hear it.
"You men are all the same, Leonard."
"No, I-don't know what-" He stopped, shocked as he felt pain in the middle of his torso. He gasped as it became worse, and as he suddenly realized something was stabbing him. As it pushed in harder and farther, he felt his knees buckle and his life ooze away.
He fell face down on damp dirt and wet leaves. And his last thought was of Gretchen futilely waiting at her door for his arrival.
The incessant ringing of his cell phone woke Mulder. Had there been any night at all? He lay atop the motel bed's covers, still fully clothed, amid empty bags and boxes of take-out food. The lights and TV were still on, some pre-dawn news show broadcasting a too jolly weatherman.
Mulder lazily sat up, fingers covering his eyes as he tried to wake himself completely. He yawned, indulging the sensation, then looked at his watch to find the time was six-twenty. And then he remembered the ringing phone.
Hands now beside him on the bed, his eyes searched the room for where the phone might be. He saw his topcoat in a heap on the floor by the dresser, and he hauled himself to it. Finding the annoyance in one of the pockets, he grabbed it out and readied it for conversation.
"Yeah," he said. "Mulder."
"Agent Mulder? This is Deputy Tom Dawson. Sir, do you remember me?"
Mulder rolled his eyes. "Yes."
"Sir, we've got another murder. Sheriff Keeler's on his way to pick me up. We're going to five-twenty-nine Bently Street. That's right off Langor."
Mulder heaved a sigh. Another murder. The rain. Why hadn't he anticipated it? "Thanks, Tom. We'll be there shortly." He tossed the phone to the bed, stood, and stretched. Offhandedly, he tucked his shirt into his suitpants and tightened his tie, then checked himself in the mirror.
His clothes didn't look too rumpled. He could change later anyway. And he could go without shaving for now. He wanted to get to the crime scene before Keeler did, if possible. He stepped into the bathroom long enough to run a dry toothbrush around his teeth. Back in the room, he attached his holster to his belt and grabbed his topcoat. It was time to get Scully.
Mulder opened his adjoining door and knocked softly on hers. He listened for an answer but received none. Turning the handle and edging the door open, he found her lights on and her bed made, and he could hear her shower running. It quit as he neared the closed bathroom door.
"Hey, Scully?" he called, glad she was awake but sorry to interrupt her morning. "Scully?"
"Mulder?" Her voice sounded wary and surprised. "What are you doing in my room?"
He laughed slightly. "Checking to see if you've been entertaining...um...
friends. I wanted to know if Gretchen was right about frigid women."
"Mulder!" she scolded.
"Okay," he replied. "There's been another murder. Dawson called me.
How soon can you be ready?"
The door opened, and a pleasant perfumed soap scent wafted from the shower stall. Scully stood amongst hot puffs of steam, tying the sash of a full-length, white terry- cloth robe around her waist. Her hair looked black and hung straight around her head, bits of water slowly dripping from its ends, trickling down the soft curve of her neck and into the folded collar.
She took a towel from the rack and wrapped it around her hair like a turban.
"Geeze, Scully, don't let the men of Probity see you like this-Gretchen will have competition," Mulder murmured, finding himself a little too interested in how his partner looked after a shower.
"Mulder," she replied impatiently, "shut up. Who was it?"
Still distracted, he uttered, "Dawson."
"No," she said, annoyed. "Who got killed?"
He shrugged, forcing himself to focus on her eyes. "Don't know. Didn't ask. But I'd like to get there before Keeler. Can you go now?"
Scully's hands went to her hips. "Yeah, just let me grab my gun," she told him sarcastically.
Mulder's half-smile was both amused and embarrassed. "I didn't mean *right* now." He knew she'd have to dry her hair and apply make-up. He produced the car keys from his pocket and handed them to her. "Look, do you mind if I walk over there? It's at five-twenty-nine Bently Street near Langor. You can bring the car when you're ready."
"Has it stopped raining?" she wondered.
"I don't know. But the crime scene can't be more than five blocks from here."
Scully gave him a small smile. "So what are you waiting for? Go!"
"I'm gone. See you there." He turned toward her door.
"Mulder? Aren't those the same clothes you wore yesterday?" Scully observed, shaking her head.
"Could be," he called over his shoulder. "I'm sure the corpse won't care."
And he hurried into the early morning light.
The rain had indeed stopped, but puddles and slick grass remained. A fresh scent filled the misty air and was touched only by an earthen smell mixed with exhaust. Several cars rushed past Mulder, likely carting their drivers off to work. Pink and golden clouds lined the horizon just above where the sun was about to take center stage, and Mulder looked forward to its warming rays as he shivered inside his coat. And he suddenly chided himself for not asking Scully how her toothache was.
His long strides enabled him to arrive on Bently in a few minutes. Once he entered the street, finding the right house was not a problem. Twelve people stood on the sidewalk in front of a vacant home, and a hearse and Keeler's car lined the curb. The Sheriff and Dawson were just exiting the cruiser.
"Hi, Agent Mulder!" Tom yelled. "You sure made a quick trip. Isn't Agent Scully coming?"
Mulder nodded a greeting. "Soon. Who called this in, Sheriff?"
Keeler didn't look his way, but he did answer. "Neighbor on the right.
George Patterson. Let his dogs out for their morning business, and they wouldn't stop barking until he found them. And they'd found the body."
The three men walked past a high hedge of shrubs, and Mulder ignored the hushed stares of the onlookers as he moved to the right of the house toward a willow tree whose branches almost reached the ground. Another suit stood near the tree, his hands clasped before him and a mournful look on his bony, aging face. He had to be the undertaker.
"Steve?" Keeler addressed him. "Can you believe this?"
The mortician shook his head slowly. "Darndest thing. Looks just like the others, Reed." He glanced in surprise at Mulder's presence but said nothing.
"Get your job done, Dawson," Keeler ordered. "Don't want to be here too long. Kids'll be going to school soon; they don't need to see this."
Mulder followed them into the confines of the tree's branches and involuntarily gasped as he recognized the brown fedora with the gold buckle lying near the dead man's outstretched arm. This was the man he'd seen the previous night-a man who'd been just minutes or maybe hours away from his death. Mulder suddenly felt a twinge of guilt as he realized he might have been able to stop the man, or, at least, to have delayed him.
"Well, I'll be-" Keeler was marvelling. "It's Leonard, Tom. Ain't it?
"You said you thought it would be, Sheriff," Dawson replied, setting up and clicking numerous camera shots. "'Cause you said Lucy called you in the middle of the night."
"The wife called you?" Mulder asked, bringing himself back to the present. His eyes closely scanned the crime scene.
"Yep," Keeler said. He gave a brief explanation about Lucy Scalpetta's job and drive, ending with, "She called at quarter past midnight. She was pretty upset. Said he'd left lights on and that his coat and hat were missing. I told her if-"
"-He wasn't back by morning, you'd look for him," Mulder finished for him. "Because you weren't going to risk your life looking for him when you know you're one of the next victims."
"Get the ground, too, Tom," Keeler barked. Then he looked at the agent.
"I know no such thing. Men around here do tend to have other-interests.
Most of the time they're back by morning."
Mulder frowned at him. "Your B.S. might work on some people, Sheriff.
But it's starting to bore me." He stepped closer to the body and squatted as Tom began chalking its perimeter. Mulder stared intensely at the untouched dirt around Scalpetta. Except for blood and body, no evidence of a crime existed. No tree branches were broken, no footprints other than those fitting Scalpetta's shoes were present. It seemed as if Leonard had wandered beneath the tree, bled, and died.
"Okay to roll him over?" Mulder asked Dawson when the younger man had finished the chalk outline.
"Yep," Tom replied, and he helped the agent flip the body; rigor mortis had begun to set in.
Scalpetta's drained white face was frozen in an expression of shock.
Leaves clung to his moustache and open mouth as his soaked, bloodied shirt clung to his torso. Mulder could see the neat hole beneath Leonard's sternum, but no other signs of violence were visible.
"They've all looked the same," Keeler observed quietly. "Like somethin'
scared 'em, then stabbed 'em."
Mulder checked beneath Scalpetta's fingernails as he noted the slight tremor in Reed's voice. Maybe the man could picture himself in Leonard's place. "Agent Scully says you think a ghost did this, Sheriff. Why's that?"
Keeler spat and chuckled hollowly. "Ghost? Me? That's your alley, isn't it? How'd she think I thought that? She's gotta be a ditz."
Mulder stood and glared down into the Sheriff's widening eyes. "Why don't you cut the crap and be straight with me?"
"Why don't you screw yourself?" Keeler sneered.
"Don't you answer that, Mulder!" Scully's voice suddenly warned. She stepped beside her partner, eyes focused on Keeler. Her tan trenchcoat covered a tan skirt and jacket, and her hair and make-up were flawless.
"My partner's right, Sheriff. And we talked about this yesterday. You would help us more if you'd be honest with us."
"You know," the accused replied hatefully, "why don't you two hotshots handle this by yourselves. You apply your stupid theories, and then when you still can't find a perpetrator, go home to D.C. and let a real lawman handle this case. I'll be waiting." He stomped off quickly, and his cruiser's motor could be heard shortly after as he drove away.
"Now look what you've done, Scully," Mulder scolded mockingly.
"Oh well," she replied, not apologetically, as her attention turned to Scalpetta. "Looks just like the others. No marks on the ground?"
Mulder walked around the tree, careful not to disturb anything, and then he stepped outside it where he also observed the mud and grass. When he returned to Scully's side, he said, "Nothing. There's no blood anywhere but here, no drag marks, no evidence of a scuffle. He came in here, Scully, and he died. I can see where Keeler has stepped this morning; he left footprints just as Tom and I have, but there's nothing from last night. Our murderer either doesn't have feet or it's too light to leave marks."
"Gretchen doesn't weigh much-well, some parts of her might," she observed as she turned to catch Mulder's grin. "How about me? Did I leave tracks?"
Her partner nodded. "Outside these branches, yes. Little tiny footprints about the size of an elf's."
"Better than those of the Jolly Grey Giant," she joked as she indicated his charcoal suit.
"Hey, you know what they say about a guy with big feet, Scully."
"I don't even want to go there, Mulder," she replied. To stop further comment from him, she knelt beside the body, her trained eyes searching for any more clues than they had. She checked the ground beneath leaves and between grass stems. "I want to do the autopsy on this guy-"
"Leonard Scalpetta," Mulder supplied.
Scully repeated the name. "I want to see if there's any trace of a murder weapon."
Her partner nodded. "Good idea. Want some breakfast first?"
Scully stood and faced him. "No, I think I'll skip it this morning." She handed him the car keys. "I'll give you a call when you can pick me up."
"Okay. I'm going to talk to Mr. Patterson-the guy who found the body-and check around the neighborhood for witnesses. Then I'll see Lucy Scalpetta. Maybe we can get together to talk to Gretchen later." His forehead suddenly creased as his focus narrowed on her face. "Scully, are you all right?"
"What?" She looked at him quizzically. "Why do you ask that?"
"Your tooth is worse, isn't it?" He reached out to lightly touch her cheek, his forefinger gingerly tracing her skin. "Your jaw is swollen."
Blush burned her face, and her hand self-consciously moved beneath his to cover the swelling. "It's nothing, Mulder. Don't worry about it."
"It *is* something. You should have it taken care of-today."
Her expression warned him off continuing that conversation. She cast aside some branches and beckoned the mortician. "Sir? I believe you can bring your gurney. I'll need to do an autopsy." She watched as he started toward his vehicle, then her attention returned to her partner. "Go put on some clean clothes and shave, will you, Mulder? And worry about this case instead of about me."
"Sure," he told her, knowing anything else would be useless. He changed the subject. "I saw this guy last night, Scully. When I went out to get ice.
He was walking by in the rain."
Scully knew her partner's tendencies. "Well, don't feel guilty about that," she said. "*If* he was on his way to see Gretchen, you couldn't have deterred him. If that storm and three previous murders didn't stop him, what chance would you have had?"
"Yeah," he replied doubtfully.
"Agent Mulder?" Dawson interrupted. He'd stood aside, watching his new heroes in awe. "Could you take me to work, please? I mean, when you're done. I think Reed forgot about me."
Mulder gave the kid a half-smile. "Don't you want to watch Agent Scully do an autopsy?"
The young man's face pulled into a fearful expression. "Um...no offense, ma'am, but I don't think I could take that."
Scully smiled. "That's quite all right. I think you could help Agent Mulder more anyway. Have you ever canvassed a neighborhood to talk to possible witnesses?"
Dawson shook his head. "Not by myself. I went with Reed a few times, but he told me to keep my mouth shut."
"Well, I'll let you open it," Mulder told him. "You can take the other side of the street, and I'll do this one. Okay?"
"Sure!" Tom's eagerness to get started caused him to step quickly from beneath the tree and rush toward the street.
"You'd better go, Mulder. God only knows what he'll ask people," Scully laughed.
Her partner nodded. "Right. I'll see you later."
"Yeah, good luck."
"Same to you," he replied as he stepped through the branches.
"And Mulder?" Scully called. "Feel free to go see Gretchen without me. I don't think she'll mind. But at least shower first."
Tom met Mulder by their cars outside the hedge. "Agent Mulder? This is George Patterson." The short, thin man with him was in his mid-sixties, his full head of hair already white, the bones of his face set in a grim expression.
Mulder flashed his I.D., then shook the man's cold hand. "I'm Fox Mulder with the FBI, sir. I heard your dogs alerted you to the body this morning."
Patterson's hand parted from Mulder's, and rubbed at the white stubble on his chin. He noticeably shivered despite his heavy winter parka. "Yes, sir. I let them out early--about five-thirty--because I let them out early last night to miss that storm. But they didn't come back. And then I heard them barking."
"They were by the body?" Mulder asked, remembering no dog prints.
The older man shook his head. "No, they've been trained to stay on our property. On our side of the hedge. When I got out there, I looked over the hedge, and I could see past the tree branches using my flashlight.
Thought maybe it was a skunk or something. Didn't want my dogs in that.
But I saw the legs, and I couldn't believe it. I've heard about such things, but never--. Anyway, I grabbed the dogs and ran to call Reed."
"You didn't even check to be sure this man was dead," Mulder stated.
The little man looked nervous. "No, sir. He seemed too still to be alive."
Mulder nodded slightly. "And since other murders have occurred in Probity lately, you just assumed--"
"Yes," Patterson replied.
"And," Mulder realized, "you didn't want to take a chance on the murderer still being there." When Patterson paused a moment, then nodded as if embarrassed, Mulder gave him a half-smile and replied, "Can't say as I blame you."
Patterson brightened. "I felt awful guilty."
"No need. You did the right thing," Mulder told him. "Did you hear anything last evening? Any strange noise?"
"No, sir. We unplug the TV when there's a storm, and then we turn on our tape player. It's battery powered. We sat out the storm, then went to bed. My wife was with me the whole time. Only thing we heard was Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, and our own chatter."
Mulder glanced around them, noticing the bystanders moving closer to hear Patterson's words. "Mr. Patterson? Could we move to your yard? I'd like to ask you a few more questions, but--" he indicated the growing mob, "without help from your friends." He followed the small man, who seemed happy to escape his neighbors' enquiring eyes. Mulder noticed as they proceeded down George's driveway that the hedge did indeed run parallel to Patterson's property and that the older man had a few willow trees of his own between his driveway and the shrubs.
"Would you like to come in?" Patterson asked, stopping to face Mulder and Tom.
"That won't be necessary, but thanks anyway," Mulder replied. "What kind of dogs do you have?"
Patterson allowed a small, proud smile. "Shetland sheepdogs. Shelby and Sherlock. They're sister and brother and eight years old."
Mulder nodded. "Did they bark or act strangely at any time last night?"
"They're afraid of storms," George told him. "They jump on the couch, hide their heads beneath the pillows the minute lightning flashes. That's all they did last night."
Mulder frowned, thinking. Then he locked eyes with Patterson. "Do you have cats?"
"One. Missy. She's seven."
"Did Missy act strangely?"
Patterson started to shake his head, wondering why the FBI agent would be asking such things, but paused. His eyes narrowed in concentration.
"Well, as a matter of fact, yes. But just for a few seconds. She all of a sudden just arched her back and hissed. Come to think of it, she was near the side window--there." He pointed to the window nearest the murder scene. "Then she took off up the stairs, growling. We just figured it was because of the storm, though storms don't usually bother her."
Interest flashed in Mulder's eyes. "What time was that; can you remember?"
"Let me think," George replied, his hand rubbing stubble again. "It was maybe...no...had to be between seven and eight last evening, but other than that, I can't be sure."
"Why do you say those times, sir?" the agent asked, taking out a small notebook and jotting down this new information.
"Well, the storm started close to seven, and we moved out to the kitchen at eight to have a snack. I know it happened while we were in the living room before that."
Mulder nodded. While still writing, he asked, "You said you called Sheriff Keeler this morning--"
"About six o'clock," George finished for him.
"Was he awake?"
Patterson shook his head. "Didn't get him at first. Got his wife. She said he'd gone out early 'cause he wanted to stake out something. She didn't say what."
"How'd you get ahold of him, then?" Mulder's pen had stopped, and he watched the older man closely.
"Reed's got one of those cellular phones. Marge gave me his number, and I called him."
"Any idea where he was?" Mulder asked, again taking notes.
"No, sir. No, I don't."
"You know?" Dawson said, thinking aloud. "I noticed Reed came in the wrong direction this morning. He came from your way, Agent Mulder.
From town where your motel is."
"Why would he have been there so early?"
Dawson shrugged. "Dunno."
Mulder nodded and finished writing. "Okay." He extended his hand toward George. "Thanks, Mr. Patterson. I appreciate your help." After shaking hands with the older man, he turned to go.
"Agent Mulder, I hope you catch whoever's doing this pretty soon," George called. "I don't think Reed's having any luck, and the neighboring yard is too close for our comfort."
"You can trust the FBI, George," Dawson proclaimed as he followed Mulder. "They'll solve this."
When they were on the sidewalk again, Mulder first noticed the hearse had left, Scully probably with it. Then he told Dawson, "Be careful what you promise, Tom. Not every case ends with a person put behind bars."
The Deputy agreed. "Yeah, and if a ghost is killing these people--like the Sheriff says is what you think is happening--then that's gonna be pretty hard to catch, isn't it? And what do you do with it if you do catch it?"
Dawson's smile stretched to both ears. "This case has it all--FBI and a ghost."
"Tom, please don't say anything about a ghost to anyone here, all right?
Neither Agent Scully nor myself have any evidence of that right now," Mulder said quietly as they neared the growing crowd of bystanders.
Dawson nodded his promise. Then loudly, he said to the crowd, "Hey, did any of you see or hear anything strange last night between seven and eight? Do any of you have dogs that barked then or cats that hissed?"
The people's attention focused quickly on the young deputy, and then they started questioning each other.
"Well, if you did, you let this man know. He's with the FBI of Washington D.C.," Dawson stated proudly.
All eyes now turned to Mulder who wanted badly to melt into the sidewalk after choking Tom. Questions suddenly were shouted, some revealing interest in the case, others insulting Mulder and the absent Keeler for being too slow to prevent Scalpetta's death. No need to canvass the neighborhood--Tom had just done it.
Mulder shut the people out of his focus and quickly turned to Tom.
"Thanks," he muttered, sarcasm dripping from the word. "Are the State Police coming?"
Tom looked embarrassed. "Yes, Reed said he called them."
"You stay here, then," Mulder instructed. "Help them when they arrive.
Talk to these people and other neighbors in the meantime. If anybody has something legitimate to offer, write down names, addresses, and phone numbers for me."
"Gotcha, Agent Mulder. Where are you going?"
"I want to see the wife."
Dawson took out a pen and notepad and hurriedly scribbled an address on it. "That's where you'll find Lucy Scalpetta. I'll handle things here, sir."
Mulder nodded his thanks and walked quickly to the car amid more questions and insults. He got behind the wheel and scowled. He found himself cramped for space. His knees were against the dashboard, and the steering wheel felt implanted in his chest. Scully had left the seat forward where she could reach the brake and accelerator when she drove.
Ignoring a few snickers and jeers from those who watched, he fumbled to put the seat back, started the car, and left the onlookers behind.
Several women darted in and out of the Scalpetta household when Mulder arrived. He parked the car next to a fairly new, dark blue Explorer, and started toward the house. The morning still wasn't warm, and the promising sunrise had already given way to heavy grey clouds, threatening another rainstorm, and emphasizing the drab grey paint on the Scalpetta's clapboard house.
He wished Scully were with him. He felt slightly awkward going to the door where he'd seen only women coming or going. Yet Lucy didn't need to feel accused just an hour or so after finding her husband was dead. And besides, his partner would, hopefully, be able to accomplish more doing an autopsy.
He stepped up to the storm door of the house, and his hand went toward the doorbell. But just then the inner door opened, and a woman in her fifties, grey and small, peered out at him.
"You're the FBI, right?" she asked, her voice nervous.
Mulder flashed his I.D. "Yes, Agent Mulder. I'm looking for Mrs.
She looked at him impatiently. "That's Lucy, my daughter. I'm Marilyn Mercer. My Lucy's in no shape to talk to you right now." She started to close the door.
"I only need to ask her a few questions, ma'am. I know it's a bad time, but--"
"No. Not now. She worked until eleven last night; she called Keeler around midnight. She hasn't slept at all. And then to find her husband's been murdered?" She eyed Mulder warily. "You can wait."
"But this case can't. Ma'am, I'm sorry about her husband. I'm sorry she's lost him. But it would help--"
"Look," she said, interrupting as she lost patience, "I said 'no'! Got that?"
Again, she swung the door.
"How about you?" Mulder asked quickly. When he saw the door pause, he continued, "Maybe you could answer?"
She set her jaw, then exhaled. "Will this mean you won't have to bother Lucy?"
She stared at him several seconds, measuring whether to believe him. "All right," she finally agreed, leaning against the door casing and heaving a resigned sigh. "Go ahead."
Mulder thanked her. "Mrs. Mercer, I'll be straight with you, okay? We'll get through this faster." When he saw her shrug, he asked bluntly, "Do you know if Leonard Scalpetta was having an affair?"
She quickly glanced behind her, checking to see if anyone had heard him.
Then her eyes, now angry, turned back to Mulder. "Are you saying he was? I didn't know for certain, but I suspected as much. Some evenings I'd call here for one thing or another, but Leonard didn't answer. It was only on certain evenings, too, now that I think about it. And I knew Lucy was at work. So I feared an affair, yes. He had a history of such things."
"He'd had previous affairs?" Mulder's eyebrows raised.
"Yes. She caught him at the Probity Inn a few times. The idiot wasn't even bright enough to do it out of town."
"When was this?" he asked.
"They were married fifteen years or so. He ran around on her at least five times. And this would be six."
"Have you any proof he was having an affair now?" Mulder probed.
"Just what I'd heard."
She exhaled heavily again; then her eyes met his. "It's a small town, Agent Mulder. People tell me what they see or hear. And rumor had it that Leonard--my lousy son-in-law--was one on the guest list at that slut's place, that Gretchen. You've been investigating in Probity for a day or so; you must have heard of her by now."
"I have." Mulder shoved his hands into the pockets of his topcoat. "Mrs.
Mercer, did your daughter know?"
She nodded. "I'm sure she did. She talked him into buying that truck--that S.U.V. out there. She was trying to take away his transportation, but I guess if a man wants something badly enough, he'll find a way to get to it.
I don't know why she put up with him at all."
"When did you first suspect? When did your daughter?"
She thought for a few moments, her finger idly tracing the corner of the window in the storm door. "I first heard rumors in July, I guess. Lucy got the Explorer in August."
Mulder regarded the woman thoughtfully, deciding to capitulate to one Scully question. "Once the shock and grief are over, how will Lucy react to her husband's death?"
At first, Mercer tensed as though to be angry, but then she appeared to relax. "She'll always miss him. But I really think it'll be a relief to her.
She's worked so hard to help support the S.O.B. while he was playing around on her. On the bottom line, I think she'll be glad enough not to have to tolerate that anymore."
Mulder nodded slowly, then softly added, "My condolences to your daughter." As the woman closed the door, Mulder pivoted toward the car and stepped politely out of the way of two more women who were crying and heading inside to comfort Lucy Scalpetta.
As he turned the car onto the street, Mulder thought of the long walk Leonard had had the night before in that horrid storm. The Scalpettas lived on Johnson Street, and the nearest way to Langor Avenue from there was through town, past the Probity Inn, and then on to Bently Street. The nearest way except for shortcuts, that was. He wondered why the man hadn't taken one, why he'd walked as noticeably as a stormy night would allow. He knew Leonard must have feared the same wrath unleashed on the other three victims. And Mulder wondered to what lengths Keeler would go to protect himself yet be able to keep his appointments with temptress Gretchen. Scalpetta's idea of protection hadn't worked. And Keeler was stupid if he thought his would.
At the intersection with the main road, Mulder suddenly decided to go to Huntington, Vermont. He needed to know more about what Keeler was hiding from, and how to prevent further murders, if possible. By the time he could drive there, Huntington would be awake. Perhaps he could find the link between it and Probity, and be back in time for Scully's post-autopsy call.
Scully folded the clasp of her watch, then checked her hair once more in the women's room mirror. Her gaze drifted to the swelling on her lower right jaw which now was turning black and blue. If she'd not known better, she would have thought someone had punched her there. She'd already tried to cover it with powder, but like a beacon, it still shone through.
And her tooth and jaw ached. Oh God, how they ached. And throbbed.
She even refrained from breathing through her mouth because the rush of air seemed like an abrasive cleanser being rubbed into an exposed nerve.
The painkillers that had kept the agony at bay the previous day no longer touched the ache. And as much as she tried to downplay it, the pain was now etched into her features, occasionally filling her weary eyes with tears that threatened to spill.
And she was so angry...and slightly worried. For the eighth time in a half hour she punched Mulder's number into her cell phone and again listened to the unanswered ring at the other end. She'd told him she'd call after the autopsy. Where was he? Could he be injured? Or in danger? Had the ghost caught up to him? She'd even tried the room at the motel a few times and received the same results. Now, she clicked her phone off and tossed it into her blazer's pocket. To hell with it. Maybe if she called Keeler, he'd give her a ride back to the motel.
The ladies' room--at least this one--was in the basement of a small hospital that served the entire county and was fifteen miles from Probity.
The morgue had fairly good equipment though certainly not state-of-theart. And the County Coroner was also the Probity mortician with whom she'd ridden in the hearse. A nice man but a bit of an antique. Sort of like the hospital itself, with its narrow, institution-green, cement block hallways and scuffed, yellow tile floors. And only a ladies' and men's room for morgue dressing rooms.
She left the ladies' room and climbed a flight of stairs, then ventured back through the main hallway. She found herself in a small, pleasant lobby waiting room which had, obviously, been remodeled from its old days.
Couches upholstered in brown, walls painted in yellow, and carpet woven in orange welcomed her. She gladly sat on a couch near a large plate-glass window where she could see the main road and a parking lot. And she leaned her head back against the wall, grateful to have something else hold up her body and head for a while.
Scully was so tired. Her sleep the night before had been fitful, composed more of tossing and turning than of sleeping. She'd been able to feel the tooth getting worse, the jaw swelling. When the digital clock in her motel room had hit five-thirty, she'd risen, glad she could justify finally getting up.
And the autopsy had been grueling. The method and precision echoed the previous murders. That had been plain to see upon first sight but also as soon as she'd made the "Y" incision. And organs, muscle, and the heart itself had proven it true. She'd forwarded various samples to the hospital's lab only to find that again, these matched the previous murders'evidence.
She'd searched every inch of Leonard Scalpetta's body, looking for even a partial fingerprint, for even one hair or fiber that didn't belong to him or to his clothing. And after six exhausting hours, she'd still found nothing.
But to Special Agent Dana Scully, that wasn't good enough. And despite overwhelming exhaustion and agony as well as gnawing hunger pains, she'd retraced her steps. And finally, at two-fifty that afternoon, upon dissecting Leonard Scalpetta's heart, she'd found a pin-prick-sized, light blue chip. Relieved, feeling this was at least a tiny break in the case, she'd examined the chip, finding it hard plastic, and though that told her little, she felt some success had come from her efforts, and that was better than nothing.
Now she wanted no more that to eat some soft food and to lie down, perhaps, to sleep. And she could do that if Mulder would answer his damn phone and drive to wherever she was and take her back to the motel.
She wondered if he had visited Gretchen, and she snarled at the idea that perhaps the hussy had finally reeled him in. Then she chided herself.
Mulder wouldn't let that happen.
She wondered what the Lone Gunmen had found in the sealed adoption records.
She wondered if she'd ever get back to the Probity Inn.
"Ms. Scully?" Steve Fero, the kindly old mortician, stared down at her. "I have Mr. Scalpetta loaded. Can I give you a ride back to Probity?"
Despite the pain it caused, a smile lifted the corners of Scully's mouth.
Hard to believe an undertaker could be her knight in shining armor. She rose, grabbing up her trenchcoat and purse. "Yes, Steve, you can. I'd be grateful."
But he was looking at her jaw and then into her eyes rather suspiciously.
"Ms. Scully, I'm not one to stick my nose in, but...has someone hit you?"
Scully's painful smile remained. "It does look that way, doesn't it? But no, nothing that dramatic. I need a root canal."
The mortician nodded. "Shall I take you to a dentist?"
An inner smile came to her as she imagined pulling in to a dentist's office in a hearse. She shook her head carefully. "Thanks anyway. I'll see my dentist when I return to D.C." She followed him outside, pulling her coat around her to shut out the crisp autumn breeze. Sprinkles dotted the blacktop of the driveway, and she wondered who, if it rained, would be the murder victim that evening.
Before seating herself in the hearse, she tried Mulder's number once more, then, frustrated, gave up. He'd better have one damn fine explanation.
The dashboard clock read two-fifty as the car crossed Probity's town line.
Mulder felt tired and grungy, but he also felt confident about his theory, and though he knew Scully would rebuke it at first, he looked forward to discussing it with her. If he was wrong, her rationalization would help him see the holes in his thinking. If he was right, her rationalization would serve as a fine contrast to what he knew was strange but true.
And he wanted to know if what his Lone Gunmen friends had discovered through his adoption record request would confirm his suspicions.
He flipped on the windshield wipers as drips of rain spotted the windshield, and he shuddered as he realized another rainy night in Probity loomed. By the time he entered the town proper, a steady stream cascaded onto the street, car, and sidewalk. People scurried into houses or buildings, and others put up umbrellas or coat hoods.
As he passed Gerty's, Mulder saw a familiar form hurrying farther along the sidewalk. Her skirt held firmly to the backs of her thighs; her hair swung at her waist. Hunched over against the sky's pour, she carried several bags of groceries, and she had a long way to walk without coat or umbrella. Mulder pulled the car alongside the curb when he was next to her, and she glanced toward him, a fearful look on her face, when she heard the motor. Relief crossed her features before being replaced by her customary flirtatious smile. She opened the passenger-side door.
"Why, Agent Mulder, how nice to see you!" Gretchen cooed, leaning into the car to keep her head dry, while revealing a very deep cleavage through the V-neck of her knitted blue sweater.
Mulder willed his eyes to meet hers, noticing how the blue of her irises sparkled in contrast to the drab day. "Hey, can I give you a ride home?"
he asked, remembering Scully's desire for him to see Gretchen without her presence. "You've got a long walk in the rain."
She quickly sat beside him, the contents of her bags clinking or crinkling as she crammed them into the space by her feet. "Thanks!" she said energetically as she slammed the door closed. "I was really dreading the walk, you know?"
Mulder couldn't help notice the slender lengths of thigh exposed when Gretchen did nothing to smooth her mini-skirt to a more dignified length on her legs. But he turned to check the road out his window and pulled the car back onto the street. "You don't drive to work?"
Gretchen flicked the locks of hair on her left side back behind her shoulder, giving Mulder a great view of her bulging bosom should he want it. "Sometimes I do, but I like the exercise. Keeps the muscles in my thighs firm." As if to demonstrate, she crossed her left leg over her right, exposing taut muscles beneath nude stockings. "And today, after I heard about Leonard, I just wanted to walk to clear my head. I felt so bad. And besides, who knew it would rain again?"
"I take it Leonard was another of your...friends," Mulder replied, suddenly grappling with the heady, tantalizing scent of her musky perfume now permeating the car.
"Yes, he was. A beloved friend."
Mulder shook his head quickly, tried to steel his senses, then resorted to rolling down the window an inch so fresh air could filter in and dilute the fragance's potency. "You've got to be running low on friends by now," he managed to observe.
"I can always find new ones." She put her soft, delicate hand over his on the steering wheel, allowing her midnight-blue nail shade to flash before his sight, and her long nails to graze his skin. "Friends like you who are willing to help in my time of need."
Mulder took her hand and returned it to her side of the car. "I need to talk to you about these murders, Gretchen," he told her, his voice serious and professional.
"You don't find me attractive," she pouted.
"You're attractive," he said honestly. "But I'm not interested. And I have a job to do."
She inhaled deeply, her chest rising then slowly falling as she let the breath go. "You know what they say about all work and no play--"
"Yep. And if I'm a dull boy I'll live with that. What I need to know is what role you play in all this."
"I've told you." Her voice was now flat, bored.
"You've told me these men were your friends, your lovers. You haven't told me the rest."
She shot a quick glance at him, then kept her eyes forward, hoping he'd not noticed. "There's no more to say."
Mulder had noticed. "Yeah, there is. And you'll be better off if you tell me."
"Just let me out. I'll walk the rest of the way." She sounded injured.
"Look," Mulder persisted softly, "I know about your adoption. I know you've not had a really easy life up to this point."
"So?" she asked. Her hands clenched each other on her lap. "I don't use anything in my life as an excuse."
"I know that," Mulder replied, his tone sympathetic. "And I admire that about you. But we both know something from your past has come to haunt you. Don't we?"
Hair fell back over her left shoulder as she looked down at her fingers, now fidgetting with each other. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Yeah, you do, Gretchen." Mulder turned the car onto Bently Street and noticed yellow crime-scene tape encircling the hedge behind which Leonard Scalpetta's life had ebbed. He checked and saw Gretchen's failure to notice it. "And you're scared of this thing, this ghost. It's taking
away your friends, and you don't know how to stop it."
"Some FBI agent you are if you think that sort of crap." She laughed, too quickly, too loudly.
"I might be able to help you--to help you get rid of it." He took a card from inside his coat and held it out to her. "This has my cell phone number. If you're not going to tell me now, maybe you'll decide to later."
He waited for her to accept it, but when she didn't, he put it on the seat next to her. "Take it, Gretchen. I know this thing exists; you can't convince me otherwise, and you may need help before this ordeal is over."
He felt her eyes flash toward him, and then her shaking left hand grabbed the card and hid it inside her purse.
"Maybe I'll call you if I *need* you." Her voice shook, too, and couldn't muster its flirtatious tone on the first try. It could on the second, though.
"Don't you have *needs*, too? You're on the road. And your partner seems so...uptight."
"I'm just fine, thanks." Mulder pulled onto Langor Avenue, noticing the rain poured harder. He also noticed Gretchen clutched her hands even tighter, her face turned to the window. He parked the car in front of her house, then leaned over, trying to bypass her legs, and took her bags. "I'll carry these in for you."
"Thanks," she replied. "I'd appreciate that."
They jogged through the pelting drops and onto her porch, under the protection of the roof. "Just wait a sec, and you can bring those into the kitchen for me," she told him. "It's so much easier for a man--a strong man--to carry such things." She fumbled with her keys while he turned to look around the neighborhood, noting no one else ventured out on such a lousy afternoon.
"Come this way, please," she instructed, and, hips swinging widely, she led him through a grey-carpeted sitting room furnished only with an old, ratty couch and matching chair, and into a small, spotless kitchen. She indicated a counter-top, and Mulder put the bags onto it. "Would you like a cup of coffee? Or some tea?" she asked him.
Mulder thought she seemed shaken and anxious to restore her normal self, and he regretted for her the bad turns her life had taken. To only find love or comfort in temporary embraces did not engender friends, did not elevate self-concept, did not bring permanence to hopes or dreams, did not satisfy real needs. She was alone in the world, and her lifestyle wouldn't help that fact to change. And on top of all this, a spectre lurked about her, threatening the only joys she did have, the only people who did value her, even if for all the wrong reasons. He doubted she'd ever have the chance to know real love--of self or of another.
"Hey!" She stared at him, waiting for him to come back to the present.
"Coffee? Tea? Something else?"
Mulder shook his head. "No thanks. I've been out all day. My partner will be ready to go over notes."
"Gretchen? Gretchen, you there?" Reed Keeler's voice suddenly came from the front room.
Gretchen relaxed visibly, and a smile lit her face. "Reed? We're in the kitchen," she called even as she returned to the sitting room. "I'm glad you're here. I've missed you."
"Kitten, you just saw me--" He stopped when Mulder stepped through the door. "*You're* here?" Keeler scoffed. "What the hell, Mulder, can't you get enough?"
The younger man blinked. "Excuse me?"
Keeler laughed derisively. "I seen you come out of your partner's room early this morning. And now here you are with Gretchen."
"What?" Mulder was incredulous. "What do you mean you saw me this morning? You wouldn't be staking me out, would you, Sheriff?"
Keeler's face reddened more. "No, of course not. I was just driving by.
But what's the matter? You got something to hide, hotshot? If you do, you better get on back to Washington before somebody calls it in."
"Reed, stop," Gretchen said softly.
"Shut up, kitten," he told her gruffly, then he turned back to the FBI agent. "Must be your partner ain't enough for you, huh? She an ice queen, is she? You gotta start hittin' on the local women, too?"
Mulder shook his head, anger and disbelief fighting to overcome his calm exterior. "You're ridiculous, Keeler. You'll accuse me of whatever suits you, but you won't admit the truth. It's raining. Maybe tonight's *your* night."
"You dirty--" the Sheriff spat, but Gretchen's hands flew to his chest and pushed against him, stopping him from running at Mulder.
"Stop! You calm down now, Reed," she warned. "There's nothing going on between him and me. You know I wouldn't let anyone come between us. Now go on home and relax. Okay, sugar? Tonight's our night--don't forget."
Keeler's breathing was rapid after his temper flared at the FBI agent. As he slowly returned to normal, he took a few steps backward, suddenly stumbling over a basket on the floor, scattering its contents but catching his balance before he could fall. "Damn it!" His fury turned on Gretchen.
"I told you, you should move this!" He shook his head angrily. "I'm not picking it up again. But I'll see you later."
Gretchen stooped to the floor. "See you later."
After the Sheriff slammed the door, Mulder, still fighting to restore calm, squatted near Gretchen, helping her recover and re-load the contents of her sewing basket. "He treats you badly," he quietly observed.
"He's just in a mood. He'll be all right tonight."
He handed her crocheting needles, yarn, and three pairs of colored knitting needles--one pair red, the other pairs, a dark green. He stretched toward the front door to retrieve a light blue needle, then checked around for the matching member of the pair. Finding none, he asked, "Isn't there a mate to this?"
She glanced at the blue needle and then quickly away. "No. I lost it years ago. I keep the other because they were family hand-me-downs, and the color matches my eyes."
Mulder looked at the needle closely, interested, thinking, and then handed it to her. He stood slowly. "Don't forget that card I gave you. If you need help, call me." He started for the door.
"Agent Mulder?" She waited until he faced her. "Thanks--you know, for bringing me home and all. I hope your partner isn't angry you're kind of late."
He stepped outside. "Nah, not Scully. It's rare when she gets angry." He looked at the rain with a certain apprehension, and then back at her. "Hey, Gretchen, take care of yourself, will you?"
"Nice you could drop by, Mulder!" Scully raged, stomping back into her room. She felt a certain relief in seeing him fine and untouched, but she'd only been at the motel a few minutes, and a hearse wasn't her favorite mode of transportation. "Why the hell haven't you answered your phone today?"
"What? Why? It never rang," he replied, surprised at her reaction as he entered her room behind her, shutting out traffic noises as he closed her door. This wouldn't be a good time to discuss his theory with her.
"Never rang?" she fumed. "Do you have it turned off?"
Mulder's hands went to the inside of his topcoat, then to his suitcoat and pants pockets. A scowl crept over his face, and he let himself through their adjoining doors. "It's here on the bed, Scully," he called in a small, apologetic voice. "I left it here this morning." He came back into her room, giving her his best innocent little boy face. "Sorry." He pocketed his phone.
She shook her head, frowning. "Great. I'm glad there was no emergency.
Not like I needed a ride back here from the hospital."
Mulder winced. "I forgot. I'm--"
"Yeah, I know--you're sorry." Scully grabbed her trenchcoat from the bed and hung it on the rack. Then she sat on her bed, turned toward the shadows of the room. "Mulder, sometimes...."
"So what'd you find out?" he asked, eyes imploring her forgiveness.
Scully sighed, allowing her anger to float out with her breath. "You first."
The pain in her jaw surged, and she needed to avoid talking while she could.
"Okay." Mulder's excitement didn't mind getting the first opportunity.
"Mr. Patterson's cat arched its back and hissed last night between seven and eight o'clock," he told her, removing both his coats. He rolled up the sleeves of his white shirt and loosened his tie.
Scully merely stared at him in disbelief. "What?"
He sighed. "Didn't you hear me?"
"Who's Mr. Patterson?"
"Guy next door to where Scalpetta was found. He called it in."
"And he has a cat."
"Yep. Missy. Seven years old."
"You spent a whole day finding that information?" she intoned. "Hope it didn't overtax you."
Mulder gave her a mocking smile. "Did you establish a time of death on Scalpetta?"
"At least twelve hours previous to the autopsy."
Scully crossed her arms. "Probably between seven and eight last night.
Are you saying the cat heard it?"
"Mr. Patterson has two dogs. Neither budged from the couch during the storm. But the cat hissed, then hid. Have you ever heard the stories of those who claim to have witnessed spectral appearances, Scully? Many of them also cite their cats hissing either just before or while a ghost appears."
His partner's expression appeared long-suffering. "Please tell me you found something more worthwhile today."
"Sure did." He pulled out the wooden chair that went with the room's desk. He turned it and sat, his elbows on his knees, hands supporting his chin. "I drove into Huntington. Talked to their local police and did some research at the local newspaper office and met the retired police chief."
"In 1972, three men were killed over a six month period--in exactly the same way as the men in Probity, all on rainy nights and on or near vacant property. Rumors existed at the time about a woman who apparently had been seeing these men, all of whom were married."
"Gretchen couldn't have been more than a baby, Mulder. Please tell me she didn't start that early."
He ignored her. "This lady's husband had run off with a younger woman, and so she must have gotten lonely."
Scully was thinking, remembering. "I thought you told me there had been four murders in Vermont."
"Gettin' to it," he promised. "Sometime after these three were killed, the husband came back, wanted to get back together with his wife. After a rainy night, he was found dead on her front lawn."
"And police automatically thought Casper killed him?"
Mulder sighed heavily. "You wanna give me a hard time, or do you want to listen?"
Her left hand mimed zipping her lips closed, and then it gestured for him to continue.
He sat up straighter. "Some police did suspect a ghost. No evidence. No witnesses. But the easy suspect was the wife since all the men were her suitors. And after the husband's murder, they figured she had motive and arrested her. Two days later she was found dead in her cell. She'd hanged herself--or, at least, that's how it looked. But she'd used a scarf. They have no idea how she obtained that scarf. It hadn't been in the cell, and she hadn't had it with her."
"So the ghost slipped her a scarf?"
"Either that or hanged her itself."
Scully's face reflected more than her usual skepticism. "Mulder, you knew most of this before we even came to Probity. What did you get from Huntington you didn't already know?"
"The retired chief handled the case back then. He never believed the woman guilty. Too many aspects of the murders remained unexplained for him. He signed off on her arrest because no one would take his belief in a ghost theory seriously. But everything he questioned mirrors this case.
The cases *are* related, and somehow, they both connect in Probity. So in short, Scully, what I got out of the visit was confirmation--that I'm on the right track." He settled back on the chair, trying to defy her bemused look, and folded his arms across his chest. "Your turn."
Scully leaned back on her left hand and met his gaze, careful to keep the right side of her face in shadow. She decided not to comment on his words. "Everything was identical to the previous murders. Except for something I finally found lodged in the heart at the point where the murder weapon stopped."
Mulder's eyebrows raised. "You gonna tell me, or shall we play Twenty Questions?"
"I don't know what it is. Hard plastic. Light blue. All I recovered was a tiny chip of it."
He leaned forward again. "Knitting needle. Scully, is the wound consistent with the dimensions and length of a knitting needle?"
She watched him stand and begin to pace. "I suppose so, Mulder. The chip I found could conceivably be the tip of one. How did you figure that?"
"There's a light blue knitting needle missing from Gretchen's sewing basket. She says the needles were hand-me-downs, and the one's been missing for years."
"What?" Scully's perplexed curiosity got the better of her, and she met him mid-pace in the center of the room. "Where'd Gretchen come into this?"
"Gave her a ride home from work when it was raining," he told her. "You said to see her on my own, so I did that as a favor to you."
Her eyebrows raised, and she scowled. "Well, of course. And she had knitting needles with her?"
"No, in her house. I carried her groceries in for her, and then Keeler came, tripped over the sewing basket, and left."
"Keeler--? Mulder, you could tell me--"
"Keeler was staking us out this morning. That's where he was when Patterson reported the murder. He saw me leave your room and made an insinuation about that."
Scully rolled her eyes. "Good old Reed. I'll bet he thinks you're Gretchen's next...friend."
"He implied as much."
"You're not, are you?" she asked softly.
"Haven't made an appointment yet." He sat on her bed, growing quiet. "I feel sorry for her, Scully. For Gretchen."
She took his chair. "Oh yeah, me, too."
"I don't mean it sarcastically," he replied, looking up when he heard her tone. "She's had a rough life. She finally settles down, but her self-esteem is so low she goes for temporary mates as her only means for affection.
You have to have some sympathy for someone like that, don't you?"
She gazed back at him, never failing to be surprised at some of his thoughts. "Mulder, the day I feel sorry for Gretchen Smith is the day the Cigarette Man gives up smoking. You're talking about our number-one murder suspect here."
"She's not a suspect," he said, slightly incredulous at her logic. "She certainly wasn't the Huntington murderer."
"Anybody can copycat, Mulder. She may own the murder weapon, and she has plenty of motives."
"Her lovers promising divorce from their spouses and marriage to her and never complying. Or maybe she just wanted to clean her appointment book to take on new 'friends'."
Mulder lay back on the quilt, hands clasped beneath his head. "She didn't do it, Scully. But I think she knows who did."
His partner leaned toward him. "Why do you say that?"
"Just a hunch." He decided he didn't want to share his theory with her after all. Not yet. A few loose ends still had to be tied.
Her sigh showed exasperation. "Ghosts and hunches. Other than the cat, do you have anything concrete?"
"I'm not sure. Have we heard from Frohike?"
"I got here maybe ten minutes before you did, Mulder. I haven't had a chance to check yet."
He lazily sat up, stretched his arms into the air, and yawned. "I'm gonna go take this morning's shower and put on some clean clothes. You link up with the Lone Gunmen, and we'll see what they've found. Okay?"
"Yeah, why not? I haven't done anything all day," she replied under her breath. She stood and turned toward her laptop, realizing too late that light now illumined her right side.
"Scully!" Mulder exclaimed, coming to her immediately, eyes staring at her jaw. "Holy.... You've got to get to a dentist."
"When we get home I will, Mulder." Embarrassment swept over her features.
"No, c'mon. There's gotta be a dentist around here." His fingers hovered over the bruise on her face, wanting to touch and make it better, but avoiding the contact that would cause further agony. "That shouldn't wait."
"Well, it's going to. Go take your shower, will you? Body odor bothers my tooth."
"Real funny. Scully, I'm serious. That looks awfully painful." He grimaced as he looked even closer.
Scully saw the deep concern for her in her partner's eyes, and she gave him a small smile. "Looks worse than it is. I'm fine, Mulder. Really. Now go shower."
"You're lying." He could see the lines of pain near her eyes and mouth, occurring there because of the way she held her jaw to stem the flow of discomfort. "We could probably get you into the emergency room at some hospital."
She put her hands on her hips and stared at him, her snarl obvious. "I'm hungry. I say we go to the Copper Kettle for supper--"
"How're you going to eat?" He continued to grimace.
"It's an acquired skill. The waitress brings food. I choose a utensil to convey the food to my mouth, then I chew, swallow, and digest."
"You're a real comedienne today, aren't you?" he replied. "Look, Dana--"
"*Dana*?" Her voice screeched. "I know you're concerned if you say my first name."
"Look, *Fox*!" she spat, "I'm going to the dentist when *I* want to. Not before. When this case is finished, I'll go. But not until."
He shook his head. "Fine.Whatever you say."
As he started toward his room, she said, "I appreciate your concern, Mulder. But it's my problem, okay? Mine to deal with."
"If you like to suffer, Scully, go for it." He went through their adjoining doors without turning back.
Scully angrily stared at the now-closed doors for a few moments. She slowly realized, though, that the anger she felt was actually directed at her tooth, not at her partner. She knew Mulder was right; she should have the root canal right away. But Dana Scully was not a quitter, was not a wimp.
She'd see this case through regardless of the burdens it put on her.
Suffering remained something she'd tolerate.
She busied herself making necessary connections for her laptop and then brought up the Lone Gunmen's findings. She paused a moment to marvel at the illegal skill Byers, Langly, and Frohike possessed; she didn't doubt that they could hack into the government's most secret information if the threat of discovery wasn't so high. She recalled the first time Mulder had taken her to meet them. She'd lost a twenty-dollar bill to one of their demonstrations of paranoia, and by the time she'd left, she found herself amused at their personalities and scared that such paranoid freaks lived on the outside of a mental institution. But since then, they'd proven their worth to her many times, and as much as she hated to admit it, she'd grown fond of them and learned to admire their unique abilities and their vital contributions.
And this information they'd extracted was no exception. Scully began reading, and as she scrolled down the page, her eyebrows raised, her eyes grew, and her sore jaw dropped. She read the information a second time and then started for the adjoining door.
Inside Mulder's room, she followed the trail of shed clothing and shoes to the closed bathroom door. She heard the shower running and used her fist to knock hard to be heard over the spraying deluge.
"Mulder!" she nearly shouted. "Mulder, can you hear me?" The shower stopped.
"Scully? Are you out there?" His voice sounded annoyed but curious.
"You won't believe what the Lone Gunmen sent. *I* don't believe it."
The door opened, and Mulder, towel wrapped around his waist and hips, faced her.
Scully couldn't ignore the moment as she saw drops of water trickling over his well-formed chest, his fine bone and muscle structure. "Geeze, Mulder," she breathed. "Good thing Gretchen's not here, or ol' Reed would have to forfeit to the competition." At the flare of his impatient expression, she said, "Gretchen Smith was born Gretchen Fletcher."
"Fletcher?" His eyes flashed recognition.
Scully continued, "Gretchen Fletcher was born in early 1972 and lived in Huntington, Vermont until--"
"And her parents' names were Della and Frank Fletcher." Mulder looked as though Elvis had entered the room.
Scully was amazed. "How did you know that?"
"What did they say about Della Fletcher?"
"About her? Nothing. You only asked about Gretchen."
"Call 'em back, Scully. They've got to find out about her background."
He quickly moved toward his bed, then grabbed and threw open his suitcase. "And if they have to hack to do so, tell 'em to hack."
"What? Why, Mulder? Who is Della Fletcher?"
He lightly tossed his head to throw a dripping clump of hair back from his face as he extracted a clean shirt from his luggage. "The wife. The woman who was hanged in the Huntington, Vermont jail."
When Mulder and Scully entered the Copper Kettle, the sky had temporarily cleared. They again took the booth in the front corner of the restaurant and noticed only a few other tables were occupied.
"I think we're early for supper, Mulder," Scully observed. She watched her partner shrug. He'd fallen silent since she'd informed him of the Lone Gunmen's news, and she knew his mind was busy working out all the details, all the clues. She'd not even bothered to comment on the strong scent of perfume in the car as she knew she'd have to scream at him to cut through the machinery of his brain.
Colleen came toward them with menus. "Hey, y'all. How're you today?"
She glanced at both, then wrinkled her nose when she saw Scully's bruise.
"Ouch! What happened to you?"
"Sore tooth," Scully replied. "What do you have that's soft and lukewarm?"
Colleen's eyes narrowed as she tapped her pencil against her chin. "Wow, let me think. The veggies he's making for supper are peas and carrots.
We've got mashed potato and gravy...pudding...cottage
"Bring me a serving of each, please."
This captured Mulder's attention, and he stared at his partner. A hint of sarcasm was evident as he asked, "Don't you want a milkshake, too?"
She considered. "Yeah. Make it vanilla, Colleen."
"And you?" the young waitress asked Mulder. "The usual?"
"Sound's good." He looked at Scully as Colleen left them.
"'The usual'?" she asked. "We've only eaten supper here once."
"Told you I'd leave her a good tip," he replied.
She clasped her hands on the table and gazed over at him. "Well, now that you're back on the planet for a few minutes--"
She tried to smile. "You were a bit preoccupied, Mulder."
"That happens." He spread a napkin over his lap. "Did Frohike have any idea how long getting info on Della would take?"
"Actually, I talked to Byers. He said they'd start immediately."
"I hope it's sooner," Mulder told her.
Scully watched her partner's uneasy eye movements as he glanced around the restaurant. She knew he was hungry, but he was anxious to do whatever was now on his mind. "So what's our next step, Mulder?" she asked, hoping the question might "land" him. "Do we arrest Gretchen tonight?"
"Arrest her?" Mulder looked at her, baffled. "For what?"
Scully's features also mirrored some disbelief. "You still don't think she killed those men?"
"Mulder, did anyone even check whether she had an alibi for those nights?"
"I doubt it. We didn't. She was home waiting for her friends to show up.
There wouldn't have been any witnesses to that. And she didn't call Keeler about them herself for obvious reasons."
"Well, if she does know who's committing the murders--as you say--we should bring her in and question her, at least. She could be an accessory if nothing else."
"I don't think we'll have the time. And it'd be futile anyway. This murderer isn't someone we're going to nab and throw behind bars, Scully."
Before she could respond, they heard Mulder's cell phone ring. He grabbed it from his pocket, wondering if he'd soon be talking to Gretchen after all. "Mulder...yeah, I'll hold." His eyes questioned Scully as he told her, "It's Skinner."
"What's he want?" she asked, puzzled. To have the Assistant Director call while they were in the field was rare.
Mulder held up his free hand to quiet her. "Yes?...Yeah, we are..."
Scully now looked around the room herself. One old couple sat near the door on the other side. Two young men, perhaps construction workers, occupied a table near the back. The old couple labored at downing fried chicken while the workers devoured roast beef subs some twenty inches in length. Scully's stomach growled.
"What?" Mulder's voice was angry.
Scully turned toward him to see his face change from surprise to controlled fury.
"Who was this?" he continued to their boss on the line's other end.
"You're calling me because of what an anonymous source reported?" His eyes met hers, and he shook his head in disbelief. "Sir, you've known me a long time; why would you even ask that?...Of course, it's not true...Yeah, I can explain. We've stepped on the Sheriff's toes by investigating his damn case....Because *he* wasn't doing it....He's too afraid of exposing his own impropriety....No, he doesn't want his town--his voters--to discover what a schmuck he is, nor does he want his wife to learn he's being unfaithful to her."
Scully sat up, nodding thanks to Colleen who put the milkshake and a glass of water on the table. The waitress looked quizzically at Mulder, then retreated to the kitchen.
"*You* sent us out here, sir. I suggest you let us do our job....Do you want Agent Scully to verify?....Fine. I'm surprised you found it necessary to even call." Mulder quickly, vehemently clicked off his phone and tossed it back into his pocket.
Scully paused, waiting to chance a comment. He looked as if he'd punch Skinner were the older man in the room. She finally said, "I take it he wasn't calling to say 'hi'."
Mulder's sour exasperation reached boiling point, yet his voice remained fairly calm. "Skinner got an anonymous call. Somebody mentioned me going into and coming out of your room last night and this morning. The caller also said I was 'courting' the top suspect in the case."
"Had to be Keeler," Scully said, this latest news fueling her own rage.
"He'll do anything to get us called back to Washington, won't he? Please tell me Skinner doesn't believe him. What'd he say?"
"The usual. If it looks bad--"
"--Then it looks bad for the FBI," Scully finished for him. She noticed he'd clenched his fists on the table. Keeping her voice soft, she said, "Mulder, this is just more of Keeler's garbage. You know that. And Skinner's just doing what any assistant director would do. Don't sweat it."
But his expression didn't change. "It's not that, Scully."
"Yeah," she observed, concerned. "I've noticed Keeler's really gotten to you since we first met him. That's not like you, Mulder. What's the deal?"
His fingers exited the fists and drummed on the table distractedly. "He's to blame for much of what's happened here," he told her.
She looked surprised. "So you're agreeing with me for once?"
At first, Mulder seemed confused as he reviewed her words. "You mean--about him helping kill those four guys?" he finally asked, and when her nod confirmed this, he shook his head. "No, not like that. I mean he knows why this is happening; he knows who's doing it. He just refuses to take steps that might either prevent it or deter Gretchen's admirers from visiting her."
"This has to be one of your hunches."
"It's a hunch; it's insight. He's avoided anything that might help the investigation. He's lied about or tried to prevent us talking to witnesses.
Now he's trying to convince our own boss to call us off the case."
"And he did mention a ghost before you told him any such theory."
Colleen arrived with their orders, and Mulder, calming, tried to stifle a reserved smile when the waitress set each of Scully's dishes on the table.
His partner gave him her most menacing evil-eye stare.
"So do you have the murders solved yet?" Colleen asked.
"Still working on it," Mulder told her.
The young girl almost appeared angry. "Are you messing with Reed?"
"'Messing'?" Scully asked.
"He just seems real mad lately. Today, I heard him say you should mind your own business and get out of town."
"We get that in lots of places," Mulder replied.
"Oh--sort of like a local-cop-resents-the-FBI thing?"
"Something like that."
Colleen nodded knowingly. "I've seen that kind of stuff on TV." She re-checked to be sure their order was complete, then wished them an enjoyable meal, and walked over to the old couple.
Scully gingerly nibbled her food while Mulder took a huge bite of burger.
She watched him, envious that he could chew, that he could eat without pain--or without guilt, for that matter. He caught her stare, watched her tiny chewing motion, and grinned.
"Just think of it, Scully. If you'd get that root canal, you could eat like this, too."
Her gaze drifted to the burger and fries. "Yeah, grease, fat, and cholesterol--how could I possibly pass that up?" She nibbled more. Pain coursed through her mouth, head, and neck each time her lower jaw moved, but hunger fought and won the battle. She did pause, though, to allow the pain to subside, and she watched him mow away his food faster than usual. She also noticed he still seemed antsy. "So c'mon, Mulder," she said, suspiciously, "I want to hear your theory. I know you have one; I can almost hear those wheels turning."
He swallowed the last bit of burger and met her gaze. He shrugged, deciding this was the best time to share his thoughts with her. They were in public, after all; how loudly could she yell and escape embarrassment?
"This ghost is someone from Gretchen's and Della's pasts--probably someone they never knew or never knew well. But it knows them.
Wouldn't surprise me if it's a relative--"
Scully already shook her head. "Where's the motive? A-a-and how can a ghost wield a weapon--or even wield it well enough to commit murder so flawlessly?"
"While you're at it," he replied, "ask why it only kills on or near vacant property--"
"That's a given. Who would kill near an inhabited house?"
"But on a stormy night, Scully, who'd know the difference? You remember that storm last night. Could you have heard a murder outside your room?"
"Okay, why then? And why were the murders only committed in the rain?"
"I've two ideas on the locations," he said, almost eagerly. "I think the ghost may reside in the vacant homes--it stalks the victims from there." As Scully's scowl began to creep over her features, he continued, "It's gotta stay somewhere, right? If it haunted inhabited homes, it would tip off the residents. Or, its own home was vacated upon its death, so it's just keeping the houses company, so to speak." His partner now looked at him as if all semblance of sanity had deserted him. He tried once more. "And the rain? Even the night Della died in jail, it rained. Whatever motive the ghost has originated on a rainy night. It kills in the rain now because that's its M.O. Or else it can control nature somehow whenever it wants."
Scully sighed. "Well, I've heard worse theories from you."
"This one'll be proven true. And soon. I can feel the end coming." He noted she still looked doubtful. "Okay, let me hear your theory." He waited patiently for her to swallow. "Though I'm sure I know exactly what you'll say."
"Be my guest," she replied, happy enough to have him do all the talking.
At least it prevented him noticing her pathetic, tiny spoonfuls of food.
Mulder nodded. "My pleasure. You think Gretchen copies the murders her mother supposedly committed, but with either Keeler's help or with his scouting. The killings occur at night, in the rain, and on vacant property so no one will see her, Keeler, or both of them as they commit the crimes. As to motive? Della Fletcher wanted to destroy her husband for the shame he caused her, but she had suitors and dispensed with them as either practice for or as symbolic foretelling of Frank's fate. You think Keeler is Gretchen's favorite and that she feels killing the others in the same way her mother allegedly did will lend credence to the ghost theory while she simply tries to get Reed to become her one and only."
"That's pretty good, Mulder. Ever think of becoming a psychic?"
He ignored her and observed, "But your theory doesn't explain why out of all the places she could have gone, Gretchen came to Probity."
"Neither does yours," Scully countered.
"Whatever's happened since, everything originated here."
"And you can prove that?"
"I hope to--" He stopped when he saw her eyes focus on something outside the window behind him. "What?"
"Is that your little old lady--what's her name--Elsie?"
Mulder quickly turned but only caught a glimpse of the old woman departing. "She could help us," he told his partner.
Scully noticed Mulder seemed even more restless. She glanced at the large amounts of food still in her dishes, and she felt the still-hungry gnawing of her stomach. "Mulder, unless you want the car, why don't you go now?
Catch up to Elsie. If you need a ride back later, call me."
His look was grateful yet doubtful. "I shouldn't leave you--"
"Why not? Just toss me the keys, though."
"I'm a big girl. I'll finish eating, then I'll return to the motel. I'll be there if
and when Byers calls, and relay the message to you. Besides, you look as if you need to run--or walk--and sort everything out."
Relief seemed to flood him. "You know me too well. Are you sure you don't mind?" When he noted her frown, he stood, taking the keys from his jeans pocket and handing them to her. Then he sorted out some bills and put them near one of her plates. "That should cover supper. Just leave a good tip."
"You be careful, Mulder," she warned him. "And if it rains, call me."
He laughed but picked up on her anxiety. "I'm not married, Scully, and I'm not having an affair."
"That's not what Keeler thinks," she reminded him.
He lightly squeezed her shoulder. "See you later--at least I will if you ever finish eating." He felt her evil eye again as he left the restaurant.
Mulder checked both ways on the sidewalk when he got outside, but Elsie was nowhere in sight. As he headed left--where he'd seen her headed--he zipped his leather jacket against the wind. Nearly an hour of daylight remained, but already the temperature was falling, and he could see rain clouds approaching.
He quickened his pace and checked two side-streets. For an old woman with a cane, Elsie was a speeding bullet. On the third block, he saw her hobbling along a residential street, her old coat flapping against her stockinged legs. He turned onto the street and jogged after her.
"Hey, Elsie?" he called. "Elsie? Can you wait up a minute?" No one else appeared to be on the sidewalk, street, or even out in yards. He called her name again, and this time she stopped and pivoted toward him curiously.
"You want me?"
Mulder neared her, then suddenly slowed, his surprise evident. "Her"
wasn't Elsie at all. "What the--" he began, and the person he faced began to laugh.
"Wow! You thought I was a little old lady, huh?"
The voice belonged to a teen-aged boy whose acne blotched through the heavy pale make-up and drawn-on wrinkles that covered his face. He wore a grey wig whose long locks twisted into a bun, and his old dress and coat covered a compact body until they reached his knees. And beneath his hems, dark brown leg hair tried to escape his nylons.
Mulder shook his head. "Aren't you a few days early for Halloween?"
The boy laughed again. "Dude, this is for our senior play. We're doing *Arsenic and Old Lace*, and our drama coach cast me and my friend as the old ladies. And I wanna be convincing, so I figured I'd get some practice. I must be good, huh? I fooled you."
"Yeah, you're pretty good."
"Yeah, I wanna be an actor. Fame, glory, big bucks. Either that or some kind of cop."
Mulder shrugged. "Do your acting as a cross-dressing cop working for a vice squad."
The laugh got louder. "Good one, dude! I owe you one!" He wiggled so much from his snickering that his wig nearly flew off.
"Hey, maybe you could take care of that debt right now," Mulder told him. "Do you know any history of this area?"
"Lived here all my life," the boy replied. "I've heard stuff, but I gotta warn you, I ain't no good with names."
"Have you ever heard of any murders taking place in Probity--say within this century?"
The boy turned serious. "You're the FBI guy, right? I heard you were asking people questions. Cool." He thought harder. "I've heard of some murders, yeah. Back in the twenties, some Canadian guy came around and killed some hooker. And in the--I don't know, forties maybe?--some woman killed her husband and then herself. Guess he was cheating on her--that's the legend anyway."
Mulder slowly nodded his head. "Do you know their names?"
The kid shrugged. "Told you I'm no good with names. Can't even remember the names of characters in my English book--even if I just read the story."
"Do you know where this husband and wife lived?"
"Yeah. Over on Langor or Bently somewhere. The place just got dozed down last winter. It was either that or let it keep falling down."
"Okay, thanks." Mulder started on past the boy, his mind now engrossed in the final revision of his theory. "Good luck with your play."
"Yeah," the boy replied. "Thanks. Hey, you think I could be a cross-dressing FBI agent?"
"Go for it," Mulder called behind his shoulder. "But you'll have to shave your legs first. Bureau regulations." He heard the kid's laugh again, and then he tuned out everything but his own thoughts.
By six-thirty, Mulder found himself in the Probity Cemetery, wandering among the headstones, not really searching yet expecting to find. Not much daylight remained, and sprinkles now hit him in a fairly frequent pattern. He could tell heavier rain was falling in and around the town. He was, perhaps, a mile from it.
He allowed himself to wonder if Scully had returned to the motel by now, yet he knew she probably had. He hoped she could rest, and he wished she could feel better. The thought of a tooth's pain made him wince even now. He had to get her to a dentist, but he knew she could be as headstrong as he himself was, and that meant she'd not go before she was ready.
Anger still flamed in him--the remnants of his dismay over and resentment of Keeler's handling of all things related to this case. The Sheriff's backfiring plan to get Mulder removed from investigating on an ethics charge. The lives lost because Keeler wouldn't warn those endangered.
The way the moron treated Gretchen. If anyone deserved a knitting needle into the heart....
No, no one deserved that.
In the fading light, Mulder squinted toward the far reaches of the cemetery. It had to be there. He found the small flashlight he carried in his leather jacket, aimed its beam toward family monuments or markers, and quickened his pace as the sprinkles increased theirs. The storm wanted to envelop him as it had Probity, but like Scully, he was too stubborn to stop now.
A small wind swirled wet maple leaves onto his legs as he neared the last row of the cemetery. Here, sparse headstones were scattered near old, decaying, craggy trees whose black branches looked macabre against the angry, darkening sky.
And when the light's beam fell on the stone for which he'd been searching, he felt no elation, no "told you so." Instead, he felt his heart hit the ground, disappointed that his suspicions were correct.
He knelt to read the old, engraved lettering, shaking his head in incredulous awe at the date of death. And then his eye caught another stone, and he gazed at it, face horrified in disbelief and dread. Scully had to see these tomorrow.
Rain started to pour. Mulder apprehensively rose and stared up into it, as if expecting the water to wash away confirmed knowledge, as if wishing it to stop that which was about to happen. But it wouldn't. He started to jog, and then he broke into a run, heading back to the road. Tomorrow, he knew, would be too late.
He'd jogged for what seemed hours, and his anger flared at the ominous rain for slithering over his forehead and into his eyes, blurring his vision.
Adrenaline surged throughout his body, and when he managed to wipe water from his eyes so he could see, everything looked like ghosts. Pine trees big enough to be inside for Christmas seemed to be spectres, as did backyard sheds and garbage cans. They spooked him, and he pushed his legs harder.
He could hear his shoes sloshing into the rain-soaked grass and dirt, and he knew there'd be splattered mud on the cuffs of his jeans. He felt sweat running down his back, felt the rain running beneath his collar and down his torso.
He tightened his jacket as the wind whipped into more than a slight gust.
Leaves whirled around him in the night's blackness, sometimes sticking to his forehead and hair. He swiped them away, but they were soon replaced.
And despite the fear and discomfort he felt, one fact consoled him more than any other: tomorrow they'd be gone from Probity, on their way back to D.C. The only way for that fact to be sweeter would be if they could leave tonight. Right now.
His long run started him gasping for breath. He'd had enough, yet he knew he couldn't stop. And then he could see it. Gretchen's house loomed in the distance; its lights beckoning his presence. He pushed his legs even harder, ignoring their aching muscles and feeling relieved to be so close.
Finally, he approached her back porch. The kitchen light cast an eerie yellow glow from the side window. He dashed near it, toward the front of the house.
And then he froze. His body halted clumsily, and he started to shake.
"You!" he gasped. A figure from the shadows had appeared before him.
He quivered and felt as if his knees would buckle. Should he call out?
It came toward him, and as light touched its face, its being, he sighed, relieved. "I'm sorry! Thought you were someone else."
The figure--a woman--continued. She came closer. Closer.
He smiled smugly. He'd been afraid of this? He put his hands on his hips and concentrated on slowing his breathing and on letting his legs relax.
She stopped before him, smiling up into his face.
"So how are you?" he asked, a bit nervously.
"Better--" she replied as she stabbed the knitting needle into his torso, "--now."
His face mirrored agony and shock as the needle jabbed in harder and farther. "No--" he begged as he dropped to his knees. He fell over onto the ground in a fetal position, legs kicking in futile protest. He smelled the wet grass and dirt so near his nose; then he rolled to his back, flailing as life drained from his body.
She leaned over him, extracting the needle. "You've been a very naughty man," she told him. "You're all alike."
Those words echoed in the dying mind of Reed Keeler.
Mulder splashed onto Bently Street. Rainwater already soaked his socks, pantlegs, running shoes--even the shirt beneath his jacket. He'd unzipped the latter, finding it restrictive as well as too warm as his dash continued.
His hair was plastered about his head, and he breathed hard. He'd run full speed for at least two and a half miles, and his legs were tiring. But he made them go faster, go farther. Langor Avenue was close now.
He dreaded the confrontation. He liked her--though not what she did--but she had to stop. And he hoped to convince her of that before she stole any more lives.
As he passed George Patterson's house, he jumped slightly as his cell phone rang. He slowed a bit but plunged on as he brought the phone to his ear. "Mulder!"
"Agent Mulder?" Gretchen's voice displayed nervous worry. "Agent Mulder, I think I need your help. Reed--Reed's late. He's never late. It's raining. He was supposed to be here by seven. I--I--don't know what to do."
"Gretchen..." he panted heavily, fearing the worst, "I'm coming....I'll be there...in a few minutes."
"Are you all right?" she squeaked.
"I'm running....Just stay inside." He stopped their conversation and was about to punch in Scully's number when his phone rang again. And again he answered, "Mulder."
"It's me," Scully said. She paused, probably hearing the way he breathed.
"Mulder, are you jogging?"
"Scully...call Dawson....Keeler's missing...didn't show up...at Gretchen's....I'm going there....Have Dawson call...the State Police."
"I'll be there, too!" she promised hurriedly, already springing into action.
"But look, be careful! Byers called. I don't know how it's possible, Mulder, but that ghost has to be--"
"I know who it is...saw her headstone...Meet you over there."
"Mulder! You don't have your weapon!"
"Can't shoot...a ghost, Scully." He turned off the phone, pocketed it, and sped up as he neared Gretchen's house.
The rain relented though the wind still stirred. Every light in Gretchen's house glowed into the night; her porch light illuminated the sidewalk and curb. And as Mulder reached the home, he saw a dark mass in the sideyard. He knew a body lay there, and he knew whose it was. He slowed to a walk and approached it.
Panting heavily, he reached the corner of the porch and felt the wind increase, becoming violent, swirling leaves and twigs about him. Rain pelted once again. The storm returned, and with a vengeance. Mulder stopped, shielding his eyes so he could see, though the heavy deluge obscured nearly everything. And now he heard a banging, and items heavier than raindrops fell around him, some smacking into him. Shingles from Gretchen's roof. He stepped back beneath the eave to protect himself from them. And then he saw her. She stood before him, her familiar smile gone.
Her voice through the rain sounded like a whisper on the wind. "You're all the same."
"What do you mean?" he asked loudly to be heard over the elements and pounding shingles.
"Where's your partner? Why aren't you with her?"
"She's on her way."
"You left her. You've been seeing Gretchen."
"No. Only about these murders." Mulder still panted from the run.
"That bruise on your partner's face--do you hit women, Fox?"
"You're wrong," he told her. He wiped water from his eyes as the rain and wind came harder.
"And you're a naughty man."
"You can only say that if you've seen my video collection," he tried to joke as she came nearer.
"You should never leave your pretty partner for another woman," she told him.
The gusts swirled. Mulder put his back to the house's wall to hold his balance. Branches dropped from trees. His arms went up to protect his head as one suddenly flew toward him, and then it crashed to the ground.
He fought to stay on his feet as the wind, like a tornado, circled about him, its loud roar howling in his ears, confusing him. He needed to stop her--he didn't want to be her next victim. He forced his eyes open and found her just inches from him, staring up into his face. The lights from Gretchen's house illumined her sparkling blue eyes. Gretchen's eyes.
"Elsie," he gasped, finding it difficult to focus his sight, "these murders--you have to end them."
"I will, Fox." Her old voice sounded apologetic. "I watched you and your partner tonight. I heard when you learned about my Della. I knew you'd find me out soon. I knew my days were numbered once I met you. You're different. You understand; you listen to the other world." Her ghostly hand touched his forehead. "Your Dana seems a nice girl; you were wrong to let your eyes wander."
He shook his head, trying to see her better through the night's rain.
Beneath his coat he shivered in his soggy clothing. "We're partners. And I've no interest--not *that* kind of interest--in Gretchen."
She stepped closer.
"Elsie." He felt the need to sit or lie down. Breathing was difficult in the vacuum created by the wind, and he compromised by leaning more heavily against the wall. He needed to rest, to think. He needed to buy time. "Tell me why--how all this started."
"You already know," she replied, but she shrugged. "Della had just turned one when I first heard about Lewis and his girlfriend. I'd hoped he'd stop.
Neighbors would talk and laugh behind my back. It was 1943; men weren't supposed to cheat on their wives. They're still not. My life became a hell. One stormy night I questioned him about her, about his affair. We fought, and those were the worst words we ever spoke to each other. He hit me, knocked me into my sewing chest. I was hurt, angry. I grabbed the first thing I could find. Stabbed him with my knitting needle, and he died quickly. I felt awful. I took Della to the neighbor's, and then I hanged myself with my scarf."
"Huntington, Vermont?" Mulder asked weakly.
"I followed her life. Della's. The folks who adopted her did all right by her. And when I saw her getting hurt later on--and the hurt her men friends caused their own families, I had to help."
"Did you kill Della?"
Sadness crept into the woman's features. "I helped her die. There was no choice."
Mulder swallowed hard. "And you'll kill Gretchen."
She nodded. "Gretchen's the last member of my family. It all ends here.
"And what about you, Elsie?" he asked. "No place in Heaven for murderers, is there?"
She smiled. "I'll go through the door and into the next world. I'll take my chances. Self-sacrifice is acceptable if it makes a point, isn't it, Fox? Hell can't be much worse than what Lewis put me through in life."
"Look, Elsie, Gretchen doesn't have to die."
"Yes, she does, Fox. She'll be happier. And I have to kill you as well. You can't cheat on your partner."
"No...." Mulder felt the needle begin to poke into his skin. He felt powerless to fight, too weakened by his run and by the battle against the wind. A trickle of blood slid down his stomach. Summoning great effort, he writhed to escape her.
"Grandma, no!" Gretchen suddenly screamed. She ran out into the yard.
Tears streamed on her cheeks, mixing with the raindrops. "No, not him!
He never touched me!"
Mulder dropped to his knees in relief after he felt the needle pull away. He helplessly watched Gretchen and Elsie hurry back to the porch. "No!
Don't do it, Elsie!" His voice became lost in the storm.
Suddenly, headlights swept through the rain and rested on him. Tires screeched. In seconds, Scully yelled his name and ran to him.
"Mulder!" Her flashlight came out as she knelt beside him, checking for wounds. She gasped as she saw the blood seeping through his blue denim shirt. She undid a button to find the source. "Mulder, what happened?"
"Elsie," he managed.
Scully exhaled in relief as she checked his torso. "She just poked into your skin a bit. Flesh wound." But she noted his exhaustion. "Are you okay?"
Mulder put his hands on her shoulders to help himself to his feet and noticed Scully rise, too. "We gotta help Gretchen. Elsie's gonna kill her."
Scully's flashlight aimed at Keeler's body, and when she turned back to her partner, she found him stumbling toward the front of the house. She quickly followed. "Mulder, wait!" Her voice trailed off as she joined him in the front yard where he stared past the porch and into the living room.
She saw Elsie and Gretchen standing inside, looking out at Mulder. They waved once, and both smiled. And then Elsie's eyes closed.
A blast of lightning suddenly turned night into day. Mulder and Scully instinctively ducked as an unmistakable POP! exploded to their right, the electricity meter and its housing disintegrating into showers of sparks. The house's lights instantly plunged into darkness. And then a hellish roar surged into their ears. In seconds, the house became engulfed in leaping hot yellow and orange flames.
Scully shielded her eyes, unconsciously stepping back to the curb until she saw Mulder moving forward, edging toward the fire, the heat. He wanted to save Gretchen.
As the house's windows began to burst, Scully sprinted to her partner.
"No, Mulder!" she screamed. "It's over! They're gone!" She grabbed his arm, hauling him backward. It was easier than she'd hoped, and she squinted past him to find Tom Dawson on Mulder's right, helping her bring the dazed agent to the safety of the rental car.
Scully got behind the wheel, started the engine, and left Dawson to call for the fire department. She noticed neighbors wandering from their homes to watch the fire. She sped off Langor Avenue, then slowed and stopped the car beneath a streetlight on Bently. She leaned forward to check on her partner.
His head was back against the headrest, his mouth slightly open, his eyes mournful. His heat-flushed cheeks were wet, and she wasn't sure if that was rain or tears or a mixture of both. This wouldn't be the first time Special Agent Fox Mulder had shed tears for a victim or even for a suspect. She saw him glance at her, and she smiled sadly. "I'm sorry it turned out this way, Mulder," she said softly. "I know you liked Elsie.
And I admire your ability to feel sympathy for Gretchen."
"It had to end like this, Scully," he breathed. "Seeing the end of her descendants--that was the only way Elsie could rest. Nobody can hurt them anymore. Or her."
Scully still had no proof Elsie was the ghost of a woman who'd hanged herself after murdering her husband in 1943. She'd wait to see what remains were found in the charred rubble in the morning. For now, her concern was getting Mulder back to the motel.
"How're you doing?" she asked him. "You okay?"
His eyes shot her a glance, and he attempted a smile. "Why? You don't want to go eat again, do you?"
She chuckled. "Well, you can still make lousy jokes. I guess you'll be all right." She settled back into driving position and pulled the car into the road again.
"How about you, Scully?" he asked in the darkness, noticing no rain fell now, and no leaf blew. "How's your jaw?"
"You never give up, do you?" she sighed. "Let's just say I'll be glad to get back to D.C., Mulder."
In the passing streetlights' glare, she saw him nod and close his eyes. She knew sleep hadn't and wouldn't claim him tonight, though. In his usual, quiet way, Fox Mulder would come to grips with the demises of Elsie Hubbard and Gretchen Smith. Nothing she could say would help the process. And nothing she could do would convince him to feel no guilt for not saving Gretchen--or Keeler, for that matter. Mulder would suffer all of this on his own, swallow it, place it on the pile forming since the disappearance of his sister while he babysat her, some twenty-four years earlier.
As they neared the Probity Inn, she spoke quietly, "You know, Mulder, you can't protect everyone. You can't save them all. Especially if they don't want to be saved."
"Gretchen saved my life," he replied, his voice quieter than hers. "But she didn't save her own."
"You said it yourself," Scully reminded him, "that this ended the way it had to."
He nodded barely noticeably. "And all this because Lewis Hubbard was unfaithful. I wonder if he'd been so tempted if he'd had any idea his actions would cause so much destruction. Being non fidelis, Scully. It's the root of great suffering."
Mulder swung the car into a parking space right outside their rooms. He puzzled over the fact that on this, his last visit to the Probity Inn, he could
finally avoid parking ten spaces away. The car was gassed and ready to return to the Syracuse airport's rental car lot, and he noticed Scully had already left their luggage on the sidewalk.
He loaded the bags in the trunk and was ready to summon her when she approached him from the office. He'd not seen her since early that morning when he'd dropped her at the mortician's house. Steve Fero and Scully had headed to the hospital for autopsies and dental matching. Now as he watched his partner, he noted she looked fresh in a maroon pantsuit beneath her trenchcoat, but above the neckline, she appeared utterly exhausted and ill.
"Ready to head out?" he called to her.
"Yes," she replied. "I got everything out of the rooms."
"Already loaded it."
Scully got in the passenger side, glad to rest on the convenience of a cushioned seat. She watched Mulder as he sat beside her, and her suspicions about his lack of sleep were confirmed by his haggard eyes. He still seemed dazed from their experience at Gretchen's the night before, but his navy blue suit, tie, and white shirt looked as if they'd just come from the cleaner's, and, as usual, Mulder's emotional burden was buried under his professional appearance.
"We're booked for the nine-fifteen flight to D.C.," he told her. "I couldn't get one any earlier."
"That's okay," she replied. "We'll have an extra hour, and we won't have to hurry to the airport."
Mulder checked his watch, finding the time just past five. "Have you eaten anything today, Scully?"
"No," she confessed. "I'm hungry, but I can't face the thought of chewing."
He reached behind the seat and lifted a loaded mini-mart plastic bag. "I was afraid of that, so I brought you a dinner you can drink."
She gazed at him in surprise and then peered into the bag. "My gosh, Mulder. Is there anything you didn't get?" She found cans of tomato and orange juices, diet milkshakes, and single-serve bottles of iced tea. "Oh wow, thanks. These look really good."
"We've got several hours of travel time. You don't have to drink them all at once."
"No." Scully popped the tab of a tomato juice can and drank slowly, letting the salty, rich taste fill her mouth. She swallowed and closed her eyes, feeling her body welcome nourishment. "Good stuff, Mulder. I appreciate it. Of course, you realize that if I do drink all this by myself, I'll be in the ladies' room the entire flight."
He grinned as he started the car. "That's okay by me. I plan to sleep anyway."
They backed from the parking space, but he turned right at the main road, and she quickly glanced at him.
"One side trip. It'll only take a minute."
"No problem." She sipped more juice. "Mulder, the autopsy on Keeler showed all the same results as the other victims', and I was able to match the teeth found in the ashes with Gretchen's dental records." She watched for his response, but his eyes only blinked, and she knew he'd almost succeeded in hiding away his sadness. "But the fire chief claims--even after searching the remnants of the home three times--that Gretchen's were the only remains in the rubble." This time Mulder nodded, not surprised. Scully drank more, hiding her shock about the lack of Elsie's remains, then asked, "What'd you do today?"
"Went over everything with the State Police. I think they think I'm nuts."
"Well, that's not a first," she teased.
"No. I'm beginning to think I should collect decals from every state where the local cops think I'm crazy. I could put them on my luggage or something." He saw her smile. "Oh, and I took Dawson to lunch. Colleen asked me to tell you to visit again sometime."
Scully nodded, then noticed Mulder flick on the turning light. They pulled into the driveway of the Probity Cemetery and slowly made their way to the back of the large lot.
"I want to show you something." He parked the car and exited, stopping to grab another plastic bag from the back seat.
She joined him, and they walked to the last row of headstones beneath the old, bare trees. From the bag, he produced two small bouquets, each boasting orange, yellow, and red flowers. Scully allowed a quiet smile at her partner's thoughtfulness. Both of them had lost their fathers, and their sisters--hers to a gunshot, his to an abduction. They knew grief too well.
And Mulder couldn't stop himself from grieving for victims and sometimes even for culprits. She watched him place a bouquet before each of two headstones.
"C'mere, Scully," he murmured.
She noticed the blue sky and the still air as she approached him. He pointed first at Elsie Hubbard's monument. On its simple face, she read the 1917-1943 dates.
"But the woman we saw was nearly eighty," she observed, looking up at her partner in confusion. "That's impossible."
He shrugged. "She said she'd not gone through the door yet. Maybe the spectral appearance does age. Or maybe she just wanted the years she missed." He guided Scully's focus to the smaller headstone next to Elsie's.
"You're kidding!" she exclaimed in disbelief, moving closer to be certain.
Gretchen Smith's name leaped out at her along with the words: January, 1972-October, 1997. "Mulder, this was here last night?"
Her partner nodded.
"How can that be?"
"Don't know, Scully. But Elsie did."
Scully shivered and turned back to the car. "C'mon. We've got juice to drink and a plane to catch." When she got no response, she looked back to see him paying silent respects toward the headstones. She paused, then quietly took his hand, intertwining her fingers with his.
Mulder glanced down at their joined hands, remembering something about body language. He squeezed the small hand in his and continued to hold it as Scully led him back toward the car.
As they neared the vehicle, a light, warm breeze suddenly swirled around them, lifting a few leaves playfully. And then it stilled.
Mulder turned slightly, smiled, and nodded toward the headstones. Then he and his partner entered the car and started for the airport.
Scully sat in the chair, alone in the dentist's treatment room. After two and a half hours of emergency dental work, she felt as if her mind were as deadened as her mouth after its extensive injections of novocaine. She was tired of sitting, tired of having her mouth wide open, tired of hearing that god-awful *whirr* of the drill. And she dreaded the drive home in rush hour traffic since she couldn't summon adequate alertness.
And Dana Scully was just plain tired. She and Mulder had caught the late-night flight back to D.C. Bizarre turbulence had jolted her jaw the entire journey, keeping her in pain and awake while her partner had finally slept peacefully, sprawled across three seats in the row ahead of her.
When Scully had called that morning, Dr. Springfield had agreed to do the emergency dentistry while working around other appointments. And Scully had left Mulder writing the report on the Probity case at the Hoover Building that afternoon.
Now, fed up with root canals, dentists, and toothaches, she craved a painless rest--and a whole lot of substantial food.
Springfield's assistant returned to her side. "Okay, Dana; you're released."
She took the paper bib from Scully's neck and stepped back from the chair. "You want us to just bill your account, correct?"
Scully nodded. To mumble through the novocaine wouldn't sound too dignified.
Once outside in the chilly, overcast Washington day, she huddled further into her coat and debated calling a cab. The way she presently felt, driving would be dangerous. Yet, leaving her car too long might mean no car at all when she returned to get it. Maybe she could just rest in it before driving home.
She walked into the parking lot and instantly slowed her steps. Someone sat on the hood of her car. She kept her hand near her weapon as she continued, but as she got nearer, she smiled despite her numb mouth.
Mulder saw her then and got to his feet. "How're you doin'?" He watched her closely, seeing pain, exhaustion, and relief mixed in her features. As she shrugged, he held out his hand to her. "Hey, FBI woman, it looks like you've just had a root canal." He grinned. "Toss me your keys."
She wouldn't have objected even if she'd found the energy to get the words out. He often surprised her in great ways, and this was one of them.
She dug into her coat pocket and hand-delivered the keys to him.
He rounded the fender and unlocked her passenger door, waiting until she'd arranged herself inside before he closed it.
On the driver's side, he leaned into the car. "Look!" he joked. "A seat designed for midgets!" He felt for, then released the lever to put the seat back before he tried to sit. Once in, he started the engine, and they left the parking lot.
"I handed the report to Skinner before I took a cab over here," he told her. "He didn't mention Keeler's 'anonymous' call. And I don't think he bought the ghost story, but at least our paperwork's done, and we can file the Probity case." He turned to see her nod, and he smiled. "You know, Scully? I kind of like it when you can't talk. Think of all the theories I could tell you now, and you wouldn't be able to argue with me at all."
She pursed her lips, trying to look annoyed, but she smiled instead. "Don't get used to it." She noticed he looked as tired as she felt and realized he could have been in his own apartment by now, on his couch, sleeping.
"Nice of you to do this for me, Mulder," she mumbled clumsily. "Thanks.
I know you had other things--"
His right hand gently touched her shoulder, giving it a friendly, reassuring squeeze. "I owed you a ride home, remember? And this time you didn't even have to call me." He met her eyes and winked. "I forgot that agreement the other day, Scully. Now I'm trying to avoid being unfaithful to my partner again."
That evening in Probity, New York, a light rain fell and a faint wind blew.
Bouquets on two graves in the town cemetery yielded petals to dance together in carefree movement toward the sky.
Newly appointed Sheriff Tom Dawson patrolled empty streets in his inherited cruiser. And in the darkness of night, no one walked. No one ran. And no one died.