Skinner stared through the window at downtown Lexington. The image of the street in front of him gradually dissolved into the scene in the basement office a week earlier, the Smoking Man greeting him with smug cheer, forcing him to face with what he'd done in passing Scully the Cassandra Spender information.
"Looks like a murder-suicide," Wilkins' words drifted in from the next room.
He'd come uncomfortably close to getting found out.
There was a gap in the muted conversation and then Wilkins continued, "Maybe not? Makes perfect sense, you know: he runs over the guy and then has a flash of clarity. He realizes what he's done, that he's going to get put away--"
"Has anyone spoken to the wife yet?" It was Scully, subdued. "Do we know if he was ever despondent before, whether he was ever suicidal, how he handled his problems?"
"I... No, haven't done that kind of interview. Yet. I mean, this lady's been through hell and high water."
"I'd be willing to go with you, Agent Wilkins, if I'm not overstepping my bounds here. It may be easier for her to talk with another woman."
"Manny's going to be jealous." There was soft humor in Wilkins' voice as he referred to his partner.
The click of shoes on tile approached.
Skinner turned. "That's probably a good idea, Agent. How long is it going to take you to look at Andy Johnston?"
"Not long, sir. An hour at most. I can take samples and analyze them back at Quantico."
"Fine." He nodded at them. "You and Wilkins see what you can find out."
Skinner turned back to the window. The afternoon was overcast, cool. Shapeless gray masses made their way slowly across the sky. It could be that he was just being paranoid, that he'd been spooked by his own blunders the weekend before. The evidence could represent just what it seemed to. It could all be completely straightforward.
Mulder had been suspicious, though. It was awfully clean, awfully convenient that Johnston had been killed by someone with a score to settle. It made sense that the guy might end up committing suicide, but... Big but. It was clean, surgically clean. Except for the little boy.
Skinner's hands found their way to his hips. He dipped his head. Dale Lanier would be here any time--Lanier who had lost his left arm below the elbow for his efforts at dragging the sorry ass of a scared, green kid out of the heat of a firefight.
His shoulders sagged. Skinner set his jaw and forced himself to focus on the scene outside the window.
The Millers' mobile home was tucked against a hillside beside a second mobile home, neither of them new. The broad area surrounding the structures was bordered by a scattered collection of rusty late '60's model cars. Tall weeds reaching randomly through windows and open trunks indicated that none of them had been driven in years. A black Labrador wandered in the bare front yard, sniffing at the ground.
Agent Wilkins brought the car to a stop and glanced at Scully in the passenger seat. "This is it, I guess."
"I'm going to be watching how you do this. For future reference."
Scully shook her head. "I wouldn't describe myself an expert at this, either, Agent Wilkins. This type of interview is never easy." She reached for the door handle.
Scully and Wilkins crossed the yard and climbed the gray wood stairs to the home's front porch. Dark shapes could be seen behind a screen door. Muted voices drifted out from inside. Scully nodded to Wilkins, who knocked on the paneling beside the door.
The corner of Wilkins' mouth pulled. He was taking this personally, Scully realized, putting himself in the victim's place. Understandable, considering what he'd experienced as a child.
Footsteps approached and a brown-haired woman in her late thirties became visible behind the darkened grid of the screen.
"Mrs. Miller?" Scully said.
The woman paused to regard them. "I expect you'll be looking for my daughter."
"We're from the FBI. I'm Agent Scully, this is Agent Wilkins. We'd like to ask Mrs. Miller a few questions."
The woman looked at her, though her gaze seemed to catch on Wilkins. "She's already talked to the police," she said. "Do you people really need to drag her through this again?"
"I know this is a very painful time for all of you," Scully began, "but this incident ties into an ongoing federal investigation. There are a few questions we really need to ask her."
The woman sighed, hesitated a moment and went to retrieve her daughter. Scully looked down and traced the grayed wood grain on the porch with the toe of one shoe.
Mrs. Miller, when she appeared, was probably nineteen at best. Her hair was wavy, long and brown, her eyes and cheeks puffy with crying. Her mother stood behind her like a bodyguard.
"Yes?" She looked from Scully to Wilkins.
"We're very sorry about your loss," Scully began softly. "We need to ask you a few questions about your husband."
The screen door opened and the girl stepped out onto the porch.
"Mrs. Miller, can you tell us about the disagreement your husband had with Andy Johnston?"
The girl squinted into the light and sighed. "It was a running thing, something they'd had going ever since high school. I don't even know what started it. But they used to trade jabs back and forth. And then Andy Johnston snitched on Cy for drinking on the job at the plant and they fired him." She looked at Scully through shiny eyes. "But I didn't think their tussle'd ever come to anything. Cy got another job. Okay, sometimes he talked harm but this don't make any sense. I never saw him do nothing awful before. He loved Roddy. I don't know how he coulda--"
Her lower lip quivered. She dissolved into sobs and her mother stepped through the doorway and pulled the girl into a stiff embrace. Scully pursed her lips and looked away. She could feel the heat of the older woman's stare boring into her. After taking a breath, she began again gently.
"Roddy was your son?"
The girl nodded. "Yes, Roddy's my..." She clutched at the familiarity of 'is', determined not to step off into the awful void of 'was', and then collapsed against her mother again.
"Mrs. Miller, we're just trying to make sense of what went on here, to try to find some answers, something that will help. You said your husband 'talked harm'. Did he ever seem depressed? Had he ever thought about suicide that you're aware of?"
The girl wiped her eyes and turned back to Scully. "He was mad every once in a while, but that was just Cy. I guess you could say he was a little hot-headed. After the plant, he got a job in his friend's machine shop and we were doing okay after that... Well, we haven't been doing great but we've been getting by." She wiped below one eye with the back of her hand. "When Roddy came along Cy never seemed to talk about Andy Johnston anymore." She looked directly at Scully. "He loves that boy. He takes him everywhere." Tears and pain welled into her eyes again. "Last night..." She gulped. "Last night when they left, Cy said he was taking Roddy to the park..." Her voice began to waver and then turned into a low, guttural wail over which she had no control. She turned and leaned into her mother again and began to pound her mother's shoulder with a fist. The older woman took the fist calmly, slowly, and covered it with her own hand. She frowned at Scully and Wilkins.
"I think she's had enough now," she said, her mouth straight and tight. "Don't you?" She nodded at them and guided the girl back inside the house.
"Thank you for your time," Scully said, trying to project caring into her voice, though she knew it was unlikely to have its intended effect. She sighed and glanced at Wilkins. In spite of the brownness of his skin he seemed a little blanched, too. He let her pass. She stepped down and nearly tripped on the second stair. Wilkins' arm was instantly under hers in support.
"Thank you," she said, though her voice was nearly gone.
"Basketball," he said, attempting to smile through his own grimness. "Good training for quick reactions."
They got into the car. Wilkins concentrated on the road, on driving carefully. Scully stared through the passenger window. Shapes in greens and grays passed by her, blurred.
Mulder set a cardboard box next to the front door of his apartment and turned around. The place was empty, or nearly so. Only his desk was left, still in its place under the window, and a few cardboard boxes stacked by the door that would go with him to his new place.
The emptiness was palpable now. The couch had gone first; he'd been in the bedroom supervising the removal of boxes when they'd taken it. He'd come out to find it already gone, an empty spot left in its place, dust drifting on the floor.
He picked up a broom and began to sweep the dining room. The walls were bare. The whole apartment was solemn, like a monastery--no exuberance, no color, no sound allowed, as if it might disturb the somber gravity of the place. The broom bristles went whoosh, whoosh, whoosh in the emptiness. Little drifts of dust skittered past the gathering pile of small, hard particles and floated free, silent. The movers' truck was gone now. They'd be back in a half-hour or so for the desk and boxes and it would all be over, a chapter of his life sealed away and consigned to the past.
Mulder returned to his work, sweeping the particles into a dustpan and setting the broom against the wall. He walked into the living room--empty room--and paused by the desk at the far end. He ran his fingers along the top of the chair back and closed his eyes.
So much of his time in this room had been spent waiting: waiting for Deep Throat to call, waiting for X to respond to the masking tape signal in the window. Waiting to find out whether Scully would live or die, or whether the X-files would survive or be closed down. Struggling with his own beliefs and the realities that did or didn't support them. And now he'd spent another week waiting--sitting on his ass waiting for something to happen, to figure out a plan, or for something to fall into his lap. Sitting, waiting, as if he were straight-jacketed and tied to a chair. But there were no cords holding him, no ties, no ropes, and still he had done nothing quantifiable, nothing he could point to and say, 'Here. This is my plan. This is how I'm going to bring Old Smoky down. This is the way I'm going to get myself reinstated at the Bureau." All he'd succeeded in doing was getting himself moved out of his apartment. His fingers tightened on the chair back.
Footsteps approached in the hallway. The muscles in his forearms strained against the wood in his grasp. A footstep echoed inside the door. The scent of cigarette smoke drifted in with it.
"Taking a moment for reflection, Agent Mulder?" The words echoed through the empty rooms.
Mulder breathed in, breathed out, fighting a surge of adrenaline and anger. Keep your head. Don't lose your head. Play the role. He opened his eyes and turned.
"What the hell do you want from me?" He took several steps toward the Smoking Man. "Isn't it enough that you killed my father; that you used Scully as some kind of toy--as bait--bait--to catch me; that you managed to get me thrown out of the Bureau? Is it enough yet? Do you have enough?"
"Feeling sorry for ourselves, are we?" Smoky replied casually, half a smile on his face. He reached into his pocket for another Morley and a lighter. He slipped the cigarette between his lips, lit it and took a long drag.
"Get out," Mulder said, walking up to him, close, too close. "The trash is gone now, so just get the hell out." His voice was going. But it was okay; it was a good thing. Don't lose your head.
The Smoking Man glanced around the room. "Everyone has to make adjustments from time to time, Agent Mulder. Material possessions aren't all they're cracked up to be." He gestured with his cigarette toward where the couch and chair had been and put it back in his mouth. "At any rate, I didn't come here to talk about you and your little domestic dilemma."
He took another drag on the Morley. When it came out from between his lips, his mouth was set in a hard line. "I came with a word of advice for your partner." He paused. "Ex-partner. It seems she's gotten herself mixed up in a misguided little crusade of Assistant Director Skinner's--a case in Kentucky. She needs to realize that her actions aren't without consequence." The cigarette went in; a stream of smoke came out.
"The world is full of tragic little accidents, Mulder: the operation of chance, a twist of fate--" Cigarette in, smoke out. The tight-set mouth again. "Tell her if she'd like to stay where she is, in good health..."
Mulder's hands curled into fists. His throat burned.
"...she should keep to her job description. Lots of people do it. It seems to serve them quite well."
There was no feigning of cordiality this time. He dropped the still-burning cigarette onto the floor and walked out.
Mulder flexed his hands but they returned automatically to fists. If he'd had a weapon he would have shot the son of a bitch--no thought, no hesitation--and was that good or bad? Would it make him just like the man he wanted to kill? Was it better to do the ‘right thing' or to eliminate a sure evil? He looked up, at the ceiling, and closed his eyes. Tension pumped through him, making his arms shaky, unsteady. He let out an ragged breath.
Footsteps echoed in the hall again--two sets this time.
Mulder picked up the smoldering cigarette and threw it through the kitchen door. It landed cleanly in the sink. Score.
He'd been flustered, though. Smoky had been flustered. There'd been something there, a little hint of frustration behind the cool façade at the end, as if he didn't completely control the board, as if Skinner and Scully had stumbled onto something that could cause him real damage. But how? Was it something he could use and turn to his advantage? And even if he could, how far could he go without having Smoky come down on Scully? She was no longer a convenience to Smoky, someone he could use to make Fox Mulder sit up and beg. He wouldn't toy around if he thought she'd stepped out of line.
What would he tell her now when she got home? They'd been pulled from their own work and she was searching for meaning, something with significance, in her job. He knew the feeling. But now she'd have to be more careful than ever.
A knock came beside the half-open door and he turned around. It was the movers returning for his things. He let out a slow breath, set his jaw and opened the door wide.
"This is it, sir," Scully said, entering the room where Skinner was waiting and setting a small cooler down beside her. "This is everything I'll need."
Skinner turned from the window to face her. "Good. The courier should be here within five minutes to pick it up." He glanced behind her. "Where's Agent Wilkins?"
"He's been observing me, sir. He wants to get a background in the forensics involved." She made an effort to smile, though she was weary, as if the weariness were a bulky burden strapped to her. "He's a very good agent, sir. He's definitely willing to go the extra mile."
Skinner nodded in reply. "How soon will you be ready to go?"
"Agent Wilkins wants me to take a look at the last two bodies--Miller and the boy. I won't be long."
Skinner nodded again. He'd seemed very subdued during the entire trip.
Scully returned to Wilkins in the morgue.
"Have you seen the bodies yet?" she said.
"I've seen Miller. He was shot through the left temple."
"Was he a marksman?"
"As much as a lot of guys around here, I guess. He'd hunted since he was a kid."
"Any previous incidents involving people?"
Wilkins shook his head. "No. Seemed like he was just a joiner, part of a group of guys he'd known since high school. He was jailed a couple of times on drunk-and-disorderlies. Nothing big. And then this thing he had going with Andy Johnston."
"Had Johnston ever retaliated in any way?"
"Not any way that local law enforcement has any record of."
Scully sighed. It had been a long afternoon and her questions were perfunctory, an effort to stave off the inevitable. But she'd seen hundreds of bodies; these should be no different. She nodded to Wilkins. "Shall we take a look?"
There was nothing unremarkable about Cyrus Miller's wound. The entry was clean, point blank, and the exit wound was exactly what she would have expected. "What was his blood alcohol level?"
"Pretty high; I don't remember the numbers. Let me check my paperwork."
"It's not critical." She looked up at him. "It's a textbook case. And the weapon they found with him?"
"His wife didn't recognize it. She said he only kept hunting rifles at home, but it wasn't something she said she would have paid a lot of attention to. Evidently he'd go shooting with his friends on occasion. Manny's checking with them."
Scully held a breath momentarily and steeled herself. "Have you looked at the boy?"
Wilkins shook his head.
Scully moved to the drawer. There was no point in waiting. She wrapped her fingers around the cool steel handle and pulled.
A headful of soft brown curls greeted her. The child had been two and a half. His body was smooth, showing no signs of abuse. One knee was scraped and she could see from the bottoms of his feet that he had rarely worn shoes but instead had run around barefoot. There was a small rosebud mouth and one eye half-open that stared dully. A hole sat where the other eye should have been.
Scully wiped her brow and pushed herself forward.
"Suicides--and murder-suicides--aren't always clean. Quite often emotion interferes with doing the job efficiently," she began, her voice distant, as if it were someone else's, as if she were teaching a class. "People who slit their wrists, for instance, usually have multiple cuts. Without experience it's difficult to get it right on the first attempt." She paused and then went on. "Obviously this isn't a clean job. Anyone with weapons experience would probably have gone for the side of the head, as the boy's father did, or the heart. Alcohol could have interfered, of course. Or if in the emotion of the moment the boy had become fussy, or done something unexpected, the father's reaction could have resulted in this."
She swallowed and forced herself to look up, halfway up Wilkins' tie, then all the way to his face. "Or you could have something else entirely here." Her lips pressed together. She brushed an errant lock of hair back from her face. "If Agent Mulder's suspicions were to prove correct, that someone else used Miller to kill Andy Johnston in order to derail your investigation, then they may also have killed Miller to keep him from talking. A shooter who approached the driver's window of the car where they were found might not have seen the child at first; Miller was a fairly large man. The child could have been hidden from view if he'd been sitting beside his father."
She struggled to keep the words coming.
"Which do you think it was, Agent Scully?"
Scully breathed out. She shook her head. "I have no way of telling from the evidence here. Keep track of your peripherals, how all the pieces fit together. Where the weapon came from. Background from his friends. Anything Rita Johnston might be able to tell you about the feud between her son and Miller. Look for inconsistencies--"
She turned around. Skinner was standing in the doorway.
"Taxi's here. We need to get going if we're going to make our flight."
Scully slid the drawer back in, removed her exam gloves and turned to Wilkins, who offered his hand.
"Thanks for letting me tag along, Agent. I've learned a lot." There was a lift to one eyebrow that indicated he'd learned a lot more than he'd bargained for.
Scully took his hand and shook it firmly.
"Let me know how your investigation moves along. I'll be interested to know what you come up with." She turned to Skinner, who nodded toward the hallway.
Scully went through the door Skinner held open for her and walked down a hallway that seemed to blur by on either side. Skinner matched steps with her, though neither of them talked. She was conscious of her calf muscles, their expansion and contraction as they moved her along. In her mind she heard herself lecturing Wilkins, struggling to keep herself above water. Two pairs of shoes echoed on the polished floor.
Teena Mulder woke with a start and looked quickly around her. She'd fallen asleep in her own living room chair. According to the mantel clock, it was after five already. She stretched. An empty silence filled the room, as if something were missing, as if she'd wakened only to a dream of her living room. Outside the curtains, sun spread over the leaves of shrubs under the window.
She stood up, conscious of the hollow ticking of the clock, and walked to the kitchen and then to the back door. She paused, one hand on the smooth knob. Slowly she unlocked it and walked the cement path to the back door of the garage, which stood open as it had before. Cautiously she peered inside. Everything was in its place: the car, the usual stacks of boxes with the old blanket spread over them, the fold-away bed wedged into its spot between boxes and the wall. It was as if he had never been here. Or had she only dreamed him? What imagination could have conjured up her child grown into the deliberately-shaped tool of his terrible father?
She turned and walked out into the light. Warmth sank into her skin, spreading, comforting; the air around her was hung in silence: no traffic noises, no birds, no neighbors' lawnmowers. She blinked but the scene before her remained the same.
Only when she reached the back door did she notice the empty plate next to the doorstep, the plastic wrap stretched smoothly over the top. Underneath was a small scrap of paper on which was scrawled the word 'thanks'.
Mulder set the picture of Samantha carefully on his desktop and slipped the rest of the contents of the cardboard box into the lower right hand drawer, then added the empty box to the three on the bed. He glanced around. The place was more cramped than he'd realized at first. His only closet was about the size of a phone booth, and dishes, such as they were, were going to end up in a box under the bathroom sink. But it would do. He'd make it work.
He picked up the four empty boxes on the bed, opened and flattened them, and took them outside to the dumpster. The sun was warm on his arms. It felt good to be out in the light, up out of the claustrophobia of his little room with its excess of move-in stuff. He turned and looked back at the building. It was old. Water and drain pipes ran up the back side of it on the second story, on the brick part, but the foundation, where his place was, was broad gray stones covered partially with ivy. Outside his window was a small stone-edged garden bed, a place where the cement walk widened into a brief patio, and an old Adirondack chair off to one side, just out of view of the window. He went over to it and sat down. After a moment he leaned his head back and closed his eyes.
Maybe he was nuts. How foolhardy was he to be doing this: living off his savings--eating away at them--in the hopes of finding a way to catch a teflon joker like Old Smoky and bring him down? It was a Don Quixote kind of thing, and yet Scully hadn't said a word, hadn't shown any of her usual skepticism or asked how he was going to eat or what he was going to use to pay the rent.
Anyway, Smoky had showed him exactly why he was doing this, back in his apartment a few hours earlier. If someone didn't take him down, he'd go on ruining lives, toying with them for their strategic value and throwing aside the crushed remainders. What exactly had he meant by 'in good health', anyway? Was it a simple threat, or was he referring to the chip in her neck?
Mulder swallowed suddenly. The sun was warm on his arms and face, coaxing him toward a hypnotic sense of drowsiness and ease he couldn't afford to feel. What if Smoky'd been talking about the chip? He forced his eyes open and leaned forward, head in hands.
And what about Scully, when she found out he was living here? Would it look like he was following her like a lost puppy, having a place so close to hers?
He looked up.
She'd be getting back in a while, back from having to examine Rita Johnston's son and having it remind her of Emily, the way she'd wanted so badly to keep her, to give Emily a life--a normal little girl's life--when all she could do in the end was to be there for her, to lay next to her as she let go of an existence no one with any sense of compassion would have brought her into in the first place. He'd tried to be there for Scully--to smooth the way, to make it easier for her--and yet she hadn't been able to acknowledge any of it, which showed just how close to the edge she'd actually been, how close to losing that control she seemed to need.
It was something about her he'd never understood. How was it that you could feel weak--feel lost--and not reach out for someone to brace yourself with? How could you need to form a circle around that emptiness and want to guard it, to nurture it?
Scully maneuvered into the last available parking spot across from Mulder's building and looked up. The last sunset colors were reflected against his window but the blinds were pulled up, which was uncharacteristic, and the lights were off. She sighed and let her head lean back briefly against the headrest.
It had been a very long day with a lot of miles traveled. She and Skinner had barely exchanged a word on the flight back, each of them weighed down by their respective burdens, and all she wanted now was to sleep, to forget this day, to escape from it somehow. But first she needed to know that Mulder was all right. She'd missed the signs completely a week ago and he'd seemed almost wistful the night before when they'd met to eat, uncharacteristically quiet. His admission that he was thinking about giving up the apartment had caught her completely off-guard.
She looked up again at the darkened window. He could be up there in the shadows, just sitting, or watching one of his videos. She reached for the door handle.
It had become so familiar, coming here, she thought as the elevator carried her upward. The first thing she was going to do when she got home was to take off her shoes and then her suit, soak in the tub and put on something soft and comfortable. Then she'd make it her mission to find a way to forget what she'd seen today.
There was no answer when she rapped below the '42' on Mulder's door.
Another knock. She waited.
There was no point in waking him if he was asleep. She listened, her ear against the door, and hearing nothing, opened her purse and worked her key in the lock. When she flipped the light switch, her heart skipped a beat.
The apartment was completely vacant. Her heart lurched and began to race. Cautiously she took a few steps forward, her shoes echoing loudly on the hard floor. Kitchen. Living room. Bedroom. Bathroom. Nothing. She swallowed. He'd said he was thinking about it. And now he'd just taken off...
Or maybe he'd been too embarrassed to tell her. Loss of a livelihood was a hard lump for any man to swallow. She remembered when her dad had retired, how her mother had said he'd seemed almost embarrassed not to have someplace to go in the morning, how he was what he did and when he no longer did...
There was almost an echo of Mulder here, a reaching out. She looked at the window with its remnants of masking tape stickiness, then at the spot on the wall where she'd dug out the bullet that had nearly killed her while Mulder was away at his father's, having to witness his death. She studied the large front pane of glass, naked and unseeing like Roddy Miller's remaining eye.
A shiver passed through her. Quickly she went out, locked the door and hurried toward the elevator. Surely the manager would know where he'd gone. Her foot tapped the floor, waiting.
But when she reached the apartment manager's door, there was no answer. She knocked again, harder this time. Still nothing. She bent down and looked at the bottom of the door. No light showed underneath it.
No comforting logic she could offer herself kept the images from crowding her head: Mulder lying motionless on his couch a week ago; Roddy Miller's curls and his smooth little legs and dirty feet; Emily lying lifeless on white sheets, surrounded by the gleaming metal frame of a hospital bed, the warmth rapidly fading from her, her body horribly, achingly motionless.
Scully turned and hurried out of the building to her car.
(end 8 of 14)
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