Walter Skinner eased onto the brake and waited for the traffic light to change. It had begun to drizzle, scattering the lights from oncoming traffic into diffused sparkles of color in the dark. He watched the droplets land silently on the windshield, waiting for enough of them to warrant turning on the wipers. The turn signal sent its bink-bink-bink into the silence of the car's interior.
The light turned green, the car in front of him started up and Skinner maneuvered his car into the right-hand lane. Lanier had been quiet and self-effacing, the same way he'd been thirty years earlier: soft-spoken, purposeful, no waste of words or excess of action. He'd thanked Skinner for his efforts on his nephew's behalf, reminded him that life was often beyond our ability to control, just the way it had been in Vietnam.
It hadn't made him feel any better. Lanier had lost his brother and his nephew, while he, an Assistant Director of the FBI, had been able to come up with nothing beyond the deepening feeling that this was a case distinctly not meant to be solved--not if certain shadow-parties with a broad sphere of influence had their way.
Skinner gunned the car, made the turn and moved over into the second lane. He flipped the wipers on and watched the windshield gradually clear with each arc of the blades. Mulder was out of the Bureau and as far as he knew there had been nothing to indicate he'd come up with a way to get himself back in. For his own part, he thought he'd found a safe case to champion in the wake of Mulder's dismissal--legitimate in the eyes of everyone upstairs--but now it appeared that he'd only been tightening a noose he'd slipped around his own neck. He'd failed to help an old war buddy, a man to whom he owed an overwhelming debt, and what had he done by dragging Scully into the Beeson-Lymon investigation? The men who drummed Mulder out would be watching her if she stepped over the line they'd drawn. She'd seemed worn this afternoon, overburdened, probably from dealing with Mulder's situation as well as her first week at Quantico and the work he'd added on top of it.
The wailing of a police siren started up somewhere beyond the windshield. Skinner glanced in the rear view mirror and saw red lights flashing. They were right behind him. He pursed his lips and signaled right, then moved over and pulled to a stop by the curb. Puzzled, he rolled down the window and waited.
"Were you aware that you have a tail light out, sir," said the uniform that appeared by the driver's door. "License and registration, please."
Skinner dug out his wallet, opened it and began to pull on the edge of his driver's license. Something small dropped into the seat beside him. The beam of a flashlight was instantly on the place.
"What was that, sir?"
"What was what?"
"That." The beam focused on a tiny packet filled with something white.
"I have no idea," Skinner said, the words coming from deep in his throat. They would carry absolutely no credibility; he knew it even as he said them, though they were the truth. He pulled the license the rest of the way out and handed it through the open window along with his Bureau ID.
"Step out of the car, please, Mr... Assistant Director, sir."
Skinner swallowed against the sudden flood of adrenaline. It was beginning. There had to be some tie-in to the case. Either this was a warning, or the Cancer Man was finally finished toying with him, ready to move in for the kill. He pulled the handle carefully, eased the door wide and stood up into bright lights.
"Put your hands on the hood of the car, sir."
Skinner put his hands on the wet hood. Mist began to collect on the outside of his lenses. Hands went down his sides, collected his weapon, made his pants legs flap. He set his jaw. On the other side of the car a second officer was holding up the contents of the glove compartment--registration, owner's manual, a handful of repair receipts. He bent down again and disappeared.
"This yours, Assistant Director," the first officer said, waving the packet that had fallen onto the seat.
"Bingo!" This from inside the car. The second officer's head reappeared on the far side. He was holding a baggie, much bigger than the tiny one from his wallet, one side of it crisscrossed with duct tape.
"This was taped up under the passenger seat."
"You know anything about this?" the voice behind him asked.
"Sir, place your hands behind your back."
Skinner did as he was told. Cold steel clamped around one wrist; a hand pushed it toward his other. He felt the metal, heard the click of the latch, felt the pull in his arms. A hand behind his elbow led him toward the patrol car.
Mulder ran a hand back through his still-wet hair and stared at his computer screen. He was searching the internet, randomly word-associating, looking for something--a clue, a foothold--that would lead him to Beeson-Lymon's importance to Old Smoky, and to how he might turn Smoky's knee-jerk reaction to Skinner's investigation against him. He avoided looking at the image mirrored on the surface of the monitor itself: Scully asleep on the bed behind him.
It was almost too much. Actually, it had been building in that direction for a long time now. He needed her--all of her--in a way she apparently didn't need him, and there was nothing he could do about it short of making a wrong move and blowing everything he already had. She wasn't, in any sense of the word, just any woman he could have picked up in a bar and taken home to bed. She was his partner, his confidante, the stop to his go, the left half of his brain. In some ways, she carried the flame of his life. But she didn't need him. Or if she did, she worked assiduously at keeping that fact hidden from herself. And he was left to deal with the aftermath.
He'd nearly laughed at the irony of her words earlier on the stairs: "Mulder, if you need anything..." She'd offered them with complete sincerity, but if he needed anything... Hell, if he did, she was the last person he could tell. He needed her, and if he'd been bold enough or foolish enough to tell her so, it would only have sent her running in any direction that would get her away from him. She had walls, and he respected her need for them--understood her need for them--but it didn't make him need her--or want her--any less.
His heart had been with her on the stairs tonight but so had his body, and when she'd touched him, when she'd sat behind him and then wrapped her arms around his waist as if she were being washed off a rock in heavy surf... It was a sad day--a damn sad day--when the best you could hope for was to find a convenient bathroom to lock yourself away in for a few critical minutes. He didn't dare think, didn't dare feel, and yet here she was behind him, asleep from physical and mental exhaustion. It was impossible to miss the irony: that the first person to sleep in this new bed of his was her, the only way it was ever likely to be: alone.
They'd left the park eventually, her sadness and his own jockeying for position with his need, like radio stations drifting in and out, supplanting one another. He hadn't dared touch her, not a hand at her back or on her shoulder. He'd concentrated on the rhythm of the walk, on the shadows patterning the sidewalk, on the night smells of blooming vegetation that came alive when cars and buses stopped running. She'd been hungry and they'd stopped at an ice cream shop; he'd insisted--with mercifully little protest on her part--on buying her a cone. So they ate and walked again, and somehow the subject had come up, she'd asked him where he was staying, and it had just flowed at the time, in the context of things, and he'd brought her here, his stomach all nerves, feeling like the shabby homeless man you could find on any street corner.
She'd been very quiet. She'd liked the stairs and the door with its four diamond-shaped panes of glass and the pots of geraniums outside. She looked around at everything, careful not to be judgmental, careful of his feelings. She said it had possibilities, that she liked the way the ivy framed the window above his desk. She was careful not to criticize, and she was exhausted, bone-weary from a week of too little sleep and from the trauma of having to face a two-year-old boy with the back of his head blown off, and from yearning for the only person she had ever really, actively strained to open up to.
And then she'd asked him how he'd found the place, and he'd told her: that he'd come across it while chasing some guy he'd found hiding in her front bushes.
It was the last straw. It had been a small man, he told her, probably a kid, some druggie looking to steal in order to use, but it made no difference to her. After Duane Barry how could it? She'd sat down on the edge of the bed looking drawn and weary. He'd sat down at the desk chair and begun to look for the computer cords to plug them in. When she'd yawned, he'd told her to lie down, to get a little rest, and she hadn't argued; she'd simply curled onto her side facing away from him--how telling was that?--and he'd spread a blanket over her. The next time he'd glanced over, she was asleep.
She was sleeping now, facing him, her expression smoothed by the lack of conscious care, hair crowding her face, lips slightly apart. He tilted his chair back, reached over carefully and smoothed the hair back from her face, lingering over her cheek with his thumb. Swallowing, he watched her breathing a moment and pulled his hand away. There was work to do, a hole to find in Smoky's defenses, for her sake and for his own. He didn't have the artillery to fight a battle but maybe that wasn't what he needed. "Those who render others' armies helpless without fighting are best of all." Sun Tzu.
If there was a way to render Smoky helpless, he damn well needed to find it.
"What are you doing?"
Langley looked up--but not too far up--into Frohike's shadowed face. "Just listening to the police scanner," he said, shrugging defensively.
"Hot way to spend a Saturday night," Frohike smirked. "What happened to your D&D game?"
"Barney couldn't DM; his mother's sick or something. We figured we'd wait till he gets back next week. We like his adventures."
Frohike rolled his eyes and walked away. Langley shifted onto his side and returned his ear to the speaker next to his pillow. He reached for the magazine on the corner of the bed and began to thumb through it.
"Whoa--" He reached down and groped on the floor for a pad of paper and a pencil, but the pencil skittered under the bed. Pulling himself over to the edge of the bed, he reached underneath and grabbed it. "Hey, Byers!"
No response. He jotted down the information and went into the other room.
"Byers!" The place was empty. "Damn. Hey, Frohike!"
Frohike's head poked through a doorway. "Where's the fire?"
"Where's Mulder's number?"
"What do you want it for?"
"I just heard this thing on the scanner. AD Skinner was stopped for a traffic violation and they found a baggie of cocaine taped under the passenger seat. They're hauling him in."
Langley gave him a look. "Do you really think a guy like Skinner's going to be using?"
"Lots of people use."
"Yeah, but if he did, I don't think Mulder'd be that tight with him."
Frohike shrugged. "You're probably right." He pointed to the phone. "The number's 555-0197. Maybe something big's up."
Langley dialed. Frohike looked at him, waiting. Langley glanced up, at the ceiling, then made a face and hung up.
"Recording," he said, and frowned. "They said his phone's been disconnected."
Frohike shrugged. "He's out of a job. Maybe he's a bigger spender than we think and the bills have caught up with him."
"Do you have his cell number?"
"Byers has it."
"Is he here?"
"No." Frohike paused; a smile spread across his face. "But I've got the next best thing. I have Agent Scully's cell number."
Langley threw him a skeptical look. "She gave it to you?"
Frohike looked hurt. "Well, no. I, shall we say, came across it while poking around."
"I'll bet. What is it?"
"I'll dial. You think she's going to want to hear from you?"
"Like you're Prince Charming!"
"Zip it, Langley." Frohike held out his hand for the phone and Langley surrendered it.
"Isn't she going to be pissed at you for calling her this late?" Langley said.
"Not if your news is actually something important. Besides"--he raised his eyebrows--"she's hot when she's angry."
The sudden ringing made Mulder jump. He caught himself and looked around. It was Scully's cell, next to his pillow with her keys, and she was out cold. He tilted the chair back and reached--too quickly--sending a wave of hot pain down the side of his neck. He winced and pushed the talk button.
"Yeah," he said quietly, reaching to rub the offending spot with his free hand.
There was a long pause at the other end of the line.
"Hello?" he repeated.
"I'd ask where Agent Scully is, but I guess I've already got that answer. May I talk to her?"
"Ooh, the plot thickens."
"Cut the crap, Frohike. What do you want?"
"Langley picked up something on the police band a few minutes ago. We thought you two would want to know." There was the sound of the phone changing hands. "Skinner was stopped for a traffic violation and apparently they found a fat coke baggie taped up under his passenger seat," Langley's excited voice came from the receiver.
"No kidding. You think it was his or could it be some kind of setup?"
"No. It's not his." A pause. "Where did they take him? Where did this happen?"
"Downtown, I think. Maybe he'd been at his office."
"Probably first district, then. Thanks. This may be something I've been looking for."
Mulder switched off the phone and set his jaw. Smoky wasn't wasting any time. Maybe he didn't have time, and that could make him sloppy. He glanced at Scully. She wasn't going to be waking up any time soon and she needed the rest, but he had to find out what had happened to Skinner. He glanced at her key ring. She'd offered him her car a day ago. If Skinner was in trouble she wouldn't mind him borrowing it now.
He turned back to the computer, pulled up word processing and left a quick note on the screen. Then he got up, reached for her keys beside the pillow and paused for a last look at his partner. Her cheeks were rosy now from the warmth of sleep.
She hadn't always been the way she'd been lately-worn, rarely smiling. When he'd first known her there were two people in there, Scully the fledgling professional/feisty scientist and Dana the woman, someone Scully would hold on a leash but who would slip out of her confines from time to time. He never saw Dana anymore.
Maybe she'd lost her.
He ran the back of his finger softly across her cheek, then turned, took his jacket from the arm of the wing chair and slipped out the door.
Mulder sat in the drizzle in Scully's car, watching the entrance to the police station through the shimmering drops sliding down the windshield. He'd been reminded once again that he had no access. He'd gone inside and inquired at the desk, but he was nobody now--Joe Ordinary off the street--and why should they tell him anything? They sure as hell weren't going to let him see Skinner. But the A.D. was there, and someone was on the way to bail him out. So he'd wait. For as long as it took.
Mulder's thumbs tapped the steering wheel. If Scully had been warned and Skinner set up, then Scully's friend Wilkins and his partner were in danger, too--theoretically, at least. They could be reassigned off the case easily enough with Skinner out of the way, but if Scully was right about Wilkins, he might not give up that easily. Acosta he knew very little about.
The door to the station swung open and a woman tugging on a toddler emerged into the pale light of the street lamps. A car pulled up in front of the walkway and the woman and child got in. Mulder reached into the pocket of his jacket and fished for sunflower seeds.
When the door opened again a stocky, gray-haired man emerged. Skinner was behind him. The two walked toward the parking lot. Quietly Mulder opened the door and slipped out of the car. He waited until the two men were out of range of the brightest of the parking lot lights before he approached them.
Skinner turned and squinted in his direction.
Mulder jogged the few car lengths between them.
"Mulder, what are you doing here?"
"I heard what happened, sir. I need to speak with you."
Skinner scowled, then turned to the gray-haired man. "Excuse us a minute, Ray."
The stocky man turned aside.
"What is it, Mulder?"
"I was paid a visit this afternoon." He glanced at his watch. "Yesterday afternoon, by the Smoking Man. He told me to tell Scully to leave your Kentucky case alone. He termed it your 'misguided crusade'. Now unless that white powder they found in your car was yours, I believe this may be his strategy for getting you out of his way, too."
Skinner leaned closer. "How did you know about that?"
Mulder shrugged. "I have my sources."
Skinner looked behind him, taking in the darkened parking lot. "Well, someone did a damn good job of it, because I've landed in deep shit this time."
"What happened, sir?"
"I was pulled over two blocks from the office. Evidently I had a tail light out and when I went to pull out my license, this little packet fell out with it." The corner of his mouth twisted. "It was a plant, but what I can't figure out is when anyone could have put it there."
"Did you have a tail light out, sir?"
Skinner shook his head. "I didn't even think to check. I guess I was too blown away by that baggie they found under the seat."
"I think your investigation is close to something, sir, and that it got close enough fast enough to catch Smoky off guard. That's why he's having to double-time it to get all your pieces off the board."
"I'll be put on administrative leave first thing Monday morning," Skinner said, glancing beyond Mulder to where his friend waited in the shadows. "Wilkins and Acosta will get pulled from the case--"
"Which means they have one more day of access."
"Or their lives may be in danger as we speak." Skinner heaved a sigh and looked out over the parking lot again.
"I think I'm going to take myself a little trip to Kentucky, sir."
Skinner scowled. "What are you talking about, Mulder? This case has nothing to do with you."
"If it's Smoky tripping up, sir, and if I can catch him at it and get my job back, then from where I sit, it has everything to do with me."
Skinner frowned, then pursed his lips. "Take care of yourself, Mulder."
"If you need to get in touch, I've, uh..." He looked down, at the stark streetlight-on-black of the asphalt paving. "I've moved, sir. You can contact Agent Scully. She knows how to reach me."
Skinner nodded, looked to where his friend had started to unlock his car in the next row, and hurried to catch up.
(end 10 of 14)
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