Title: Rise of the Zombees (We're Not Calling Them That)
Summary: When dead bodies start doing strange things in a small town in Virginia, the Lone Gunmen call on Scully for help. But are they already too late? Written for the 2009 apocalyptothon on LJ.
OFFICE OF The MEDICAL EXAMINER
Jaime Mendoza stripped off his gloves, plastic apron, and booties and slung them into the biohazard bin. The apron had protected his scrubs from the worst of the fluids but once he reached the changing room, he pulled them off and threw them away as well. His boxers he dropped into his open duffel bag on top of his clean clothes, then tucked his socks into his sneakers. He wrapped a towel around his hips and sat down heavily on the bench in front of his duty locker. He felt drained, like he usually did after performing an autopsy. As one of four deputy medical examiners for Belvo County, he spent the bulk of his time completing paperwork his boss didn't want to do and supervising the histology interns. Only in extreme circumstances - multiple car pileups on the interstate, natural disasters, or overlapping vacations - did he do any of the cutting himself.
It was the last day of Dr. Greene's annual fishing trip and with any luck, Jaime thought, he wouldn't have to suit up again before she came in for her shift in the morning. He checked the clock on the wall and sent up a quick prayer that he hadn't just damned himself. It had been raining all day, a heavy, steady downpour accompanied by rumbles of thunder and the flickering of lightning in every direction - perfect ingredients for a massive traffic jam and incautious rush hour drivers desperate to get home to a warm, dry house.
He shoved his feet into his flip-flops and carefully shuffled toward the shower stalls. The already loose plastic strap on the right sandal was close to pulling out of the foam sole entirely but, after listening to Marlon bitch about his athlete's foot flaring up again, there was no way he was going barefoot. In the shower, he scrubbed down quickly, skin still crawling from the feel of the thin fabric that soaked up anything that splashed near it.
The door to the changing room swung open with a creak loud enough to hear over the pounding of the water while he rinsed the shampoo out of his hair.
He couldn't be sure with the shower still running but it sounded like Wayne Douglas, the new pathology resident who'd assisted with the autopsy he had just completed.
"Yeah, I'm here. Be out in a second," Jaime called. "And quit calling me Dr. Mendoza! For the hundredth time, the name's Jaime." He shut off the water and groped outside the stall for his towel. A slight breeze curled in around the flimsy shower curtain and popped goosebumps up all over his exposed skin. Shivering, he quickly dried off then tied the towel around his waist again.
Stepping out of the stall, he realized that Wayne hadn't said anything else. He rounded the corner by the sinks and found the younger man still standing in the doorway. "Wayne, what's up? You okay?"
He didn't look anywhere near okay. His face was dotted with sweat at his hairline and along his upper lip. His chest rose and fell with rapid, shallow breaths and his mouth was working but no sound came out. Jaime took two giant steps toward him - the damned sandal strap popped out as he did and he stumbled into Wayne's side, which snapped him out of whatever trance he'd been in. Wayne whispered something, too quiet for Jaime to hear, and then he seemed to cave in on himself. His shoulders sagged and he dropped his hand away from the door.
Jaime caught him as he started to crumple toward the ground. Holding the kid up, he tried to pull him into the room without letting the heavy door crack either of them on the skull. His towel dropped with a wet thump on the floor.
"Hold it together, man," he said, dragging Wayne another few feet so the door could creak shut. "Whatever it is I don't want to deal with it bare-assed."
Jaime settled Wayne against the tiled wall, propping him up with a hand on his shoulder while he fumbled with the other for the damp terrycloth lump. When he let go long enough to cover himself, the kid listed to one side, still mumbling. His eyes were wide and staring straight ahead, the whites fully exposed and stark against his dark brown skin. Jaime crouched down next to him once the towel was secure and checked his pulse - rapid but not thready.
"Wayne, what happened? What's going on? Come on, talk to me here," he pleaded while Wayne kept staring over his shoulder and mumbling. Jaime leaned in closer, straining to make out the actual words.
"...hiding, hiding in plain sight, can't see, hiding...."
There was a sudden scraping noise out in the changing room, like someone was moving one of the benches. Jaime straightened up, re-tucked the towel when it started to slip again and kicked off his broken sandals. He only made it a few feet toward the door when Wayne's hand suddenly shot out and gripped his ankle.
"What the fuck?"
Wayne was looking up at him, his eyes suddenly sharp and focused. "Don't go out there," he said.
"I'm just going to have a look, maybe call Mary Anne down here to check you out. You don't look good, man, and you're freaking me out."
Wayne tightened his grip, his short nails digging into Jaime's skin, the supraorbital vein on the left side of his forehead visibly throbbing. "You can't go out there. They're hiding out there."
"Who's hiding? Wayne, what the hell is going on? Who's out there?"
The scraping noise came again, a little louder and a lot closer this time. Wayne's breathing doubled in speed, until he was practically panting. "Don't go out there, don't go out there, don't go out there," he chanted as he scrambled to his feet and threw the deadbolt on the door.
Jaime backed away toward the showers as slow and steady as he could, hands raised like he was facing a mugger. Whatever the fuck was going on, he didn't want to provoke Wayne. At a hair under six feet, the younger man had four inches and an easy fifty pounds on him. He tried to remember the days of useless-seeming training he had to do when he first started with the county, the hostage negotiation training he never thought he'd have to use. The only thing that came to mind was the way he couldn't keep his ID badge from flipping around the wrong way whenever he walked through the front doors those first few weeks.
He was still backing away, and then Wayne was backing away too - but he was backing away from the door. Which was exactly not the direction Jaime wanted him to be moving. There was enough distance between them still that he wanted to turn on his heel and flee, but there was no other way out of the room. He was trapped. He felt his muscles tighten with the urge to get the hell out, back to the real world where kids you liked, who were just starting their careers and reminding you so much of yourself at the same age that it made you feel immeasurably old, didn't turn into lunatics while somebody rearranged the whole freaking building on the other side of the door.
And that was when the first objective of hostage negotiation finally floated up through his brain: prolong the situation. Now that he was right in the middle of it, mostly-naked and unable to tell if he was more pissed off or terrified, that was the last fucking thing he wanted to do.
All of this flew through his mind in less time than it took for the scraping noise to stop, and then there was another noise - like it had been there the whole time but he hadn't been paying attention. It was a low buzz, like an insect trapped in a jar or someone shaving in the next apartment. It crawled down his ear canal and set up shop in his head, making the close-cropped hairs on the back of his neck stand straight up.
Wayne whirled around, eyes wide and rolling from one side of the room to the other. He made Jaime think of a spooked horse, or someone in the grip of a massive LSD overdose, or his abuelita when the dementia got so bad his mother cried herself to sleep every night.
"Is it in here? How did it get in here?" Wayne hissed at him then jumped up on the counter, straddling a sink basin. He cocked an elbow and drove it into the narrow window set high into the wall. The heavy glass cracked and Wayne hit it again, and again, until it shattered, shards of glass and stinging drops of rain falling inside and out. He pulled himself up, blood running down his arms and dripping onto the countertop. "I don't see any of them outside."
"Any of who?" Jaime asked. "What the hell, man?"
Wayne dropped back down to the counter. He shook his head and looked at Jaime over his shoulder. "They're hiding in the light but I can see them. I can see what they're doing." His face was calm and still, eyes steady on Jaime's. "They're going to get us all."
Something slammed into the door again, rattling it on its hinges. Jaime whipped his head around; the heavy door was bowing inward from the force of the blows. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Wayne boost himself up with a foot on the faucet and scramble out the window headfirst. Without thinking, he started to follow. Whatever Wayne was up to, it couldn't be possibly be worse than what was battering down the door.
He made it about six or seven steps toward the sinks, glass crunching underfoot and slicing the soles of his feet open, slicking the floor with blood. He put a knee up on the counter and curled his fingers around the narrow metal rim of the mirror to pull himself up. In its reflection, he saw the door burst open and Marlon and Ed stumble into the room. The dented locker they were carrying crashed to the ground, taking both of them with it. Behind them, tan uniform shirt straining to hold back his beer gut, Scott brandished his gun like something out of the westerns he kept on a constant loop on one of his security monitors.
"Hit the deck, Mendoza!" he shouted.
Jaime threw himself to the ground, barely even registering the grind of glass under his knees. "Don't shoot me, man! Wayne went out the window!"
There was an electronic squawk and a burst of static as Scott relayed the information to someone on the other end of his walkie-talkie before stomping back out of the room, and then Marlon was pulling him to his feet. Ed pulled a handful of towels out of a laundry cart and spread them across the floor so Jaimie could walk without cutting his feet any more than he already had.
In the changing room, he dressed quickly. Ed brought a first-aid kit and helped him pull out shards of glass. When he was bandaged up, he hobbled up to the conference room where a pair of uniformed cops took his statement and wouldn't answer any of his questions. Mary Anne ducked in a few times while he talked, to bring him coffee and a soggy sandwich out of the vending machine Jaime called the wheel-of-death. When the cops finally left, she came back in and perched on the edge of the table.
"You okay?" she asked.
Jaime blew out a heavy breath. "I don't think so. What the hell happened to Wayne?"
She shook her head, her earrings swinging with a light chiming sound. "Marlon said he just came tearing out of the stairwell, yelling something about the shadows. Ed tried to grab him but Wayne shoved him into the wall and went running back down the hallway. Did he say anything to you?"
She asked it like his answer was no big deal but Jaime noticed that her whole body tensed up as she turned towards him. He closed his eyes on the overly intent look on her face instead of answering and the strange buzzing noise he'd heard earlier swelled to a crescendo when he did. Even the table seemed to be vibrating with it.
"I don't really remember," he said. "Everything's kind of a blur."
Mary Anne tsked and put a hand on his shoulder. He fought a flinch as she made contact, his skin crawling from the light pressure. He opened his eyes and for just a second thought he was going crazy. Her skin was a mottled gray and white like a two-day-old corpse, her brown eyes clouded over. When he blinked, she went back to normal - all lightly tanned skin with a hint of color riding high on her cheekbones like she'd just come in from the cold.
She patted his shoulder and hopped down from the table; the vibrations stopped at the same time.
"You just sit right here and I'll get you some more coffee. And don't even think of moving! You shouldn't be driving yourself home after what you've just been through. Dr. Greene's on her way in. As soon as she gets here, we'll get you all taken care of."
Something told Jaime he wanted to be long gone before that happened.
Scully checked the display on her caller ID and sighed.
"Whatever it is, the answer's no, Frohike," she said in lieu of a greeting when she picked up.
There was a whoosh of sound from the other end of the line like he'd hurriedly covered the receiver with his hand. "Damn it, Langly, you said you fixed the scrambler!" she heard him yell, slightly muffled but still recognizable.
She rolled her eyes as the muffled bickering erupted into a scuffling for control of the phone but couldn't bring herself to hang up. A few seconds later, Frohike's shouts faded into the background.
"Agent Scully, we need you to get out here right away," Byers told her, his tone even more business-like than usual. "I think we have a code red."
She went instantly on alert. She'd left Mulder in the office only an hour or so earlier, but he needed even less than that to get into more trouble than she had time to think up. "I'll be there in twenty minutes," she said as she ran for the door, slowing long enough to trade the cordless phone for her badge and gun.
She made it out to their office in Takoma Park in less than fifteen, blowing through at least a dozen red lights along the way, almost hoping to get pulled over by a local cop so she could release some of the tension knotting between her shoulders. Her mind raced as she drove, trying to puzzle out the likeliest mess Mulder could have stumbled into in such a short time. They'd just wrapped up a dead-end case near Harper's Ferry - leave it to Mulder to see ghosts and ghouls in a simple case of teenage elopement - and she had been looking forward to some downtime in the office, getting caught up on paperwork. Looking forward to it might have been an overstatement; she was far enough behind in typing up her expense reports that she almost didn't want to turn them in for fear of Wanda-in-Finance's wrath.
Her tires squealed on the pavement as she turned into the Gunmen's lot and her cell phone started ringing as she lurched to a stop. She got out of the car and started jogging toward the building, flipping the phone open as she went.
"Scully," she barked as she banged on the door and glared at the security camera.
"Did you take the gas station receipts?"
"Mulder? Where are you?"
"Still in the office. I wanted to get the mileage turned in before the motor pool takes out a hit on me." He paused for a beat, then said, "I'm pretty sure Bob's connected."
She pounded on the door again. "If you're there, why am I waiting for the Gunmen to open up?"
"Ooh, Dana," Mulder sing-songed. "Did you actually answer Frohike's booty ca-"
She snapped the phone closed as the door swung open. Langly jumped out of the way as she barrelled past him. "Somebody had better tell me right now what the hell I'm doing here," she warned him.
Frohike emerged from behind a shelving unit, juggling an armful of magazines she didn't want to look at too closely. They started to slip from his grasp and he scuttled away, skirting past Byers as he came in from the kitchen area.
"We're sorry for calling so late, Agent Scully," he said, shooting a dirty look at Frohike, "but there's someone here you need to speak with."
Scully looked to the table, where a young man sat slumped in one of the chairs. He was twisting his hands together in his lap and staring down at them.
"This is Dr. Wayne Douglas. He called us about two hours ago and Langly went to pick him up and bring him here. He's a pathology resident at the ME's office for Belvo County in northeastern Virginia."
"And a loyal subscriber of The Lone Gunman," Langly interjected.
Wayne looked up and shook his head. "Actually, it's my grandpa who subscribes. I've only read a couple of issues."
Langly, Byers, and Frohike, who'd come back from dumping his magazines and was inching closer to Scully, all looked disappointed at the admission.
"Man, I knew actually meeting a real, live subscriber was too good to be true," Langly muttered.
Byers cleared his throat. "Anyway, apparently one of the issues he'd read was the one where Mulder gave us the exclusive on the insect-zombies in Chicago."
"Actually, it was Oak Brook," Langly corrected him, "which you would know if you ever did any of the fact-checking."
Frohike rubbed his chin and looked thoughtful. "I thought we were calling them zombees."
"That's what I said: zombies."
"No, zombees. You said..."
Scully tuned out the argument that erupted between the three men and walked over to sit across the table from Wayne. He was back to staring at his hands, not even paying attention to the rapidly escalating insults flying around the room.
"So, you called the Gunmen about the incident in Chicago?" she asked for lack of a better opening.
"Not exactly, Agent Scully. I called them about what's happening in Belvo County. About what happened to my grandpa." He looked up from his hands. His eyes were blood-shot and swollen, like he'd been crying, and his lower lip wobbled slightly before he sucked in a deep breath and brought himself back under control.
She turned her face away, pretending to be interested in something on the other end of the room to give him a modicum of privacy. With his soft voice, Wayne seemed no older than twenty, far younger than his position as a pathology resident would indicate. Because of the way he was sitting, she couldn't tell how tall he was but his face and chin were still softly rounded like a child's and his hooded sweatshirt was stretched snugly over his arms and stomach.
After a minute or two, he cleared his throat and started to explain. "Like Mr. Byers said, I'm a pathology resident for the county. The Chief Medical Examiner's been out of town for the past few weeks, so I've been assisting her deputies with the autopsies. At first it was a nice change from having to do all the cleanup, actually getting some hands-on experience-"
He stopped suddenly, a dull red blush darkening the skin of his cheeks. "I don't mean it like that, it's not like I really like performing autopsies but it's better than..."
"Scrubbing tables and checking toe tags?" Scully offered with a smile she hoped was more disarming than condescending.
"Yeah, exactly! Mr. Byers said you're a pathologist; where did you do your residency?"
It was Scully's turn to be embarrassed. "I, ah, was recruited out of med school into the FBI so I've technically never completed a residency program."
"I knew it!" Langly stage-whispered behind her. "You owe me ten bucks, Melvin."
Wayne ignored the byplay and launched back into his story. "So, like I was saying, I've been assisting with the autopsies, and I know I don't have much experience but I kept noticing some weird stuff, you know? We had this professor in med school, a real paranoid guy, who was always talking about how we needed to stay focused all the time because we're going to take the fall for anything that goes down in our practice or clinic or whatever. Before the last couple of weeks, there wasn't much like that going on. Or I just didn't see it, I guess. But once I started working with the bodies all the time, it was hard to avoid."
"What kinds of things?" Scully asked.
"Well, Dr. Greene - she's the Chief Medical Examiner - she runs a real tight ship. Real tight. The residents and the lab interns have to be accompanied by a supervisor or a mentor at all times, no one gets in or out of the labs without signing in and everybody's got their own individual access codes. We don't even let cops or delivery drivers past the security desks - not even the funeral home guys get off the dock in back."
The Gunmen pulled out chairs and sat down at the table. Langly leaned forward and propped his chin on his hands like a child at story time.
Byers wasn't nearly so enthralled. "None of that sounds too out of the ordinary for an ME's office," he said. "We've certainly dealt with more than our fair share of complex security systems-"
"As paid security consultants!" Frohike made a slashing motion across his throat and jerked his head meaningfully, if not exactly subtly, at Scully.
"Yeah, that's not the weird part," Wayne said. He sat forward, his shoulders tense and jaw set. "My residency program started about six months ago, and I'd never been in the autopsy bay by myself until the day before Dr. Greene left. She and one of her deputies, Dr. Lee, do all of the exams themselves but since Dr. Greene was going to be gone, Dr. Mendoza and I were tapped to be her replacements. So that day, he and I were meeting in his office to go over protocols and schedules and stuff. He told me that in the four years he's been there, he's only done like twelve autopsies."
All three of the Gunmen turned questioning looks on Scully, who said, "Some medical examiners choose to keep their staffs specialized. It helps to bolster confidence in their judgement if only one or two people do the post-mortems."
Wayne nodded, and said, "Yeah, that's how Jaime - Dr. Mendoza - explained it to me. So, after he and I met, I went back to my cubicle and logged in to the database. I normally work in the lab processing test results and filing paperwork, so I wanted to take a look at some of the recent exams. Kind of familiarize myself with the details, see what to expect once we got into the bay."
He stopped and leaned down to grab a backpack off the floor. He flopped it onto the table and unzipped it, pulling out a sheaf of papers which he passed around the table. "This is a sample of the exams done in the past six months. I only pulled the ones listed as 'natural causes'."
Scully took a handful of papers off the top of the stack and passed the rest to Byers on her left. She swallowed the lecture on proper chain of command and disclosure procedures that threatened to spill out in favor of reading through the reports Wayne had smuggled out of the office.
"Nothing looks out of place here," she told Wayne.
He put his palms flat on the table and hauled himself out of his chair to lean toward her. He craned his head to the side to read the paper at the top of her stack. "Okay, this guy - 68 year old white male, no signs of trauma, cause of death listed as natural. But if you look at - May I?" he asked as he moved a hand toward the papers.
She nodded and he flipped to the third page. "They went ahead with the autopsy anyway - here's Dr. Greene's report."
"Is that unusual?" Byers asked.
"It's not standard, but if someone requested it - law enforcement, the decedent's family..." Scully started to explain.
Wayne was shaking his head. "No request authorizations filed. The guy didn't even have a next of kin, and the cops never requested anything. Or, if they did, it's not filed with the rest of the report."
"Were you able to examine the body?"
"Yeah, no one had claimed him yet so I got into the freezer and checked. There wasn't a mark on him. Well, no, that's not quite accurate. There weren't any incisions, not a single thing to indicate that any kind of post-mortem occurred. No photos, either."
"None of these reports have photos," Langly noted.
Scully went quickly through her part of the stack. He was right, there wasn't a single photograph in it. Not even so much as a single sketch existed anywhere in the reports. "That's not necessarily indicative of anything - maybe your database stores visual data elsewhere?"
Wayne shook his head again. "Nope, it's cross-indexed so you pull up everything in the system when you open the file."
"So why bring this to the Gunmen?" she asked. "And why did they call me?"
The young man dropped back into his seat. He rubbed his forehead and looked down at his lap. "Okay, here's the deal. I've been looking at these cases, right? Nothing out of the ordinary - my access to the database is pretty much universal since I do so much of the coding. One of the first things I did was to run an analysis on the files for the last six months. The ratio of deaths by natural causes versus, say, homicide or accidental trauma was almost 10 to 1. But since Dr. Mendoza and I have been doing the exams, it's dropped down to about 3 to 1. And then there was what I found on a couple of the unclaimed corpses."
"This is why we called you, Agent Scully. Wayne hadn't given us the whole story but the few details he did mention..." He trailed off and looked at Wayne.
"Yeah, they said you'd recognize it. It's a puncture wound on the back of the neck, just below the hairline." He tapped the area on his own neck. "I didn't get a chance to probe any of them but they look deep, like spinal-deep. No signs of healing, either, so I figure it happened within minutes of death. All of the bodies we still have in the freezer have the same mark, and none of them are listed in the files."
"Sound familiar?" Frohike asked.
She frowned and pinned Wayne with a stare. "Was there anything else?"
He fidgeted but met her gaze. "I thought I was going crazy, to tell you the truth. It gets pretty creepy down there, especially late in the day when people start leaving. A couple of times I thought I saw something moving just on the edge of my vision but when I looked, there was nothing there. Or it was one of my coworkers just passing the room. But then I started hearing this noise, like a fluorescent light buzzing or something but it really got under my skin. Like, I could feel the whole building vibrating around me."
Scully sucked in a quick breath. She knew exactly what noise he was talking about.
"And it wasn't just while I was in the office," he continued. "I started hearing it in the parking lot, and at home. Tonight when my shift was over, I went out to my car to get my bag - I'd left it there this morning by accident - and the noise was inside my car. I ran back inside to change, and I heard something scuffling around in the stairwell that leads down to the locker room. The lights were off, so I flipped them back on and there was this thing standing by the door. I only got a quick glimpse as the lights came on. It was almost as tall as the ceiling and I swear to God it had wings. The buzzing was louder than before and I just stood there staring at it. Then I blinked, and it was Marlon, one of the histology techs, standing there at the top of the steps. He moved like he was trying to get between me and the door and I could still hear the buzzing. I kind of freaked out -"
"I'll say," Langly muttered.
"He started talking a mile a minute but all I could hear was that buzzing noise. And then one of the other guys came up behind me, and he looked completely dead. Like, three-week-old corpse dead, but he was talking too. I got past him somehow and made it down the back stairs. Dr. Mendoza was already in the showers, so I ran in there and tried to lock the door. I was pretty messed up and I couldn't make the words come out right to tell him what was going on. I think I freaked him out pretty good."
"How did you get out?" Scully asked.
"Broke open a window and crawled out." He held up his hands, covered in sloppy bandages. "Got in my car and headed straight for home. But when I got there, there was already a cruiser out front. I drove around the block and came in through the back yard. My grandpa...."
His voice wavered and he stopped talking. Scully saw his head drop and two tears splash down onto the table.
"Grandpa was talking to one of the officers in the kitchen. I could see them through the window and then there was this big bolt of lightning and it zapped one of the transformers on our block. When the lights went out, I heard the buzzing again. I ran for the back door but as soon as I got inside, there was another big flash of lightning and I saw it-"
He choked to a stop again, and Frohike slid around the table to put a hand on his shoulder. "It got his grandpa while he was standing there."
Scully closed her eyes, then opened them again quickly. She could still see the dead-eyed nurse and the hulking creature looming over Mulder's bed and feel the altogether too comforting sensation of her weapon discharging.
Wayne pushed his chair back from the table and excused himself with a mumbled apology.
Langly waited until he was out of earshot on the way back to the bathroom and told her, "I've been scanning since I got him back here and there isn't so much as a peep coming out of Belvo County tonight. Nothing about the ME's office, nothing about Wayne or his grandpa. Byers tried calling to talk to this Mendoza dude to see if he's a part of it but whoever he talked to said he'd already gone home for the night."
"I tried his house, too," Byers added. "No answer there or on the cell phone numbers I managed to dig up. If the guy's not dead, he's gone underground."
She sat back and considered what Wayne had told them, and the fact that he'd called the Gunmen for help instead of any number of law enforcement agencies. "So you guys think this is Pincus?"
The exchanged looks around the table and Frohike answered, as if by silent agreement. "If it's not him, it's something even bigger and nastier. We would have called Mulder, but -"
He didn't have to finish the sentence; she knew him well enough to know that he'd always be looking out for Mulder's well-being. Well, whenever possible. "After what happened last time, we should probably keep him out of this."
They nodded in agreement, looking relieved at having made the right call.
It was too much to hope for that Mulder would stay kept out of it, Scully thought as she watched him buckle his seat belt.
Not long after Wayne had finished his story the night before, she had been cornered by Frohike in the kitchen.
"Look," he had said, eyes serious for a change. "The kid's exhausted and we're not going to get anything accomplished tonight, not with this storm. Why don't we let him rest tonight and we'll regroup in the morning?"
She agreed quickly, her own energy already flagging. She gave Wayne her cell phone number and asked for his clothing sizes - under the sweatshirt, he was still wearing his scrubs - and promised to bring him a change of clothes when she returned in the morning.
On the drive back to Georgetown, she stopped at a discount store that was open all night and filled a shopping cart with clothes and toiletries. She called Mulder as she waited in line for the single register.
"Please tell me you're not still looking for those receipts."
"Scully! I thought you'd still be out on your hot date."
She didn't know how he managed it but he somehow made that innocuous sentence sound like a line straight out of one of those videos he didn't keep in his desk.
"False alarm," she said, hoping he wouldn't pick up on the tension in her voice. Despite what he seemed to think, she found it difficult to lie to him. "Langly thought he'd ingested a tracking device when he went to McDonald's. Again."
Mulder groaned. "That's the third time in six months. Why doesn't he just start eating at Burger King instead?"
"Ours is not to reason why," she quipped.
"Listen, about those gas receipts. I still can't find them but I'm thinking I can just piggyback on your reports and bypass the motor pool directly," he said.
"About that, Mulder," she said as the man in front of her collected his bags and left. She started lifting her purchases out of the cart and piling them on the conveyor belt. "It's been a long night and I'm exhausted. I'm going to work on my expense reports from home tomorrow."
He was silent so long that she pulled her cell phone away from her ear to make sure they hadn't been disconnected.
"Sure, fine," he said, sounding distracted. "Whatever. Hey, I've got to go, a space just opened up down the block. I'll call you in the morning, okay?"
He hung up before she could respond.
She worried about the abrupt end to their conversation the whole way home, wondering if she'd given anything away. When no six-foot shadows loomed up out of the darkness outside her front door, she had put it down to garden-variety Mulder weirdness and got ready for bed.
The next morning, she had just closed the trunk when a car pulled up alongside her.
"Ding dong, Avon calling!"
She fought the urge to bang her head on the trunk lid and turned to face him. He was leaning across the front seat, all dark sunglasses and cocky grin. She didn't bother to insult either of them by trying to think up an excuse for why she was packing her car instead of pecking away at her keyboard.
"Let me guess," he said. "Langly didn't really think he'd been bugged by the Golden Arches again, you and Frohike finally acknowledged your mutual burning passion and now you're running away together to open an IHOP in Vermont?"
"With those keen investigative skills, you'll be in the Director's chair in no time, Mulder." She winced inwardly as the words left her mouth; she'd meant to say something light-hearted but missed the mark by a mile.
He didn't seem to mind, not that he let on at least. Instead, he turned off the engine and got out of the car, leaving it perfectly positioned to prevent her from pulling away from the curb. He grabbed a bag out of the backseat and ambled around to where she was standing, thumping a loose fist against the trunk.
She thought better of protesting when he still wouldn't meet her eyes. She hit the button on the remote in her hand and he carelessly dropped his duffel on top of her shopping bags and slammed the lid shut with more force than was strictly necessary.
"Frohike?" she asked.
"Langly," he said flatly. "Folded like a house of cards."
"Right. He told you everything?"
"Enough to know there's no way in hell you're going out there on your own. What the hell were you thinking, Scully? You know what Pincus is capable of!"
Her whole body stiffened like a soldier at attention. "Exactly why I was going alone. Mulder, it knows you and if you show up, it's going to go after you again."
"Cut the crap - you were there too. You're every bit as vulnerable to it now as I was, maybe even more since you're the one who shot it."
He was right and they both knew it.
"Fine," she gritted out and stalked toward the driver's side door. "Move your damn car so we can get out of here."
They didn't speak again until she drove over the Metro tracks on the Maryland side of the border, when Mulder cleared his throat and asked, "You think this kid Wayne knows what he's talking about?"
If he wanted to pretend the earlier unpleasantness hadn't happened, she was all for it. No sense in messing with almost six years of sweeping their disagreements under the proverbial rug.
"I do, yes. He uncovered a pattern his more experienced colleagues apparently didn't notice and - Did Langly tell you about his grandfather?"
Mulder gave a quick jerk of his head, his face blank and unreadable below the dark frame of his sunglasses.
"His grief was genuine, Mulder. I think he really did see something, and I think it was something like Pincus."
"So you did see something in the hospital."
She'd struggled with it for a long time, unwilling to take that fantastic leap that would let her believe she had truly seen what he had. Her normal rationalizations - a trick of the light, the subconscious mind's attempt to reconcile perception with reality, and so on - none of them had worked this time. The nurse's dead, milky eyes and the insectoid bulk of Pincus swam up in her mind's eye some nights as she lay in bed in the dark and she'd finally let herself remember that night as Mulder described it. Calling it folie à deux and allowing Skinner to close the file on another of Mulder's episodes wasn't one of her proudest moments but she was content with the peace it afforded them.
Now, to Mulder, she said none of this. He went back to staring out the window.
Byers opened the door to them before she'd even taken her hand off the buzzer. The Gunmen and Wayne were waiting at the table, in the same chairs they'd taken the night before. Langly had a blueprint of the ME's office spread before him and he and Frohike were listening intently as Wayne verbally walked them through the facility.
The young man looked as though he hadn't slept much and accepted the bags of clothes Scully handed him with a shy smile. While he was getting dressed in the bathroom, Mulder pulled Frohike aside and started gesturing furiously.
Langly tugged on Scully's sleeve and jerked his head toward the kitchen. She knew why, he wanted to apologize for spilling to Mulder, but she wasn't in the mood to oblige. She told him everything was okay, that it was probably better that Mulder came along since he'd had the most experience with Pincus, and even managed a smile at his obvious relief.
The next few minutes were a blur as they packed up various bits of equipment Frohike insisted they would need, and then a lengthy argument over who exactly would be going to Belvo County ensued. Langly pulled out at least three Constitutional protections and a half-dozen statutes of the United States Code before reaching back for his safety: accusing Mulder of perpetuating the work of the shadow conspiracy.
Wayne was in the backseat, staring dully out the window, as she pulled out of the lot and headed east; the Gunmen were following behind in their ancient minibus. Traffic was light along their route through the District and out into the Virginian countryside and they made excellent time, pulling off of I-66 a little over two hours after they'd started out. She drove through downtown Spectorville, the county seat; Wayne gave directions from the back where he was lying down to avoid being spotted. He guided them to the city center, where Scully circled several blocks to give Mulder time to assess entrance and exit routes while they waited for the Gunmen to catch up to them.
On her fourth circuit of the town square, Mulder quietly asked, "Am I the only one getting a bad feeling about this? We've been in some sleepy small towns but this is ridiculous."
She had to admit he was right. Wayne had told them that Spectorville had a population of about 20,000, mostly professionals who commuted to jobs in the District and the surrounding areas and long-time residents who catered to the tourists, but there wasn't a single person walking or driving anywhere within sight.
"Wayne," she asked over her shoulder, "are there any local events happening today that might be drawing people away from downtown?"
In the rearview window, she saw his head pop up and he peered out the window. "I don't know of anything."
She turned another corner, scanning the street ahead for signs of life or the green and white Volkswagen minibus.
Mulder's phone rang, making them all jump. He fished it out of his pocket and answered before the second ring, then blanched and cursed. "Stop the car!" he yelled.
She slammed on the brakes and Mulder braced himself with one hand on the dash. He leaned down and pulled his back-up from its ankle holster then popped the door open. "The guys just got pulled over by a patrolman about two blocks from here and Byers says everything just started vibrating inside the van. You guys get to the medical examiner and we'll meet you there." He twisted around to look in the back seat. "Wayne, if I cut down this alley will it get me close to some card shop?"
Wayne stuttered a yes. Scully grabbed Mulder's arm as he started to swing himself out of the car. "Don't do anything stupid, Mulder."
He gave her a "who, me?" face and then he was gone. She shifted the car into gear and made a U-turn to head back to the ME's office.
The lot was full when they arrived. Wayne told her to park in between two hulking SUVs near the front entrance. He stayed in the car while she walked up the steps, her cell phone pressed to her ear.
"I don't see anyone inside," she told him. "The security desk is empty but the doors are unlocked."
"Okay, once you get through the door, you'll need to go immediately to the left between the second pair of columns - that's where the handicap access is so you won't trip any metal detectors there."
Scully pulled out her weapon, pinning the cell between her ear and shoulder while she opened the doors and slipped inside. She made it through the lobby and down the first hallway, following Wayne's directions to the stairwell where he'd nearly been attacked by Marlon and Ed. It was dark inside the building, the sunlight from outside barely extending far enough past the lobby to illuminate the long hallway. All of the overhead lights were out and the emergency exit signs hadn't come on in their absence. She approached the stairwell and carefully pushed the door inward, gun at the ready.
Later, she would have trouble piecing together exactly what happened next and in what order. The only clear memory she had was of realizing that her phone had cut out at the same time that she opened the stairwell door. Then, there was something flying up at her from below, a stunning pain throbbing through her right arm, and Wayne hauling her over his shoulder like a rag doll.
The next clear memory she had was of Wayne shoving a filing cabinet in front of a stairwell door. The cabinet jerked across the linoleum floor, a god-awful screech as he tried to force it flush against the door. She was sprawled on the floor, propped up against the wall, her right arm cradled in her left. She wasn't aware of making any noise but Wayne gave the cabinet one final push then came over to kneel down next to her.
"Agent Scully, you okay? That thing knocked you into the door pretty hard."
She did a quick catalog of the injuries she could see and feel: her legs and head felt okay but her arm ached like she'd slammed it in a door, which she supposed might have been what happened. "I'm good," she told him. "Where are we?"
"Other end of the hallway. I think we're okay up here. The doors on both stairwells lock from this side but I put up barricades just in case. Not perfect but it should slow them down a little if they come up here."
"We've got to get out of here," Scully protested. "Where's my phone? I've got to warn Mulder."
Wayne handed her the cell. She pulled up the last number called and hit send but got the flashing 'no service' message instead.
"Is there a land line we can get to from here?"
"Yeah, Dr. Greene's office is up at the front end of the building. We'll try from in there."
He helped her to her feet, careful not to jostle her arm. Scully was pretty sure it wasn't broken or even sprained but it hurt like hell nonetheless. They were almost in the lobby when she heard something tapping from the big glass doors at the entrance. She shifted her gun into her weaker left hand and pressed her free hand against Wayne's chest, pushing him back against the wall out of any potential lines of sight from the lobby.
He gulped, eyes wide and frightened. She was struck again by how young he looked as she moved forward in a crouch to peer around the security desk.
She almost fumbled her weapon when she saw Mulder and Frohike peering through the doors, hands cupped around their eyes to peer into the gloom.
OFFICE OF The MEDICAL EXAMINER
Scully finished wrapping the ragged gash in his bicep and tucked in the ends of the makeshift bandage. "I swear to God, Mulder, if you start gnawing on my neck, I'm going to shoot you."
He shot her a panicked look but his pallor and the sheen of nauseated sweat on his forehead made it look a little more authentic than normal. "What?"
"You've been humming Thriller since you guys got here." She helped him to his feet, surreptitiously checking for more wounds hidden under torn fabric as he slapped at his clothes to dislodge the dirt and leaves clinging to him. "Either you're reliving the top hits of the 80s or you're trying to tell me something."
"I told you, it's not a bite! I lost my balance at the top of the wall and the barbed wire broke my fall."
She made a show of eyeing the grass stain that stretched from his left hip down to his calf.
"All right, it almost broke my fall." Mulder squinted out the window and swayed slightly.
Frohike came around with a knapsack full of sandwiches and cans of soda from the vending machines down the hall. He looked almost rakish with a wide stripe of gauze across his head but for a change he wasn't pressing his luck with off-color comments or leering looks. He dumped their share on the desk and retreated to the other side of the room where Wayne was still pulling glass out of Langly's backside.
Byers had pulled the desk phone out into the hallway and was steadily making his way through his mental Rolodex of contacts and crackpots. Every so often, he got up to stretch his legs and give them an update - not that there was much with which to update them. Mostly he walked to the windows and looked outside like he was watching for the cavalry to crest the next hill before heading back into the hallway and closing the door behind him. This last time, he hadn't bothered to go back to the phone at all.
Frohike, when he wasn't hovering nervously around Wayne's shoulders, kept trying to break the encryption on Dr. Greene's desktop computer with Langly's slightly medicated help.
Scully pulled a slimy-looking chicken salad sandwich in a black plastic triangle out of the pile on the desk for herself and a roast beef for Mulder. He'd wandered out into the hallway when Byers came in and she found him sitting on a bench near the vending machines, poking at his arm under what had been a carefully taped bandage only a few minutes earlier. He gave her a sheepish look when her heels tapped to a stop in front of him.
"It itches?" he ventured.
"That's what you get for running down blind alleys instead of driving around the block like a normal person." She handed him his sandwich and sat down on the bench next to him to unwrap her own. "I've been thinking about it and I can't come up with a single weakness we can exploit for these..." She realized she didn't have a name for whatever it was they were dealing with and let her voice trail off.
"Zombees?" Mulder offered in an innocent tone that wouldn't fool a toddler.
"We're not calling them that," she protested for the tenth time that day before getting back on topic. "I know I hit Pincus in that hospital room, but there wasn't a sign of injury anywhere inside or outside the building. So my guess is that their carapace is impervious to most projectiles."
When Mulder didn't respond, she looked over to see him making his panic face at his sandwich.
"I don't think we're going to get out of this one, Scully."
She took a big bite of her own sandwich instead of answering right away. She didn't want to share in his defeatist attitude but with every minute that passed it grew harder to ignore the implications. On the drive down, Wayne had described Spectorville to them as a vibrant bedroom community with bustling streets and typically small-town nosiness. It was the kind of place, he'd told them, where you couldn't drive from home to work without seeing at least a half-dozen people you knew and waving to a dozen more you only knew by sight.
Instead, they'd arrived in a modern ghost town. The only moving vehicle any of them had seen had been the patrolman who'd yanked Langly out of the Volkswagen bus through the windshield. Scully tried to remember the last car they'd passed on I-66 and just kept thinking about how traffic had been unseasonably light all the way from Georgetown to Spectorville. Aside from whatever it was that had attacked her in the stairwell, she hadn't seen a single living thing other than the men sitting with her now in an apparently abandoned building.
If Wayne was to be trusted - and despite her tendency to distrust anyone the Gunmen brought to her attention she hadn't yet seen a reason to doubt him - a little more than twenty-four hours earlier, things had been close to normal both inside and outside the office. The speed with which the people in this town had disappeared was astonishing - rivaling anything Mulder had ever wildly theorized about alien invasions and blood-borne infection vectors. She'd tried scanning the dial on the Walkman she'd found in Dr. Greene's office and gotten nothing but static or the low humming buzz she had tried so hard to block out. Frohike had reported the same results from the TV in the staff lounge down the hall - even the satellite channels were showing test patterns, something he tried to turn into a joke about accidentally falling into a localized time-warp to the early 80s that made no one in the room laugh.
Mulder finished his sandwich and dropped his head back against the wall with a dull thud. Scully put her hand on his where it rested limply on his thigh.
"Once Langly's all patched up, let's get packed up with whatever we can carry," she suggested, knowing even as she did that it was a long shot. She couldn't stop the words from spilling out though. "My car's out in the lot - it'll be a tight squeeze but I've got almost a full tank of gas. As long as we leave while it's still light out, I think we can make it back to DC in just a few hours. If these things are spreading out, our best bet is to fight back from there with all of the resources we can muster."
He turned his hand palm-up under hers and wove his long fingers through hers. "Let's go west instead. I've always wanted to drive off into the setting sun like a twentieth-century cowboy."
She thought of the static on the Walkman's headphones and the faint signal she hadn't told anyone about, the reporter shouting between bursts of buzzing that the President had declared a national disaster and major cities across the northeast were empty of living souls. About the buzz that grew louder and louder until it was a wall of noise that blocked out everything else, crawling down into the back of her throat and setting her nerves to vibrating. She thought about the 'no signal' message that flashed up from her phone every time she picked it up, and the look in Byers' eyes each time he came in from the hallway where they were now sitting, the slight shake of his head after she'd asked him to try her mother and brothers.
"West it is," Scully said. She squeezed Mulder's hand and got a crooked smile in return.