| TITLE: "Letters"
AUTHORS: Suzanne Bickerstaffe
Artwork by: Ann
INFO: Written for I Made This Productions Virtual Season 8
RATING: PG-13 for language
CLASSIFICATION: X, A, M/S UST, Sk/M/Sc friendship
SPOILERS: Can't remember any....
DISCLAIMERS AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Many thanks to the IMTP Board
for their original idea and the work they've put in. It's been an honor
to be a part of this dynamic, creative group. Thanks also go to Ten for
her insightful, incisive and quick beta. All the characters you've heard
of belong to Fox Television and Chris Carter. The ones you haven't heard
of belong to Mel and myself. I hope it will not be seen as completely
self-aggrandizing that we took this opportunity to have a guest appearance
by a character we created some time ago who seemed to strike a chord with
readers. To finish the disclaimer: we are not making any money from this,
but do it for the love of writing, and for the love and respect we have
for the characters. Chris and Fox, you should try it sometime - it's very
SUMMARY: A killer is stalking FBI agents, striking down those
whom he feels are unworthy, and sending letters explaining his mission
to A.D. Walter Skinner. When the next ingenious murder takes place right
in the J. Edgar Hoover Building, Skinner feels Mulder may be the next
target, and sends him and his partner to a safe house to profile the killer.
But the violence escalates, affecting all of them, and only Mulder, Scully
and an old acquaintance can bring the killings to an end.
by Suzanne Bickerstaffe and Melody
Friday, September 1, 2000
Philadelphia FBI Office
"Got any special plans?"
Agent Eric Michaels turned to his colleague with a self-satisfied smile. "Yup. Going up to the cabin this weekend." His little hideaway, deep in the Poconos and off the tourist track, had never been far from his thoughts all day.
"You're one lucky bastard, I hope you know that," Keith Markham said grudgingly. "You've got the number-one solve rate in the state, and the buzz has it that you've got a lock on that ASAC position coming up when Marchewski retires. You look like a goddamn GQ poster boy, and you have that incredible cabin. What the hell did you do, sell your soul to the devil, or what?"
Michaels chuckled. "Not me, buddy. I came by it all naturally."
"Yeah, right. So who's goin' with you - the lucky lady of the week, or some of your friends from the broadcast media?"
Michaels opened the back hatch of his SUV. "Nope, just me this time, and some serious fishing to be done." He gestured to the equipment stowed in the back of the vehicle - fishing gear, a duffle bag, an ice chest and a box of gourmet grocery items.
"If you had to rough it, you'd probably pass out," Markham commented dryly.
At Keith's remark, Michaels laughed aloud. "Now why the hell would I want to rough it when I have all this and the cabin too? Now, if you'll excuse me, I want to hit the road. Traffic on the Northeast Extension is going to be a bitch, and I want to get up there before it gets dark."
"You're sure you don't want me to call a few reporters to accompany you?" Markham asked with exaggerated concern. "You know how they love to tell the world about Mr. Hollywood's exploits."
Michaels got into the Pathfinder, closed the door and rolled down the window. "Nah, this weekend would bore them to tears." He grinned. "Then I'd have to start building up my heroic persona all over again."
"Screw your heroic persona."
Michaels laughed again. "You have a good weekend too, Keith."
Markham watched as the forest green Pathfinder skillfully entered the flow of traffic. "Lucky bastard," he murmured.
Wednesday, September 6
Philadelphia FBI Office
Neal Weathers looked around at the assembled agents and frowned. Agent Michaels' empty chair stood out conspicuously. After three years with the office without a sick day, Michaels hadn't reported in yesterday, and was out again today. Hadn't shown up and even more worrying, hadn't called in. That certainly wasn't like Michaels, who obeyed every rule to the letter. Secretly, Weathers harbored the suspicion that Eric's obedience and attendance record were aimed more at impressing the brass than because of any particular loyalty to the office or to the policies of the Bureau. The kid was good, very good. But a bit too heavy-handed and way more nakedly ambitious than the SAC liked to see in the agents under his command. But that was beside the point right now....
"Okay, let's quiet down and get down to business here." Weather's soft rumbling bass brought an end to the buzz of conversation around the table. "Agent Eric Michaels has not been seen or heard from since Agent Markham spoke to him Friday evening. Now I know some of you have had your problems with Michaels, but he's one of ours, and this behavior is uncharacteristic of him. I can only assume that he may have met with an accident."
Weathers paused, searching the faces of the assembled agents. "I have refrained from calling in the local cops. One word of who we're looking for, and dollars to donuts, it'll get leaked to the press and we'll be tripping all over video crews. None of us needs that. The only way to keep it quiet is to handle it ourselves. Fortunately, the workload at the moment is pretty light, so I can spare a few of you to check this out. Agents Markham and Willis, Sing and Velasquez. I want you to take a ride up to the mountains." He paused, then continued uncomfortably, "Agent Sing, by any chance do you know the whereabouts of the cabin?"
The pretty Asian flushed. Against her better judgement, she had spent one weekend at the cabin with Michaels. It had been a mistake - a big one - but she had assumed that at least it had been discreet. So, Mr. Hollywood had a mouth as big as his ego. Great. "It was some time ago, but I think I can remember the way, sir," she responded guardedly.
"Good. The rest of you, cover their calls for the day." The agents began to get up and move off to their desks. The four he had named stood waiting expectantly. "Give me a call when you've had a chance to look around up there. You leave immediately."
- - - - -
Claire Sing peered ahead and pointed. "I think the turn is just up there on the left."
"How the hell can you tell?" growled her partner, Jeff Velasquez. "Christ, we're in the middle of friggin' nowhere!" They had been following a rough trail no wider than their cars through thick forest and underbrush for several miles now. Jeff was from Brooklyn, born and raised with the smell of asphalt and car exhaust, and the wilderness frankly gave him the willies.
"Just turn, Nature Boy," she smiled. They had been partnered now for eighteen months. Although the pairing had seemed strange at first -- the young and diminutive Sing and the tall, rangy, middle-aged Velasquez -- there was now a bond of trust and affection between the two.
"Christ on a cru-utch!" he exclaimed as they jounced on the rutted path even narrower than the last one they had been on. "They'd better not try to dock us for car damage when we bring these babies back." As if to underscore his words, branches scraped along the sides of the vehicle. Claire looked back, to see how Markham and Willis were faring, then turned ahead to peer through the woods. The glint of the sun off a nearby lake reassured her. "It's close, I think... Yes! Over there!"
The two cars pulled up beside Michaels' Pathfinder, and the agents slowly got out, stretching their muscles. Willis knocked on the cabin door. When there was no answer after several seconds, he tried the knob, which turned easily. With an enigmatic look at his companions, he entered the cabin.
The interior could only be described as rustic luxury. The log walls and stone hearth could have belonged to an earlier time, but the kitchen boasted all the modern conveniences including a small dishwasher. Velasquez gaped at the bathroom, with its gleaming tile, Jacuzzi and next to the toilet, a bidet. "What the hell do you suppose that's for," he wondered aloud.
The agents went through the cabin meticulously. Everything was neat, clean, orderly. "What do you think this is -- Mr Hollywood offering his services to headquarters?" Markham indicated a letter lying on the kitchen counter. It was addressed to Assistant Director Walter Skinner. "That kind of grandstanding would be in character for the S.O.B."
Claire went through the cabinets, then the fridge. Finally, a quizzical look on her face, she checked the trash. "Hey, guys. Am I crazy, or does this look too neat? Almost like Eric wasn't here all that long. Look - everything's still pretty well stocked, and there's hardly any trash." She opened the dishwasher. "Two plates - probably dinner Friday night and breakfast on Saturday morning."
"And the Pathfinder is still here," Markham added grimly. "His fishing gear is missing. You think he took a boat out to fish, maybe capsized or something?"
Wordlessly, the agents left the cabin and made their way through the forest to the lake. There was no clear path, and they had to make their way around gullies and fallen trees. Velasquez swatted irritably at the mosquitoes teasing his ears. "Why the hell would the sonofabitch have a fishing cabin and not put it right on the lake?" he grumbled.
Claire laughed shortly. "He wanted to. He was pissed as hell. But he insisted on proper plumbing and the septic system had to be set back away from the lake so it wouldn't pollute, so the cabin had to be set back as well. You know Eric. He always thought his shit didn't stink. He probably thought it didn't pollute either. I think it's the only thing in his whole life that didn't end up exactly the way he wanted it. There...."
They had made their way to the sandy narrow beach of the lake. Now they looked to where Claire pointed, about 50 yards up the beach to a dock. A small but expensive boat bobbed peacefully beside it.
"I suppose he still might have drowned," remarked Willis doubtfully, "but the boat being there would argue against it."
Claire shook her head. "He swam like a seal. Look, let's spread out and head back towards the cabin. Maybe he fell and hit his head. Then I want to take another look at that letter to the A.D. Maybe it's a ransom note."
The agents spaced themselves about twenty yards apart to cover the ground that Michaels had likely traversed to get from the cabin to the lake. They kept their eyes on the leafy floor of the forest, searching for anything that might explain what had happened to Michaels.
"I think...." Velasquez's voice was muffled. "Oh sweet Jesus!"
Sing and Willis ran in the direction of Jeff's voice and skidded to a stop. Velasquez just pointed. Half-hidden beneath a pile of leaves and under a cloud of buzzing flies lay Eric Michaels' body. It was clear he had been dead for some time.
"But what could have killed him?" Claire rasped in a strangled whisper.
"Oh, shit! Guys, come here!" Keith Markham's voice shook.
Some fifty feet away, the three agents joined a white and swaying Markham, and stared at where his eyes were fixed. There, in the gleaming, vicious jaws of a huge beartrap lay the lower right leg of Eric Michaels.
Thursday, September 7, 2000
J. Edgar Hoover Building
Assistant Director Walter Skinner scowled once more at the letter in his hand. His deep brown eyes scanned the lines again, then he placed it on a short stack of manila folders and pressed the intercom key. "Kim, please have Agents Mulder and Scully come up to my office immediately."
Skinner's frown threatened to take up permanent residence. They had been late off the mark with this one - he knew it, the Director knew it, their mysterious correspondent certainly knew it. His letters showed a near incredulousness at the FBI's tardiness in recognizing what now seemed all too clear. Only one person had seen early-on the potential in the deaths, and his opinion had seemed so ludicrous, based on such flimsy evidence and bizarre leaps of logic that.... Skinner dropped that line of thought. All of the "what ifs" in the world wouldn't change the situation he faced at this point. So now they had a serial killer on their hands - a killer who had the FBI square in his crosshairs.
There was a knock, and Skinner glanced up to see Fox Mulder and Dana Scully entering his office. They seated themselves in front of his desk. Uncomfortably, Mulder began, "If this is about the expense report for our last case, sir-"
"No, Agent Mulder, this is something else." At his subordinate's instant look of relief, he added darkly, "We will address that work of fiction later, however."
Scully bit her lip to keep a straight face. She had tried to tell Mulder, but-- then Skinner's serious tone captured her complete attention.
"Do you remember the deaths of Harold Frayne, Guy Piscobo and Alan Mellor?"
Mulder shifted in his seat. Hell yes, he remembered them. Ostensibly, Frayne had driven into a bridge abutment at 87 miles an hour. He had just gone through a nasty divorce and had been taking it badly. On top of that, he learned that he was under a covert investigation by the government for his misuse of Bureau resources and his position as head of the Salt Lake City office to harass his ex-wife's new lover. His death, reasonably enough, had been thought a suicide.
Guy Piscobo of the Dallas-Fort Worth office had suffered a fatal heart attack. Again, nothing unusual was thought of the death. Piscobo had been close to retirement and had had hypertension for years. A career field agent's lifestyle, after all, was not a blueprint for good health.
Alan Mellor was another story. A loud-mouthed, brutal bully from the Denver office, Mellor had been despised by nearly everyone who knew him, colleagues and miscreants alike. His death in a skiing accident had left few saddened. "Yes, I remember them," replied Mulder.
"Well, we've opened an investigation into those deaths."
Mulde grimaced in frustration. "Sir, I hate to say I told you so, but I suggested there might be something to them four months ago. All the deaths occurred within a two month timespan, and all the men involved had been highly publicized at some point in their careers. I can understand why no one looked too closely at Mellor's death" -- Mulder had had his own problems with the ASAC -- "but the other two were taken at face value without hesitation."
"Thank you so much for bringing that up, Agent Mulder," Skinner shot back with asperity. Then he sat back in his chair, removed his glasses and massaged the bridge of his nose. His fierce expression softening, he sighed. "No. I apologize, Mulder. You're right. You did mention it at the time. It just seemed so... so..."
"Paranoid?" suggested Mulder with a grin.
Putting on his glasses again, Skinner allowed himself a small smile. "Your word, not mine. I was about to say 'unlikely'. What it comes down to, agents, is that we have had eight such deaths within the past six months of agents either in positions of command, or in the headlines at some point in their careers, or both. Until the sixth death, you're right -- the Bureau accepted them at face value. Shit happens -- coincidences, whatever. With the last two, there was increased suspicion, but still, really nothing to go on. Each of these agents died in a different manner, and there was ample evidence to explain them."
He frowned. "Or at least it was thought so at the time. Then, a few weeks ago, these started arriving." He opened one of the manila folders and handed Scully some papers, protected in plastic covers. Wordlessly, she passed a few of them over to Mulder as she began to read the letter at the top of her pile.
Wake up, people! What the hell is it going to take for you to figure this out? Yeah, I could have done an Oklahoma City, but in my opinion, those bombers were animals. There's no need to kill innocents to make a point, when there are so many of the guilty around.
The FBI has always been a nest of vipers, led by men who have their own agendas and the Consititution be damned. From the time of J. Edgar Hoover, who arrogantly used his power to pursue his own ends, right up to the present, the FBI is nothing but a national Secret Police, doing the dirty work of those in power and perpetrating crimes against the people of the United States.
It is my mission to clean up the Bureau, by any means necessary. There, is that clear enough? You need to know that the recent unlamented deaths of Frayne, Piscobo, that SOB Mellor, Dietrich, Garboski, Sullivan, Calvin and Bresnahan were caused by yours truly, and that they were not the acts of a madman. A mad man, yes, but not a madman. They were executions, pure and simple, carried out in the name of the people of the United States for crimes committed against them by the FBI. And there will be more.
Here is my sole demand - the FBI must get its house in order. Excesses by its agents must be swiftly and meaningfully dealt with. There must be no more Wacos, no more enemies lists, no more secret wiretapping of brave men and women who dare to speak out against the status quo. No more power playing, no more assassinations. When I see that decisive measures are being taken to reform the Bureau, the killings will stop. Until and unless the FBI starts cleaning its own house, then the people of the United States will have in me an avenger for the acts committed against them.
The ball's in your court, Skinner.>
Scully leafed through the plastic-sheathed letters in her lap, then glanced up, surprised. "These letters have all been addressed to you, sir! But why?"
"I've been asking myself that one, Agent Scully," Skinner replied, frustrated.
"It's because he sees you as being different, sir," Mulder observed. "Or at least he did. This letter, written two weeks ago, says 'I know you're a vet, and that gives you the benefit of the doubt, at least for the time being. But something has to be done - NOW - to show you take me seriously, and that you agree that the Bureau needs to be fumigated of the stink of corruption and politics'."
"So these have all been murders?" asked Scully. "Has that been substantiated?"
"We're checking now. It takes a bit of time to get to the families involved, get the exhumation orders for those who were buried. Those that were cremated...." He shrugged. "But the crime scenes are long since cold, because nobody thought of them as crime scenes at the time. For example, Harold Frayne's car may well have been tampered with, as our letter writer claims." Scully shuffled through the letters until she found the one her boss alluded to. "But the fact remains that what was left of his car was recycled months ago. The ski slope where Alan Mellor was killed is sprouting dandelions. It's a little late to look for tell-tale tracks in the snow," Skinner concluded dryly.
Dana Scully rolled her eyes. "This is going to be nearly impossible. Are there any viable investigative paths?"
The A.D. sighed. "They're exhuming Guy Piscobo's body. You tell me -- after embalming and four months in the grave, will there be any signs of air embolus? That's what our letter writer claims he used to kill him."
She looked doubtful, then shook her head.
"That's what I thought. The only thing we know is what this guy tells us. Fact of the matter is, he does mention certain things about the deaths in his letters that weren't publicized and were not likely to be known to the general public -- what the inside of Piscobo's apartment looked like, for example. Details about Frayne's car, the serial number of Dietrich's service weapon."
Mulder leafed through the letters. "Glen Dietrich was thought to have died accidentally from a self-inflicted gunshot wound while cleaning his weapon." He glanced up at Skinner. "How the hell did that never get investigated? One thing FBI agents can usually be trusted with is their own weapon."
"Present company excepted," his partner said, sotto voce.
Turning with a smile, Mulder shrugged. "I may lose a service weapon here and there, but so far, I haven't managed to shoot myself while cleaning it," he rejoined goodnaturedly.
Uncomfortably, Skinner shifted in his seat. "Dietrich had a little problem with alcohol. Reportedly, his post mortem blood alcohol level set records for the Miami area. Even at the time, they wondered how he still could have been conscious, much less cleaning his gun, with that much booze inside of him. His SAC decided not to press the point for the sake of the agent's family. Since we started checking, however, some interesting facts have come to light. It seems that when his will was probated, it was discovered that Dietrich had no fewer than six Cayman Islands bank accounts. Not so coincidentally, money seized when a drug kingpin was busted by the Miami office is missing. Dietrich was dirty."
"No wonder our guy's getting impatient," muttered Mulder. Louder, he asked, "All right. What's the timeframe on these killings?"
Skinner handed him a piece of paper with a list of names and dates, commenting, "Clearly, he's excalating."
Mulder scanned the list, then passed it to his partner. "Looks like he's overdue," she observed.
Mulder's grave eyes never left Skinner's face. "I'll bet not. And I'll bet that's why we're here."
Skinner sighed and tossed him a manila folder. "Special Agent Eric Michaels. The Golden Boy of the Philadelphia office. Spotless record, amazing solve rate, on the fast-track for promotion."
Mulder's eyebrows launched skyward in surprise. "Mr. Hollywood? I've read about this guy." Turning to his partner, he explained, "This guy's almost a legend. He's a favorite subject in the area newspapers. They're always recounting his exploits, getting quotes from him on almost any topic. Very high-profile kind of guy."
"He went up to his cabin in the Poconos for the holiday weekend last Friday. When he hadn't reported back by yesterday, his SAC got nervous and sent a team up to check on him."
Mulder glanced at some photographs, grimaced and handed them over to his partner.
Skinner continued. "He was caught in a bear trap. Took his leg off below the knee. Apparently he bled to death trying to drag himself back to his cabin. The team later found the woods littered with these traps. One of them would have gotten him eventually."
"It's a miracle no one else got hurt," commented Scully with a shiver.
Skinner nodded. "This letter came today from our 'friend'. Takes full credit for Michaels' death, and said the guy was no good, though he didn't elaborate. What he did say is that he's tired of waiting for the Bureau to take action. So he's coming here to D.C. to quote force the issue unquote."
"Forensics?" inquired Mulder.
"The paper is cheap, available anywhere. The pens are your standard Bic, ten for a buck. The writing, as you can see, is stencilled using stencils available in every grocery, stationery and discount store, not to mention every elementary school, in the country. The stamps and the envelope are self stick, so--"
"So no possible DNA samples from saliva," Scully finished for him.
Grimly, he nodded.
"What do you want us to do, sir?" she asked quietly.
"Mulder still has a week of desk duty while he recuperates -- yet again, I might add -- from injuries suffered in the line of duty. We could use some help profiling this son of a bitch."
"What about me?" Scully inquired.
"Go over any autopsy findings, new information as it comes in. And..." the A.D.'s face wore an expression of deep concern, "watch your back and your partner's back. Both of you, and especially Mulder, have had your names in the paper more than once. Then there was that "Cops" TV show you got yourself involved in."
"Not to mention that swell movie," Mulder added with a touch of bitterness.
"Agreed," replied the AD uncomfortably. He felt more than a little responsible for that fiasco. "Due to both the nature of the X-Files, and Mulder's... inimitable... style of investigation, you two have garnered more than your share of press. That seems to be the sort of agent our guy likes to pick out. I'm more than a little worried that you two look like great targets to this guy."
"Sir, I really don't think-- "
"Humor me, Agent Mulder, all right? Scully stays with you, and you stick with her. Obviously, security is going to be stepped up around here but I don't want either of you taking any chances. You get any bright ideas, you come to me with them, you do not go haring off on your own, got it? You are not, Agent Mulder, I repeat not to ditch, dump, desert or otherwise leave Agent Scully to pursue some theory on your own, or I will personally kick your ass across the Mall. Am I clear?"
Out of the corner of his eye, Mulder saw Scully arch a brow in his direction. "Crystal, sir."
"Very well, you're dismissed. I'll have what information there is sent down to your office. I'll expect a preliminary report in the morning."
- - -
"Gee, I didn't know he cared," Mulder joked as he entered the basement office.
Scully studied his face. "Yes, you did," she responded quietly. She sat on a chair at the side of Mulder's desk. "Am I wrong, or did I get the distinct impression that you do not think it's possible that we're targets?"
Mulder seated himself and opened a drawer to extract a bag of sunflower seeds. Playfully, he offered them to her, expecting and getting the usual refusal. "No, you're not wrong and no, I don't think we're targets."
"You must be feeling better. Ribs stopped hurting, have they? Well, if you think you're invulnerable, I suggest you look through your medical file. Or count your scars."
"Scully, the guy doesn't want me, and I don't think he wants you either."
"May I ask how you came to this conclusion?"
"Why, scientifically of course, Agent Scully." He smiled across at her, then shook his head. "When I first heard about the deaths of Frayne and Piscobo, I put in a request to pursue them, which in the Bureau's infinite wisdom was declined. But you know me, when did I ever let a thing like that stop me. So I read up on the deaths of every agent or retired agent who died in the past six months. As expected, most are explainable and are nothing more than they appear. On the ones that looked suspicious, I did some digging. And one thing I've learned about our killer - he does his homework, Scully. This is not a dumb guy and he's not a lunatic. Somehow this guy's been able to learn things about his victims that even the field offices where they worked didn't know. Dietrich is a good example. So our guy goes after agents who are dirty, use questionable methods, have collected way more than their share of publicity, or are stand-out bastards. We don't fit into any of those categories." He popped another seed into his mouth.
"Mulder, I simply don't believe you!" his partner exclaimed. "You've never used questionable methods? And of course the X-Files are the furthest thing from controversial!"
"Not questionable methods like you're thinking. What our killer objects to is strong-arm tactics and abuse of power and position - that sort of thing. I don't think we could be accused of either of those. Besides," he pouted, "my methods are not questionable. They make perfect sense in a tangential, free-floating kind of way."
"Tangential and free-floating," repeated Scully with mock gravity. "I'll remember that. But you have to admit the X-Files are controversial."
"Agreed. But again, not in the way that torques this guy off. His problem is Waco, Nixon's enemies list. J. Edgar Hoover in a dress, spying on other people's peccadillos. Not liver-eating mutants."
"You seem very sure of yourself," Scully said doubtfully. "But- "
Her question was cut off as the lights flickered half a dozen times before going out completely. After several more seconds, the emergency lighting clicked on.
"What the hell...?" She beat her partner to the door. Together, they peered out into the always-dim hallway, now made even more dusky by the low-wattage emergency lights.
"I hope this is just a coincidence, and not a calling card from our letter-writing friend," Scully said uncomfortably.
"Seems quiet enough," Mulder observed. "If we had to evacuate, the alarms would be sounding." Slowly, they returned to the office.
Ten minutes later, the phone rang. "Mulder."
Skinner's tone was grim. "Agent Mulder, I need you and Agent Scully to get up to the men's room on the third floor near the elevators. Tom Colton's body has just been discovered. I think he was murdered."
- - -
When they got off the elevator, they were struck by the low hum of hushed conversation from the throng of agents and secretaries grouped around the rest rooms. "Guess it takes a while for news to filter down to the basement," sneered John Colavito. "Go home, Spooky. There's nothing here for you and the Mrs." There were snickers from some of the crowd.
"I asked them to be here, Colavito," boomed a familiar deep voice, "and I do not recall requesting the presence of any of the rest of you." Skinner emerged from the men's room. "Now listen up. All non- essential clerical personnel are to pick up their belongings and exit the building via the Main Security entrance. All agents are to report to their immediate supervisors to get their assignments and the guidelines for combing this building. Now move! Agents Mulder and Scully - in here."
The pair sailed past the glares of their fellow agents and into the men's room.
"Cut down in the act, so to speak," commented Mulder.
Colton's body lay supine on the tiled floor, his face drawn up in the rictus of a scream. The bizarre shadows thrown by the emergency lighting made his expression all the more horrible. The palm of his left hand and the inner aspect of his forearm displayed dark maroon and blackened flesh, his watchband actually melted into the surrounding skin. The zipper of Colton's slacks was down, and his penis exposed, bearing the same sort of burns as on his arm and hand.
Skinner's arms were on his hips. He was clearly - and uncharacteristically - rattled. "Scully, you examine the body. Mulder, check around for what might have done this, but for Christ's sake don't touch anything."
Mulder's eyes rose from Colton's body to meet Skinner's, and he nodded slowly. The two agents drew some latex gloves from their pockets and went to work. While Scully did things he'd rather not think about, he wandered over to the urinal, squatting to peer into the bowl at the drain. Then he stood to examine the flushing mechanism. He did the same with each of the urinals that lined the wall. Then, eyes on the wall, he followed it around to the stalls, peering into each one. Finally, he called out, "Bingo!" and rejoined his companions where Colton lay.
"Scully, since I wasn't a physical sciences major, maybe you can help me out here. Is urine a good conductor of electricity?"
She stood and stripped off her latex gloves. "I see where you're going with this, Mulder, and I agree. Yes, urine, composed as it is of water and various salts, is an excellent electrical conductor."
"I'm glad you two are on the same wavelength here. Would you care to enlighten me?" Skinner demanded impatiently.
Scully nodded. "Colton died of electrocution. I can't really explain the mechanism, but I suspect Mulder can."
Skinner's focus shifted to her partner. "Well?"
"There are two 'styles', if you will, of how men use a urinal," Mulder began.
Skinner's frown deepened and his tone was threatening. "Is this really germane, Agent Mulder?"
"Yes, sir, in this case it is crucial. See, Scully, there are two ways guys approach this... er... function. Some stand upright about six or so inches away from the urinal and... do what comes naturally. Those are the Standers. Then there are the 'Hunchers'. They crowd the urinal, usually resting their hand or even their forearm above it." Mulder's tone changed from instructive to musing. "I have a theory that what separates the two styles is an overweening sense of modesty. Or of course it could have a correlation with penis size," he reflected.
"Yes, sir. Anyway, Colton was obviously a Huncher, and don't ask me how, but our guy knew it. If you look carefully, the deodorizer and the flush mechanism of each of the urinals are wired, and there are more wires in the drain of each. These urinals are set into the wall, about eighteen inches from the floor. This little trap may not have worked with the kind that have the drains at floor level. The wires on the flushes eventually lead to a switchbox left in one of the stalls, and the switchbox has wires that lead to a opening in the wall. I suspect it had been covered by a faceplate, which our guy removed to tap into the electrical lines. Our guy was here, just waiting for the right person to show up. I don't know whether Colton was the lone intended target, or he was on a list and just happened to be the first one to use the facilities once our guy was ready.
"Anyway, as I said, Colton was a Huncher. He unzipped, then probably leaned his hand and forearm against the flush or the deodorizer. When he started to urinate, all our guy had to do was flip the switch on the switchbox. The current would flow up the stream of urine, enter Colton" -- both men winced -- "going through his body and out his hand and arm, which completed the circuit. Zap! Brilliant. Diabolical, but brilliant."
"Huh?" It was clear she had been thinking about something else. "Oh... that makes sense to me, sir. The only thing I would add is that I believe the killer chose his power source carefully. With the extent of the burns, I would guess that the power source was a high amp line, maybe something for the alarm system."
There was a knock on the door and a squad of EMTs entered. "I've pronounced the victim," Scully announced to them. "I assume you want the body at Quantico, sir?"
At Skinner's nod, Scully quickly instructed the EMTs. The AD and Mulder helped them get Colton's body on the gurney. In moments, the blanket-shrouded corpse was wheeled from the men's room, and the three of them were alone. "Before the Print guys come in, you might want to check out the stall yourself, sir," Mulder suggested. "There's a letter in there - addressed to you."
Skinner sighed. "I was afraid of that. Very well. I'll see you both in the morning."
- - -
On the trip down to the basement, Scully's glance slid over to her partner several times, but when he turned to her, her eyes were focused on the elevator door. She trailed behind him down the hallway to the office, a quizzical expression on her face.
"Something wrong, Scully?"
She blushed. "Uh, no.... No, Mulder, nothing." Her eyes, however, were alight with curiosity.
"Uh-huh. Okay. Think I'll just pop out to use the facilities," he said blandly. He was almost out the door when he spoke again.
J. Edgar Hoover Building
Friday, September 8
Mulder and Scully stepped off the elevator to a strangely subdued hive of activity. Exchanging a look, they started for Skinner's office. Several agents carrying small boxes hurried down the hall ahead of them and turned into Skinner's office.
When they reached the door, Kimberly, looking rattled, waved them into Skinner's inner office without even making an attempt at her usual greeting or banter.
"This doesn't look good," Scully murmured to Mulder quietly as they crossed to the door.
It was worse inside. Skinner stood by the conference table, which was nearly covered with boxes. The agents who'd preceded them into the office deposited the ones they carried and nearly knocked Scully over in their haste to escape. Skinner caught sight of the partners and scowled, waiting for the others to close the door before he spoke. He looked tired and rumpled and worried.
"What's going on?" Mulder asked before Skinner could begin.
"In light of yesterday's events it was deemed prudent to search the entire Hoover building for any other booby-traps such as the one that killed Agent Colton. The search took all night and is being wrapped up now. No other traps were found. However, something else has turned up that is equally disturbing...." He turned slightly and tipped over one, then another of the boxes. A cascade of electronic devices spilled onto the oak table -- microphones, tape recorders, and cameras from several eras, ranging in size from that of a man's fist down to the size of a shirt button.
"Bugs?" Scully said with some surprise.
"Looks like we need a better exterminator," Mulder quipped, and Skinner threw him a killing look. Mulder failed to notice it, however, as he was stepping forward to poke through the piles of hardware. "Some of these look they've been around a while. Where were they?"
"Scattered throughout the building, in nearly every office, a few even in store rooms." His face tightened. "There were three in here -- all new technology."
Mulder nodded. "I can think of several likely eavesdroppers interested in your conversations - one in particular."
Skinner narrowed his eyes at Mulder. "Strangely enough, only one device was found in the X-Files offices -- also one of the newer ones."
Mulder nodded, unsurprised. "A camera, just above the door facing. Yeah, we knew."
"Why didn't you remove it?"
"There was no audio circuit on it, and Scully 'accidentally' sprayed it with hairspray. Anything it picked up would be blurry and pretty much useless, so why bother?"
The A.D.'s lips twitched in annoyance. "Well, you're taking all this one hell of a lot better than I am, Agent Mulder. Not only has this building been infiltrated by agents of foreign governments, but apparently every employee of the Bureau has been eavesdropping on each other."
"And their bosses, too, I would imagine," Mulder replied agreeably. "Very handy for knowing if that promotion is going to come through, and who your competition is."
Skinner frowned and gestured for them to sit down, pacing over to his desk. "I don't like any of this. Mulder, have you found anything in common between the victims so far?"
"Only that at some point in their lives they had their fifteen minutes of fame."
Skinner paced back and forth behind his desk then sat down with a sigh. "I was hoping there would be something else.... Well, using our only clue so far to gauge possible next victims, that puts you, Mulder, near the top."
"But I really don't think--" Mulder began in protest.
Skinner continued, cutting Mulder off. "I want the two of you out of the DC area ASAP, at least until we can get a better handle on this killer."
"But, sir, I can help..." Mulder began to protest.
"You can help from wherever you are. Mulder," he held up his hand to silence his subordinate before he could interrupt again, "your unique talents have put you in the spotlight numerous times, and Scully with you. I consider you both more than just two of my best agents, I consider you friends. I don't want anything happening to you."
"He's right," Scully interrupted, startling both Skinner and Mulder. "You might be his next target, especially if he knows you're one of the few who can find him. You can't catch him if you're dead."
Mulder blinked at Scully's bluntness, and Skinner looked grateful. At least one of his agents would be cooperative. "I've got a place for you. It's not far away, but it's pretty isolated and most people don't know it's even there. It's a cabin that belongs to a friend of mine -- I have a key and carte blanche to use it whenever I want." He sat down and drew a rough map on a sheet of paper. "There's a gas generator for electric lights and a refrigerator, and a propane stove. No phone as far as I can remember, but it should be well within range of your mobiles in any case." He paused to slide the map toward them across the desk. "There may be some supplies there but it would probably be better if you took your own."
"Are you sure this is necessary?" Mulder asked.
"I hope not, but I don't want to take chances. I'll be sending any other agents with public events in their past history to safe houses. I don't want any more dead agents."
"But this isn't an FBI safe house," Scully observed slowly, her eyes serious on Skinner's face.
Skinner returned her look and shook his head slightly, looking across the room toward the conference table. "With all the apparent leaks brought to light in the past 24 hours, not to mention the enemies you two have made both in and out of the Bureau over the years, I don't think it would be wise to take any chances. I take my responsibilities toward my agents seriously, Agent Scully." He paused and leveled a stern yet concerned look at them. "I'm even more careful with my friends."
Mulder studied him in silence for a moment then gave in and nodded, reaching for the map.
"I'll keep in touch via e-mail," Skinner said as he stood. "It's harder to pinpoint than phone calls. Try to check it a couple of times a day. Now get going."
Mulder and Scully left in silence and rode down to the basement without speaking. They gathered what they needed from the office -- personal items, their phones, and Scully's notebook computer -- with the automatic ease of people used to traveling on a moment's notice.
On the way to the parking garage Scully finally spoke. "I know you don't like this, Mulder, but I think Skinner really is worried you'll be next."
"I know, Scully, I know. It just feels like I'm being sent away for misbehaving."
"Now if that were true Skinner would be sending you a way a lot more often!" Scully teased. Mulder grinned reluctantly. "Shall we meet at your apartment? I can be ready to leave in two hours."
"Okay, Scully." Mulder made a show of checking his watch, giving her a challenging look. "Two hours." Scully grinned and headed for her car and home.
In one hour and forty-five minutes Scully was turning onto Hegal Place. She'd changed into comfortable clothes and packed enough things to last a week, cleaned out her refrigerator, called her neighbor across the hall to collect her mail, and let her mother know she'd be out of town for a few days. She'd even raided her pantry for dry and canned goods. Her notebook computer and phone had fresh batteries and they and their chargers were packed into the carrying case on the seat beside her.
It was a surprise, then, to find Mulder was actually waiting for her. Leaning on a new-looking SUV, no less.
"Well, Mulder... Whose vehicle is that?" As she approached Mulder straightened to take the box of supplies from her hands.
"Technically," he drawled, "it belongs to one Geraldo Manusetti, a drug dealer wanted for collusion and conspiracy."
"So how did you get it?"
"Old Geraldo skipped the country. My friend Drew's in charge of Impound Lot #17. He loaned it to me, said it won't be missed for at least six months." Mulder shoved the box into the back next to his duffel bag and another cardboard carton full of things, then turned to give her a sly look. "I told him I'd get it back to him by then."
"I'd hope so," she said drolly, then bit back a snort as Mulder reached for her carryall and she saw the rolled-up sleeping bag behind him. "It certainly looks like you're going prepared for anything."
"I didn't have much in the way of food, so we probably ought to stop before we leave town," Mulder was saying.
For a moment Scully was surprised he hadn't picked up on her innuendo, then she realized he was concentrating, already working on the case in his head. She wouldn't distract him, then. "Want me to drive?"
For an answer he handed her the keys. Scully went back to her car for the computer, then locked up and climbed into the driver's seat of the SUV. She had to hop to reach the seat, but Mulder made no comment. She passed him the computer case. He opened it, pulled out the copies of the killer's letters, and turned on the computer before she had even pulled away from the curb.
The map was on the dashboard so there was no reason for conversation. Scully found a big supermarket and pulled into the lot. Mulder barely noticed as she located the adapter and plugged the computer into the SUV's power outlet to save the battery. She doubted he even noticed she headed into the store alone. But he was waiting for her, pacing in front of the SUV when she came back heavily laden with three full bags.
He met her before she'd gone halfway and took two of the bags. "We've got to go back," he said bluntly, and strode back to the vehicle at a pace she had to jog to match.
"What's wrong?" she asked, slightly out of breath as she dumped her bag beside the others. "Why? Has something else happened?"
Mulder didn't answer. He slammed the back and headed for the driver's seat, but his partner stepped in front of him, hands planted on hips with a determination that finally got his attention.
"I repeat: What has changed that we suddenly need to go back?"
Scowling in annoyance but knowing she wouldn't be budged until she got an answer, Mulder replied, "I'm not the next target. Skinner is. We've got to warn him."
"Mulder, we're under orders to make ourselves scarce. Skinner will have you for lunch if we go back."
He ran his fingers through his hair in aggravation. "Look, Scully, those last few letters were bothering me, but I only just put it together. Let me show you...." He stepped around her and retrieved the letters from the front seat, spreading them on the hood of the vehicle. "See? In one of the early letters he tells Skinner 'the ball's in your court.' Then this one -- 'I know you're a vet, and that gives you the benefit of the doubt, at least for the time being.' In this one he says he's coming to DC to force the issue, but the clincher's in the one left with Colton's body -- 'obviously you're not taking me seriously. I guess I'll have to prove to you I mean business.' Scully, he thinks Skinner's ignoring him. The killer's going to try to get to him. We've got to warn him!"
Scully raised her eyes from the letters to meet those of her partner, more shaken than she'd care to admit. "Okay," she agreed. "Maybe you're right. Maybe Skinner is the next target. But he's as stubborn as you are, and if we disobey his order to get out of town he might be angry enough to disregard your warning."
Mulder shook the letters at her. "I'll show him these, read him the passages. He'll have to listen."
Scully shook her head with growing certainty. "Just going back will take time," she glanced at her watch, "and we'd have to track him down... we'd run the risk of missing Skinner entirely. Why don't you call him? That way you can warn him without our disobeying orders, and it will save time, too."
For a split second Mulder stared at her, then he dove into the SUV to find his phone. He punched in a series of numbers quickly, then listened, shook his head, and disconnected. "His private line is busy," he said as he started dialing another number, leaving Scully to wonder how he'd gotten Skinner's private number in the first place. He nodded with grim satisfaction when the second number rang.
"Kim, I need to speak to Assistant Director Skinner. This is Agent Mulder.... Look, Kim, this is important! Please put me through.... Okay, but you *have* to get this message to him before he leaves the building! Skinner is the next target for this guy. You have to find him -- break into his damn meeting, if you have to -- and warn him. He's the one that should be headed to a safe house, not us...." Mulder was holding the phone with one hand and tugging at his hair in frustration with the other. "Okay, okay. We will. But make sure he takes precautions...." Mulder smiled slightly. "Me, too, Kim. Thanks."
Scully waited patiently as Mulder disconnected. "I take it Skinner is not in his office?"
Mulder shook his head. "He's been called up to the Director's office -- and you know *that* can't be good. Kim promised she'd see to it that he gets my message ASAP. She's sending Rodriguez up to wait for him to come out of the meeting, and she'll stay at his office until he comes back in. So he should be okay."
As Scully watched he made a visible effort to relax, letting himself lean against the side of the SUV. But the effort was spoiled by the white knuckled-grip he still had on his phone. "Well, I guess we'd better go where we're supposed to be. Do you want me to drive?"
"No, but you can be the navigator. Let's get going."
Scully was glad she'd gotten a good look at Skinner's map before Mulder took it back, because she was pretty sure he'd be useless. She was right. As before, Mulder was preoccupied, but now he fidgeted, too. He put the letters away, got them back out, put them away again. Turned the computer off, then back on again. Tuned the radio to a wailing country station, then to a pop station, then to a hard-rock frequency that threatened to give Scully a migraine. Fortunately he became engrossed with the computer again, and didn't notice when Scully changed stations to something a little less brain-jarring. She knew he'd be a basket case until he knew Skinner had been warned. She could handle Mulder's quirks until then.
They traveled up Highway 4 East to Upper Marlboro, turning south on 301, then left onto 382 toward Croom. She'd never realized there was so much open land so close to the DC area. She found the signs for the wildlife preserve Skinner had indicated on his map but nearly missed the small road that was their turn. It was little more than a dirt track heading toward the river, bordered on either side by trees and tangled undergrowth. Just as she was wondering if she'd made a wrong turn, the rutted track entered a clearing and there was the cabin.
It was an A-frame, probably around 40 years old, but it looked to be in fairly good repair. Mismatched shingles on the sharply slanted roof showed where patches had been made. The windows were dusty, but none of them was broken. And beyond the house the Patuxent River was visible.
"Mulder? I think we're there." She spoke just loud enough to rouse her partner from his preoccupation. He looked at her questioningly before it sank in that the vehicle had stopped moving.
"This is a cabin?" Mulder almost laughed. "Cabins don't have pointy roofs, Scully."
She chuckled. "Well, it just wouldn't have sounded right if Skinner had said he was sending us to an A-frame."
Mulder chuckled and said something under his breath, but he closed the computer and got out of the SUV, moving around to the back to start unloading their things. Scully followed to help but he headed her off. "You've got the key, why don't you go ahead and get the door opened?" He looked up at the sky, which was starting to cloud up. "We've only got a couple of hours of daylight left, less if that turns into a storm, and we have to get the generator going pretty quickly. I hope to God it's easy to start."
The lock turned easily and the door didn't squeak, both of which Scully took as a good sign. The door opened into a combination living room and kitchen, and plenty of light from the windows revealed it to be tidy if somewhat dusty. It obviously hadn't been used in a while. She did a quick exploration, finding the bathroom and a small bedroom at the back with a loft above them. The stairs leading up to it were little more than a ladder. Returning to the front door she caught Mulder wincing as he lifted the heavy grocery bags onto the counter by the sink.
"Don't overdo it, Mulder. You're just going to make yourself sore again." Her voice froze his hand in the act of rubbing his ribs, and he gave her a rueful look.
"Yes, Mom," he said, but there was no sting in his words, and he headed back out for another load. Scully followed him and carried in their bags while Mulder grabbed the boxes. When everything was inside, he stood in the middle of the room with his hands on his hips, looking around. "Not bad. Any idea where the generator is?"
They followed a path behind the cabin that led to a small shed. A yellowed sheet of paper tacked to the wall held the instructions. A half an hour, a few curses and a skinned knuckle on Mulder's part, and they were set.
The clouds continued to roll in, darkening the skies, but inside it was cozy. Mulder climbed the ladder-stairs to the loft and found a queen- size mattress on the floor beneath a huge window and volunteered to sleep there. Scully got the bedroom and its old-fashioned double bed. There were no chests of drawers or closets, but old end tables served as nightstands and suitcase racks in both sleeping areas. The bathroom was a pink and turquoise nightmare but everything worked, and the water ran clear after the first few muddy minutes.
They removed the plastic sheeting covering the beds and sofa. Then Scully pulled paper towels and spray cleaner out of the box she'd packed and began to clean the kitchen and bathroom. In spite of his preoccupation, Mulder grinned. Even in the wilderness, Scully would always be Scully. He put their few perishable items into the slowly cooling refrigerator and carried her bag into the bedroom. Then he forgot himself and heaved his duffel up to the loft, swearing as his ribs pulled painfully. Wisely, his partner kept quiet.
Mulder settled on the big old sofa with her computer, using the wireless modem to access his e-mail account. A soft grunt told her the Gunmen had sent him something interesting, but after a few minutes he disconnected and turned the computer back off. Evidently there was no news from Skinner.
As Scully put her cleaning supplies away, Mulder wandered into the kitchen area and started poking through their groceries. "Are you cooking or am I? Want to flip for it?"
"I'll cook if you clean up after," Scully bargained. "Or, I'll clean up too and you can go on to bed -- don't forget you're still recovering."
"I'm doing okay," Mulder said defensively, almost by reflex. Then he considered and said, "But it might be a good idea if we slept in shifts so we can keep checking the e-mail. I'll feel a lot better once we hear from Skinner."
"Will you take the first turn to sleep? Will you be able to sleep if we don't hear from Skinner first?"
"I'll sleep," Mulder said, giving Scully a sheepish grin. "You're right -- I am tired. But wake me up if you hear from Skinner, okay?" She agreed with a nod.
They cooked a quick meal together, then Mulder obediently went up to the loft. Scully cleaned up the small dinner mess then checked both their e-mail accounts. Nothing from Skinner. She set the computer to auto-dial and check the e-mail accounts every half- hour, then settled on the sofa with a paperback and a cup of decaf. Near midnight, a message from Skinner finally came through.
Mulder woke easily and looked refreshed. He followed his partner back down the steep stairs and they read the message together. Skinner gave them an update and acknowledged their message that they were where they were supposed to be. Then he let them know, in a way that had Mulder chuckling, that he was quite safe, too, thanks to Mulder's warning. It seemed that Kim had broken into the Director's meeting after all, with the result that the Director himself had assigned three agents to protect Skinner 24 hours a day.
"You're in trouble now, Mulder," Scully teased.
"Yeah, but at least *I* feel better."
Scully went to bed. Mulder took over her spot on the sofa and spread out his copies of the letters, the new information Skinner had sent, a bag of potato chips and a bag of sunflower seeds, and a cup of the decaf his partner had made. Occasionally he'd type notes into the computer, and it continued to auto-dial and check the e-mail accounts.
Hours passed, and the storm that had threatened since their arrival finally broke, lashing the cabin with rain. Thunder rumbled, rattling the windows in their frames. After about 20 minutes Scully came out of the bedroom in her pajamas, blinking sleepily at Mulder.
"The rain hitting the outside wall and the window in there sounds like firecrackers," she explained when Mulder looked at her curiously. "There's no way I can sleep in there until this passes."
Mulder started to get up. "Want me to move so you can lie down on the sofa?" he offered. Scully shook her head and waved him back down.
"I'll just read a while." She got her book and made herself comfortable on the other end of the sofa, and Mulder went back to what he was doing. Before long she nodded off and slowly slid sideways until she came to rest on her partner's shoulder.
Mulder grinned down at the top of her tousled head. She fussed at him not to get too tired, then she pushed herself. Gently he shifted his arm and guided her down until her head was pillowed on his lap, then he reached over to shift her legs into a more comfortable position. She didn't wake and barely stirred, just sank back into sleep with a sigh.
For a while Mulder continued to work, re-reading the letters and being careful not to rustle them. Then he laid them aside to think, letting his head fall back onto the cushions and propping his feet on the coffee table.
Scully woke slowly, vaguely aware that the thunder had stopped. Rain still fell, more gently now. Wondering what time it was, she tried to lift her arm to check her watch and couldn't. She opened her eyes in confusion and found herself wrapped snugly in Mulder's arms, one of his hands wrapped loosely around her wrist.
She'd been reading, she remembered... she must have fallen asleep. Mulder was sitting on the edge of the sofa seat and leaning back, his legs crossed and his feet propped on the coffee table. She was draped across his chest, her legs occupying the rest of the sofa cushions. He couldn't possibly be comfortable - she was probably lying on his healing ribs - but instead of waking her he held her gently, his arms crossed over her to hold her securely.
She should get up. She told herself that, but didn't move. Not just yet, she decided. Just for a few minutes she'd allow herself the luxury of lying in Mulder's arms, then she'd disentangle herself and get up. She should check the e-mail again, and they both needed some solid sleep in proper beds.
Slowly she relaxed again, turning her head slightly, savoring the scent of Mulder, the soothing sound of his heart beating, the regular rise and fall of his breathing. A small, secret smile touched her lips.
"Playing possum?" Mulder's voice rumbled without warning, giving her a start. His arms tightened slightly as she tried to sit up, though, keeping her where she was.
"Christ, Mulder, you scared me half to death! Let me up."
Reluctantly, he complied. Scully sat up and scooted a few inches away, giving him room to straighten -- feeling guilty when he tried unsuccessfully not to wince in the process.
"Why didn't you wake me up?" Scully asked. "Or go on to bed?"
"Well, I was going to. I left you here and went back up to the loft, but the window evidently leaked when it was raining so hard -- the mattress is pretty wet. So I came back down here and made you share the sofa with me."
Scully opened her mouth to ask him why he didn't sleep in the other bed when they were interrupted by a tweeting sound.
"That's my phone!" Mulder said, lunging off the sofa to find it. He'd dropped it into the case with Scully's phone and computer, so it wasn't far away. He had it in his hand by the third ring.
"Mulder," he answered, then a grin flashed. "Hey, Byers, what... WHAT? When?" Mulder's face had gone from happy to shocked to angry in a flash. There was a long pause during which Scully found it difficult to keep quiet. Why was Byers calling Mulder at 6:30 in the morning -- and what had upset Mulder?
"Thanks," Mulder said, then took a deep breath in an attempt to calm down. "See what else you can find out, okay? I'll get back to you."
"Shit!" he swore, stabbing the disconnect button and immediately dialing another number. "If he.... Damned stubborn hard-ass Marine..."
"What's happened?" Scully nearly shouted, drawing his attention.
"The boys got wind of an explosion in Crystal City and thought we ought to know -- looks like a car bomb. One person dead on-scene and one critical in transport to the hospital. No word out on who, yet..." he gave her a level look that had her heart sinking, "...but it was the garage of the Viva Tower."
Where Skinner lived.
End of Act Two
Saturday, September 9
Mulder's attention snapped back to his phone as the line was picked up. His face grew even grimmer as he listened a few moments, then hung up. "Skinner's voice-mail answered his office number -- but the message was Kim's voice," he explained tersely as he started dialing again. "She sounded strange."
Scully's heart fell. That wasn't a good sign. Mentally she crossed her fingers and started praying, her eyes never leaving Mulder as he listened intently to the ringing on the other end of the line.
"Kim answered," he mouthed to Scully, and she knew he'd called Skinner's private line again. As he spoke his hand reached for Scully's and held on tightly. "Kim, is he okay?" he asked into the phone. Trust Mulder to skip all the preliminaries.
The next few moments were tense as he listened to Kim and Scully watched his face and prayed. Finally he smiled grimly and shifted the mouthpiece of the phone. "He's alive, Scully. He's badly hurt, but he's alive."
Taking a steadying breath, Mulder went back to the phone. "Can you fill us in on what happened, Kim?" He was silent for some minutes. His eyes grew darker and his expression grimmer as he listened.
"Fuck!" Mulder stabbed the Off button.
The calm of Scully's voice belied her inner turmoil. "How did it happen?"
He drew his hands down over his face, then focused on her with stormy eyes. "Skinner's bodyguards were imbeciles, that's how. He had one with him in his apartment, one wandering around the building, and one stationed in the lobby by the elevator. Everything seemed fine. Apparently no one thought to keep a close eye on his car." Mulder took a deep, unsteady breath. "When he got into his car this morning and turned the ignition key... boom."
Mulder collapsed bonelessly onto the sofa. "The surviving bodyguards say that he and Davis, the third bodyguard, got into the car. But Skinner hadn't closed the door yet. I don't know, maybe he heard something, smelled something strange, saw something. Anyhow, something seems to have tipped him off just as he was starting the engine. They said he yelled something, probably to the bodyguard beside him, and dove out of it a split second before it blew." He shook his head. "Kim says he's been in surgery for about a half hour. They think he'll be in there quite a while."
"Oh God, Mulder." She flopped down on the couch beside him, seeking the warmth and solace of his nearness. To comfort her, and perhaps himself as well, he snaked an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. She circled him with her arms, mindful of his sore ribs. "Did Kim say anything about his injuries?" she asked, her voice muffled in his shirt.
"Some flash burns, possible burns of the respiratory tract, something about internal bleeding - his spleen I think she said...."
They sat like that for some time, holding each other, his chin nested in her hair, his nose breathing in her unique fragrance. Suddenly, she felt him tense. "Shit, Scully -- what if the killer knows he's alive? What if he tries again? We've got to get down to the hospital!" He surged off the couch.
Her hand shot out with surprising strength -- strength that surprised the both of them, as Mulder was jerked back onto the sofa.
"Ow! Why'd you do that?" he asked ruefully, wrapping his arms around his midsection.
"Sorry, I forgot your ribs," she apologized, stroking his chest. "We will go down to the hospital, Mulder, I promise. But we're not a lot closer to knowing who this guy is, and I think our time should be invested in finding that out. I think Skinner would want it that way. What hospital is he in?"
"Northeast Georgetown Memorial is the area trauma center, so they took him there -- Med-Evac'ed him out from the roof of his building."
"Good, I've spent enough time there to have made some valuable connections." She gave him a meaningful look, and he shrugged. After all, he had been responsible for much of her time spent there, waiting for him to regain consciousness from one or another of the various mishaps that studded his FBI career. "Hand me the phone?"
Scully dialed the number from memory and finally tracked down the man she wanted. "Dr. Bernstein? This is Dana Scully.... Yes, I thought you would have heard by now. Can you tell me his condition?.... I see. And how long do you think he'll be in the OR?... I see.... Oh, they are? Good.... Yes, I'll be in later today. Yes... Yes, I'll be sure to stop by and say hello. Good talking with you too, Sam. Bye."
"'Sam'?" If she trusted her senses, her partner's voice and expression were tinged with... jealousy?
"Don't get your boxers in a knot, Mulder. He's the Chief of Surgery, and a handy guy to know. He said Skinner's going to be in the OR for a few more hours yet, then Recovery for another two. We have some time... let's use it wisely."
"But, Scully -- he's totally vulnerable. The guy--"
"The killer would be totally crazy to try anything there. Sam Bernstein said the hospital is crawling with agents. Even the surgical team had to show IDs to get into the OR." She clasped his hands in her own. "Look, I would like nothing more than to go charging down there. He's my boss, my friend, too. But we can't do anything down there, at least not until Skinner's out of Recovery. Maybe if we put that time to good use here, we can nail this guy. That will be a far greater service to Skinner than pacing around down at Georgetown Memorial."
She could discern the war going on in his mind from the parade of emotions on his expressive face. First, the stubborn set of his jaw, which yielded to clear-eyed, rational thought, and finally, the softening of his features. "You're right. Last night I was beginning to get somewhere with the profile. Why don't you get on the phone to the Gunmen, see if they've heard anything new, and tell them to keep their eyes and ears open. Then touch base with Kim. I'll go back to work on the profile."
She smiled, and after a final squeeze of his hands, picked up the phone again. Mulder was lost in thought over his notes before she had the number dialed.
She could almost see the familiar leer. "Lovely to hear your voice as always, Agent Scully."
"Save the schmooze, Frohike. Have you guys heard anything else?"
"The kung fu that we do so well has come through again. We've hacked into Georgetown Memorial's computer system. Looks like Skinner's lost a lot of blood - the Blood Bank's already sent up four units for him and the OR just requisitioned a type and cross for four more. And don't worry, no funny business. They're all his type -- we checked. We know what he's getting for IV's and medications by tapping into the Pharmacy, and can even get vital sign readouts straight from the OR."
"How's he doing?"
The Gunman's tone became serious. "Holding his own."
"I appreciate this, guys, your looking after Skinner like this."
"He's a brother in arms," Frohike said simply. "There aren't many like him around."
Fighting back tears, she softly replied, "No. No, there aren't." She swallowed hard. "Frohike, do you think you guys can multi-task? One of you keep an eye on what's going on at the hospital, and the other two help me and Mulder to track down the son of a bitch that did this?"
"Multi-tasking is our middle name, lovely lady. And Byers and Langley are already on it. Hold on, I'll hand you over to them...."
In all, she was on the phone almost two hours with the Gunmen, keeping tabs on Skinner as well as checking out a variety of leads, all of which came to a dead end. Then she called Kim. Suddenly --
"Mulder. Check your email. Thanks, Kim. We'll keep in touch."
He connected to his cell phone and opened his email program. Scully hovered over his shoulder. "What am I looking for?"
"Kim just emailed you. About an hour ago, they found a letter in Skinner's garage. It must have been blown out of the immediate area of Skinner's car by the explosion. It's addressed to the Director. He told her to scan it and send it to you."
"Shit! What was I thinking of, of course there would have been a letter! I don't know why the hell I didn't think of it earlier."
"Because maybe you were upset about him? she suggested mildly.
"That's no excuse, Scully. I don't see -- wait, it just appeared. Hold on...." He opened the email and read:
[I'm sorry - truly very sorry - about Skinner. He seemed like a stand-up guy. But you see, that's what always happens. The good guys are so outnumbered. Eventually they're beaten down, and end up thinking like everyone else. I've seen it myself. It starts in training, then gets worse, until all the Bureau's got left are the jerks like Colton, the glory-seekers like Michaels, the guys on the take, or the sadists like Mellor.
I gave him ample warning to take me seriously. And I WILL be taken seriously. Skinner won't have died in vain if you act now.
No one else needs to die. But there will be more deaths unless my demands are met.
And what are they? Very simply, they are these: You will go on CNN by five o'clock today and announce a major shakeup in the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
You will announce that the Bureau will be cleaned from top to bottom, and that no one will be spared scrutiny, no matter what his position.
You will admit the Bureau's culpability in past transgressions, and you will specify Waco, the Bureau's involvement in the John and Robert Kennedy assassinations and the Martin Luther King assassination, and the misuse of Bureau personnel and resources by past Directors and Presidents.
And finally, you will revamp your training program, so that your potentially best agents aren't cut for trivialities, and so that the types who brought the Bureau to this sad state are culled out.
Mr. Director, I'm serious about this -- deadly serious. If the announcement is not made by 5 PM on CNN, another poor excuse for an agent will die.
Really, you ought to be thanking me.]
"Well, we have our deadline," Scully observed. "We have a couple more hours. Let's get to work."
They worked intensely, breaking the silence rarely, and only to exchange a thought or two. Finally, Scully checked her watch. They needed to leave soon for the hospital, but she hated the thought of arriving there no closer to finding the killer. "How are you coming on the profile?"
Mulder sighed. "The psychological profile is done, that's the good news. The bad news is that it fits about 200,000 people, including a good many incumbant politicians and most evangelical TV preachers. But...." He scanned the email again. "This last letter gives me a few ideas. He mentions training twice, and says he's seen what happens in training for himself. Here --" he highlighted a paragraph of the letter -- "his demand regarding the training program. Doesn't that seem strange to you, Scully, that he's putting such an emphasis on the Academy?"
She considered the question for several moments. "I don't know. If I really wanted to clean up an organization as our guy claims he wants to, from the ground up, certainly its training program would be a part of the cleanup. No, I guess it sounds reasonable enough. I mean, under the circumstances."
Her partner sighed again. "Maybe you're right. I just can't help thinking that our guy isn't as altruistic as he makes out. There's something personal here, Scully. Yeah, our guy talks a good game about wanting to clean up what he sees as a hopelessly corrupt organization, how we should be 'thanking' him. But that sounds like an excuse. Maybe our guy isn't even conscious of it himself, but I think he real beef is something personal. Anyway....
"What I'm trying to figure at the moment is the practicalities of this guy's mission. One -- how did he know all the particulars of his victims, how could he be aware of transgressions their own supervisors in some cases were unaware of? And two -- how did he manage to cover such a large geographical area?"
"Well, he could be in an occupation that requires a lot of travel," Scully suggested. "Maybe sales. Or maybe he's in the travel industry itself. A travel agent, or flight crew for an airline."
Mulder sat back, his fingers steepled in front of him. "Maybe. That might explain being all over the country. But what would combine the two -- travel throughout the country, as well as the ability to get close enough to find out all these dirty little secrets? He'd almost have to be able to get right inside these field offices where his victims worked, and spend considerable time there."
There was silence for some minutes, then Scully's brow furrowed. "Maybe... what about contractors, Mulder? The government contracts with all sorts of private companies for everything from flooring to office furniture and supplies. They make site visits to the field offices."
Her partner sat up straight. "That's good, Scully. That's good, I like that. But this killer is very intelligent and has a fair degree of technical acumen. He's not your average paper goods or office furniture salesman."
Mulder's computer beeped, announcing incoming email. They looked at each other and smiles broke out on their faces. "Computers!" they exclaimed in unison.
Scully's smile faded. "But I don't have the faintest idea of who supplies our computers. Do you?"
Her partner's voice throbbed with an undercurrent of excitement. "No. But I know someone who probably will. And if she doesn't, she'll know how to get the information. Scully, why don't you pack for us? I have a couple of calls to make, and then we can leave for the hospital to check on Skinner. Then we'll follow-up on what my calls have produced."
"Okay. But you'd better use your own cellphone. I put mine in the charger -- the battery was ready to die."
As Scully climbed up to the loft be begin packing up their belongings, Mulder dialed. "Chandra?"
"Agent Mulder! Is that really you? I haven't heard from you in ages. About you, yes, but not from you. How are you and Agent Scully?"
"Fine. Sorry we missed your graduation last year."
"That's all right. I figured you might be out of town on a case. But your gift! It was more than generous, Agent Mulder."
"Just Mulder. And you're welcome. How's Sven? Sold any pictures lately, or is he still a struggling artist?"
"As a matter of fact, things are going great!" Chandra replied, her voice warm with pride. "He has two galleries in New York, one in London and one right here in DC taking everything he can paint. We've started looking for a house. And," she continued playfully, "since you didn't make it to my graduation, maybe you'll be able to come to our wedding."
"That's wonderful. Congratulations, from the both of us. When is it?"
"Thanksgiving. A kind of weird time for a wedding, I know, but we really didn't want to wait until Spring."
"Well, we'll certainly try our best. But you know our business...."
She sighed. "Yeah, I know."
"In fact, that's what I called you about. I need a favor. You can say no -- you might get into trouble if anyone finds out."
"They won't, trust me. What can I do for you?"
"You've been working for the Bureau's IT services for what? About a year now? Would you happen to know who the computer contractor is for the Bureau?"
She laughed. "Good one, Mulder. Which one? We have hardware contractors, software contractors, contractors for the mainframe, contractors for the covert and black ops stuff...."
"Well, it wouldn't be black ops. Hell, I had no idea there'd be so many. Well, can you get me a list? Anyone who would have the opportunity to spend significant amounts of time in the field offices. And this would be recent - within the past year or so."
"Yes, I could do that," she said slowly. "It's still going to be a sizeable list, but it shouldn't take long to generate. Maybe I can cross-reference it with contractors' expense reports, to cut down on the number of possibles."
"You can do that? Perfect. I knew you were the one to come to. Short-list anyone who's spent time in the Philadelphia, Miami, Denver, Dallas and Salt Lake City offices."
"Got it. No problem."
"Great. Now, I need something else. Can you get me a roster of all incoming FBI Academy classes for the past... say, ten years?"
"Mulder!" Chandra protested.
"I know. I know it's a lot to ask. But it's important."
"You're working on the FBI Killer case, aren't you?"
"Give me some credit! You know how well I work the grapevine."
He smiled, remembering how Chandra Jones' working of the grapevine and keen intelligence had once helped save his life. "Let's just say I'm glad you're on our side," he rejoined.
"Well, if it will help you catch the bastard that tried to kill Assistant Director Skinner, then it will be a pleasure. My own work can wait for a while."
"Thanks, Chandra. You're a lifesaver - maybe literally."
"Okay, what's your cell phone number? And Agent Scully's."
Quickly, he gave her the two numbers, thanked her again, and rang off. A quick call to the Gunmen added no valuable news, but Mulder arranged for Byers to meet him at the hospital.
He glanced up. Everything was packed, the cabin was clean and orderly, and Scully stood gazing at him, her head cocked slightly to the side. His heart thudded and he felt his blood race. He should be used to it by now, but sometimes, when coming out of a funk or a period of deep concentration, he was surprised all over again the effect that his partner's presence had on him. Inwardly, he groaned. And here they were, he thought, alone in a remote cabin and once again he had failed to use the God-given opportunity to.....
Not a party to his thoughts, she enquired, "The hunt's afoot, I take it?"
"Just playing some hunches." He stood, and regarded her intently. "Have I mentioned today how much I rely on you? How much I appreciate your being with me?" he asked softly. "How I would be lost without you?"
At first startled, her expression yielded to shy pleasure. "Not today."
"Consider it mentioned," he whispered, emotion making his voice rough. So briefly she might have imagined it, his hands cupped her face and caressed her cheeks. Then they were gone, and he was packing away the computer.
A few moments later, they were out the door.
End of Act Three
They spoke little on the way back to DC, each lost in thought about the case, about their feelings for Skinner, and especially about what might have taken place in that pleasantly remote and cozy cabin under different circumstances. Occasionally Scully would find herself staring at Mulder's long, capable fingers on the steering wheel. With some surprise and a little jolt of her heart, she realized that his driving -- smooth, coolly competent, somewhat aggressive -- aroused her. Her mind wandered in dangerous directions.
She started a bit when Mulder cleared his throat uncomfortably as they merged onto the Beltway. Hesitantly, he said, "I never really asked you how you felt about Colton's murder. I mean, I know he was a classmate at the Academy, and a friend. I'm sorry, Scully. I know I should have said it before." His eyes slid over to catch hers before returning to the surrounding traffic.
She shook her head. "No need, Mulder. Tom was a friend, yes, but that was a long time ago. His naked ambition, his attitude, how he treated you on the Tooms case - that changed everything. From then on, I saw him as he actually was, and not how he wanted me to see him. He had me fooled from the first week at the Academy."
"I don't think you've ever talked much about the Academy. It must have been hard for you," Mulder said quietly. "Not academically, of course - I'm sure you could run rings around the others. But the competition, the macho attitudes. Just the fact that you came from an entirely different environment. Not to mention not exactly having your family's enthusiastic support." He reached over to squeeze her hand.
She squeezed back and resisted when he reluctantly tried to withdraw it. Happily relenting, he let his hand stay in the warmth of hers.
"Yes, it was hard. An order of magnitude harder than med school. I thought I was prepared for the macho stuff - there was plenty of it, as a female majoring in Physics, then as a female in med school. But I think what really caught me unawares was the competition. Here we all were -- idealistic, patriotic, wanting to serve our country -- or so I naively thought. I just couldn't get over the sleazy little tricks that were going on. I mean, the curriculum was tough enough, both physically and mentally. But some of them....
"To illustrate a point, I had a run-in with one of them. He fed me a line about one of the instructors -- how he knew someone who had been through the Academy and this person had told him all about the sorts of questions this instructor always asked on tests. Our first big test, right before the first cut, was coming up, and this guy -- Gary, I think his name was -- had me convinced that one of the required readings for which we were responsible wasn't going to be on the test at all. Tom overheard, took me aside and said that Gary was full of shit. Tom was right -- if I had listened to Gary and not studied that text, I might well have been cut from the class. Gary and a couple of others kept it up though, as if it was their personal mission to make sure that the women and the so-called weaker candidates would be cut. They felt anyone who wasn't a male from a law enforcement background had no business in the Bureau. As a woman and a doctor, I was doubly damned."
"I ran into a few like that myself," her partner responded reflectively.
Scully thought about her partner as he must have been then - acutely sensitive, brilliant, with a photographic memory and an uncanny knack for putting all the pieces together, a psychologist by training, and emotionally troubled. Not so different from now, though his skin had probably thickened over the years from the relentless ridicule he had suffered. "Tom wasn't blameless himself in the dirty tricks department. He rode some of them pretty hard, and usually hung out with Gary and his crowd. To this day, I have no idea why he came to my rescue. Knowing what I know now, he probably had an ulterior motive of some sort."
"Where did he sit? He probably wanted to copy off your test paper," Mulder suggested, only half in jest. Or get you into bed, he thought, but kept that to himself.
"Wouldn't surprise me. Anyway, I'm sorry Tom's dead, but he was just another agent, and not a particularly nice person. I'm much more concerned about Skinner."
Mulder grunted in reply. Both hands were on the steering wheel now, changing position restlessly. By his look of intense preoccupation, she could tell that his fiercesome intelligence was once again working on the case, leaving just enough concentration for the road. Scully sighed, missing the closeness of his touch, of the revealing conversation she had shared with him. The hum of the engine and the wheels on the road were the only sounds for the rest of the trip.
When they arrived at Georgetown Memorial, they saw that Sam Bernstein hadn't been exaggerating. There seemed to be more agents milling around the corridors than medical staff. Byers met them and they learned that Skinner had gotten out of the OR a little earlier than expected, and had just been transferred from Recovery to the Surgical ICU. Dr. Bernstein himself met the trio as they arrived at the waiting room outside the double doors of the ICU.
"Hi, Sam. How's he doing?" asked Scully, concerned.
"Surprisingly well, all things considered. They had to do a splenectomy. His left arm and collarbone were fractured, probably when he was thrown by the blast. They've been set, and are the least of his worries, for now. He was suffering from hypovolemic shock and as you know, there's still a lot of thiings that could go wrong -- renal failure, cardiac complications, embolus and so on." She nodded. "He also has flash burns of the head and backs of his hands, arms and shoulders. Not bad - first and second degree, but certainly painful. We're keeping an eye on his respiratory status, in case he suffered burns of the trachea or bronchus. Fortunately, he seems to have been facing away when the explosion occurred, and so far there's been no signs of trouble on that front. Undoubtedly saved his life. Other than that, we removed some imbedded debris from his back and shoulders, and that's about it."
"That's good news, Sam. Oh, this is my partner, Fox Mulder."
The men shook hands. Mulder had been relieved to find that Bernstein was a short, chubby, balding man of about sixty, with laugh lines around his kindly brown eyes. He should have trusted his partner's estimation, he now realized. The doctor radiated both competence and good will. "Pleased to meet you, Doctor."
"And I'm pleased to meet you. Your medical record is most impressive. I do believe I'm the only physician on staff, other than the OB/GYN department, who hasn't had you as a patient," Bernstein said, eyes twinkling. "Now, I'm about to go down and cover the ER for a few hours for a colleague, so try to stay out of trouble for at least that long."
"I'll do my best," Mulder replied, sending his partner a killing look as she tried to keep a straight face.
"Is he conscious, Sam?"
"In and out. In Recovery, he did say he wanted to speak to either one of you. Let me see if he's settled in and awake. He's on some pretty hefty analgesics...." The Chief of Surgery punched a code into an electronic keypad and the doors swung open, then closed behind him.
"Which of us--" Mulder's question was cut short by the beeping of Scully's cell phone.
"Scully.... Just a minute.... It's Chandra Jones, Mulder. She says your cell phone isn't working and she has the information you wanted." Her expression was frankly curious as she passed him the phone.
Mulder gestured toward the doors of the ICU where Sam Bernstein was beckoning. "Just a second, Chandra. Scully, why don't you go in to see Skinner. This will take a little while, but it's important. Oh, and can you leave the laptop with me?"
"I won't be long," she said, passing him the computer. "They probably won't let me stay more than a few minutes."
He nodded, already back in his phone conversation.
She went through the doors, the familiar smells and noises of the busy ICU assaulting her. Sam pointed to a cubicle and withdrew. For a fleeting moment, she felt relief wash over her, that it wasn't Mulder once again occupying the bed. Then she felt ashamed of that thought as she regarded her boss.
Skinner lay on his right side, his left arm immobilized in a cast and held out from his body by a brace that kept his clavicle in alignment. His head and hands were bandaged, the adjacent skin the angry red of first degree burns. Automatically, she scanned the electronic EKG and blood pressure readouts, and noted the bags of IV fluids, medications and blood hanging around the bed. Her eyes dipped to the urimeter attached to the side of the bed, bringing the welcome news that for now, the AD's kidneys were coping. A sheet covered him to the waist, exposing his torso and the large surgical dressing on the upper left portion of his abdomen.
Careful not to interfere with the profusion of electronic leads and plastic tubing and bandages, she grasped his fingers. "Sir, it's Scully."
His eyes fluttered open and he groaned.
"Sir, you wanted to speak to me? It's Scully, sir."
His eyelids flickered again, but this time he was able to raise them. "Can't see...."
She looked around. "Your glasses aren't here. They may have been broken. Sir, do you remember what happened?"
"Bastard...blew me up."
"Yes, that's right. But we're going to find him."
The bodyguard.... Gently, she replied, "I'm sorry, Sir. He didn't make it."
"Grmmm...." His face contorted and he breathed hard through the cannula supplying him with oxygen.
Unobtrusively, Scully pressed the call bell attached to the siderails. "Sir, how did you know? The agents who witnessed the explosion said that it seemed like you dove out of the car just a second before the blast. How did you know? Was it instinct, a sixth sense?"
Skinner's lips twitched and his head moved slightly. "You've been with... Mulder... too long.... Saw the envelope...."
"The envelope? The one with the letter from the killer?"
His head moved slightly in the affirmative. "Taped to the wall... near my car. Tried to warn Davis...."
"Well, we've got the letter, sir, and Mulder said it's given him some valuable leads," she said with an assurance she didn't wholly feel. "Just rest and get better. We'll get him, don't worry. I'll just go and let you sleep now."
As she moved away, his fingers caught her sleeve. "Stay... a few minutes," he asked her in a hoarse whisper.
Scully suddenly realized that since the death of his wife, the AD had no family members close by. As buttoned-up and tight-lipped as Skinner was even with them, he was probably emotionally closer to her and Mulder than anyone. Even so, his request for her to stay was uncharacteristic, and spoke volumes about his physical and mental state. She settled into the orange molded plastic chair next to his bed, and once more held his fingers through the siderails. "I'll stay until you're asleep. Okay?"
He nodded slightly and appeared to relax.
Moments later, a nurse came in, nodded to Scully and began jotting down the electronic readouts and adjusting the IV drip rates. "I'm increasing his morphine," she explained quietly to Scully. "His pulse and BP are a little on the high side and I think he's in quite a lot of pain."
The agent nodded approvingly. "Good. I was going to ask you for some pain med for him. He probably won't ask for it, so it's a good idea to take the matter out of his hands."
"I'm glad you're here," the nurse said on the way out. "What family he has is all on the West Coast, and when I called to let them know, I didn't get the impression they were going to come rushing right out here, if you know what I mean," she finished dryly. Her tone and facial expression left no doubt about how she felt about that.
Bleakly, Scully nodded. "I'll leave my card with you on the way out. If he needs anything, if there's any change in his condition, call me."
The nurse smiled and left. Leaning close to Skinner's ear, Scully whispered. "We'll get him, sir. We'll get the son of a bitch."
"That's great, Chandra. That's just what I was looking for. Email me the short list of contractors and the roster of Academy entrants from 1990 to 1993. We'll start there. If my hunch doesn't pay off, I may be in touch again.... Yes, that's the address. And thanks." Mulder touched the Off button. Turning to Byers, he asked, "I don't suppose you'd know where I'd have access to a printer and a phone line?"
The Gunman, impeccably turned-out as usual, smiled deprecatingly. "Oh, ye of little faith. You know me better than that, Mulder. I've scoped the place out thoroughly. The Administrator gave the Bureau an office to use while they're here."
"Then lead on, MacDuff."
The two men threaded their way through corridors jammed with patients, relatives and friends, and FBI and police personnel. Eventually, Byers stopped and peeked into a room. "The coast is clear."
They slipped into the office, closing the door behind them. Quickly, Mulder set up the computer and waited impatiently for it to boot up, while Byers completed the connection to the printer. "Okay, here we go." He opened Chandra's first email, the contractor's list, and hit the Print command. Then he opened her next send, a much larger file. When the printer stopped, he clicked on the Print icon again, scanning the names as the file printed out across the small room.
"There's Scully's class." He leapt over the the printer, pacing restlessly until it stopped. Then he tore off the lists and moved back to the desk, spreading them out. Byers joined him.
"What I'm looking for," he explained, "is a name that's common to both lists. Read out the contractor's names while I check the roster."
Slowly, Byers read out the names, until finally Mulder exclaimed softly, "Bingo!"
"Edward Furlow, Paradigm Electronics Corporation?" the Gunman repeated. "Is that the guy?"
"I'd bet my life on it. Now we just have to find the S.O.B.... Wait a minute...." He scanned the Academy roster again and picked up the phone. "This is a long shot," he explained to his companion, "but if it comes through-- Hi, Kim, it's Mulder. I need some information and I need it" -- he looked at his watch -- "pretty damn quick. Gary Billings. He's an agent somewhere. Can you find out where he's assigned? Yeah, I can hold...." Surprised, he turned to Byers. "I didn't think I'd be able to get it this quickly. Maybe we're in luck-- Yes, Kim? He was.... Is he on this list of agents that Skinner sent to safe houses?... No, I guess he wouldn't have thought so. You have an address?... Great, I got it. Kim, I need you to do something. Send back-up to that address. But quietly, understand? Discreetly. This may be nothing, but if it turns out we've hit paydirt, I don't want to spook our guy. I want this to end now.... Right. Thanks."
He put down the receiver and stood, bending over the desk to scrawl something on a scrap of paper. He handed it to his companion. "Byers, I need your help. It's four-thirty. If Furlow doesn't get what he wants in the next thirty minutes -- and he won't, the Director made that clear -- he's going to kill again. I think I have an idea who he's going for. Gary Billings, just transferred back to DC to join the Organized Crime Unit. Kim says he's off today, and I'm hoping he's at home. I'm going there now. Find Scully, tell her what's going on and drive her to that address. Then keep your head down."
"Scully's going to kick your ass for ditching her," the Gunman called after Mulder's retreating form. To himself, he added, "Right after she kicks mine for helping you do it...."
It took Mulder twenty minutes to reach the address. Traffic had been heavy, grinding his nerves to a fine edge by the time he arrived. The street, carved into a pleasant avenue of trees and townhouses by urban gentrification, was quiet.
He had tried to reach Billings by cell phone on the way over, but either he wasn't home, or wasn't answering his phone. Viewing the Accord with out of state plates parked in the driveway, it must have been the latter. Mulder warred with himself - keep Billing's condo under surveillance, or go inside, to warn and protect him? If he stayed in the car, he could miss Furlow, or he might already be inside. On the other hand, if he approached the dwelling, he might scare the killer off, or provoke him into killing his victim. He knew the proper, by-the-book decision to make - wait for back-up. But was that the right decision?
He took a last look in the rearview mirror. If back-up was in the neighborhood, it was not the usual guns blazing, cavalry charge variety. True, he had asked them to be discreet, but this was ridiculous.
He made up his mind. Mulder exited the car, trying to look as nonchallant as he could. Quietly, he scaled the half-dozen brick steps to the door. Inside he could hear the faint murmur of men's voices - two men. Cautiously he tried the knob, which turned easily in his hand. He crept into the hallway. Ahead of him was a flight of stairs, and two rooms, one on each side of the hallway. The voices came from the right. Silently, he pressed himself against the right- hand wall.
The TV was on, tuned to CNN.
"They're not going to do it! The bastards are not going to do it. Jesus Christ, what's it going to take? Okay Billings, stand up."
"Look Ed, you don't want to do this. I mean, why me?" the terrified Billings babbled.
"Why you? Okay, we have a couple of minutes before five, and I'm a man of my word. More than can be said for you, you son of a bitch."
"Me?" The terrified agent's voice cracked. "What did I do?"
"Think back to the Academy, Billings. Think what you put me through. I would have made one hell of an agent -- better than you, better than Colton. I would have been promoted, I could have done something about the Bureau from the inside. But I was just a geek -- I believe those were your exact words -- and you two never let up until I was cut from the program. You killed my dream, and now I'm going to kill you."
Mulder had heard enough. Weapon drawn, he pivoted into the doorway. "Put your gun down, Mr. Furlow."
Scully left her card at the nurses station as promised, then hit the metal wall plate that opened the ICU doors. Not seeing Mulder in the hallway, she went into the vistors' waiting room, a sinking feeling in her gut. She emerged with her lips pressed in a tight line.
"Agent Scully!" Byers trotted up the hall to her.
"Where is he?" she demanded. "And so help me God, if he's ditched me-"
Placatingly,. Byers held up his hands. "We were running out of time. Mulder figured out who the killer is, and possibly the next victim," he explained quickly. "But I know where he went, and he told me to take you there."
The stoniness did not leave her face. "Then let's go."
The Gunman brought her up to speed as he drove. "So you see, it's not really a ditch...."
"He might have come and gotten me," she muttered. She didn't know whether to be more angry or worried. She tried to place Furlow, whom Byers said had been a member of her class, but could not come up with a clear picture. Billings she remembered all too well.
"We were clear on the other side of the hospital, near the entrance. It would have taken too much time. He did call for back-up," Byers offered hopefully. "Does that take us off your shit list?"
"It depends on whether you get me there before he gets hurt again," she snapped.
Grimly, Byers grasped the wheel and pressed on the accelerator. "Hold on."
Furlow nodded approvingly, but kept his gun trained on Billings. "It's about time someone figured it out. Actually, I thought it might be you."
"You know me?" Mulder asked, incredulous.
"I saw you once, in passing. Somewhere in Minnesota or Wisconsin I think. And of course I've monitored you, like I have the rest. I must say, the X-Files are a waste of your talents." As an aside, he added, "Your expense reports are appalling, by the way."
Refusing to be distracted, Mulder said quietly, "Put the gun down, Ed. No one has to die here."
"He does," Furlow said, pointing the gun at Billings.
Outside in the street, Mulder could just barely hear the sound of footsteps on pavement. "Ed, they know about you. They know you're the one. I called for back-up. They'll be here anytime."
Ed laughed. "I know you, Mulder. So well, I almost sent the letters to you, except I figured no one would believe you. You're a lone wolf. You don't call for back-up. It's not your style."
"Call it an aberration. This time I did."
"Sorry, Mulder, no can do. First, I don't believe you. And second, Billings has a debt to pay. Whether I kill you, or you kill me really doesn't matter. But Billings will die, either way."
At Scully's order, Byers screetched to a halt about a block from the address Mulder had scribbled. "Stay here, I'll walk the rest of the way." The door slammed on Byers' "Good luck!".
Walking briskly, she scanned the street. Several cars with government plates were parked haphazardly at the curb. When she had nearly reached her destination, she spotted some men in suits crouching behind a car on the opposite side of the street. Ducking, she joined them.
"Agent Scully, I might have known you'd show up," John Colavito sneered. "Your partner's in there, fucking things up as usual."
Across the road, a terrifying tableau was being played out on the other side of the picture window. Through the sheer draperies, Scully could clearly see the figures of three men, standing about three feet apart. Her view was not good enough, however, to distinguish between them.
"We have sharpshooters in the upstairs windows of the condos behind us. If your partner weren't there, the perp would be dead by now."
"I don't suppose it crossed your mind that if he weren't there, Billings might be dead by now," she spat. The hands on her watch displayed fourteen minutes past five.
"Well, it doesn't matter. If they're not out in sixty seconds, the sharpshooters have orders to take the perp out."
"Orders? Whose orders?" Scully whispered furiously. "You can't do that -- you could kill Mulder and Billings! Shit, the shooters can't see any better through those curtains that I can!"
"Tell it to the Director. He's the one that gave the order. I'm just his eyes and ears." He glanced at his watch. "Get ready."
"Look Ed, I don't want to kill you," Mulder said beseechingly. "I've read your letters, and you made a lot of good points. If I kill you, as far as the newspapers are concerned, you'll just be another dead serial killer. And nothing will change at the Bureau. But if you live," Mulder took a step closer, "you'll have your day in court. Your testimony, getting national media attention. That would shake up the Bureau, wouldn't it? Come on, Ed, it's the best deal you're going to get."
Furlow bit his lip, considering, and lowered his gun. At the same moment, a voice in the street cried, "Now!".
Muklder hurled himself away from Furlow as a spray of bullets shattered the window. Within seconds, agents burst through the front and back doors.
Scully fought her way through the mob to where Mulder lay moaning. The room looked like a slaughterhouse, with the spatter of blood covering walls, furniture and the three men on the floor.
"Mulder! Jesus, Mulder, are you hit?" She tore at his clothes.
He grimaced in pain. "I--I don't think so. I fell against the coffee table. My chest...."
"Looks like you've been grazed, right where you broke your ribs. And there's a new bruise starting; you might have re-broken them."
Someone called anxiously, "Agent Scully! You're a doctor, right?"
"Hold on, I'll be right back," she said to her partner, giving his hand a squeeze. Mulder nodded and let his eyes close.
Sha glanced at Furlow. Caught by the hail of bullets mainly in the chest and neck, he was clearly beyond need of help. She knelt at the side of the third man, Billings. He hadn't changed much in the years since she'd seen him - except for the bleeding and the cyanotic tinge to his lips. She asessed him quickly. "Get me some duct tape, paper towels and Saran wrap." The agent hovering over her looked confused. "Look in the kitchen. Move!" she commanded. "This man has a sucking chest wound and needs to get to a hospital immediately!"
"Paramedics are only a minute away, " a voice said.
In seconds, someone handed her the supplies and she went to work. The occlusive bandage was in place when the paramedics came through the door. She left them to deal with Billings and rejoined her partner.
"Can you sit?" Carefuly she helped him to the couch. Around them, agents were talking into cell phones, the paramedics were calling in vital signs and requesting orders, sirens were blaring out in the street. But on the couch, the world shrank to exclude all that.
"You left me," she accused softly, her eyes reflecting hurt and concern.
"It wasn't really a ditch, you know," he said, meeting her eyes. "Byers knew where I was, and I told him to get you and bring you here. Honestly Scully, if the time wasn't so short, and Billings' life wasn't in jeopardy.... "
"I'll let you off the hook this time. Mulder, you know you're going to have to go to the hospital."
He grimaced. "I know. But I don't need an ambulance. Byers can take us." He gestured toward the doorway wherer the Gunman stood, unaccountably having gotten through the police lines outside.
Then he turned to her, nearly in tears. "Why'd they do that, Scully? It was so unnecessary. I had talked him into surrendering. Another twenty seconds, and we would have been out of there. Nobody would have gotten hurt." His eyes trailed down to Furlow's body.
"Supposedly, it was the Director's order."
Mulder almost laughed, but the ache in his chest made him think better of it. A paramedic approached them, but his partner waved him aside. A gurney carrying Billings wheeled past them and out the door.
Scully beckoned to Byers, who helped her assist her white and shaky partner to stand. "Take some deep breaths," she urged.
"You must be kidding," her partner replied, holding his chest. "No, I'm okay, I can walk."
As they slowly made their way to the car, Mulder said, "The Director himself. Incredible. That's just the kind of excess, just the kind of poor judgement Ed Furlow wanted to stop. Ironic, isn't it?"
Scully lowered him into the back seat, then went around the car to slide in beside him as Byers started the engine. Gently, she helped him to recline, using her lap as his pillow. Automatically, her fingers stroked through his hair comfortingly. "Yes, it is ironic, Mulder. You want to know something else ironic?"
"Umm.. that feels good. Sure, what?"
"Looks like Sam Bernstein's going to get his chance ot treat you after all. Back to Georgetown Memorial, Byers."
End of "Letters"