Fox Mulder strode into the review room, took his seat and glanced around. A.D. Skinner, his one ally, was conspicuously absent from the row of emotionless faces on the panel in front of him. And at the center sat the man--his boss, these last dreary months--who saw no use in his work whatsoever: Assistant Director Alvin Kersh.
So Kersh was chairing this. Why?
Mulder glanced at his watch. 10:40.
Did Scully even know about this? He hadn't seen her this morning. There'd been a note on his desk--if you could even call it a desk--a 'workspace' was all it was, if you wanted to consider what they were doing these days 'work'--when he'd arrived, saying she'd gone to Arlington to pick up... something about evidence for a case Kersh had thrown at her at the last minute.
The door behind him opened and Mulder turned. The corners of his mouth began to lift, but they dropped almost immediately. It was Kersh's secretary, the chemical blonde with the fake smile, not Scully after all. If I find anything on you, her expression said--and I'd like to have something on you--His Loftiness will know in a heartbeat.
"Agent Mulder," Kersh's voice boomed.
Mulder turned to face forward.
"We'll make this brief. You were advised some months ago that any further contact with the X-files would result in your immediate dismissal. Apparently staying with the Bureau doesn't top your list of priorities, Agent, so we'll just get the formalities over with."
His voice was all policy, but a hint of a smile pulled at one edge of Kersh's mouth. Mulder watched the moving lips, curious. Now they stopped.
"You've been relieved of your position, Agent. You will be required to--"
"Sir?" Mulder straightened in his chair, aided by a sudden jolt of adrenaline. "Excuse me. Sir--"
"...participate in an exit interview within one week of this date. In addition, you must check your badge and weapon today before you leave the building."
"Sir, on--" Mulder got to his feet, dazed. It was a dream, some kind of crazy dream-scenario, the product of the nagging fear in the back of his mind since... He blinked. Still there, the whole row of them staring blank-faced, like mannequins, the paleness of their skin a sharp contrast to Kersh's deep chocolate tone.
"On... On what do you base this, sir?" Heat rose in Mulder's cheeks. Inside, a heavy rhythm pounded through him. "I've just spent the last three weeks in California chasing down fertilizer violations with my partner. We discovered an illicit stash in a warehouse in the Oakland area, 500 pounds of ammonium nitrate. We stayed an extra day to verify removal. The report is on your desk, sir."
"I've seen it, Mr. Mulder."
"I believe there's been a mistake--"
"We have the phone records, Agent. The conditions were 'any contact'. Now, there will be--"
"Mulder, sit down."
Mulder sat. He didn't recall having stood. "Sir, what phone records?"
"Mr. Mulder, there will be an exit interview set up for next Tuesday--"
"Sir, I'm asking for clarification here."
"Any concerns you have can be addressed at that time. Until then you're on administrative leave."
The lips in Kersh's dark face continued to move, but Mulder heard only the buzzing inside his own head. Across the room, bureaucratic puppet faces made the occasional perfunctory nod. He focused on Kersh's mouth, straining for a second to hear the words it formed.
Wait a minute. Where was Scully in all this? She was... Kersh had sent her...
She wasn't being included in this. Kersh had sent her off so she wouldn't even know until the dirty deed had been done. They were doing this to him, booting him out, sweeping the trash out of the way. They must figure Scully was still salvageable.
Suddenly he stood. Kersh's droning continued.
Mulder cleared his throat. "Excuse me, are we through here?"
The A.D. looked up from the paper in front of him. His eyebrows lifted.
"Are we done? Is this little charade over, because I'm late for an appointment."
Kersh mouth opened and he paused.
"Thank you, sir." Abruptly, Mulder turned on his heel and strode from the room.
The door was a hard slap against Mulder's palm, the hallway beyond it a series of doorways passing by on either side, blurring as they went, punctuated by the occasional form of a person standing, or looking.
It made no sense. Not after all this time. The only phone call they could possibly have caught was the one--one--he'd tried to make to Marita Covarrubias at the U.N., and even that could be chalked up to something legitimate. Anybody else he'd contacted--even the Gunmen--he'd always called from somewhere else, from a pay phone, from a public place; he had no death-wish where the Bureau was concerned. But they'd always been watching; he'd known that since Scully was first partnered with him. Even his father had warned him once, though it had sounded like more of his standard negativity than advice born of experience at the time: that if he pushed too hard against the powers-that-be, they wouldn't hesitate to shove him out the door. Now their agenda was out in the open.
Correction: He was the one who was out.
It had been a shrinking pool for months--the growing restrictions on their work and the quality of the assignments. First the basement office was gone, and with it his autonomy. Their autonomy; this affected Scully, too. But it was in her to be able to play the game, to follow protocol and turn in the perfectly polished reports even when the work was sheer crap. She could smile and deal with it. He wasn't made for that kind of thing.
The progression was obvious now. The first time... the first time they'd shut down his project--his life--he'd been given wiretapping transcription, endless hours of boring low-lifes going on and on about their empty, pointless lives. A hit here, a betrayal there, to jolt them out of the routine of their rooming-house existences, and then more nothing. The only thing that had kept him from going crazy, or from putting a gun to his head, was Scully. She'd check in every once in a while to see what he was doing, how it was going, whether or not he was surviving the routine. She had a gift for reading his emotional temperature, and beyond that she cared, though sometimes the why of it was a mystery.
After Antarctica it had been worse, his life work snatched away and given to someone else, to that weasel Spender, and to Diana, who he'd always trusted... and yet didn't, something he could never quite pin down in the choreographed dance between mind and heart. And instead of wiretapping this time: domestic terrorism, a dramatic sweep through the country's heartland, sitting around in dozens of family living rooms with TVs going and dogs trotting through the room while wives in chambray and denim smiled nervously and offered up coffeecake as their husbands pawed through stacks of receipts for feed and fertilizer and oil and hardware, only to produce proof in the end that the fertilizer that had sent up a red flag back at the Bureau was actually being used to keep the family farm from going under.
Over the months, the shrinking pond had become nothing more than a pathetic puddle and now even that was gone, dried up with a little help from... someone. Jeffrey Spender would be wound up in it some way. Spender and the cigarette smoking son of a bitch who pulled his strings. But why now? Why this after all the times they'd dangled glimpses of the truth in front of him and then simply stolen back any scraps of evidence he'd managed to grab, like teasing a cat with a string?
Mulder looked up. Ahead, down the hallway, the steely silhouette of Assistant Director Skinner was approaching.
Mulder fought the urge to turn around, to go down a side hallway or step into an elevator.
Skinner was in front of him now, close. Maybe a step too close.
"I had nothing to do with this," his superior said, the words half-whispered, his features characteristically tight and unreadable. "You were set up. I'll be in touch."
"If you can find me," Mulder heard himself shoot back. He turned abruptly and headed for the front lobby.
It was deja-vu. It was rapid water rising inside him, the too-familiar panic of being caught, twisted, tumbled end-for-end, everything familiar in his life ripped away; the need to breathe, to do something, to fight back before he drowned. He passed unthinking by the metal detector and through the front door.
His mind swirling, his barked retort to Skinner echoing in his ears, Mulder stepped to the curb and raised his hand to hail a cab.
At 2 p.m. Mulder changed into shorts and left his apartment, basketball in hand, hoping to run across someone looking for a pickup game at the local park. Not because he had time to kill, but because he needed to fill the time he had with something besides the squirming, sloshing backwash that was muddying his mind, making him unable to see what move to make, which direction to go. Clarity was key, and so often that clarity came from backing off, or through sweating away your confusion through the physical effort of the game.
But he found the courts empty. He shot baskets for twenty minutes and then jogged home. In the elevator, his heart rate gradually slowing to normal, the nagging sense of jittery limbo took over again.
Mulder worked the key in the lock of his apartment, opened the door and paused. 'Set' was the only word that fit the scene in front of him. As in 'movie set', nothing but the bare essentials: chairs, stove, coffee table, sofa, TV. No overt evidence of a life happening here; what fueled him was inside the boxes of files and papers stacked all over the bedroom, a room he only used for storage, and what did that say? Just how loudly did it speak?
Not that the frills mattered. Decorator furniture and strategically placed objets de arte or a different color of paint didn't matter. They weren't important. What was important was--
He threw his basketball hard against the front wall, narrowly missing a window bearing the residue of a masking tape 'X'. The ball ricocheted off an end table and knocked over the trash can beside his desk, then came to rest, the sudden clatter slipping into silence.
That was the point, anyway, wasn't it? Like X, they were all dead.
Dana Scully rapped her knuckles below the '42' on the door for the third time.
She sighed and called again, but this time her voice wasn't very loud, certainly not loud enough to be heard by anyone inside the apartment. Frowning, she pulled the key ring from her purse, slid Mulder's key into the lock and turned it.
The scene that met her was silent and deep with shadows. The final faint light of evening glowed softly in the front window.
"Mulder, are you here?"
She let her breath out slowly. After a moment she stepped inside and walked carefully to where she could see the couch. No Mulder. She reached for the light switch and flipped it.
Aside from his basketball sitting in the middle of the floor, nothing seemed out of place. She went to the desk under the window, pulled out the chair and sat down carefully.
There could be something. He'd left clues before.
She flipped the switch on the computer and watched it power up, fingers tapping on the surface of the desk. After a few moments, the desktop screen appeared and she pulled up a list of file names. George Hale. She clicked on it. He'd used that once before, when he'd taken off for the SETI array in Arecibo. A password prompt appeared on the screen. Scully typed in "trustno1". She paused.
No luck. She tried 'Samantha'.
Then 'Chilmark' and 'Quonocontaug' and 'Verber' and 'virus'. The password prompt continued to stare at her, impassive.
Skinner had seemed distraught when he'd approached her in the parking garage, as if he'd been waiting for her to arrive. As if it hadn't been just a coincidence that they'd crossed paths. She should have realized something was wrong. 'Agent Mulder has been dismissed', he'd said, his voice taut. 'Maybe you ought to--' He'd opened his mouth, paused and finally shrugged. She'd never seen Skinner look helpless before. She could still see the worry lines imprinted in his forehead.
Scully stared at her own pale reflection in the computer screen. There could be a simple explanation for this empty apartment. Mulder could have gone to the grocery store. He could be out jogging. She leaned forward and rested her head in her hands. She didn't think so.
I still have my work, he'd said when he'd returned from Arecibo and discovered all the evidence he'd gathered gone, part of an all-too-familiar pattern. I still have myself. But did he have himself now, after this? What would he do--what would it do to him--if he didn't?
Mulder waited until she'd gone--counted two minutes on his watch in the close, stuffy air--before he pushed the bedroom door open a crack farther and stepped cautiously into the living room. Going to the door, he twisted the knob carefully. True to form, she'd locked it. After a moment he turned and went to the window. Scully's car was just pulling into traffic.
Mulder's fingers curled tightly into his palms. He forced himself to stretch them out again, then stepped back from the window. The smart thing would have been to leave this afternoon, while the rental agencies were still open and he had a better chance at getting a car. But leave for where? There'd been too many possibilities then, careening around inside his head like a compass set wildly spinning by the proximity of a magnet.
She was the reason he had to go, though. She'd lost her innocence--had nearly lost her life--trying to help him. How many times had she been taken to the brink, left hanging by just a thread, because of something he'd done, or because of someone who wanted to use her to get to him? And with their reassignment off the X-files a few months earlier, she'd lost her credibility and some of her access as well. 'Mrs. Spooky'. It was a millstone around her neck, everything they'd done together.
No, everything they'd tried to do and failed to accomplish.
Mulder went to the couch--the place he slept, where he lived--and sat down. Leaning forward, he buried his face in his hands. He could see her future and it wasn't pretty. She'd become what he'd become: a walking Bureau joke, someone people in hallways would snicker at after she'd passed.
Leaning back, he let himself sink into the cushions.
She had too much talent for that, too much to give. She deserved a career--a legitimate career--and as long as he was here, she'd feel obligated to help him. She'd worry about him.
She'd get sucked under with him.
Mulder closed his eyes. He'd watched her there, at the computer, through the slit in the doorway, trying to crack his password. Finally she'd left, but she was probably dead tired; she'd had a day to get through, too. And that wild goose chase Kersh had sent her on. But she never gave up.
And she accused him of being relentless.
She wouldn't give up this time, either. He knew her too well.
It was time to leave, time to get away from this apartment and the Bureau and D.C. Stop contaminating her. Maybe perspective would come with physical distance, and he could arrange his pieces on the board, look at them with clear eyes and figure out what his next move should be.
Easing the car up to the curb, Mulder cut the engine and set the parking brake. He stretched and winced, then let his head fall back against the headrest. The house beyond the weedy, uncut lawn seemed a little more tired, a little more weathered maybe, than he'd remembered it. He closed his eyes. He could still feel the vibrations of hours spent on the road, a slowly-fading phenomenon, like half-life.
Was he running to something--he'd wondered that all the way up here--or simply running? His whole adult life had been wrapped up in the past: trying to find it, to piece it back together like Humpty Dumpty's shell, while the present... while the present went streaming past him as if he'd spent every minute since Samantha's abduction sitting in one of those rear-facing seats they had in old station wagons, never seeing anything until it had passed him by.
He let out a breath, opened his eyes and pulled up.
Maybe it ran in the family--not being able to let go of the past. His mother hadn't been able to bring herself to sell this place. Not after the divorce. Not even after she'd had the stroke, right here in this very summer house, after meeting Old Smoky here.
Mulder slammed the steering wheel with the side of a fist, sank back against the seat and sighed. Then he pulled the door latch and got out.
He was here because of Samantha; he hadn't come to think about the Smoking Man and whatever-the-hell connection the old geezer had to his mother. There was no point in going there and anyway, he wasn't going to invite Old Smoky to steal this time with his sister. He'd come here seeking a setting, a sense of place; he'd read that somewhere once, that physical locations stored memories. Maybe one of them would lead to a connection, however tenuous: a way to understand something more about her, about who she was and who she'd become. Or if she'd become.
For all his years of effort, he'd been unable to discover any certainties about her life, as if her disappearance were a math problem without the necessary constants that made it possible to construct an equation. Solve for the variable, but every piece of information--or misinformation--he'd come across was a variable. His British informant had said their father had taken Samantha to a cloning facility. But he also thought he'd seen her in the flesh, once, grown up, sitting right on his father's front porch. And for as much as he'd wanted to believe--had wanted to feel in his heart that it was her, really her--he'd known, somehow, even before he found the other clones, that it had been too good to be true.
He thought he'd found her a second time when Cancer Man brought her to see him at that diner while Scully lay in the hospital, the life trickling inexorably out of her. But that could have been a scam, too, Old Smoky playing on his emotions, holding out carrots, offering him everything he'd ever wanted. And why? That was the question. Nothing came free, least of all long-lost sisters. Anyway, if the woman the Smoking Man had brought with him that night had been the real Samantha, the sister he'd lost so many years ago, she hadn't wanted to see him anyway. She'd been scared, like a deer frozen in a spotlight, waiting for her chance to spring away. He'd scared her with his overbearing intensity. 'Passion', Scully called it when she was being diplomatic.
He smiled suddenly, thinking of his partner. Then he pictured her, head-in-hands, silent in front of his computer in the dark. He swallowed and dug the garage key from the pocket of his jeans.
Inside the pocket of her lab coat, Scully's cell phone rang. Quickly she turned off the water, dried her hands and fished out the phone. Her breath caught involuntarily. She forced it out evenly and pushed 'talk'. "Scully."
"Agent Scully, is there some place we might talk?"
Skinner. She felt her chest sag and made herself straighten. "Sir?"
"Off the record, Agent Scully. It's... important."
"How about Sweeney's, sir? I could meet you in, say, an hour?"
"Maybe some place more public." There was a pause. "Can you meet me at the Wall?"
"The Vietnam Memorial?"
"Yes. By the directory."
"By the directory, sir. In one hour."
Mulder sat on an old patio chair, the contents of the Quonocontaug garage spread around him. This was the place where, if there was a place, he should be able to find some closeness to her, some thread of connection.
After they sold the Chilmark house, everything of Samantha's had been moved here: her bed, her desk, her dresser with everything still in it, his mother hoping, he supposed, in spite of her silence, that one day her daughter would be returned. Not so different, maybe, from the ritual he'd developed of closing his eyes when he entered his room, hoping that when he opened them again reality would have reset itself and Samantha would be there, in front of him in the flesh. It had been a child's trick, a crossing of the fingers. A skipping over the cracks in the sidewalk just in case it might be true, what they said in the rhymes.
And what of his mother, living every day knowing--not guessing, knowing--what had really happened to her? If what his British informant had said were true. Years spent trying to rationalize that it might be for Samantha's good, for her protection... if only she could believe the fantastic scenario his dad had set out for her. If only she could buy into the righteousness of the motives of the men who gathered around her husband.
Something pinched him. Mulder shifted in his chair.
For his mother, Samantha's disappearance had always been about his father. After his death, her hatred for him was just as hard, like an anvil that sends off sparks when it's struck. But for him it had always been about his mother, a woman who would sit in stony silence whenever her missing daughter was mentioned, who had never even gone out and actually searched for herself. Who'd stopped him from searching for her the day she'd gone missing. The police are already looking, Fox, she'd said, as if what he'd wanted to do was wrong and shameful. We shouldn't get in their way.
But how could it have been his mother's fault, really? For all the times he'd berated her in his head, screamed inside until he'd collapsed in tears to let the pressure slowly seep away, it couldn't have been her fault. She'd have had no chance against the power of the men who made these decisions, no defense to muster against the force of their will, or influence. They took what they wanted--who they wanted--in the same way they'd taken his father at the very moment when he'd finally been ready to open up to his son.
Mulder pushed up from his chair and glanced around the silent garage: Samantha's mattress up against the wall; behind the stacked pieces of bed frame, her bedspread in a large, dust-covered plastic bag; cardboard boxes marked 'books' and 'toys'. The contents of her closet in those big moving boxes meant for wardrobes. Her dresser, with the desk beside it, covered with a moving pad and sheets of plastic over the top. Dust. Years of dust, the accumulation of passing time. Mulder wiped a finger through it. It was all there was to show for all those years.
Scully paused beside the shady bench, then sat down and glanced toward the memorial. She was far enough away not to be seen clearly by anyone who might be watching for them, close enough to see Skinner when he arrived.
Vietnam had not been her war. She was young enough not to have been personally touched by the people who lost their lives there, and her father, though military, had been elsewhere at the time, or so he'd told them. Still, it was a lot of lives, a lot of sacrifice--or pointlessness--in a war that had been dubious and confusing at best.
Above her, the tree branches were filled with the delicate green of new leaves. Though she sometimes walked the Mall, she didn't come to this particular spot very often. The last time, to tell the truth, she'd been with Mulder, who'd been busy interrogating a lead that had taken them nowhere. That fact had been obvious to her at the time and she'd finally drifted away from Mulder and his Russian contact, drawn by the names set in the black, polished granite as if they represented something solid and real in a way her partner's ideas often did not.
Which had become a moot point as of yesterday. They weren't partners anymore.
She'd slept only fitfully last night, waking to find her eyes open, her mind on where Mulder might have gone, assessing whether he had the strength to weather the loss of the job his adult life had been built on. Everything he was, everything he was searching for, hinged ultimately on the access he had through the Bureau.
And where did this leave her--this sudden separation, this new division?
It wasn't the same as the time they'd merely been reassigned, when she could fill the empty spaces in what should have been the meaningful, career-building work of teaching at the Academy with the occasional spark of his passion for his search for his sister, or for alien life. Maybe those meetings in parking garages and on park benches had sustained her as much as they had him. Perhaps she'd needed that spark as much as he had.
She jumped at the momentary touch of a hand on her shoulder and turned around. "Sir?"
"It's about Agent Mulder," Skinner said, sitting down beside her and glancing around him for suspicious eyes. "Do you know where he is?"
"No, sir." She shook her head. "He isn't answering his cell phone." She paused. "I went to his apartment last night but he wasn't there. I think he's gone." She swallowed.
Scully smoothed a wrinkle from her skirt. "I don't think he wanted to be followed, sir. He would have left some clue, some hint. There was nothing." She looked down. A tuft of tiny daisies sprouted from the grass near her shoe.
"I know this is no longer official Bureau business, Scully," Skinner said after a moment, "but I think Mulder's life may be in danger."
Scully looked up.
"Look, Mulder was railroaded, plain and simple. I don't know by whom, though I have my suspicions. I'm trying to find out for sure." Skinner's lips twisted slightly. He squinted out into the hazy afternoon. "Mulder doesn't deserve this. And I hate to think of the things that may be allowed to continue by getting him out of the way."
He glanced across the grass, to where the V of the memorial sliced abruptly into the landscape. "Scully, I spent two years in a war that was a bureaucratic nightmare as well as a tactical one. So many lives were lost for no reason--men I knew, men I was close to. Good men." He stopped. "Agent Mulder is a squeak in the machinery." One eyebrow rose. "A squeak we need, frankly, to keep the power structure honest, to make us look at what we're doing, and whether it measures up. He's never been afraid to speak his mind, no matter what kind of reaction it might cause--"
"No." Scully smiled in spite of herself. "No, he's not, sir."
"I tried to speak with Senator Matheson yesterday," Skinner went on after a pause. "Do you know him?"
"No, sir. Mulder's mentioned him from time to time, but I've never actually met the man."
Skinner pursed his lips. "I went to his office yesterday. I wanted to see if he knew anything about what had happened. He seemed surprised that Mulder was out, but I don't trust the man." He shook his head. "He was holding something back. I got the feeling I shouldn't have gone there, as if I were exposing myself somehow. When I left, he asked if I knew where Mulder was, so he could contact him."
"Why would he have assumed Mulder had gone somewhere--that he couldn't just call him?"
"My question exactly."
"He's always considered the Senator an ally, sir."
"I know. But alliances can change, Scully."
Skinner cleared his throat. "So if you have any idea of where he might be, any way to get in touch with him..."
"I'm trying, sir. I'll do my best."
"I know you will. I just hate to see a good man go down."
"I understand, sir."
Skinner rose and took a step away from the bench.
"Thank you," Scully said, standing, "for coming here. And watch your back, sir. Protect your access. You're not beyond danger yourself."
Skinner's mouth pulled to one corner. He squinted into the bright glare of afternoon, then at her and nodded. Then his back was turned and he was striding away toward the slope leading to the polished marble wall.
DISCLAIMER: The X-Files and its characters are the legal property of Chris Carter, 1013 Productions and Fox Broadcasting, though in practice the series' universe and its character have become part of the collective cultural landscape of the show's many fans worldwide. This story is a derivative work, one viewer's exploration of situations and possibilities left untapped within the series. I make no money through these efforts; I just get the writing practice and the satisfaction of gifting fellow fans with these explorations of some very memorable fictional characters and their world.
© bardsmaid 2005 |