Title: Winter I: The Riddle
Name: Branwell
Date Finished: August 20, 1999
Rating: R, Sexual references, Language
Category: Story MSR: Mulder - Scully Romance UST: Unresolved Sexual Tension A: Angst Archiving permission: Anyone may feel free to archive this. Just keep my name with it. I will take care of archiving it at Gossamer.
Disclaimer: Chris Carter, David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, and Ten Thirteen productions created and own these characters. My writing is for fun, not profit.

 

Spoilers For: "Ascension," "One Breath, "The Field Where I Died," "Christmas Carol," "Emily", "X-Files Fight the Future," "Milagro" and "The Unnatural"

Time: Thanksgiving weekend, 1999

Summary: Mulder finds an X-file to distract him from the pain of Thanksgiving memories and Scully unexpectedly agrees to join him in investigating it. The experience turns into more than the simple diversion they planned. A darker mystery presents itself and threatens to expose more of their own emotions than they want to reveal. This story starts a change in the Mulder and Scully relationship that continues in "Winter II."

**

"'What is it that goes round and round the house' The riddle begins. A wolf, we thought, or a ghost? Our cold backs turned to the chink in the kitchen shutter, The range made our small scared faces warm as toast.

But now the cook is dead and the cooking, no doubt, electric, No room for draught or dream, for child or mouse, Though we, in another place, still put ourselves the question: What IS it that goes round and round the house?"

"The Riddle," by Louis MacNiece

Thursday, 9:00 P.M.

Mulder woke up when he was thrown hard against his lap and shoulder belts. Dazedly he watched two taillights swerve across the dark road. The car pulled away from them at a rapidly increasing pace until the points of light shone far ahead.

Scully started their forward momentum again and maintained a moderate speed. Mulder looked around and registered their location on an unlit, two lane road, closely crowded by trees.

"He just came out of nowhere. I didn't even hear him," Scully remarked in a shaky voice.

"Are we lost?" Mulder challenged.

The two taillights in front accelerated in a straight line until they disappeared into the blackness before them.

"No. If your directions were right, we're here," she replied sharply, giving him an accusing glance.

"Christ, Scully! The road curves!" Mulder yelled, making a grab for the steering wheel.

Scully was into the turn before his hands reached it. Their rear wheels slipped sideways on gravel, while the solid mass of trees loomed threateningly close. They made it with just a couple feet to spare.

The car moved at a crawl now. Mulder's heart rate took longer to slow.

"Are you sleepy?" he asked with elaborate patience after a minute's silence. "Shall I drive?"

"I'm not sleepy but you should drive," Scully answered, giving him no argument at all. "We should be there. I think we should double back and look for the drive again."

She stopped the car and they got out. The cold, moist air crept under their jackets in the brief time it took to walk around it. When they'd completed the switch Mulder couldn't resist rubbing it in.

"You shouldn't let yourself get distracted. It only takes a second's lapse and you're road kill."

Scully was silent.

"Only one mistake," he prodded.

"I've been thinking, and I can't understand how I did that. I was watching that car, I looked over at you for a second, and boom, there was that curve."

"Yeah. Boom. You need to watch the road, not just the traffic," he grumbled.

They sat in silence while he maneuvered the car into a turn and started back to search for a hidden drive.

Mulder didn't enjoy being right as much as he thought he would. He wasn't enjoying this trip as much as he expected either.

He thought back to his conversation with Scully the day before last. It was two days before Thanksgiving, a personal least favorite among all the holidays he despised. His invitation to her was automatic.

"I'm investigating an X-file on my own time this weekend. Do you want to come along and help discover a new kind of radiation?"

He was so sure she'd say no that he started his sorry-you're-not- free spiel before her answer got through to him. His recovery lacked grace. It had the merit of being humor-free.

"Too bad...did you say 'yes'?" he stammered. "Uh, don't you have plans with your family?"

"Mom's flying to San Diego. Bill and Tara invited me too, but I decided against it. I think they were relieved," she said with a crooked smile. "What's the matter Mulder? Were you asking just to be polite too?"

"No, no. Not at all. I'm driving to New York to visit a respected scientist. Dr. Henry VanDyne, if that name means anything to you. He has a big house with plenty of room for guests."

"He had something to do with the discovery of enzyme activity in cells back in the forties didn't he? I thought he was dead."

"No, he's old but still feisty. A little eccentric...." Mulder began honestly.

"Sounds comparatively mild. What time do you want to pick me up?"

They set a schedule and Mulder stuck to the straight-faced and narrow path of sobriety. The last time he cracked a joke about Scully's social life the ensuing regret left him wishing he were dead.

He committed the most recent of memorable, unforgivable gaffes on a muggy Friday afternoon in September. Mulder was bored. All day he teased Scully relentlessly about a mythical "hot" weekend date she was supposed to be panting for. At two he looked at the clock and raised his eyebrows suggestively.

"Isn't it almost time for you to go home and shave your legs? You never know how the evening will end."

Scully let him have it. Her restrained manner didn't take any of the sting out of her words.

"You don't date, do you Mulder? You don't realize how far outside normal life we're stranded. Do you ever ask yourself what a date would be like for me? The getting-to-know-you chit-chat. The exchange of interests and career highlights?

"We sit down in the restaurant. We order. He says 'My hobbies are skiing, collecting jazz recordings, and taking an annual cruise. After a few more years I expect to become a partner in my firm. We take care of the legal details of corporate mergers.'

"Of course he doesn't say it all at once. It comes out gradually between bites of pasta and sips of wine. My contributions are scattered through the meal too.

"I say 'Even though I work a lot of overtime I haven't had a promotion in years. My career would probably be in better shape if I hadn't been demoted to fertilizer investigator once and abducted twice. The only hobby I've had time for is collecting hospital ID bands. On the plus side I won't be sizing you up as a prospective daddy, since the mainspring on my biological clock was permanently unsprung years ago.'"

In spite of the harsh words there was more sadness than anger in her voice.

Mulder thought the skin on his face might blister from the heat he felt in it. A miserable memory came back to haunt him.

Last April his tongue and wit escaped the custody of his brain and made a stupid joke about the ticking of Scully's biological clock. In his defense, he'd been driveling on nervously because he was in the daring position of simulating an embrace of his partner. He was teaching her to bat. With his hands on her hips and his thighs pressed against her ass, a considerable amount of blood was lost to the thinking process. In some dim corner of his psyche he was working up the nerve to make a romantic move.

As soon as he heard the fatal words leave his mouth all he could think of was damage control. He babbled on until Scully finally told him to shut up. But she didn't call him on his remark. At the time he told himself she hadn't noticed it.

At first he felt tragically diverted from his intended lovemaking. Before long he hailed it as a deliverance. In a moment of weakness he could have destroyed their partnership. Scully had already sent the message that the lust wasn't mutual by every means except the Pony Express. His blunder was a just- in-time reminder of the grief he would always bring to those he cared for.

That sticky September afternoon in the basement office he found out how deep the hurt had gone.

Listening to her reprimand was the emotional equivalent of being keel-hauled. Guilt squeezed his chest until it was difficult to draw breath. He deserved it, so he tried to maintain an impassive expression. He must not have succeeded. His failure led directly to the most painful part of the experience. A remorseful, stricken look came over Scully's face as she watched his. Her apology and sweet thoughtfulness embittered his existence for days afterward.

Since then he had successfully shunned humorous references to dating, families and timekeepers of any kind.

Now it was Thanksgiving night and they were lost on a dark lonely road. He was afraid to be funny so he nagged. No, the trip wasn't turning out to be a success. "We were lucky it hadn't started to snow yet," he muttered under his breath.

"There it is," Scully suddenly called out as she pointed out her window.

He'd already passed what appeared to be a tunnel of blackness formed by the shadowy trunks of tall trees.

"You could have pointed it out before I went by," he complained. He stopped the car and backed up twenty feet. Scully stared out the window and didn't answer.

The long drive was gravel strewn with bright brown oak leaves. At its end the headlights picked out a long house made of gray stone. It was a mansion in spite of the homey front porch. Lights burned in most of the windows.

"It doesn't look haunted," Scully remarked with noticeable surprise.

Mulder made an effort to keep his temper under control. "It's not haunted. I told you. Dr. VanDyne is studying radiation and its detection."

"I'm used to more complicated agendas from you," she rejoined.

He sighed and parked the car on the circular drive. Carrying a suitcase in each hand he climbed the steps and Scully rang the bell. The door swung open almost immediately. An old man greeted them.

"Good evening. I'm glad you beat the snow. Mr. Mulder I suggest you pull the car around the back and put it in the garage. If it blows much over the weekend you could have trouble starting it on Sunday."

"I'm pleased to meet you Dr. VanDyne. This is Agent Scully. She does the science part of our partnership. You'll get a better assessment of your invention from her than me."

Mulder left Scully to get acquainted while he went back out into the cold for his car's sake. He had no trouble finding the double wooden garage. There was plenty of room since it held no other cars. A few big, fluffy snowflakes floated down onto his face and hair as he returned to the house.

The front room was a haven of brightness and warmth. Scully sat in a large, fatly cushioned armchair with a hot drink in her hands. The furniture was upholstered in a golden, plushy material and it glowed in the light of the big fire crackling in the fireplace.

"It was hard to find you. I didn't expect to find a home like this out here away from everything," Mulder remarked as he accepted a cup of tea from Dr. VanDyne's trembling hands.

Dr. VanDyne showed every one of his eighty-five years. The skin of his jaws and neck hung loose and crepey, disfigured by age spots. Lines that furrowed his forehead didn't stop there, but extended up onto the front half of his bald head. His knuckles stood out like knots in a rope, his head nodded with palsy, and his whole skinny frame demonstrated the uncertainty in movement characteristic of the very elderly.

"My father liked to hunt, and he wanted to keep horses. So Papa built in the middle of nowhere the year I was born. It's held up much better than I have!" he said with a dry chuckle.

"Do you live here by yourself?" Scully asked.

"During the day I have help in. At night I have my memories."

He raised his own teacup as though in a toast to the pictures on the walls.

"Are these your family?" Mulder enquired as he walked over to examine a pastel portrait of a girl in a long-waisted dress.

A floppy, silk bow tied up her long, light brown curls. She had the slightly buck-toothed smile typical of a six-year-old.

"That's Kitty, my sister. She was seven years younger than me, but she's dead," he said matter-of-factly.

"Those must be your parents," Scully remarked with a nod toward a double portrait of a man and woman standing beside a fireplace like the one in the room where they currently sat.

The man wore an intense expression and a high, stiff looking collar with a bow tie. She had a bob, smooth features and a dress that fell straight from her shoulders over a lean, boyish body.

"They made a striking couple, didn't they?" VanDyne asked. "They knew it too," he added with a wink.

"I hope we didn't interfere with any plans you had for today--- you know---Thanksgiving," Scully explained when Dr. VanDyne looked at her blankly.

"Oh. I don't celebrate Thanksgiving," he answered shortly.

"I haven't told Scully much about your experiments yet. I thought I'd leave that to you," Mulder enthused. He was tired of small talk.

"It's far too late to start on my work tonight. Unfortunately I won't be available most of tomorrow. I've got appointments with my broker and my attorney in Corinth. At my age you can't afford to procrastinate about these things," VanDyne said knowingly. "I've laid out a lot of my documentation in the study. You're welcome to read it on your own. Or you could just enjoy walking around the property. There's a small lake and woods. Quite beautiful. It's supposed to snow tonight. We keep sets of galoshes in different sizes at the back door."

"Yes, I'd like to look at your results," Scully said.

"My former assistant didn't write down much about his method, but my present assistant has started to fill in the gaps. You're going to need someone to explain it. Don't be offended Miss Scully, but you look like you could use some time outdoors. Too much time in the office makes you pale and peaky."

Mulder felt his heart beat faster. Dr. VanDyne voiced concerns he'd been feeling for months, but a grandfatherly type like their host could get away with talking about it. Mulder told himself he had general concerns about her health. It was the shadowy menace of the big 'C' that really terrorized him when he let his guard down.

"Pale is the rage this year," Scully smiled.

"I plan to retire soon myself. I'll show you to your rooms. You can come back downstairs if you wish," VanDyne said, as he stood up. "I had the west wing torn down in 1956." He negotiated the stairs slowly and carefully, tottering, but never becoming breathless. "I still have far more room than I need."

Mulder carried the suitcases upstairs and placed them in two rooms side by side off a wide hallway. On the second floor the rooms were less inviting. The busy floral wallpaper shrank their apparent size and the furniture seemed too large and dark. And it was cold.

"If you see any children playing around the water tomorrow tell them I'll call their mothers. It's too dangerous. The ice never gets thick enough in the middle."

VanDyne's querulous complaint matched his aged appearance more closely than his previously urbane speech. He picked his way carefully down the hallway as though the polished hardwood floor were the thin ice he spoke of.

"I'm ready for bed, Mulder," Scully said simply.

The circles under her eyes confirmed her weariness.

"There's only one bathroom. I checked. You can have it first," Mulder answered.

"Thanks. Good night."

He extended a hand to her shoulder to hold her in place for another moment.

"Thanks for coming with me. You know how I feel about the holidays. It's good to have you here."

"Thanks for asking me. I'll see you in the morning," she answered tiredly.

Mulder watched her door shut. Unwelcome questions had been fighting to make themselves heard in his denying mind ever since she had accepted his invitation. Finally he was too tired to distract himself. They broke through to his conscious thoughts.

What would she have done during this long weekend if he hadn't asked her on this trip? Had there been no plans to cancel? No place where she was expected for Thanksgiving dinner?

Mulder thought he knew the answers, and he didn't like them.

He entered his own room where he was impressed by the height and polish of the huge brass bed. The mattress on the old-fashioned open springs proved quite comfortable, but the bed squeaked noisily when he lay down to test it. Not much chance of slipping any lively romance past the kids if you were in this bed, he thought. Rhythmic motions would advertise your activity to the whole house.

Scully would find it a big step up into a bed like this.

He started to get hard as he imagined her climbing naked into this bed to wait for him under the pile of bright quilts. They'd both be cold from the chill of the room. He'd wrap her into a full body embrace of arms and legs to warm them. Then...then they'd get warmer yet from exercise. In the darkness of night he wouldn't be able to see her. His hands would stroke her smooth curves and press her to him. Her hair would be fragrant against his face, slippery and silky as he rubbed his cheek against it. He'd hear her moans and feel her moist softness around his tongue and cock. Those old springs would squeal for mercy before he was done, and he wouldn't care who heard them.

God, if he ever believed Scully really had a hot date he'd probably spend the day weeping in the men's room. No one could ever take the title of World's Most Selfish Bastard away from him.

The thought of Scully with another man ended his state of arousal almost instantly. He got up to sit in the rocker with the uncomfortably carved back and read his book until his turn in the bathroom. Scully was back in her room before he finished scanning the introduction to "Ionization Events."

He read the dry textbook for an hour before he turned off the light. Huddling under layers of comforters he tried to let go of wakefulness. After he'd lain staring at nothing for endless minutes he became aware of a soft, sliding, metallic sound. The handle of his door was turning very quietly. Perhaps Scully couldn't sleep and wanted company.

Mulder tried to turn over and welcome her in. To his horror he found he couldn't move. Five point restraints couldn't have bound him into place more effectively than the invisible force that held him. The sound of the door opening and tentative footsteps approaching from behind sent him into a mental frenzy. His head and heart both pounded with fear as he willed his body to do something---anything. No matter how he struggled his muscles refused to co-operate. Even his mouth and throat disobeyed his instructions to scream.

Memories of abduction stories flooded him with terror. Abductees described the same wakeful paralysis he was experiencing. There was a cold sensation on the back of his neck, and the sound of furtive scraping across the room. Then Mulder could move.

He rolled out of bed and fumbled for his gun in the top dresser drawer. By the time he held it in shaking hands and flipped on the light he figured things out.

His door was shut. There was no else in the room. His neck was untouched. It must have been a dream. The noise that roused him was a faint scrabbling sound that seemed to come from the closet. He found it hard to work up a murderous impulse toward the rodent that had waked him from his nightmare.

He supposed he should chase it away before it woke Scully. During his quick survey of her room he had noted that their closets shared the same wall. With great care he opened the closet door and examined its interior. The dim bedroom light illuminated the few clothes he'd hung up. There was no mouse in the otherwise clean and empty storage area. The scratching continued. He concluded it was in Scully's closet.

A loud, sudden Bang! from the baseboards in front of him sent him inches into the air. That was no mouse. Scully must be conducting her own scouting expedition. Battle had been joined, probably with a well-aimed shoe. Whether the mouse was a casualty or in retreat, Mulder didn't think the scratching would be renewed that night.

He knew before he returned to bed that he didn't really want to sleep. That nightmare could---probably would---recur. It had all the negative qualities he associated with his "keepers." The collection just kept expanding.

Nevertheless, he slept almost immediately and suffered through a different doom-laden scenario. This one was a classic. He saw Scully suspended in freezing liquid behind the glass of an alien pod. In his dream her eyes moved. She watched him resignedly as he tried and failed to break through to her. Only her eyes remained, alive and forgiving, while she deliquesced into a gelatinous horror. He continued to pound uselessly at the pod. He always woke up in a cold sweat at that point.

Pale winter light glimmered through cracks around the Prussian blue curtains. Mulder heard shuffling steps in the hall. There was a knocking at his door.

"Breakfast will be in twenty minutes Mr. Mulder," Dr. VanDyne informed him cheerily. "We eat in the dining room. It's across the hall from the sitting room, where we were last night."

End of "The House," Chapter 1 of "Winter I: The Riddle"

_______________________________________________

"The Mouse"

Friday, 12:00 A.M.

When she returned from washing up Scully assessed her bedroom frankly as ugly. Maroon curtains clashed with wallpaper that combined the worst shades of tan and olive. The furniture bulged oversize and dark against it. Apart from the beautiful brass bed the only pretty object in the room was a white lacquer box, hand painted with a scene of skaters in a wintery landscape. Scully admired its delicate brush work before she turned off the light, dousing the offensive colors of the room in darkness.

Under the warm quilts she drifted into sleep quickly. The softest of clicks brought her from a deep sleep to a state of semi- consciousness. Someone had opened her door. Maybe Mulder wanted company. None of the rooms she'd seen contained a television.

The light touches on the ends of her hair were unexpected. They were so pleasant she didn't mind not being able to move. Her scalp tingled in a way that sent tiny shivers down her neck and back, both soothing her and bringing her to hypersensitive awareness of her skin. Those gentle fingers had to belong to Mulder. At the same time she couldn't imagine her partner abruptly choosing to play this subtle, sensual game with her. She knew it wasn't Mulder. Nevertheless she lay acquiescent, like a complacent cat under the caresses of a familiar hand.

It was impossible to determine the exact moment when the nature of the touches changed. Very gradually the slightest of pulls on her hair became a little painful. Caresses turned into strokes that dragged roughly through tangles. Her head was jerked slightly with their force. Now she wanted to object, but still found it impossible to move or speak.

Someone held her by the hair and was steadily pulling her head back on the pillow. Fear blotted out any enjoyment she felt previously. She struggled to make her arms follow her commands. The silence was suddenly broken by tinkling notes as her head was yanked back so violently it hurt her neck. She thrust her hands behind her head to break the grip. Instead of a bony or muscular adult hand she was shocked to find herself holding a soft, clammy, child's hand in each of hers. The next moment she realized she clutched handfuls of her own hair.

The "Skater's Waltz" still played, the tempo gradually slowing. It came from the lacquer box, which she now knew was a music box. When she picked it up earlier she must have unstuck some critical part of the already wound mechanism.

Toward the end of the tune she jumped at a sudden loud bang from the wall her room shared with Mulder's. She was sorry if the music disturbed him, but she didn't know how to silence it any more than she had known how to start it. The music stopped before the end of the melody. She was glad it had shaken her out of an unpleasant hypnogagic state.

When she slept again she moved through a familiar dreamscape. Endless vistas of empty desert stretched before her. She walked through a sandstorm that never abated. The riddle was "Why?" No goal was visible, nor did her dream self know her destination. Still she walked on. In the end she spun off into the storm, eroded like soft sandstone by the endlessly blowing sirocco.

At her second waking she saw daylight. The single, old-fashioned bathroom was free, so she took the opportunity to bathe and dress. Someone was already busy in the kitchen when she descended the stairs. Dr. VanDyne joined her in the dining room ten minutes later.

"Good morning Miss Scully," he greeted her expansively. "How did you sleep?"

"Just fine, thank you. The bed is very comfortable. I'm looking forward to going through your notes. All Mulder would tell me is that you're studying a form of radiation. Have you published anything on this yet?"

"Did you know that in my whole career I never published? I never joined a research institute or took a position at a university. I worked alone and corresponded with other biologists in my field. Back then scientists had ethics. They gave me unstinting credit for my findings. But I'm not too fond of talking about my work before breakfast. I'd like to apologize to you for my discourteous answer last night."

Scully gave him a questioning look.

"About Thanksgiving," he explained. "I was rather curt. The truth is I had a family tragedy that day. It happened over seventy years ago. It must seem absurd to you that I let ancient history shape my life still, but habits persist long after the original cause."

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to stir up unhappy memories," Scully said sympathetically.

"I don't mind talking about it to someone who won't overreact. It's even helpful," he returned, giving her a grateful look. "The season lends strength to the memories. Especially when the weather is so similar. We've had a wicked cold snap this past week. Yesterday it clouded up and the temperature rose. Last night it snowed. Today the sun is out. That's how it happened seventy-three years ago.

"My sister died in an accident on Thanksgiving in 1926. She was six years old. Mama was frantically busy that day, supervising all the cooking and trying to play hostess to our weekend guests. Papa and the other men stayed out of the way in the study. That's where they had to go to smoke. I was doing schoolwork in my room.

"Kitty got underfoot in the kitchen and Mama finally told her to go away and play somewhere else. We think she decided to go skating and knew she wouldn't be allowed to go alone if she asked. So she sneaked out without telling anyone. At dinner time we couldn't find her anywhere. Finally Papa organized everyone into search parties with lanterns. We were out all night. It wasn't until dawn that they found the hole in the ice. They didn't recover her body until spring.

"I thought my parents were going to lose their minds. All Mama could talk about was how she lay down with Kitty the night before in her bed, never knowing it would be the last time. Kitty was afraid of the dark sometimes. It drove Mama wild to think of Kitty in the black water all winter. She couldn't rest until they found her body and buried her in the churchyard. Then she seemed to find some peace. Papa---he just started drinking and never really stopped. They were both killed the next year in a car crash.

"I'm sure you understand why I try to treat the day like any other."

Scully worked hard to avoid overreacting. The poor mother must have relived that scene in the kitchen over and over. How many times in her imagination had she changed history by telling her guests to make sandwiches while she helped her daughter build a snowman? At least at the end she had a body to cry over and bury.

"That's so sad, Dr. VanDyne," Scully replied calmly. "I understand why you haven't forgotten."

"I don't intend to mention it to your partner. I know from a mutual friend that he lost a sister at this time of year. But I wanted to explain to you. Good morning Mr. Mulder," he called out as Mulder appeared in the dining room doorway.

Dr, VanDyne's "help" was a sturdy woman named Irene MacMurty. Her practical outfit of wool pants and flannel shirt was topped by a head scarf knotted tautly over her iron gray frizz. She worked slowly and methodically in silence, serving conservatively portioned bowls of oatmeal and a plate of thinly sliced toast.

Scully saw Mulder looking toward the kitchen after the cereal bowls were collected. He was probably hoping for bacon and eggs to follow, but breakfast was over. He took more coffee and sat at the table toying with his napkin.

A car honked at the front of the house and Dr. VanDyne began the long process of fussily wrapping himself up for the outdoors.

"Irene will make sandwiches for you at noon. We'll have a proper supper to make up for a casual lunch," he assured his visitors. "Normally I have a cleaning crew in on Mondays and Fridays. You won't be disturbed today because it's a holiday. The study door is at the end of this hall. My lab opens off the study, but I keep it locked. The equipment is very delicate," he explained.

He apologized again for his absence and descended the front stairs with many anxious pauses. A white Lincoln waited in the driveway. The driver appeared to be almost as old as VanDyne, and he navigated the snowy lanes with all due caution.

Mulder and Scully headed for the study as soon as the car was lost among the trees on the drive.

Scully watched cynically. The first thing Mulder did was try the door on the inside wall of Dr. VanDyne's study. It was locked.

"What?" he asked as he caught sight of her stance---arms crossed, foot tapping, and deliberately inscrutable gaze fixed on him.

"Nothing," she answered. "I'm going to check the written documentation. Since Dr. VanDyne isn't here can you give me some more background on his experiments before I start digging?

"I'd rather not influence you. You should reach your own conclusions based on the evidence alone," Mulder told her piously.

Scully looked at the tall piles of lab notebooks, computer printouts shrunken to letter-paper size, and blurry digital pictures. It would take her twice as long as Mulder to go through these, and he had the advantage of knowing the specific goals of the project. She tried to convince herself that his motives had to do with the pursuit of pure science. He couldn't be vindictive enough to make her suffer for past lectures on ruling out bias.

"OK. I suggest you start with this while I organize the rest of the materials. Then we won't get in each other's way," Scully responded. She offered him a worn spiral notebook.

Mulder received it with a look of distaste. A flurry of yellowed pages fell out as he took it by the metal coil. His frown deepened as he opened it to find pages of closely hand-written notes.

"Well, maybe it wouldn't hurt to talk about the general trend of VanDyne's research," he amended.

"You've got my undivided, unbiased attention," Scully replied.

"Dr. VanDyne experiments with electron resonance imagery. He's completing a series of tests to prepare for measuring the frequency of a field of free electrons within a living being."

Scully looked at Mulder with raised eyebrows.

"There you go, already dismissing the theory," Mulder observed with a frustrated look.

"I've already got questions, but I'm not dismissing anything," Scully defended herself.

"Fire away," Mulder told her.

"You're talking about plasma. That's a gas that can't exist at temperatures lower than, say three hundred degrees, and it requires a near vacuum."

"They haven't proven that plasma doesn't exist at lower temperatures and within dense bodies. It's just that no one else has been able to measure it."

"I assume he's using magnetic fields to create a precessional frequency. What device does he use?"

"It's a modified MRI, like they use in hospitals."

"He can afford his own MRI, here on the premises?" Scully asked skeptically.

"I had Byers check out his background. He probably owns a matched set of congressmen. His father was in on the ground floor of Standard Oil."

"OK. For the moment we'll assume the technical problems have been solved correctly. The MRI has been modified to detect changes in electron polarization. It's set to the proper frequency to receive the field you want to measure. What does the energy represent?"

"He thinks he can isolate the human life force. The energy that makes the difference between being dead or alive."

"You mean the soul?" Scully asked, trying to maintain a neutral expression. Poor Mulder. He would have been a sucker for Wilhelm Reich and his orgone energy therapy.

"I guess you could call it that if you want to," Mulder answered reluctantly. "That term has other connotations...."

"That you don't like," Scully finished for him.

Mulder waved his hand as if to push the subject aside. "Think about it, Scully. It would be the definitive test for when death has occurred. Maybe we could figure out if biological processes generate it or if it's independent of the body. Maybe it's different from person to person, and that difference would mean something. It's a fascinating idea, even if we don't find any practical applications," he finished defensively.

"I agree the concept is interesting, but I'm just getting to my substantive objections, which have to do with method. A computer uses hundreds, maybe thousands of algorithms to interpret the signals from a conventional MRI. They develop the algorithms by comparing the MRI results to known data---X-ray results, ultrasounds, digitized anatomical atlases and CT scans. What did they use to adjust the algorithms? How did they test the results?"

The slow smile on Mulder's face warned Scully that she had just delivered herself into his clutches.

"That's the kind of scientific evidence that you're so good at interpreting. I'm sure the answers are in here somewhere," he replied with a broad gesture that took in the huge study table and its motley collection of data.

Scully picked up the notebook Mulder had put down and held it out once more, returning his smile with interest.

"You start with the early notes. I'll work backward from the latest findings."

The papers appeared to be in chronological order. They would meet in the middle of the table and the history of the project.

They read silently until Mrs. MacMurty appeared with lunch on a tray. Scully deduced from his concentrated gaze at the plate that Mulder was counting sandwiches. The dainty, crustless triangles reminded her of the refreshments served at her mother's long ago bridge parties.

"I'm not very hungry yet. I'll just have one of those," she volunteered to Mulder after Mrs. MacMurty left the room.

"Are you sure?" Mulder asked, putting one of the halves into his mouth in one bite.

"I'm sure. Eating like this is much better for me than a Thanksgiving meal."

"If you're sure it's enough. I'm surprised Mrs. MacMurty doesn't object to us eating in here. You'd think it would make the mouse problem worse."

"What mouse problem?" she asked absently.

"As in Mickey Rodent infestation. Like the one you clobbered last night in your closet."

"You must have been dreaming Mulder. There wasn't anything in my closet last night."

He looked puzzled. Scully wondered why he didn't mention the music. Then she realized he must have banged on the wall in his sleep, perhaps during a nightmare. He woke himself up and didn't know it. His sleep problems weren't something he enjoyed talking about, so she dropped the subject.

"Do you think this is from Waterford?" Mulder asked. He rang the cut glass platter with a flick of his fingernail as he took the last sandwich.

"Probably. And this is from Limoges," Scully answered. She carefully picked up the delicate white cup and saucer that held her coffee. "I think I could read newspaper headlines through it."

"I wish this was from Izzy's deli," Mulder observed morosely as he finished the last bite of thinly sliced bread filled with an almost transparent slice of turkey.

After the meal Mulder seemed to find it difficult to return to paperwork. He paced the study and examined numerous books from the built in shelves. Finally he stayed put at the desk where he flipped through a large, ornate Bible on a rotating stand.

"Whew. No wonder he doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving. According to these entries...."

"What, Mulder?" Scully prompted impatiently.

"Oh, there were deaths in the family during the holidays," he concluded tamely, letting the book fall shut with a small thump. "Scully, a lot of this stuff I'm reading goes back a long way. Do you think we have to review preliminary work going back to the nineteen forties?"

"Hmmm? What did you say?"

"Somebody wrote down notes on trying to follow a rat through a hidden maze with a geiger counter back in 1947. VanDyne set up thermal detectors all over this house in the late fifties, and it took three notebooks to hold the results. There's data somebody in a hospital collected. They used an ion detector on hospital patients and bodies in the morgue. Then VanDyne built his own EMF and ELF meters in the seventies. Do you think all this is relevant?"

"Use your judgment. We can always go back later if it turns out something important came out of an early experiment. Now, if you don't mind, following this takes a lot of concentration. It would help if you could sit quietly," she suggested.

"Yes. Sorry," he responded.

They read until the light began to dim at the windows. Mrs. MacMurty returned at six o'clock to inform them that Dr. VanDyne would be staying with a friend for dinner. Theirs would be served in the dining room in fifteen minutes.

"Well, what do you think so far Scully?"

"That Dr. VanDyne is remarkably good at avoiding us. I'm reserving my judgment, but there are a lot of steps missing in the process for interpreting the frequencies. Maybe VanDyne's assistant can fill in the blanks. If not...."

"We haven't seen the lab yet. Maybe you'll be overwhelmed by the sophistication of the technology," Mulder joked.

He didn't seem to want to argue.

Dinner was grilled salmon with braised vegetables and a sorbet for dessert. Mrs. MacMurty served Dr. VanDyne's portion to Mulder without even asking. Afterwards Scully began to congratulate her on her cooking skills, but she cut the compliments short.

"I can't cook this fancy stuff. Dr. VanDyne has low-fat, pre- cooked gourmet meals delivered in dry ice every two weeks. I just warm it up."

"I see. Well it's very good."

"It makes the doctor happy. I could do him a meatloaf with mashed potatoes, but that's not healthy anymore."

"I'd risk your meatloaf," Mulder volunteered earnestly.

"I suppose you've worked for the family for years," Scully remarked.

"No. I've only been working here since summer. I moved back East six months ago to take care of my mother. She died in August."

"I'm sorry. How do you like working here?"

"It's a long drive. I wouldn't do it if Dr. VanDyne didn't pay so well. The work isn't hard. He has contractors to do the heavy cleaning and yard work. Here. The doctor always has after dinner drinks," Mrs. MacMurty said, as she gave them each a snifter of brandy and left the bottle between them. "If you'll be all right, I'm going home now."

They took their drinks to the sitting room. A fire had been built again tonight. It crackled noisily and sent pulses of delicious warmth through the air. Sitting side by side on the sofa, they watched the blue glow around the logs and gold sparks flying up the chimney. Scully caught Mulder looking at her warily as she drained her brandy in two swallows and poured herself another.

"We're not on official duty, remember?" she teased him.

Sometimes he was so transparent in his anxiety. She wanted to sleep soundly tonight. Maybe a little alcohol would fend off the kind of disturbing dreams she had last night.

If Scully hadn't had the second drink she never would have asked the question.

"Mulder, do you think Emily had a soul?"

The pain in his expression reminded her of that afternoon in September when she lost her temper. Then she had lashed out to hurt and succeeded beyond her worst intentions. All she wanted now were his thoughts.

Her own feelings were tolerably anesthetized by the brandy. It must be true that an Irish heritage made it easy to find solace in alcohol. She'd have to be careful not to seek it too often in the barren future that extended indefinitely before her.

Mulder needed time to compose himself.

She gave him time. "I know you believe in souls. You believe you were Sullivan Biddle in a previous life. What transmigrates if it isn't a soul? There doesn't necessarily have to be a God involved."

"Scully, I...I don't know what it means to have a soul. If it's the life force then animals have souls. The things we've seen...shapeshifters, possession of the living by the dead, creatures that don't belong to any species we know. They don't fit into any accepted version of science or religion."

"Sometimes I say a rosary in bed at night. I imagine Emily and me in heaven just like I imagined it when I was a little girl. All white fluffy clouds and golden mansions. I see us playing in a perfect garden. In heaven I love her without holding back. Without remembering the price I paid for her existence. Do you think that's pathetic or just intellectually dishonest?" Scully asked the question with the detachment of an amused observer.

"Neither one," Mulder answered seriously. "I think it's a kind of meditation. It's your safe place. You're not supposed to analyze your safe place to death."

"What's your safe place?" She wanted to give him a chance to cheer himself up with a joke. He might say Graceland, or maybe the Sextuple X-rated Video Store. She found a sales slip from there on the floor of their office once.

"It's wherever you are, Scully."

She looked over at him quickly to catch him laughing at her before he came out with a quip about her marksmanship. He stared fixedly at his empty brandy snifter. Suddenly Scully was on the verge of maudlin tears. "Oh, Mulder, sometimes your feelings aren't very safe with me."

"Maybe they're not always handled gently, but they're usually handled with respect," he answered, now giving her a diffident smile. "You expect too much of yourself."

"I try not to be too hard on myself," Scully disagreed. "Maybe I'm finally growing up. You'd think I would have realized before now that I'm not going to live forever."

"Well if souls transmigrate...." Mulder trailed off suggestively.

"It wouldn't be me. I wouldn't be Dana Scully," she objected. "I've thought of my life as being on hold for years now. There were so many things I thought I'd do when my life got back to normal---love, marriage, a family, a community. I should have known. All anyone really has is the moment. If you can't learn to appreciate that, you won't even know you've lived when you lie dying."

"That's still a long time off," Mulder objected.

"Have you ever tried to get insurance outside the FBI benefits package?"

"Not since...not for years. Why?

"I did, when I was trying to adopt Emily. None of the agents called me back after they got my medical records. There's a reason for that."

"That's only statistics. They can't know that you as an individual aren't a good risk."

Scully suppressed a smile at Mulder's skewed, optimistic view of her prospects. "Let's be honest with ourselves. Do you contribute more than the mandatory minimum to a retirement fund?"

Mulder shook his head.

"I did until Antarctica," Scully went on. "Then I cashed in my IRAs and CD accounts to pay off the debts that accumulated after my sick leave ran out."

"You should have told me you needed money," Mulder protested.

"I had the money," Scully replied calmly. "What's the point of putting it into a fund I'll probably never collect from? What I've got is what I'll have. And it's a lot. The work we do is important, and I'm good at it. Even if my career hasn't taken off, I keep growing and learning in my profession. I've got a good partner who's a good friend. I shouldn't waste whatever time I've got left regretting what I don't have."

Mulder flinched visibly, as though trying to avoid a blow. Scully reached for his hand to offer wordless comfort.

"Your cancer isn't back, is it?" he asked fearfully.

His return pressure on her hand almost hurt in its intensity. "No, nothing like that. I'm just being realistic."

"You don't seem realistic. You seem sad," he said bluntly.

This was an area too delicate to explore with him. It involved her acceptance of the limitations on their partnership. She was finally admitting to herself that they would never be more than friends. For years she told herself that someday they might move on to love and passion. If she were truly honest with herself, she had felt those things for him for a long time.

That bug-eyed little writer, Padgett, had managed one true insight into her life. She was already in love. It was lost among all the worthless inferences he made about her. Her usually intuitive partner hadn't sensed the genuine quality of that one observation. Or at least he hadn't chosen to do anything about it.

If Mulder had similar feelings for her, they were locked into his unconscious so securely he could never act on them. Every now and then she thought she caught a glimpse of longing in his eyes when he looked at her. It had never lasted long enough for her to be quite sure.

"It's sad to let go of hopes and dreams, but it's good to face the truth," she pronounced.

Moments passed in silence as they gazed into the fire, their hands still linked.

"Scully, I lied to you about even my parents not calling me Fox."

At first she was puzzled at his change of subject. Then she realized that Mulder was trying to share something he considered extremely personal. He was reciprocating her confidence about Emily.

"I know Mulder. It's all right."

"I want to explain. I grew more than a foot between my twelfth and fourteenth birthdays. I was a klutzy, messy, smart-aleck who asked too many questions and ignored too many chores and assignments."

Scully had to hide another smile at the picture he painted. People like Kersh might claim he never grew out of that stage.

"I'm familiar with the phenomenon of the adolescent boy. I had two brothers," she reminded him.

"My father had already started calling me Fucks-up whenever I did something wrong. After Sam was taken, he just never let up. All the time, I was Fucks-up Mulder. When I look back on it, I know he probably was down on himself as much as me, but it still....I never told you how much I appreciate you calling me Mulder. I didn't think until later that you might believe I was trying to put distance between us."

"Maybe you were, at first. But I've known for a long time that you don't deliberately push me away," she replied.

Of course he'd pushed her away reflexively a thousand times. His jokes, his ditches, his secretive behavior were automatic defense mechanisms, like the blink of an eye at the approach of a finger. Tonight the brandy must be getting to him too. He seemed prepared to sit here all night holding her hand, and watching the embers die in the hearth.

Tonight it was she who couldn't bear the closeness. She wanted so much more from him than his hand to hold. During the worst times, like tonight, she thought she could happily die in his arms. That wasn't what she really wanted, of course. She wanted the "little death" in his embrace. Sitting like this made her ache for him to slide his hand up her arm to pull her close. Her neediness would eventually drive her to some pedantic or patronizing remark. She could prevent that.

"The brandy is making me sleepy. I'm going to bed. Tomorrow we'll get some answers," Scully yawned.

Mulder looked disappointed at her departure. One more minute of his eyes, golden and softened in expression by the flickering firelight, and Scully might have done something regrettable. She gave his hand one last squeeze and almost ran upstairs. After a quick wash in the chilly bathroom Scully huddled under her covers and let the alcohol shut her down.

Her sleep lasted only a few hours. The sound of a branch tapping and scraping on her window woke her to the discomfort of a dry mouth and dull headache. She lay and debated whether she should brave the cold for water and aspirin. The noise from the window came at maddeningly random intervals.

Scrape...Tap, Tap...Tap, Scrape, Scraaaape.......Tap... Tap,Tap,Tap..Tap, Scrape.

The wind must be unusually gusty. As long as the noise continued she wouldn't be able to go back to sleep. She was steeling herself to throw back the covers when she remembered the view from her room. If she hadn't been slightly hung over she would have remembered sooner that there was no tree outside.

Her stomach clenched like a fist. She lay rigid in the bed for a full thirty seconds. Then she rose to examine the window carefully.

Curtains concealed the night sky and whatever clung or floated beyond the glass. She stood to the side and used the cord to pull the curtains back . No moon or stars lightened the inky rectangle. Snow-covered ground was dimly visible below. The noises had stopped and there was nothing at the window.

Scully stood in the dark and studied the view for a minute or two. She wished the scrapes and taps would happen while she watched the empty window. When the cold became too uncomfortable she gave up and moved back toward the door to turn on the light. She left the curtains open. It happened at the instant she flipped the light switch.

The window shook as though something had hit the side of the house. A shape revealed itself in the fraction of a second before Scully's eyes adjusted to the brightness. She had a clear vision of a small, brown-splotched skull hovering with what would have been its nose pressed up against the glass. Two little clusters of yellowed digits waved on each side of it like anemones in a current. Her hand jerked and hit the light switch coming down. The shape disappeared as quickly as the illumination.

Scully swallowed and fought the urge to scream for Mulder. Instead she went for her gun. A gun against a specter was ridiculous and she knew it. Holding it gave her a sense of control and security. Training it on the window she reached once more for the light switch and flipped it. There was nothing. She turned it on and off several times and saw nothing.

It was an optical illusion of course. The light's reflection created an image that her brain interpreted as a skull. She couldn't discover the right angle to reproduce the effect.

The light stayed on while she went to the bathroom. On her return she turned it off and then drew the curtains. It wasn't until she had warmed up under the covers that she heard the new noise.

A faint scratching and scraping came from somewhere around the white lacquer music box. Scully remembered Mulder's comment about the mouse problem with relief. Her gun could stay safely in her purse. She slid out of bed again, this time arming herself with a walking shoe.

The scrabbling noise continued after she turned the light on again. She circled the table that held the music box and saw nothing. Her examination convinced her that the mouse was inside the box---probably the very same mouse that had scared her with its antics at the window. The shuddering vibration and the mottled skull at the window didn't quite track with the mouse theory. She refused to dwell on it.

The lid of the box was detached. She could knock it off without worrying about hinges. Scully flipped the top off with her left hand and brought the shoe down quickly, ready to use it as a club. There was no need. The mouse appeared to be dead already.

At the bottom of the box lay a small, limp, dun-colored object. It didn't move as she reached in to pick up the tiny body. She stopped before she touched it, her professional instincts suddenly asserting themselves. She should wear gloves.

Snapping on latex gloves from her briefcase, she grabbed a few tissues for an impromptu shroud. The wood showed a soggy spot under the body. When she saw the amount of leakage Scully marvelled at the lack of odor. Then it occurred to her to wonder how a long dead mouse managed to be so noisy.

It wasn't until she spread it on the tissues that she realized what she held. A small mitten, soggy with cold water, lay on the table beside the lacquer box.

Now she understood what was happening. She deposited the mitten in the bathroom wastebasket and climbed back into bed to wait for dawn. The problem was her overactive imagination. Ever since their bizarre experience last Christmas Eve, Scully had to admit that on occasion she could hallucinate as dizzily as the most suggestible hysteric.

It was a serious weakness. Even Mulder was immune this time. He'd laugh himself sick if she told him about her "experiences." "I knew you should have gone easier on the brandy," she could imagine him lecturing, barely able to contain his mirth. "You should have expected a 'spirited' evening." She'd rather put up with one more night here than face his raillery.

"What is it?"


Friday, 10:00 P.M.

As soon as Scully left the room the fire lost its attraction for Mulder. The book collection in the study lured him back, where he spent two more hours analyzing Dr. VanDyne's library. He still didn't feel he understood the man.

There were books from the thirties on spiritualism, a complete set of Edgar Cayce's readings, scholarly studies of voodoo, numerous texts through the present dealing with cellular biology, and recent publications on electromagnetism. Mulder wondered if there had been a Mrs. VanDyne who had a calling as a medium. He reminded himself that he wasn't here to profile the scientist.

Dr. VanDyne still hadn't shown up at midnight when Mulder went upstairs. He dutifully carried a text on toroidal electron spectrometers rather than a privately published analysis of spirit manifestations by Montague Summers.

Mulder nested under five layers of quilts and tried to stay focused on spectrometry. Finally he realized he'd whiled away several minutes speculating on whether the hairy-looking blossoms represented on his wallpaper were drawn from life. Then the sound of slow, tentative steps in the hall signaled the return of their host.

When the footsteps stopped Mulder started waiting for a knock. It came, but not on his door, as he expected. Dr. VanDyne was knocking on Scully's door. He heard it open. Only a low murmuring of voices came through the thick wall. Whatever they were discussing, apparently he wasn't involved. As usual, curiosity won out over dignity. He quietly opened his door a crack to hear the conversation.

It seemed he wasn't quiet enough. Scully and Dr. VanDyne both turned instantly to look at his door. Scully wore her serious- investigator expression. She smiled when she saw him peeking out.

"Mulder, you're awake! Dr. VanDyne offered to show me around the lab. Why don't you come along?"

"Sure. Give me a minute to get dressed," he answered stupidly.

Scully was still dressed. Apparently she wasn't as sleepy as she pretended when she went upstairs. Her object had been to get away from him. Here was another piece of evidence to support the Mulder Plan for Peaceful Co-existence rather than Uneasy Co- habitation. Tonight's evidence hurt a bit more than usual. He'd been feeling close to his partner this evening, and taking nervous delight in the experience. Once again, the pleasure was all his.

The talk in the hallway continued while he pulled on his pants and shirt. Hastily he tucked himself in and stepped out. The two were deep in discussion on the complexities of getting informed consent from human subjects of scientific experiments without skewing the results. He followed them down the stairs in silence.

Dr. VanDyne's lab reminded Mulder of a hospital. The MRI loomed hugely in the normal-sized room. VanDyne threw a switch and the machine hummed to life.

Mulder was shocked into a protest when Scully climbed up to lie inside the doughnut-shaped mechanism. "Hold on here. You can't do experimentation on humans without meeting guidelines. You haven't even used the MRI on animals yet. I read through your lab reports."

"Relax, Mulder," Scully said with a laugh. "It's just an electromagnetic field. This is an exercise in signal detection--- there's no effect on me."

Jesus, was she still tipsy? It wasn't like Scully to be careless about research protocol. But he knew the look on her face. She was determined. It was his fate to watch and worry. By the time he'd resigned himself to the situation, the loud whirring and thumping of the MRI had built to a crescendo.

Mulder went to stand behind Dr. VanDyne at the computer screen. VanDyne made a few adjustments. A luminous, sky-blue sphere swimming with golden sparks appeared on the grid that defined the area where Scully lay. He was fascinated in spite of his concern.

"Is that her?" he asked VanDyne.

The old man nodded absently.

"Do you add the color?" Mulder wondered aloud.

"No. That's how it looks when you translate it to the visible spectrum."

Of course. Mulder knew Scully's soul would look beautiful. He hoped she never saw his.

"It looks as though I started just in time," VanDyne murmured while checking some gauges on-screen.

As he spoke Mulder saw the sphere lose some of its definition and brightness. "What's going on?" he demanded.

"The energy is separating from the subject. I'm not really sure what happens. I don't know if the field gradually moves to another location, or if it dissipates permanently."

"But what happens to Scully?" Mulder insisted.

"Oh, she'll be dead when it's gone, wherever it goes."

"Turn the machine off," Mulder ordered shortly. "Or I'll tear it apart."

"It isn't causing her death. It's recording it. Turning off the recording device won't change the data."

Mulder strode over to Scully and tried to make himself heard over the roar of the machine.

"Scully, something's wrong. You're dying in that thing. We've got to get you out and take you to a hospital."

Unbelievably, she slowly shook her head. "Let's be realistic. We all have our limits. Since it can't be stopped, I might as well give it some meaning. For the advancement of science," she whispered tiredly.

Mulder stood and tried to think while Scully grew paler. He touched her cheek and seemed to feel it cool under the palm of his hand.

"Anyone could see she was fading, but I didn't know she was this close," the old man commented with poorly concealed excitement. He gave Mulder a cautious, sideways look. "If it bothers you to watch, why don't you go to the study and browse through Summers' study of spiritualism?"

Mulder saw her body go limp. One arm slipped off the side of the table.

"You know how to stop this, don't you, you cold- blooded...scientist!" Mulder cried in despair.

"I think YOU know how, Mr. Mulder. But you're not going to try, are you," he observed imperturbably.

"Wait a minute. How did you know I picked up that book by Summers?"

The knocking of the machine changed to a softer tapping sound. Mulder woke up.

A branch must be tapping on his window. He lay with his cheek resting on a page of diagrams illustrating electron paths under various magnetic influences. It was a mistake to drink. It only made his nightmares worse. The bedside lamp still shone, but he could see the dawn creeping in around the dark curtains. It was time to get up.

This time he reached the breakfast table ahead of Scully. He was surprised to see Dr. VanDyne already in place.

"You must have gotten in after two o'clock last night," Mulder remarked. "Do you always keep such late hours?"

"You know how it is. People my age don't need much sleep. How did you sleep?

"As well as I do in my own bed."

"Do you think I should apologize to your partner for my rude answer on Thursday night?" VanDyne inquired.

Mulder looked at him quizzically.

"About Thanksgiving," he explained. "I was rather short with her. The truth is the holiday has tragic associations for me."

"I'm sure she didn't take offense. She'd be sorry to think she brought up painful memories."

"It's a relief to talk about it to someone who isn't over- sensitive," VanDyne. "Would you like to hear the story?"

Luckily politeness demanded that he show an interest in VanDyne's story. Mulder tried to underplay his avid curiosity as he answered. "Yes. Yes I would."

"My sister died on Thanksgiving in 1926. She was six years old. I was thirteen. Mama was frantic that day. She had to supervise the staff and she had her hostess duties. We had ten people staying for the holiday weekend. Papa and his friends holed up in the study so they could smoke. I shut myself in my room with my new microscope.

"Kitty came and knocked on my door. She wanted me to go skating with her on our little lake. I told her to go away and stop bothering me. That was the last time I saw her. We couldn't be sure, but we think she sneaked out to the lake by herself. She knew she wouldn't be allowed to go alone if she asked Mama. At dinner time we looked for her everywhere. At dawn a search party found the hole in the ice. Her body was never recovered.

"I broke down a few days later and told Mama and Papa how Kitty had asked me to go with her. They looked right at me and told me it wasn't my fault. I knew they lied. And even though she'd been disobedient and mischievous, I knew she was the favorite child. Always. Even after she was dead.

"I wanted to take the blame. I thought that would keep my parents from destroying themselves. It didn't work. We lived here together, but afterwards we were each alone with our guilt.

"For a long time Mama wouldn't believe Kitty was gone. She hired a clipping service to find stories about people who wandered off and lost their memory. A seamstress came to the house in the spring and made a whole summer wardrobe for Kitty. By then both Mama and Papa were drinking too much and fighting all the time. That fall they were killed in a car crash.

"I'm sure you understand why I try to ignore Thanksgiving."

Mulder couldn't speak when the story came to an end. He just nodded his head in mute understanding.

"I don't intend to mention this to your partner. She looks like she has enough on her mind. But I wanted to explain to you. Good morning Miss Scully," he called out as she appeared in the dining room doorway.

Mulder couldn't fault Dr. VanDyne's powers of observation. Scully looked ill-rested and preoccupied. Coffee brought some animation to her face and voice. The prospect of visiting the laboratory enlivened her more.

After his dream the laboratory held both threat and allure for Mulder. He suffered through small talk about breakfast teas and heart-healthy margarines with saintly forbearance. When their host stood up Mulder had prepared himself mentally for anything from a total fraud to a plot against their lives. He rudely pushed past Scully in order to precede her into the newly unlocked room. Vigilance had to take precedence over manners, even if Scully thought he was being inconsiderate.

The laboratory didn't look much like it had in his dream. It was a large, square room with no windows. The sinks, electrical outlets and smooth working surfaces were completely modern. Several computers were grouped at a work station next to a door.

Following his gaze, Dr. VanDyne remarked, "The MRI is through there in that shielded room."

This lab lacked the beige curtains, medical equipment and monitors that had given the dream lab a hospital atmosphere. Mulder relaxed a little, still keeping a close eye on Scully. She showed no signs of wanting to offer herself as a test subject. Instead she moved around the room examining equipment and leafing through folders stacked at the computer workstation.

His dream also left out the facilities for animal experimentation. The four cages in the corner were large enough to hold medium-sized dogs. Dr. VanDyne must be ready to move on to the next step in testing his device.

"Come here and watch," VanDyne invited them. The PC screen showed a small patch of fog on a measurement grid, alongside clocks, energy displays and controls. "This is a video record of our latest experiment using cats. The death resulted from administration of phenobarbital over a period of two hours. I'm playing it a high speed, of course."

They watched as the fog thinned and finally disappeared. It was gone at some point, but Mulder couldn't pinpoint the seconds when it moved from "there" to "not there."

"This one is really intriguing, I'm showing it at real-time speed," VanDyne advised them. In this video the fog moved, sliding around in a semi-circle before moving off the screen at the bottom of the grid. "A large bore needle was inserted into the heart at second 59.5. Needless to say, death was instantaneous."

The image made Mulder cringe, distracting him momentarily from the significance of the video.

"What do you claim these experiments show?" Scully inquired. Mulder could have told Dr. VanDyne to be careful: Scully was positioning herself for extreme skepticism.

"Wouldn't you agree that the life force behaves differently when death occurs quickly and unexpectedly?" he countered.

"You have too few data points to generalize. Am I right in assuming you believe these results prove your success in visualizing and measuring the energy of the soul?" Scully asked.

VanDyne shrugged. "I let the evidence speak for itself."

"I have some questions about your evidence. There seem to be some recent notebooks missing from the collection in the study. And I didn't see anything about animals," Scully followed up.

"Probably Miss Barney has the notebooks. She takes work home sometimes. Her health hasn't been good recently. She usually arrives early on Saturdays to work, but she had to go to the community hospital this morning for percussion therapy. I hope you can meet her this afternoon."

"Did Miss Barney develop the software you use to turn the electronic frequencies into graphic images?" Scully inquired.

"Yes. I know how to use the programs, but I'm not familiar with the languages."

Scully gave him an approving grin. "I've known fifty-year-olds who claimed they were too old to learn to use a computer. They should see you."

"It's not too late until you're dead," Dr. VanDyne replied, with a twist of his mouth that was almost a smile.

"Do you have a permit to use animals for biological testing?" Mulder finally spoke up.

"I have a friendly arrangement with the local ASPCA. They know I euthanize the animals painlessly. I take the job off their hands. I don't depend on grants or government money, so we keep things informal," VanDyne answered cooly.

Mulder noticed a worried line between Scully's eyebrows. He often thought she was too coldly rational in her perspective, but Dr. VanDyne made her look positively hot-blooded.

"I've got a custom designed plasma gun and another generator on order with the company that built the MRI for me. We think we can create a spheromak to confine the fields you saw on the screen there. It's a sort of magnetic bottle," VanDyne explained further. "Think of the possibilities! Maybe we could preserve a person's life force and put it into another body. Maybe two could share a body! Who knows? If you combined it with a column of magnetofluid with an opposing flux it would annihilate the field. Would that destroy a person's soul eternally? There's one for the theologians!"

His voice rose and quavered a little with excitement. Mulder revised his assessment of the scientist as cold-blooded. Scully's disapproval of VanDyne's flights of fancy appeared clearly on her face.

"It would require extensive work with animals and peer-reviewed precautions before human testing could take place," Scully lectured. "If you could play games like that with a person's soul it would be wrong."

Mulder relaxed a bit more on hearing Scully's unequivocal and characteristic response. The fears awakened by his nightmare dwindled further.

"But what if it was an evil soul?" Dr. VanDyne proposed, with little chuckle at his own wit. He spoke again quickly when Scully's expression became more forbidding. "Of course, of course. I understand your concern. Human dignity and all that. But we don't have to do things just because we can. I call my new device an ERI," VanDyne said proudly. He pronounced it like the adjective 'eerie.' "For Electron Resonance Imager."

"An ERI it is," Mulder agreed. "When can we expect Miss Barney to arrive?"

"About four o'clock I believe."

"We'll be here with all our questions. We need to run a few errands, but we'll be back long before four," Mulder assured him.

"Unless you need me I'd like to stay here and go through all the computer records of animal experiments with Dr. VanDyne," Scully said.

"I need to talk to you in the study a minute," he stated, guiding her toward it with his hand on her back.

"I'm feel like I'm going to starve to death here and take on the position of household ghost," Mulder told her with a self- deprecating smile. "My errand is just to get chips or peanuts or something with salt and fat to fill in the corners."

"Not me Mulder. Mrs. MacMurty whispered in my ear that we're stuffing ourselves on consomme and watercress sandwiches at lunch. I'd really rather stay and follow up on those suspicious gaps in the research."

"Then I thought I should warn you. I don't trust Dr. VanDyne completely," Mulder said. He tried to achieve the right mix of concern and off-handedness in his tone. "I'm starting to wonder if he wants something from us besides an opinion."

Scully looked thoughtful and then spoke carefully. "Maybe it's mostly distraction from loneliness, boredom, fear of death. The Holiday Blues probably get worse with age. How did you find each other?"

"The old-fashioned way---through a mutual friend. You remember Theo Bell, the biologist I consulted about lipid metabolism during the Incanto case? I've talked to him about other cases since then. He told VanDyne I'd be interested in his research. VanDyne wrote me and asked if I'd be interested in evaluating his work. He suggested this weekend and that was a perfect fit for my schedule."

"Did you wonder why he asked you and not a physicist?"

"No. Theo told me he already tried to interest some physicists and biologists. They couldn't be bothered. They think the research is worthless and VanDyne is probably senile."

"He's not senile," Scully observed. "But what makes you think he has dark designs?"

"It's just a feeling," Mulder said, reluctant to attribute his doubts to a dream.

Scully didn't smile or raise skeptical eyebrows. "I'll keep it in mind. This house has an atmosphere...." she trailed off.

"You're not used to old houses. There's nothing...odd about the house. I'll be back long before four o'clock."

Now Scully did give him a skeptical smile. "Just be careful. The roads are probably pretty bad out here."

Mulder remembered to pull galoshes on over his shoes before he set out to the detached garage. It had snowed again last night. Somebody had been through with a plow and cleared VanDyne's drive. The two lane road beyond it was slippery, but it had been scraped and scattered with cinders.

He had to drive fifteen slow, twisting miles back the way they came to find a gas station. In between he saw nothing but hills interspersed with what appeared to be pastureland. He wondered exactly how far Mrs. MacMurty had to drive to work, and where they did their household shopping. Maybe there was more civilization to the north of VanDyne's place.

Mulder asked himself why a working scientist would want to live so isolated from colleagues and facilities.

Dan's Service Station disappointed him with its sparse stock of junk food. He bought candy bars, corn chips and peanuts. They didn't offer sunflower seeds. When he tried to elicit information on Dr. VanDyne from the young woman who rang up his purchases he got nothing but a bored disclaimer of any knowledge.

On his way back he decided he should have turned left instead right when he left VanDyne's property. Re-tracing their Thursday route had wasted an hour and a half. Mulder checked his watch and persuaded himself he had time to press on in the opposite direction. He might find better pickings, in the way of both edibles and gossip.

After fifteen more miles of driving past trees and fences he conceded to geographical realities. A drive leading to a small cemetery offered the first opportunity to turn around. Thirty yards away stood the remains of a foundation, probably the last traces of the church that presided over the burying ground. Mulder found it strange that the driveway to a deserted cemetery had been plowed.

He got out and started walking among the stones. For the first time he registered the stark beauty of the area. The rolling hills wore a pure white icing under the pale gray sky. Bare branches stood black and sharp against the filtered sunlight. Tall, pointed firs scattered in groups across the landscape offered a soft contrast. All carried a coat of white, clingy snow on long, fresh needles. The clean air, scented only by pines and faint wood smoke, made a remarkable change from the pollution of the Beltway. Even stranger was the quiet. It comforted his ears, long accustomed to the background hum of car engines, heating systems, computers, hallway conversations, and city traffic. When he stopped walking the squeak of his boots in the snow gave way to utter silence.

Each gravestone wore a cap of snow, but the sides of the upright markers were clear. Farthest from the road were dark, narrow slabs bearing worn chiseled names and dates that could no longer be deciphered. In front of them were several rows of square, white, chalky-looking stones with raised letters and numbers. Closest to him were two polished granite tombstones. The familiar name caught his eye. "John and Violet VanDyne" appeared on a double-sized slab. "September 8, 1880 - November 24, 1927" and "June 14, 1882 - November 24, 1927" were the dates that appeared with their names.

Mulder was surprised to see the smaller marker bore the name "Catherine VanDyne." Her dates were "January 13, 1920 - November 25, 1926. "May her soul find rest" was carved below. VanDyne had told him that Kitty's body was never recovered. Of course this could be a commemorative headstone without a body beneath it.

Without warning the memory struck like a shark attack from the depths. It tore at his peace of mind. Once he and Maggie Scully chose a gravestone for Scully. A ponderous rock to seal the most alive person he'd ever known into the ground. Only they didn't have her body---she was missing and presumed dead. If he'd truly believed in the reality of her death he wouldn't have had the strength to stand and approve her epitaph. He hoped he didn't live long enough to face that duty again. No one could ask him to go through it twice.

He pictured a young Henry VanDyne standing at his parents' grave while the minister said a few words. How had the man managed to choose suitable words? Had there been room for any emotion in the boy other than guilt? The grief, the loneliness---all of it would have been tainted by his burden of blame.

Mulder checked his watch and was shocked to find it was already three-thirty. If he didn't hurry he'd miss his chance to ask questions of Dr. VanDyne's assistant. Scully's questions promised to be even more interesting than his. He returned to the car and drove as quickly as he dared.

End of "What Is It?" Chapter 3 of "Winter I: The Riddle"

_______________________________________________ "Draught or Dream"

Saturday, 4:30 P.M.

After he put the car back into the old garage, Mulder paused for a lingering look at the white hills behind VanDyne's house. This time the silence was painfully broken by the roar of snowmobiles. In less than a minute two of them zoomed into sight, driven by two large young men. They wove exuberantly around each other and gunned their way up and down the gentle elevations. Then they disappeared behind a hill.

He knew that Dr. VanDyne would frown on trespassing by snow mobilers, but he had no way of detaining them for a warning. At least anyone old enough to drive one would know enough to stay off ice in weather that hovered between twenty and thirty degrees.

But what about the little girl in the blue jacket and ski pants? A heavy bundle dangled from her arm, swinging with each skip as she bounced away from him. Just before she rounded a small hill the sun broke through low lying clouds and glinted off the blades on the skates she carried.

Mulder's normal pace was rapid. He moved faster than usual in his effort to reach the girl before she could don her skates. Snow covered the path that ran over and through the low hills. It didn't slow him down. In spite of his speed she already stood at the edge of the ice when he crested the hill. The last, pale lemon rays of sunlight edged over the surrounding heights. Below him the frozen lake gleamed invitingly and the skater completed her first tentative figure eight.

He called to her as loudly as he could. "Get off the ice. It's dangerous. Go back."

She looked up and seemed to measure the distance between them with her eyes. He couldn't see her features. It looked as though she shook her dark pigtails at him impudently while she swiveled and headed straight across the tinny-looking surface. He started running. From above he could see an ominous dark warping at the center of the icy circle. If she wouldn't listen he'd have to remove her bodily, or at least chase her away.

He was still too far away from the edge when disaster struck. The tip of her blade seemed to catch on the ice. After a few awkward, stumbling steps she pitched forward, throwing her mittened hands out instinctively to catch herself. Instead she plunged right through, disappearing with a splash into a large, ragged hole. Her terrified scream was cut short.

Mulder couldn't run any faster. He wasn't on the ice yet when he heard the blessed roar of the snowmobiles. One rider could hold onto him while he tried to pull the child out, and the other could go get help.

Immediately after the motors cut off, he tripped and fell heavily to the ground. At first all he felt was shock at his own clumsiness in such a critical situation. He tried to rise and something very heavy landed on his back. His legs below the knee were already immobilized. The two young men had tackled him instead of pitching in to help.

"We've got to save that little girl. She'll drown!" He was trying to yell and struggle, but the weight on his back left him barely able to breathe. It was all he could to raise his face out of the snow. These young men had to be the stars of their high school football team.

"Calm down mister," the one holding his legs advised. "There's no one in the water."

Mulder heard the cries now. She must have surfaced. He strained upwards and glimpsed a blue mitten waving desperately above the ice. "Help. Help me!" she called. He could hear splashing and a cry of dismay. There was a shriek and then "I can't...Help me!"

"What the hell is the matter with you? She's crying for help. What if it were your sister? Let me get up. If you let her die I'll kill you." Mulder thought he'd explode with fury.

The youth sitting on him suddenly shifted uneasily. He flipped up Mulder's overcoat and exposed the holstered gun he wore in the middle of his back. The sitter's voice was less confident than his friend's. "Jerry, he's carrying a gun. You gotta convince him it's not real before we let him up. He might shoot first and ask questions later."

"Take the gun and throw it as far away as you can. Hold it, Bobby! Not in the water. And remember where you threw it. He's going to get it back eventually." The tackler still sounded unruffled.

Mulder put all his strength into trying to pull his legs up for a mighty kick at the damnably serene Jerry. He couldn't move anything but his arms. Bobby casually swatted away his attempts to reach behind him and grab for something to hurt. Forced to lie still and listen as the child's last faint cries subsided, Mulder wiped at tears with a cold, snow-wet hand.

"It was no use to talk while you could hear it, so I didn't even try." Jerry spoke first. His voice held a note of compassion Mulder couldn't reconcile with what had just happened. "I'm real sorry. I can tell you take things hard."

"Look, kids have been revived after hours in cold water. Maybe there's still time," Mulder coaxed. It almost killed him to woo this monster with conciliatory words, but he could do it. "One of you go to Dr. VanDyne's house...."

"I'll let you up if you promise not to kill us," Jerry offered.

"Yeah. Yeah, I promise," Mulder said, with a mental reservation relating to when the promise expired.

Jerry and Bobby sprang away from him simultaneously and watched as he tore off toward the lake. They didn't say a word as he stood in confusion. The hole in the ice was gone. Melted and refrozen snow rutted its surface at the edges. The middle was almost slushy. No traces remained of the figure eights and the trail the skater had started to blaze across the lake.

The tumult of emotions inside Mulder abruptly focused into a fervent desire to hit someone. He glared back at his first choice of targets.

The young men didn't look cruel or stupid. He thought they must be brothers. They shared the same solid, stocky builds and straight, dirty-blonde hair. Each of them outweighed him by about a hundred pounds.

"Do you believe us now?" Bobby asked eagerly.

Mulder examined the lake again and gave a deep sigh. He started to brush off the snow that caked his coat and trousers. "I may not kill you, but I know how to hit and make it hurt," he said menacingly.

The young men let the ritual threat pass unchallenged. They all three knew it was empty.

"Tell me what happened," Mulder demanded.

"The lake is haunted," Bobby volunteered eagerly. "You see someone drown, but it's a ghost."

"He's right," Jerry agreed. "But it's not quite that simple. I've always been pretty independent. After I was ten my family gave up on trying to control where I went. That fall our grandma warned me about the mirage on Hollow Lake. She called it a mirage because she knew I'd seen mirages in cartoons about the desert. Or maybe she thought calling it that explained it, and made it less frightening. She knew it wouldn't do any good to tell me to stay away altogether. That would just make me curious. She was very specific, and she wouldn't tell me how she knew. When I was fourteen I saw a boy who looked like Bobby drown in there. Even though she warned me, I might have gone in if I hadn't known he was laid up with a broken leg. It's so real," he said apologetically to Mulder.

Hell. He'd brought Scully to a house with a haunted lake. Here was a chance to investigate a manifestation, and he couldn't take it. She'd never let him hear the end of it if he went back and told her about his discovery. Nor could he deny the resulting nastiness when he convinced her to spend the night in a supposedly haunted house last year.

Maybe he could return during the Christmas holidays. He directed a speculative look at the young man who had tackled him. "You're Jerry. What's your last name?" he inquired.

"Pudden Tame," the youth grinned. "I'm not going on the Jerry Springer Show, or even Oprah. I've got a football scholarship in the bag, and I don't want the sports writers nicknaming me 'Spooky.' I'll tell everyone you're crazy if you claim I told you any ghost story. Bobby and Grandma will back me up."

Mulder looked over at Bobby, who was nodding vigorously at his older brother. Then he checked his watch. It was almost five o'clock. The young men returned to their snowmobiles and prepared to leave.

"You'll be all right, won't you?" Jerry tossed over his shoulder.

"Yeah. Thanks for stopping me," Mulder added grudgingly. "Hey, where'd you throw my gun?" he yelled at Bobby.

Bobby loped back to the spot where they'd brought Mulder down and took his bearings. He walked out along the bank of the lake unhesitatingly and picked up the gun.

"Here. Sorry I had to sit on you," he said as he returned the weapon.

"Bobby's going to get that scholarship two years from now," Jerry said approvingly. "So long."

Mulder knew he was late, but he trudged back along the path slowly. The girl who drowned resembled his sister superficially. He'd never gotten close enough to identify her as Samantha. The voice...he wasn't sure he remembered her girlish voice accurately anymore.

What if Samantha had died like Kitty in a tragic but simple accident all those years ago? He was supposed to have a wild imagination, but he couldn't begin to picture that life. No Search for the Truth. No FBI. No X-Files. No Scully. Or rather no Scully for him. She'd be an Assistant Director out in San Diego by now.

Instead she risked her life working as a field agent. And she risked it on weekend jaunts into the unknown because he suggested them. Right now, while he dawdled and philosophized, she was working alone in a situation of questionable safety. His memory of choosing Scully's gravestone suddenly linked up with the remnants of dread from last night's dream. The logic that allowed him to leave her behind with VanDyne hours earlier no longer seemed compelling. He ran the last quarter mile to the house.

Mrs. MacMurty answered the door. She stared at him as he panted out his question. "Where's my partner? Where's Scully?"

"She's in the lab with Dr. VanDyne. Are you all right?"

"I'm fine. I was just getting some exercise," he explained. He pulled off the galoshes and threw his coat on the hall tree. It would take too long to change out of his wet trousers.

The relief he saw in Scully's face when he entered the lab had to be reflected in his own.

"I'm sorry I'm late. The roads were bad...."

"Never mind, Mulder," she replied with a roll of her eyes. "We're still waiting for Ms. Barney."

"You look a bit cold and damp, Mr. Mulder. No problem, I hope," Dr. VanDyne observed.

"Slipped on some ice," Mulder said shortly. He was about to suggest that he go change when a gaunt young woman appeared in the doorway.

She stared at them through thick-lensed glasses.

"Surprise!" Dr. VanDyne crowed. "Mr. Mulder and Ms. Scully are here to review our work. She's got a degree in physics. They work for the FBI and analyze paranormal phenomena. Of course our work is solid science, but they've kindly agreed to look over our results."

Mulder was half a second from dashing over to catch Ms. Barney before she hit the floor. Her shocked expression was followed by closed eyes. She wavered in place. Then she opened her eyes and smiled. Mulder hoped his own face didn't betray his surprise when she displayed a mouthful of teeth marred by a multitude of brown discolorations.

"We're please to meet you Ms. Barney," Scully began. "Your work looks very interesting, very innovative."

"Thank you. It wasn't easy stepping into Steve's shoes."

"Steve worked on the ERI with me originally. Unfortunately he died in a car crash a couple years ago," VanDyne explained.

Barney gave Dr. VanDyne an expressionless stare. "It was two years ago the day before yesterday," she asserted.

"Quite true. The memory is the first thing to go, isn't it? Why don't we take seats around the library table in the study?"

"All right," she answered him grudgingly. "But I didn't know we were going to spend the evening this way. There's some work I need to do first. I'm going to image some hypothetical numbers and then do disk compressions and tape back-ups." She waited with visible impatience for Dr. VanDyne to struggle to his feet from the chair at the work station. Before they left the room her fingers were flying over the keyboard.

"What's the prognosis for Ms. Barney?" Scully asked as the three of them took seats around the big table.

"Not too good. She gets a lot of lung infections. Her doctors estimate she'll need a lung transplant within two to three years. So far she only needs oxygen intermittently."

"Are the local doctors up on the latest treatments for cystic fibrosis?" Mulder inquired.

"She goes to Albany for consultations. A nurse at the community hospital near here learned percussion therapy and how to use an implant port for administering antibiotics." He stopped speaking and then started again, clearly signalling a change of subject. "Did you get your errands accomplished?" he asked Mulder.

It wasn't until then that Mulder remembered the chips and peanuts still sitting in his car. He could get them later. "Yes. It was a longer haul to shopping than I expected."

"We get deliveries of most things twice a month. Sometimes I regret being so far away from everything, but I've gotten used to it. In eighty-five years you get used to almost anything," he said with a self-mocking smile.

"So what did you want to ask me?" Barney asked from the doorway.

"Why don't you sit down? I'm wondering about the notebooks where you describe how the frequencies are translated into graphics," Scully said diplomatically.

"Steve had that all figured out before I came onto the project. I've been studying his figures at home. The algorithms are on the computer too. He had some experimental data from a hospital MRI. That's how we were able to get so far without using animals."

"Are all the notebooks on animal experimentation at your home also?"

"Yes. I didn't know you were here and wanted to see them," Barney said defensively.

"Maybe we could look at them on-line," Mulder suggested.

"Not while I'm running disk compressions and back-ups."

Mulder found the next two hours as frustrating as trying to get a straight answer from a politician. He and Scully asked specific questions and got abstract generalizations for answers. Or they were told that "Steve did that." Demonstrations of methodology or explanations of processes had to be deferred until the computer was available. Scully finally lost patience.

"Ms. Barney, I'm not satisfied that you're being honest with us. You may not realize it, but you're giving the impression that you're covering something up."

Mulder thought Barney should be more insulted by Scully's words than she appeared. She merely looked annoyed and stood up.

"I'll be right back. I want to check on the back-ups."

In her absence Dr. VanDyne shook his head implacably. "Miss Barney may not be co-operative, but her science is solid. Be patient and she'll explain everything."

When she re-entered the study her face was blank and rigid. She didn't sit down. Her stiff-backed walk brought her right up to the edge of the table. She swept both arms from left to right, sending piles of lab books and notes onto the floor. Loose papers zigzagged down slowly to their resting places after the initial crash.

The frail woman stood breathing heavily from exertion. She still managed to raise her voice in defiant words. "You're right Ms. Scully. The whole project is a lie. Steve's notes were fakes. I knew it a week after I started." She turned to face Dr. VanDyne. "I'm sorry, but I needed money...." A series of wracking coughs shook her.

"Do you have your oxygen?" Scully began.

"What's the matter with Dr. VanDyne?" Mulder interjected.

VanDyne was clutching at his throat and jaw. Mulder thought he might be trying to force words out. The flesh on one side of his face had fallen slightly, like softened wax slipping down a candle. He almost fell from his chair before Scully grabbed his shoulders and pushed him against its back.

"Reefurme. Roofurto," he drooled, before his eyes fluttered shut.

"It's a stroke. Go have Mrs. MacMurty call 911," Scully instructed Mulder.

Mulder hurried off, hoping the housekeeper hadn't left at her usual six o'clock. He quickly found her in the kitchen fixing a vegetable tray.

"Where's your phone? I have to call 911. Dr. VanDyne is having a stroke."

Mrs. MacMurty stepped back and put her hand over the old rotary phone. "We don't have 911 service. Anyway Dr. VanDyne signed a 'Do Not Resuscitate' order. We're not to call emergency services for him."

"Come on. We can't just do nothing," Mulder urged. "Call the fire department. They've got equipment." He considered getting his cell phone from his room.

Mrs. MacMurty shook her head. "He wouldn't thank you. Here, you make the call. His personal physician. Dr. Ernest Craig." She offered him a hand-written list of phone numbers.

Mulder made the call and Mrs. MacMurty watched with satisfaction while Dr. Craig confirmed her statements.

"He wants to die at home. Not in some ICU on a ventilator. I'll be over in thirty minutes to give him something for his blood pressure. If he's still alive. That's all he wanted."

Mulder agreed reluctantly. Dr. VanDyne seemed too full of fight to give up on so easily.

"No emergency service. His doctor is coming over," he informed Scully. "How's he doing?"

"He seems to be stable. We should get him to a hospital. Sometimes they can treat strokes to minimize damage."

"It's not going to happen. Is Ms. Barney all right?"

"Isn't she giving herself oxygen in the sitting room?"

"I didn't see her." Mulder shrugged. "Maybe she decided to take advantage of the distraction and leave the scene of the crime," he commented.

"I guess Dr. VanDyne could prosecute her for fraud. But would he?"

Mulder shrugged again. He gave the house a cursory search while they waited for Dr. Craig, but Helen Barney was gone. Mrs. MacMurty confirmed that she usually drove an Escort. The circular drive was empty. Her cars tracks were clearly marked in the snow.

As a federal officer he supposed he should care about Barney's lawbreaking. He found it difficult to muster up concern. A rich old man with no immediate heirs had been cheated out of some money. Dishonesty shouldn't go unpunished. Still Dr. VanDyne had had a long, rich life, blessed with material things, health, and work he loved.

Barney had to struggle just to get through every day. Her life was likely to be cut short within the next few years. He didn't want to see her go to prison. If VanDyne lived he could pursue a civil suit and Mulder would testify truthfully if subpoenaed. He wouldn't release the bloodhounds personally. Scully seemed to share his doubts. She said nothing about calling the police.

Dr. Craig turned up at ten o'clock. His beefy face looked rather young to Mulder. His confidence and energy appeared boundless. After administering the promised medicine he compared notes with Scully on VanDyne's vital signs. They agreed that with a heart as healthy as his, Dr. VanDyne might live another ten years.

The four of them carried the old man upstairs on a chair turned into a makeshift stretcher. They settled him in bed and Mrs. MacMurty agreed to sit with him that night. A nurse would be sent up from an agency the next day. The housekeeper refused Scully's offer to share her vigil, but she seemed heartened by reassurances that either of them could be wakened at any time if she felt uneasy.

Mulder and Scully went to their bedrooms at two A.M.

This time Mulder took Montague Summers' account of the roots of spiritualism from the study. There didn't seem to be much point in reading more about electron polarization or plasma containment fields. He was tired past the point of sleepiness, and feared insomnia would be his close companion.

Just as he settled down to read he heard one muffled thump from Scully's room. Spirit knocking? Or just Scully bumping into something in a room overcrowded with furniture? He listened hard, but heard no further noises. As he began reading he made a mental note to keep one ear tuned for unusual sounds.

Soon Summers' history of Margaret and Kate Fox had him engrossed. The sisters became famous as adolescents for communicating with spirits who rapped out elaborate codes. Forty years later Margaret recanted her life as a medium. Asserting that she and her sister had faked the knocking from the beginning, she denied everything she had previously sworn to be true. Montague Summers maintained that the claim of fraud was a fraud. Miss Fox, now Mrs. Kane, wanted social acceptance and a "normal" life, so she denied the reality of her early experience.

Mulder wondered which of Margaret Fox Kane's accounts were true. The average person tended to believe self-accusations, but an experienced investigator learned the myriad reasons why people confessed to crimes they didn't commit. They might use the confession of a misdemeanor to distract attention from their darker deeds. Or the truth might be abandoned under social or economic pressures.

Mulder thought back to Helen Barney's poker face and dramatic but pointless trashing of the study table. The questions presented themselves readily.

What if she had some reason for wanting outsiders to believe her experiment was a failure? What if it were more important to keep her success a secret than to preserve her reputation? Barney would know that most people were ready to believe the worst. He and Scully had fallen into the common error of assuming that she wouldn't falsely accuse herself.

Mulder knew he couldn't wait. He had to go downstairs and review the evidence on the computer now. Scully would want to come too. Well, maybe not. She might believe it could wait until morning. He'd better leave her alone if there was no light under her door.

There was no need to fluster Mrs. MacMurty further, so Mulder opened his door very quietly. Stopping several feet from Scully's door, he squinted and twisted his head sideways in an attempt to make it look as though the gap at the bottom were illuminated. It wasn't. But even at that distance he could feel a cold wind blowing steadily out from under the door. It would be too much chill for the most devoted fresh air fanatic, and Scully didn't fall into that category. Something was wrong.

End of "Draught or Dream," Chapter 4 of "Winter I: The Riddle"

_______________________________________________ "The Riddle"

Sunday, 2 A.M.

Scully couldn't sleep. She hadn't done things the right way. Instead of choosing a public confrontation, she should have asked to speak to Barney privately. A low-key, professional approach would have prevented that violent, vein-popping scene. She was indirectly responsible for Dr. VanDyne's condition.

Turning restlessly in the bed she sought a comfortable postion. She stopped moving when she detected quick, soft footsteps in the hall. It sounded as though a child had run past her door. Sliding carefully off the high mattress, Scully moved to the door quickly and opened it enough to check outside. A little girl crouched in the shadows at the top of the stairs. Her face wasn't visible, but from her leaning, intent posture Scully judged she was listening for activity in the house. After a minute of silence she crept down into the well of darkness at the bottom of the stairs. Scully followed, unwilling to let the mysterious visitor out of her sight.

The slight shape moved confidently through the downstairs rooms to the kitchen door. Scully felt her way more slowly. She was too late to object to the girl's opening the door to the outside, but quick enough to catch sight of the determined walker from the doorway.

Scully left the house in her pajamas so she could keep the small figure in sight. Any hesitation and the indistinct movement against the landscape would be lost. Increasingly blustery winds made it hard to follow the shadow flitting ahead through blowing snow. In spite of her own bare feet and nightclothes, Scully gained on the child. She hardly noticed the bitter gale cutting through to her skin or the icy wetness creeping up inside her pajama legs. It was only when she seized the girl that she realized their peril. Once she had stopped her forward motion, she could no longer reanimate her limbs.

The wintery night had frozen both of them into brittle immobility. Temperature lost its meaning. The grip of the tiny, hard fingers at the back of her neck loosened gradually. Hours passed while the wind whittled at their forms, smoothing, polishing, and wearing away. Gradually they joined the mad dance of snowflakes swirling by, destined to transform the landscape with an innocent white blanket.

Scully's last conscious thoughts weren't frightened or sad. The atoms that had constituted her would be forever scattered and granted peace. No more no more fear, no more pain, no more loneliness. She was free.

There was a loud knocking sound. It meant nothing. Numbness wasn't unpleasant. It was just---nothing.

"There's a cold wind blowing out from under your door. I'm coming in," someone called out. "Owww! Shit, Scully. There's a puddle of ice water on the floor in here!"

After a bright flash something burned her cheek. She kept her eyes closed, willing the return of the serene, paralyzing cold.

"Open your eyes!" the panicked voice demanded. "I can see you're still breathing but you're as cold as....come on, wake up!"

Now both cheeks were burning.

She opened her eyes to find Mulder staring into her face, looking as though he'd seen a ghost. His hands on her face felt hot enough to brand her.

"Go to the bathroom and run a tub of hot water," he ordered. "I'm going to close your window."

The dark red curtains billowed into the room on a bitingly cold current of air, twisting like snakes around the black window. Mulder pulled down the sash with an emphatic thump. At the bottom of her bed the quilts and comforters were folded into a neat stack.

Confused by the sudden awakening from a deep sleep Scully lay unmoving. Mulder stalked back over to the bed and pulled her upright. He fingered the collar of her pajamas and Scully realized they were sodden. When he withdrew his hand he held a few long brown hairs that had been clinging to her shoulder.

"Won't it disturb Dr. VanDyne if I run water so late?" she objected.

Mulder gave her a look. It conveyed his barely controlled inclination to take personal charge of the whole matter.

She fled to the bathroom. Mulder followed almost immediately to hand her a sweatsuit of his own put on after her bath. Mrs. MacMurty poked her head out into the hall. When she asked if there was a problem, they answered simultaneously that they were fine.

The bathroom was frigid. It didn't feel uncomfortable to her. She didn't start shaking until the steam rose from the deep, claw- footed tub as it filled. Her wet pajamas suddenly chilled her. Stripping them off hastily she soaked in repeatedly refreshed hot water until her shivering stopped. After dressing she started back to her room.

As she turned her doorknob Mulder emerged from his own room with a stubborn set to his jaw

"You can't go back to sleep in there. It's too cold and the bed is clammy. Besides, what happened? Was it you that opened the window?"

"I must have, I guess. I had a dream about going outside. Maybe I was sleepwalking."

"Did you see anyone, anything?" he asked, looking uneasily up and down the hallway.

"No. That is, only in my dream."

"You must have stood in front of the window in the snow. You were soaked. And cold as a corpse," he said roughly.

"I don't know. I dreamed about walking in the snow."

"Come in and sleep in my bed," Mulder said.

Scully wished that meant what it sounded like. Her best dreams involved sharing a bed with Mulder. But she knew her partner. Long before they met he'd mastered the art of the vulgar witticism to defend himself against grown-up love and passion.

She waited for the inevitable innuendo and leer. They didn't come. He just stood there as if hypnotized by the sight of her. She gazed back and allowed herself to dwell for a few seconds on the thought of waking up to his sleep-relaxed face across the pillow. Accepting the impossibility of that dream desolated her heart until she almost choked with a sob.

Mulder's next words came slowly, as though dragged out by weighty chains. "I'll go sleep on the couch downstairs."

She nodded dumbly and entered his room, hoping that he couldn't read on her features how much she wanted to pull him in with her. As she expected, she couldn't go back to sleep in sheets that smelled of Mulder's shampoo, his soap, his skin. They were a crueller tease than sitting hand in hand with him. She lay awake until dawn posing herself the problem of working out a satisfactory scientific explanation for the night's events.

Scully expected to fend for herself that morning, but once again Mrs. MacMurty had beaten them to the kitchen. While she cooked breakfast, Scully checked a sleeping Dr. VanDyne, and found his vital signs holding steady.

Breakfast consisted of the usual toast and oatmeal. Mrs. MacMurty replaced Dr. VanDyne at the table. Mulder joined them and heard the news about their host. The agency in Albany had called to confirm that a registered nurse would arrive at noon.

Scully was lost in thought. She had exhausted the topic of her guilt in causing Dr. VanDyne's stroke. She moved on to the problem of Helen Barney's guilt. The woman had admitted to committing fraud. Scully had done nothing so far to bring her to justice. She probably couldn't be sent to prison even if convicted. Yet how could Scully justify picking and choosing the laws she upheld, or selecting people to exempt from them? Her ever vigilant conscience reminded her of all the times she had already done those things. Moral questions of a complexity beyond the Jesuits had become her daily portion since she started investigating X-files.

She expected Mulder to dismiss the whole dilemma with a grandly merciful gesture. That's why his words caught her totally off guard.

"Scully, I started thinking last night. That's why I came to your door. What if Helen wasn't telling the truth? Last night, after....what happened, I couldn't sleep anyway. I went and tried to check the computers. She wiped the hard disks totally clean with a program that overwrites every bit. I called Frohike for help in recovery, but he said there's no way. All the floppies and tapes used for data backups are gone. What if the work is genuine? Maybe she has some reason for wanting to avoid notice by the government."

"More than just the government. She burned her bridges with Dr. VanDyne," Scully said with a frown.

"Think about it. If it works, what would some people pay for it? Now she doesn't have to share the profit."

"My objections still stand. The evidence is far from complete."

"But what if some of it was deliberately withheld? I'm going to her place and talk to her. I'm not satisfied."

Scully smiled at him over her rueful comment. "You're never satisfied."

"Come with me," he urged.

Mulder watched her closely as he asked. He really wanted her to go with him. Last night he must have been more frightened than she thought. Maybe he'd been seeing and hearing more than he admitted in his own room.

"I'd really appreciate it if you didn't leave me here alone with the doctor," Mrs. MacMurty stated apprehensively.

Scully shook her head at Mulder.

"I'll pack so we can leave when you get back. And I should pick up some of the mess in the study. I can organize the notes in case Dr. VanDyne wants to prosecute Ms. Barney for fraud."

Mrs. MacMurty interrupted her before she had done more than stack everything neatly.

"Dr. VanDyne is asking to talk to someone," she said. Scully never expected to see the stoic housekeeper wear such an anxious expression.

Without openly running, Scully pounded up the stairs as quickly as she could. She hoped the old man wasn't having another stroke. His desire to die at home was understandable, but it wouldn't be easy to stand by and do nothing if he stopped breathing.

VanDyne sat propped up in bed. The harsh morning light revealed only a slight droop on the left side of his face. It was barely noticeable, although his missing plate gave his cheeks a pathetically sunken appearance. The damage to his mind was more serious.

"Bridget, you're looking lovely this morning," he greeted her.

"He keeps asking for her. I don't know who she was."

Mrs. MacMurty startled Scully by hissing the information right into her ear. Why had Mrs. MacMurty fetched her if he was asking for Bridget?

"My dear, would you mind doing me a favor? The sun's been shining all morning and I'm worried about children playing on the lake. The ice might have held them yesterday, but today the middle will be rotten. It worries me."

Scully imagined that his family tragedy did make him anxious about the local children.

"You don't need to worry about anything. You'll be taken care of," she soothed him.

"It's not myself I'm worried about. It's the children!"

He started to work his right leg out from under the covers, becoming more and more agitated when he couldn't make his left leg follow suit. His blood pressure would rise to match his level of excitement. Scully stepped forward and took his hands in hers.

"I promise I'll go check," she assured him with a smile. "I'll walk out there and have a look around."

She coaxed him into lying down for a nap, assuring him that she would report to him when she returned.

Mrs. MacMurty shadowed her back down the stairs and explained her thinking.

"I thought it might work to get you when he got all in a tizzy asking for Bridget. What do you want to bet she had red hair? I don't think he knows what's going on. He's calling me Mrs. Gould."

When Scully took her coat from the hall closet Mrs. MacMurty looked shocked.

"You're not really going out, are you? I haven't seen a child around here in the three months I've had this job. There are those idiot high school kids on snowmobiles. But they're old enough to know about thin ice."

"I promised. It's no bother."

The prospect of a quiet walk through the hills attracted her. She hadn't had much of the solitude she was used to in the last three days. Except during hours of broken sleep in that dark, odious bedroom. A serene hour of walking would prepare her to face Mulder's mood during the drive home. He might be full of accusations, guilt or worry over her. Or a combination of the three.

The smallest pair of rubber boots went on easily over her shoes. The sun had done a great deal to warm up the atmosphere, but mittens, a hat and scarf would still feel good

It had snowed again during the night. She walked where only birds and rabbits, and a few deer had gone before. Under the bright sun their tracks had melted slightly and spread into strange shapes. The snow sparkled as she always imagined stardust would. So often white as a color seemed too safe---boring and virginal. This white scintillated with energy, filling her with more vitality and purpose than she'd enjoyed for a long time. She strode quickly over gentle rises that grew into the hills that surrounded the lake.

The sun's rays bounced in every direction from the silvery disk of ice frozen in a bowl of snow. They dazzled her eyes shut as she reached the top of a hill. She shaded them with a hand. When her vision cleared she was alarmed to see that there was indeed a child playing at the far edge of the lake. The girl appeared to be three or four years old, much too young to be out there alone.

Scully scanned the surrounding area for the person who should be minding her, but saw no one. The child edged up to the ice and slid the toe of one boot across the surface.

"Don't go on the ice," Scully yelled through cupped hands.

The little girl glanced up curiously to see who was calling. She brushed short, straight, blonde hair away from her round face and seemed to look gravely at the strange woman yelling meaningless words. To Scully's alarm she stepped onto the ice and started running and sliding on the invitingly glazed surface.

Scully started running too. Words didn't influence the wayward urchin enjoying her own style of ice skating. The child was almost to the center of the lake, and it was there that the worst danger lurked. If need be Scully would drag her off the treacherous skin of ice by force.

She had just reached the edge when the little girl threw up her hands and her blue eyes went wide with surprise. Her small body slipped through the sudden hole so quickly and neatly there was no time for a scream.

Scully stretched herself full length on the ice and started scooting out toward the dark water. She kicked her boots and shoes off behind her and unwound her scarf as she moved. If the child didn't re-surface in seconds to grab the scarf she'd have to go after her.

Then there was a flash of a pink face and red stocking cap.

"Mommy! Mommy help!"

"Grab the scarf!" Scully screamed as she tossed one end of it ahead of her so it trailed in the dark water.

The terrified child flailed in the water for a few moments and then sank out of sight again.

Scully shrugged out of her coat to prepare for sliding into the water. The ice started to give under her upper body as she propelled herself forward. Suddenly she heard Mulder call her name hoarsely from a short distance behind. She paused a fraction of a second to answer him.

"Go get help. A little girl fell through."

Then she felt hands grasp her ankles. She flew backwards with disorienting speed.

"There's no time. Let go of me!" she begged, trying to kick his hands away.

In answer he hauled on her legs again with irresistible strength. His violent pull rolled her into the snow on the bank.

"Mulder what do you think you're doing?" she almost sobbed in her desperation.

He pulled her to her feet and kept an iron grasp on her wrists while he panted with exertion. His words exploded out in tiny intervals between deep gasps.

"Don't look. Scully." He paused. "It's not. Real. There's. Nobody there."

"There is. I saw her. She looked like....It was a little girl!"

He wouldn't let go of her. Her stocking feet slipped in the snow when she tried to brace herself and twist away from him.

"Listen to me. There's nothing there. It's an illusion," he insisted.

She hardly recognized his raspy voice.

"I'm not crazy. I know what I saw and heard. She'll be dead now. We're letting her die." Scully wondered why she defended her own sanity instead of questioning his. He seemed so sure. But she couldn't be deluded under the bright sun in the middle of the day.

"I know you're not crazy. I saw a little girl drown too. Yesterday. She was about eight years old and had dark brown pigtails. She held on to the edge of the ice and called to me for help."

Now Scully looked closely into his face. It was as anguished as her own must be. Tears ran from his eyes as they were starting to run from hers. He went on talking.

"That's what I saw yesterday. I almost saw another drowning today. It was you, Scully. And it was real." Then he pulled her against himself. "I'll let you look in a minute and you'll understand. It's Kitty doing this."

Scully started to shiver as the adrenaline that had driven her until now ebbed in her bloodstream.

"I need my coat, Mulder. Let me get my coat and boots." A fifteen foot lead would put her far enough beyond Mulder's reach to fling herself after the girl before he could catch up.

"Not just yet. Here, until it's over."

His overcoat was already unbuttoned. As he spoke he pulled her inside its shelter and brought it closed as far as he could over her back. Scully couldn't help responding gratefully to the warmth even as she resisted his hold on her.

"You mean when you're sure she's dead?" Scully asked bitterly.

"No, until the illusion is over." He swallowed gingerly between words, as though his throat hurt.

She could hear the rapid pounding of his heart under her ear. His chin rested lightly on the top of her head. Her unwillingness to hurt him and growing uncertainty about events limited her struggle to nonviolent attempts to pull free. He didn't even seem to notice them.

A few minutes later he gradually and carefully released his hold.

"OK. Take a look," he encouraged her.

Scully spun around and searched for the spot where the little girl had disappeared through the ice. She saw her boots, shoes, coat and scarf lying discarded in a trail that ended at a crazed patch of ice near the center of the lake. The end of the scarf didn't dangle in the water as she remembered. It lay flat, a streak of red on the silver and white surface. There was no complete break in the ice, although it darkened dangerously in the middle.

"Has the hole frozen over already?" she gasped.

"The only hole was going to be the one you made by diving in," Mulder replied. "Where did you see her playing? Look for footprints," he suggested.

Scully stumbled around the perimeter of the water on numbed feet while Mulder cautiously retrieved her boots, shoes and coat with a pine branch. He followed her around to the far edge and persisted in holding out her coat until she slipped it on.

"I couldn't reach the scarf, even with a branch. The ice is too thin. Did you find any prints?" he inquired.

She shook her head. Then she lost her balance and dropped awkwardly to her hands and knees in the snow.

"Are you OK?" he asked quickly. "I know we need to get back so you can warm up. I just wanted you to be sure that nothing happened here. Not today anyway. It happened over seventy years ago and nothing seems to stop it from happening over and over again."

"I can't feel my feet," she answered. She sat back and stretched both legs out to examine small feet in blue socks caked with snow. "I can't walk."

"Here, give me those feet," he said briskly.

With that he sat down in the snow himself and removed his gloves. He took her feet in his warm hands and chafed them briskly. Soon they stung and burned with returning sensation. Scully couldn't prevent a grimace and some jerks away from his touch at the discomfort.

"I'm sorry, but it'll be over with soon," he remarked sympathetically. "This isn't the first time I've done this, you know. I've had practice."

Scully remembered a waking dream of lying on the Antarctic ice dressed in a makeshift collection of Mulder's clothes. He must be remembering the same thing. He suddenly looked miserable as he went on rubbing her feet and talking.

"Some of us need practice at the most elementary things in life. Eventually we can learn, but people have to be so patient. Sometimes it must seem like we're hopeless and people just give up. It's not really too late until you're dead, though," he ended firmly.

"Maybe not even then," Scully said with a shaky gesture toward the lake.

"Maybe not," Mulder said with a faint smile, "but I don't call luring strangers to their deaths an existence to aspire to. And it doesn't seem as though anyone in this place has learned anything during all this time."

His voice still cracked and faded at intervals as he tried to talk.

"What happened to your voice?"

"Mrs. MacMurty told me you'd taken a walk to the lake. I was yelling your name the whole way here. You didn't answer me until I was almost on top of you."

"I never heard until I answered you," she assured him.

"Scully didn't you realize you wouldn't have had a chance in that water? You'd have been unconscious in minutes. There was nothing to hold onto to pull yourself out."

"Maybe I could have rolled the little girl up onto the ice. And held onto the edge until someone came. Do you really think I could just turn my back?" she asked, with a steady look into Mulder's eyes.

He dropped his gaze, not bothering to answer her question. Then she remembered Mulder's story.

"What about you Mulder? I don't remember you showing up and calling for search and rescue units yesterday afternoon. How did you know it wasn't real? And why didn't you tell me what happened?"

He laughed sheepishly.

"I was ready to dive in too. Two teenagers were snowmobiling around the lake. They knew about the illusion. They jumped on me and held me down until I'd listen to them. After what happened to us in that house last Christmas I didn't want to tell you. I'd told you so positively that this house wasn't haunted. I was afraid you'd think I planned it. The boys said they'd deny the whole story. They didn't want their friends to think they were crazy."

He changed the subject abruptly.

"Why did you decide to go out for a stroll after I left?" he asked.

"Dr. VanDyne asked me to. Well, he asked Bridget. He thought I was Bridget, someone he used to know. He asked her---me---to go out and make sure no children were playing around the pond. He didn't really know what was going on."

Mulder's thunderously frowning face surprised her.

"He watched me from his bedroom window while I drove away. I waved at him. He waved back and smiled. He knew me this morning," Mulder asserted.

"Maybe he got confused afterwards. It's no wonder he worries about children having accidents after what happened to Kitty." Scully went silent for a minute. "What do you know about Kitty? Dr. VanDyne said he wasn't going to mention her death to you. He knew about Samantha, and didn't want to bring back bad memories."

"He told me the whole story yesterday. How she drowned when he was thirteen and it was his fault. His whole family destroyed because of him. He said he wasn't going to tell you because you already seemed worried and low-spirited."

"No, you've got it wrong. It was her mother who sent her away and then almost went mad with grief and guilt," Scully objected.

"Come on. We're going to get you warm and have a talk with Dr. VanDyne." Mulder replied. A cold, quiet anger underlay his words.

Scully mused that Mulder had been telling the truth a few minutes ago. He could change and learn. Once he would have leapt up and bounded off ahead of her when the crisis was over and another objective beckoned. Instead he tucked her bare feet carefully into her shoes and boots. Then he stood, helped her stand up, and offered his hand on the walk back. His actions were almost...tender.

Disappointment was comically evident in Dr. VanDyne's face when they entered his room hand in hand. His sharp eyes surprised Scully, who remembered his vagueness and confusion at their earlier meeting.

"So you've come to say good-bye," he observed with a sour look.

"Not until I've gotten an explanation," Mulder said grimly, disengaging from Scully and pulling a straight-backed chair to Dr. VanDyne's bedside. He sat down with an air of settling in for a long stay.

"I barely got there in time to save her life," he spoke accusingly. "Why did you send her out there when you know the local kids don't come anywhere near this place?"

"I forgot?" the old man wheedled.

"You're crazy, but you're not senile or brain-damaged. You knew what would happen down there."

VanDyne shrugged lopsidedly and affected a look of incomprehension.

"I think you planned for Scully to die there and stay with Kitty. Why is it necessary to make a human sacrifice to your dead sister?"

"Don't you know the answer to that question Mr. Mulder? How do you justify yourself to your self if you don't know the answer to that?" VanDyne challenged him with a distorted grin.

Mulder turned so pale Scully feared he was going to pass out. She moved over to stand next to him, placing a steadying hand on his shoulder.

One side of VanDyne's face grinned more widely at her action.

"Kitty knows a lot about all of us. She has her ways, Kitty does. She can get into your dreams, did you know that? She talks to me and tells me more than I want to know about everybody. The little bitch didn't tell me about Miss Barney though. Excuse my language, Miss Scully.

"I thought maybe she'd be content after she had Mama and Papa. It was so lonely here after they were gone. I was away at school for years, but I had to come back for the holidays. Then she started going back to school with me. And college. Away from here she was much worse. My life wasn't worth living. Finally I had to move back permanently. After college I never left again for more than a few days. And I paid dearly for them.

"All these years I've been studying, working, inventing. Finally I thought I had the answer. I thought I could use the ERI and a magnetic bottle to trap her. Maybe even destroy her. You showed me the error of my ways, Miss Scully. I was foolish and fooled. There was no hope of deliverance by Science. And I'm too old to start another line of investigation.

"I remembered she was quiet for a while after Steve followed Mama and Papa into the cottonwoods at fifty miles per hour. So I gambled I could appease her for a while with you." He shot a smug glance at Scully. "You could amuse her while I left here for a few months of peace before the end of my life. The odds against it were long but the risk was non-existent. What would you do, kill me or arrest me as a ghost's accomplice?" he sneered at Mulder.

Mulder sat hunched over his knees. He looked more likely to vomit than pursue some form of revenge.

"Look at me," VanDyne ordered him.

Scully was amazed to see him obey. The degree of suffering in his face made her wince. VanDyne had succeeded in his objective. Mulder had redirected his contempt and hatred for the old man toward himself.

"She's tired and sad," VanDyne said, with a jerk of his head toward Scully. "You've had almost everything but her life from her. Why didn't you let her find rest here?"

Scully had had more than she could tolerate.

"How dare you assume you know what I want or need? My work matters. There are deceptions and evil out there greater than yours," Scully attacked. "You know nothing outside this lunacy you've been sucked into. It won't be long before you're in eternity. I hope you'll be ready to face the consequences of what you've done here."

"Come on," she insisted to Mulder, tugging on his arm. "We're wasting our time. He's going to hell. He'll get what he deserves no matter what we do."

Mulder still sat and watched some frightful drama play itself out behind his shadowed eyes.

"They're getting in your head again, Mulder. Like when you saw the little girl drowning. Come on!"

She pulled on him so hard he had to stand up or fall over. Scully hustled him out of the room and down the stairs, past the astonished Mrs. MacMurty and a young man in nurse's whites. VanDyne's thin laughter followed them out the front door.

Scully pushed Mulder into the passenger seat of the car before she went back in to get their bags. The trunk was shut on their luggage and she was down the drive inside of two minutes.

"Turn left," Mulder said dully at the end of it.

Scully did as he instructed.

"The car you almost hit on Thursday. It pulled out of VanDyne's driveway. It went straight off the road right there, into that stand of cottonwoods, instead of taking the curve," he informed her.

"There wasn't any crash on Thursday."

"Seventy-two years ago on Thanksgiving VanDyne's parents drove into those trees. That's what we saw. If you'd been a little slower to react Kitty would have had what she wanted before we even arrived."

"Are you OK now?" Scully dared to inquire after another fifteen minutes of cautious driving.

"Apart from being Fucks-up Mulder, I'm fine."

"Don't do that," Scully scolded angrily.

"Can you imagine what it would be like to repeat the same mistakes over and over and over and over again forever? That's what Kitty does, and maybe VanDyne will be trapped the same way. I don't have to imagine it. I live it every day."

He felt enough anger and disgust at himself for both of them. Enough for a legion of critics. He needed something positive to hang on to while he rode out the black tide of despair.

"Don't give up so easily. You've been learning. You've changed a lot since I met you. And I mean for the better," she insisted in the face of his skeptical look.

"Maybe so," he said with bitterness. "But the question is, can I learn fast enough?"

"You said it yourself. It's not too late until you're dead."

"Yeah. Or until you are," he added sadly.

The soft reply hung in the air between them like a simple melody, inviting development, variations, harmonies and resolution. They let its echoes fade into profound silence.

"Did you find Ms. Barney?"

"No. She was gone. Nobody saw her go back to her apartment last night, but it was pretty well cleaned out. Her landlord let me in on the strength of my badge."

"You can find her."

"She's a computer expert. I'll bet she creates a new identity it'll take years to uncover. Besides, there won't be any authorized investigation. No district attorney in a rural area is going to prosecute a criminal everyone sympathizes with when there's no solid evidence against her. I might have convinced them she perpetrated fraud. Can you imagine me persuading them she committed a theft of intellectual property---the specifications for building a soul detector?"

"She can be tracked through the medical system, Mulder. If she wants to be a candidate for a lung transplant she's going to be on a pretty short list. And there wouldn't be much point in faking a tissue type."

"That's true," Mulder admitted grudgingly. "Maybe I could track her down. But what would I do if I found her?"

"I'm sure you'd think of something," Scully soothed.

They didn't speak again until they had to decide where to eat. Mulder's keen wit carried the day for Cloyd's Diner. After the greasy meal Scully took her revenge by lecturing on magnetofluids as she drove. In a short time Mulder found refuge in sleep.

End

**

Thanks: I owe thanks, as always, to Pellinor's incomparable "Deep Background." I would also like to thank Bugs for words of encouragement and advice.

 


 

Return to Bump In The Night