Most days, Steve Grandbergs didn't mind getting out of bed and coming into the office. But then, most days it wasn't 95 in the shade with the air conditioning on the fritz, either. Portland wasn't supposed to get this damned hot. He'd have lodged a complaint if he could have figured out who was in charge.
He flipped through the same pile of read-outs he'd flipped through twice before, but it was no use. Even with the lights off and blinds pulled shut against the blazing mid-morning sun, even with that annoying battery-operated fan oscillating noisily on his desk, it was just too damned hot to concentrate. The numbers were swimming before his eyes.
Lucky numbers, he thought resentfully.
Swimming would be nice. Swimming in the pool he'd paid the better part of $25,000 for and had managed to use all of five times in the past two seasons. The pool that he lovingly hand-fed chlorine and shock on a daily basis, whose water he tested twice a day, usually in the dark. That's where I want to be, he thought, tugging at the knot in his tie and tossing it in the general direction of the jacket he'd shed minutes after arriving in his office.
In the pool for a few hours, all by himself, while Corrine was at the office and the kids were at soccer camp or band camp or wherever the hell he'd written all those checks for. He'd get one of those inflatable chair jobbies out of the pool shed, pop something tall, frosty, and bottomless into the handy-dandy cup holder built right into the armrest, and spend a few hours honing his long-neglected floating skills. After all, what was the point of working your way up to ASAC if you couldn't escape being forced to baste in your own damned juices?
He was just getting to the part where the scantily- clad blonde wandered over to the edge of the pool and breathily offered to apply some sunscreen with her tongue, when a knock startled him out of his daydream.
"Sir?" Agent Duncan stuck his head in the door without waiting to be invited. "Juanita said you want to see me?"
"Yeah, Rob - come in." Grandbergs waved the younger man toward the chair facing his desk. "Got something weird in the mail this morning."
"Oh?" Duncan tugged the creases of his impeccably pressed pants and sat his tall frame down. Grandbergs wondered in annoyance what the younger man's secret was. No matter how high the temperature climbed, Duncan was the only agent around who didn't look like he'd been assigned a corner office in a sauna. "Something on the Techgen case, sir?"
"No." Grandbergs leafed through a stack of manila envelopes piled on the corner of his desk. "Something from the RCMP, in fact."
Duncan's dark brows rose. He pushed his glasses up his slim nose. "The Mounties?"
The ASAC found what he had been looking for. "I talked to a Staff Sergeant Michael Nicholson in Ottawa. Name mean anything to you?"
Duncan shook his head. "Nope."
"Well, the way I understand it," he began, passing a file folder and video cassette across the desktop, "they were investigating some sort of smuggling activity in or near Toronto and had this guy under pretty constant surveillance. Nicholson said he couldn't elaborate, but for whatever reason, they thought the woman on that tape might be an accomplice, so they ran her through the Interpol facial recognition program. They came up with a name, but not one they expected: one Denise Marie Hill, 28, late of Decatur, Alabama."
Duncan, who'd been scanning the file, came to a photo and stopped. "Holy shi-"
"Is that her?"
"I never met her, of course." Duncan peered at the screen capture intently. It was somewhat grainy, but still, the resemblance was uncanny. He scanned the next image. And the next. "But this sure looks like all the photos we had. Christ."
"You're the agent of record. Murder case, right?"
"Basically." Duncan was rifling through the pages again, looking for something he might have missed. "She was a lawyer. Good family. Old money. She and her boyfriend, guy by the name of Mark Swanson, also a lawyer, were camping up around Kisatchie National Forest over the Labor Day weekend a couple years back. Sunday morning, he calls the police, says she disappeared during the night. He thinks maybe she got up to heed the call of nature, wandered off, got lost, fell over a cliff in the dark, you know, usual story. We were called in. Suspicion fell on the boyfriend just as soon as it was discovered he was her beneficiary to the tune of about four million bucks."
The ASAC whistled. "Nice song."
"Very." Rob closed the folder and tapped it mindlessly on the arm of the chair for a few moments. "They got a conviction. He's doing life in the Louisiana State Pen. But I have to admit, it never felt right. We spent weeks investigating and we found slightly less than nothing. There was something about her disappearance that just didn't add up."
"Looks that way now," Grandbergs agreed.
"Might not be her." Duncan didn't sound convinced of that, though. Interpol's report showed ninety-eight per cent match across all major points of reference. Pretty good for a distorted screen capture taken through a fish-eye lens.
"Could be a glitch." The ASAC shrugged. "It happens."
Duncan was silent, apparently lost in his thoughts. Finally, he spoke. "Has this been sent to our lab?"
"As far as I know, your name popped up as lead investigator, so the Mounties tracked you down by way of the New Orleans office and sent that stuff here. The case is marked closed, after all. But her body was never found. . ."
". . .so she wasn't taken out of the data base," Duncan finished the thought. He chewed the inside of his cheek. "Well, I guess the obvious thing to do is run this past our people." He paused, frowning thoughtfully. "And I'd like to send a copy of the report and the tape to the agent who functioned as my ASAC on this one. She was never happy with the outcome, either, felt Swanson got shafted. Last I heard, she was in Washington. Still with Violent Crimes, I think."
Grandbergs nodded his agreement. "Sounds like a plan, Rob."
"Right." Duncan rose to leave. "Anything else, sir?"
"Yeah." Grandbergs sat back in his chair. "Lose the tie and see if you could work up a little sweat, okay? You're making the rest of us look like a bunch of cavemen."
Duncan gave a half-grin. "Will do."
The Queen Car went as far as the Waterworks, and from there it was a short walk back to the house. Short climb, really, Mulder thought: it was only six blocks, but it was six blocks straight uphill. Last summer, with 10 pounds of infant strapped to his chest and 30 pounds of infant crap slung over his shoulder, the twice-a-day climb and descent had quickly begun to reduce the gut home-cooking and happiness had provided in anticipation of his fortieth birthday. As the load had shifted - slightly less crap in the backpack, slightly more son in the infant carrier - his six pack, reported missing in action sometime in late '96, had quickly resurfaced. Not having a car was inconvenient, occasionally, but he couldn't argue with the results. He was probably the healthiest he'd been in twenty years.
Physically, at least.
Mulder glanced around the mostly empty streetcar, out of habit more than anything else. Besides Will, himself, and the driver, there were only five other riders, silent commuters occupying scattered seats both in front of and behind him. That wouldn't look unusual, he assured himself, even on a sunny mid-week afternoon. Even this close to rush hour. No one would think anything of it. No one would even notice.
He stared out at the city with a heavy sigh. The streetcar zipped along in its accustomed groove, skimming past the Second Cup, past Il Fornello and Tejas, past the Goof, where Will could get his favorite meal - almond jell-o and sliced bananas with a side order of fried rice and bright red sweet-and- sour sauce - any time, night or day.
Yawning, he lay his head wearily against the window. Will's two year molars were almost ten months ahead of schedule and keeping them both up at night, but only Will managed to squeeze a nap or two into an otherwise busy schedule. Mulder had been an insomniac for years; he guessed it was finally catching up with him. When he'd been younger, he'd always reasoned that life was too short, that there was too much to do and too few hours in the day, and that he'd have plenty of time to catch up on his sleep when he was dead.
Having actually spent some time dead, he'd had a chance to test this theory. Surprisingly, death hadn't been all that restful.
The streetcar continued on, past the book shop and the church, the thrift-mart and the green grocer. Past another three stops where, as usual, no one wanted to get on and no one wanted to get off. He pinched the bridge of his nose, then used his thumb and forefinger to rub the tired eyes behind his tinted lenses.
Given the choice, Toronto wouldn't have made his top ten. Given the choice, Toronto wouldn't even have crossed his mind. But he hadn't been given a choice. So, until he heard otherwise, Toronto was home.
Which was okay, he told himself, shifting in his seat. Okay. Really. It was a nice neighborhood. A beautiful house. He spoke the language. After a year spent trying to leave it behind on an almost weekly basis, he had to admit the city was growing on him.
Growing on him.
Mulder chuckled to himself and shook his head. Right. Like fungus, maybe. Like kudzu.
He shifted again, wincing when the backs of his legs stuck to the vinyl. Why did they always pick the streetcar with the crappy air-conditioning and the stuck windows?
He faced forward, settling into the motion of the car, resting his gaze on the head of a man sitting three seats in front of him. The pate was speckled, smooth as a cue ball, circled by close-cropped gray hair. The nape of the man's neck had been carefully shaved, the hair tapering into an odd, if not downright mesmerizing, trapezoidal shape. Wow, Mulder thought idly. Well-groomed. What a surprise.
Will snorted in his sleep and burrowed his sweaty head a little further into Mulder's shoulder, driving the nylon backpack strap up and into Mulder's neck. Mulder grimaced, lifted Will gently, shifting him to the dry spot on his other shoulder, careful not to wake him. There was probably no point in being so cautious: Will had run himself ragged, first at story-time at the library, then chasing after a pack of three and four year olds at the playground. Limp as a rag-doll now, Will was nothing but dead weight. I could probably toss him across this streetcar, Mulder thought, and he'd just go on sleeping.
The bald head in front of him lifted noticeably. The trapezoid neck stiffened, swiftly losing its natural curve.
Shit, Mulder thought, twisting in his seat. His eyes darted toward the rear of the streetcar. Behind him, three pairs of eyes were wide open and trained intently in his direction.
Not again, he thought, stomach churning. He tightened his grip on his son.
An older woman with graying hair and an ugly pink and blue sun dress rose from her seat at the front of the car, and made her way steadily, assuredly toward the seat where Mulder and Will sat. Scanning his memory quickly, Mulder tried to remember if he'd seen her before. He hadn't.
Seating herself across from Mulder, she glanced at Will, then gave Mulder a pointed, unblinking stare. Mulder looked away, speaking almost as if to himself. "I didn't mean it literally," he muttered resentfully. "It's just an expression."
The woman continued to stare, her face still blank. Mulder forced himself to meet her hollow eyes. "I'm not tossing him anywhere, okay?"
She blinked, did her best impression of a smile, rose, and went back to her seat.
In front of him, the trapezoid neck faded downward, losing all its energy, the head relaxing to one side.
Mulder took a deep breath, swallowing his anger. He reached up to pull the cord that let the driver know he wanted the next stop. "Hey buddy," he whispered to his son, rising with practiced ease, "we're here."
Will, unimpressed, went on sleeping. Along with his mother's eyes and coloring, Will had inherited her ability to sleep anywhere, anytime. And her tendency to drool on Mulder, too.
End of the line. The streetcar ground to a halt. Mulder looked left and right, then stepped down onto the curb. The other five passengers followed, then scattered.
He checked his watch. Half an hour until Barney.
"We're going to stop and get ice cream," he said to no one in particular, and began the climb.
Will woke half-way up Cedar Ave. and insisted on being put down. No point in arguing, Mulder thought, as he swung his son down onto the sidewalk, pointlessly reaching for his sleep-warm hand. Will had walked early, at an age when most children were still crawling, skipping the whole unsteady standing, one step/two step, toddling awkwardly routine. Instead, as Mulder sat at his computer trying to make sense of some encrypted files one winter evening, Will had simply stood and run across the room, squealing excitedly the whole time. After that, he'd never walked anywhere he could as easily have run. Consequently, Will was almost half a block ahead of Mulder before his feet really hit the ground.
Mulder heard the footsteps behind him quicken. "He's okay," Mulder muttered under his breath. "He's a kid; let him run a little."
Mulder let Will run a few more yards, then judged the distance between them to be far enough. "Will, stop. Wait for me," he called. Will did as he was told, but turned to frown impatiently. So much like his mother.
The footsteps behind them fell off.
Mulder caught up with Will in three quick strides. "You gotta quit running, bud." He scooped the toddler up and swung him around, tossing him roughly into the air as he did so, growling playfully while William laughed. "You gotta wait for me, guy. Otherwise, you're gonna get lost and then what are we gonna do, huh?"
Spinning around with his son, he caught sight of the owner of the footsteps. Ray, he thought with relief. Someone he recognized for a change.
"Hey, Ray." Carrying William, Mulder headed back down the hill, coming to a stop a few feet from where Ray stood watching them. "We're going to Ko's to get ice cream."
Ray, taller than Mulder, darker, balding, blinked at them, blank-faced. "I know," he said, finally.
"I know you know," Mulder responded, meeting Ray's empty stare. "You know I know you know. We all know. So why don't you walk with us?"
Ray blinked again. "I am."
"Oookay," Mulder replied, shaking his head. He was trying. It had taken him a long time, but he really was trying. "What I meant was: why don't you walk up here, next to us?"
Ray's face rearranged itself into the semblance of a baffled expression. "Sir, that would not be. . ."
Mulder sighed. "Not sir, Ray. Mulder. Remember?"
"Mulder, it would not be. . ."
Mulder shrugged. "Suit yourself, Ray. You've been invited, right? I asked you, okay? There's no presumption on your part." Will wriggled impatiently in his arms. "It would just look less stupid my way. A lot less obvious." He turned abruptly and started walking.
Ray was at his side instantly, keeping perfect time with Mulder's gait. "This is less conspicuous?"
"Yeah," Mulder replied, strangely pleased. He had to fight down the urge to pat Ray's balding head and croon 'good doggy!' "Much less conspicuous."
"Because." Mulder put Will down on the sidewalk again, took him by the wrist. "It doesn't look like you're following us this way."
Ray blinked. "I am following you."
"Yeah. Yeah, you are." Mulder poked his fingers underneath his sunglasses and rubbed his eyes again, feeling his blood pressure beginning to rise. "But this way it's not so obvious. You don't want to be obvious, right?"
Ray seemed to consider this. "I understand," he answered after a pause and nodded once, stiffly.
Mulder figured that particular shade of 'I understand' was short for 'Be quiet, Mulder,' but some agreement was better than nothing.
"Where you been, Ray? Haven't seen you around for a while."
Ray made no effort to comment, so Mulder tried again. "What have you been doing with yourself?"
"I have been watching," Ray replied.
"Yeah." Mulder had expected that. This was the best, most unequivocal answer he ever got from any of them. What did they do? They watched. What did they watch? Mulder and Will. Why did they watch Mulder and Will? Because they were supposed to watch Mulder and Will. And why were they supposed to watch Mulder and Will?
That, Mulder thought, is the million dollar question.
Will bent down to pick up a twig in his path, and Mulder's eyes followed his movement, waiting for a sign that the stick was destined for the boy's mouth. "What do you do when I can't see you watching, Ray?"
Ray blinked. "I still watch."
Mulder shook his head. "And they say the art of conversation is dead."
Will stopped walking suddenly, dropping the stick he'd been so interested in and squatting to get a better look at something on the cement. Mulder crouched down next to the boy. A black and orange caterpillar crawled across the pavement. "That's a bug, Will."
Ray towered over them. "That is a specimen of the fifth instars larval form of Pyrrharctia isabella, called a wooly bear caterpillar."
'Pretty smart for a sheepdog,' Mulder caught himself thinking, though he said nothing.
William reached forward, index finger pointed, intent on touching the fuzzy insect. "Gently, Will," Mulder guided.
Ray stared at them stiffly. "I am not a sheepdog, sir."
Mulder stood up, exhaling loudly. "Stay out of my head, Ray. My thoughts are none of your business. And call me Mulder. Not sir; Mulder."
"I am not a sheepdog, Mulder."
Mulder scooped up his son. "Then what are you, Ray?"
Ray blinked again. "I am Ray."
"Are you? Are you sure?"
Another blink. "Why are you angry, Mulder?"
Will reached back toward the caterpillar, crying out and kicking to be put down. Mulder swayed from side to side, trying to calm his son. "Do you know what day it is, Ray?"
"Wednesday, July 6th, 2002."
Blood rushed to Mulder's face. He swallowed hard, heart racing. "Yeah, Ray," he muttered. "Yeah. Today is..." He swayed faster, suddenly speechless.
Will quit struggling and stared into his father's face, wide-eyed. He reached up with a chubby hand and patted Mulder's cheek.
Mulder closed his eyes and turned his back on Ray, pulling his son closer.
"Is that why you are angry, Mulder?
Mulder shrugged. "I'm not angry, Ray," he said hoarsely. "Come on, Will. Let's get that ice cream."
The air conditioning in Ko's was barely functioning. Holding Will's hand, Mulder slid the top of the ice cream freezer open and reached inside. He took his time sorting through Popsicles and ice cream sandwiches, allowing the icy air to blast up his arm, rush inside the sleeve of his t-shirt, flow over the smooth fabric and into his face.
As his body cooled, the anger got easier to suppress.
He knew how important it was that he restrain himself. The last time he'd threatened one of them, they'd taken Will away for two entire days.
Mulder addressed William, forcing himself to sound cheerful. "Hey, buddy, what kind of Popsicle do you want? Grape?"
He chose a Popsicle for Will and some sort of chocolate-and-nut-covered cone for himself. Ray stood a few feet away, pretending to examine a rack of chips. Mulder shot him a look. "Ray? In the mood to indulge?"
Ray studied the chips more intently. "No, thank you."
"My treat," Mulder offered.
Ray frowned. "Your treat what, Mulder?"
Mulder rolled his eyes. "Never mind, Ray."
A door at the back of the store banged open and Ray immediately took several steps to the right, placing his body between Mulder and Will and the source of the intrusion.
"Hi, little boy!"
It was only Mrs. Ko. Ray relaxed.
"Hi, little turkey!" Round and soft as an overripe peach, Mrs. Ko waddled across the worn floor in what Mulder's mother would have disdainfully called a housedress, a gaudy pair of embroidered slippers scuffling the faded vinyl tiles as she went. Will followed her with a squeal of delight, reaching toward her shoes.
She paused mid-aisle, allowing the toddler to examine the bright silk thread and sequins. "Oh, you like my new shoes? My nephew get them. Good deal. Very pretty."
Ray watched Mrs. Ko, eyes descending swiftly from her round, wrinkled face to her absurdly tiny feet. He took a few steps forward, bending at the waist to get a closer look at the black silk slippers. Will began tracing the brilliant vines and flowers that swirled over Mrs. Ko's left big toe. Ray bent lower, peering immodestly, brow furrowing deeply.
Mulder could see the collective wheels turning. Baby touching fancy shoes. Safe bet or potential threat? Does not compute. He sighed.
Mrs. Ko stared at Ray, puzzled and a little uncomfortable. "You want a pair for your wife, Mister? We got some in back room. Mr. Ko going to put them out later."
Ray straightened abruptly, frowned thoughtfully. "My name is Ray. My wife is dead."
Mrs. Ko's face fell. "Oh, so sorry. You have babies? Oh!" She yelped suddenly as Will ran his hand behind her knee and tried to tickle her. She bent down so that she and Will were almost nose to nose. "Funny turkey!"
Mulder, sensing a perfect opportunity, moved to collect his giggling son. "That's enough, buddy. Mrs. Ko is busy. She doesn't wanna play tickle tag right now." He leaned close to Mrs. Ko. "Don't mind my friend," he murmured. "He's not quite right, if you know what I mean."
"Ohhhhh." The storekeeper nodded, eyes narrowing. "He was here before, yes? Other day? Couple times, maybe?"
Mulder shrugged. "Maybe. He lives in the neighborhood." He nodded towards her feet. "Nice shoes. Thanks for letting Will look."
"What about you? What about pretty lady come in here with you sometimes? Your wife, yes? New shoes make your pretty lady happy..."
Mulder tucked Will onto his hip and handed the boy his Popsicle. "Um, she's not my wife, Mrs. Ko."
"No." Mulder shook his head emphatically.
They headed for the front counter. Ray trailed a few steps behind.
"She's just girlfriend?"
"No! Sorry, no, not my girlfriend. She's, um...she's a friend. She keeps Will for me sometimes."
Mrs. Ko frowned. "She keep Will?"
"She looks after him, I mean. When I, um, when I can't."
"Oh!" Mrs. Ko whistled, wagging her head back and forth, her pudgy fingers sweeping Mulder's purchases over the scanner. "She the nanny. Like old TV show?"
"Here you go!" She took a handful of plump four-for- a-dime gummy bears out of a covered jar next to the till, then pressed them into Will's hand, smiling and winking as she did so. "She very, very pretty. Nice, too."
Mulder studied a candy display to the right of the register, choking back an unexpected surge of emotion. "Yeah. I guess she is."
"Mulder." Ray's voice was suddenly severe.
Mulder looked away from the counter in annoyance. "What?"
Ray was standing by the front door, his back turned to them. "Time to go," he announced to the plate glass panels.
Taken aback, Mulder tried to keep both the surprise and irritation from his voice. "Excuse me?"
Ray turned around. "We are leaving now." He held his arms out, clearly expecting Mulder to hand Will to him. "Now, Mulder." he commanded.
Mulder pulled Will closer to his side, turning his body to shield the baby. "Forget it, Ray. I haven't done anyth - Oh!"
Suddenly his scalp was tingling. A feeling of foreboding charged through Mulder's body, lifting every hair like an electrical surge.
He's coming, he thought, adrenaline speeding his heart. Run.
"Now, Mulder," Ray repeated, extending his arms toward Will.
Mulder nodded. "I've got him, Ray. We're coming."
He turned anxiously toward Mrs. Ko. No, he thought, she'll be fine. "Have a good day, Mrs. Ko." He hurried toward the door.
"Change for you!" Mrs. Ko called after them, rattling a handful of coins.
"Keep it," Mulder called over his shoulder.
The feeling of foreboding faded quickly as they left the store behind. Within a block both men had resumed an easy gait.
Will stuck his still-unopened Popsicle in his mouth, chewing on the wrapper. Ray stopped dead in the middle of the sidewalk and pointed. "Mulder, there are millions of germs on that wrapper."
"Oh. Hold this for a minute." Handing his own ice cream to Ray, Mulder opened the Popsicle and handed it back to his son, who aahed in appreciation and wrapped his lips around it.
As he retrieved his ice cream, Mulder searched Ray's face for signs of urgency. "Are we still in a hurry, Ray?"
Ray stared at him rigidly. "Are we in a hurry, Mulder?"
Mulder took a slow, deep breath, doing what he could to ignore his sudden, overwhelming sense of vulnerability. "No, Ray," he muttered. "I guess not anymore."
He opened his ice cream as they walked and began wolfing it down in large, frosty bites, concentrating on the almost cloying sweetness of the chocolate, the tang of the nuts, and the crunch of the brittle cone. He glanced over at Ray, feeling distinctly unsettled. Had the feeling he had experienced in the store, that visceral wave of dread, been real? Or had he simply been manipulated into believing there was a problem so he'd be a good sheep and do as he was told? And if that were the case, was Ray the source of the manipulation, or were they both being played like puppets by someone both unnamed and unseen?
The possibilities were all disturbing. Thinking about them with Ray at his side was more disturbing still.
"William is getting sticky, Mulder."
Mulder pushed the point of the cone into his mouth, crunched. "It's a kid thing" he replied, swiping a streak of chocolate from his index finger with his tongue while taking note of his son's purple lips, chin, hands, and formerly white t-shirt.
"A kid thing? To be sticky?'
"Pretty much. Here." Mulder stopped and turned his back to Ray. "There's some wet wipes in the outside pocket."
Ray retrieved the package, opening it and holding it out. Mulder set the boy on the ground, snared a cloth, and, much to Will's shrieking dismay, began wiping the more obviously discolored parts of his body.
"Good enough for government work," he commented, three Wet Ones later. He planted a quick peck on William's cheek and handed what remained of the Popsicle back to his son.
"He is not clean, Mulder," Ray said, traces of disapproval and concern coloring his usual flat tone.
"He'll need a bath to get completely clean. And he's still eating." Mulder swung the pack off his back, deposited the now purple wipes in a side pocket and put the package away. "I'll toss him. . .I mean, I'll give him a bath when we get home."
"He will miss Barney," Ray observed.
"William enjoys Barney."
Mulder shrugged. "He'll survive."
Ray frowned. "Of course. Barney is not necessary to sustain William's life."
Mulder rolled his eyes. "Try telling that to him."
"Not watching it will not damage him."
Mulder chuckled wryly. "Watching it might."
Ray's eyebrows lifted. "Television is not hazardous, Mulder."
"Guess you don't remember 'Three's Company.'"
The joke was wasted on his audience.
"I understand," Ray answered, gaze swinging straight forward.
Mulder smiled grimly. As I suspected, he thought. It *does* mean 'be quiet.' He wished all of them were this easily confused.
Mulder resumed walking, holding Will's slightly less sticky hand. "Why did you tell Mrs. Ko your wife is dead?"
"It is what I have been told to say."
"You've been told to say that?" Mulder frowned. "Why?"
"I do not know. When asked, it is what I have been told to say."
Mulder's curiosity was piqued. "How much do you remember, Ray?"
"I remember many things, Mulder. William's favorite food is almond jell-o with bananas. He likes the slide at the park. The purple creature with the triangle sticking out of its head has to be in his bed at night or he will not go to sleep..."
Mulder shook his head. "No. I mean, what do you remember about yourself, Ray? About your life before?"
Ray blinked. "Before? Before I came to watch?"
"Many things, Mulder. How to speak, read, write. How to tie shoes. How to pick out a good watermelon. How to set a VCR. How to throw a curveball. How to. . ."
"Do you remember Theresa?"
Ray blinked, more rapidly this time. "Theresa?
There was a pause. "Yes," he replied. "I remember her. She was on the ship with us. Something happened to her."
"Do you remember her from before the ship?"
Ray nodded. "Yes. We were in the same graduating class at Bellefleur High School. Class of 1989."
"She had brown hair. She wore glasses to read. Her father was a doctor."
"She liked chocolate."
Mulder stopped walking. "Ray," he murmured, unable to hide the tremor in his voice, "you were married to her."
Ray stopped, too. Gazing somewhere off into the distance, his blinking began again in earnest, then came to an abrupt halt. "I believe you are mistaken, Mulder."
"When we were investigating your disappearance, I sat in your living room with her. I looked through an album full of your wedding pictures. William's mother..." he paused, suppressing the urge to scream by clearing his throat, "Will's mom held your daughter on her lap. Do you remember your daughter, Ray?"
Ray's mouth opened. It closed. Then his body relaxed. His eyes were trained vacantly on the horizon.
"All you can remember about your family is that your wife had dark hair and glasses and what your father- in-law did for a living?"
Ray gave a very brief nod. "And she liked chocolate, Mulder."
"Jesus." It was barely a whisper.
Will chose that moment to wrap his cold, sticky arms around Mulder's leg. "Dadadadadadadada!"
Mulder reached down and ran his palm over his son's silky red-brown hair. He closed his eyes. I'll never forget you, he told Will silently. I'll never forget your mother. No matter what they do to me. "I'm right here, bud."
When he opened his eyes, Ray was watching him intently. "You are in pain, Mulder," he said flatly. "Because you miss William's mother?"
"Stay out of my head, Ray," Mulder growled.
"I am not in your head, Mulder; you are in m-
Ray rotated smoothly, once more placing his body in the path of the oncoming disturbance.
"Down boy," Mulder snapped. "It's just Leah."
"Hey, Leah. You're, um, you're back."
Rattling her keys in one hand and lifting her long dark braid off her shoulder with the other, Leah nodded. "Finished up early, so here I am. Hey there, Willygoat!"
Will beamed up at her, clutching his father's leg with one hand and proffering the dripping remains of his Popsicle with the other. She crouched down and looked the toddler in the eye, smiling. "Oooh, grape - my very favorite flavor!" She glanced up at Mulder. "After all the others, of course."
"Of course," Mulder nodded.
"Weea eee," Will insisted.
"Oh, thanks, sweetie, but I'm still full from lunch. Goodness! You're purple all over!"
Mulder grimaced. "I think there's more of it on him than in him."
She smiled up at him, dark eyes sparkling. "Well, he'll wash up. Not sure about that shirt. Might be good for the windows, though. Where'd you stop? Ko's?"
"There was no milk back at the house. Did you pick some up?"
Mulder shook his head. "Forgot."
"Again," Leah chided. "Oh well, I was heading over there, anyway. Mrs. Ko there today?"
"Yeah, we just left her, but I don't think you should..." Mulder checked in with his inner alarm system. The feeling of foreboding had washed away completely. He glanced over at Ray, who was staring at Will beatifically, an odd almost-smile lighting his features. It was a look the sheepdogs frequently bestowed upon his son, and it never failed to give Mulder the creeps.
Leah's gaze followed Mulder's. "Don't think I should what?"
Mulder shook his head. "Never mind."
She relieved Will of his Popsicle stick. "Will, you're a mess. Wipe?"
Without a word, Ray moved automatically to Mulder's side, opened the appropriate pocket of the backpack, and handed the wet-wipes to Leah. She accepted the squashed plastic package with a look of puzzled disdain. "Who's your new friend, Mulder?"
Mulder's eyebrows rose. "You don't know Ray?"
Leah gave Ray an appraising look, then shook her head. "Nope."
"Really? Um, Leah, this is Ray. He's um...you know."
"Naturally." Leah rolled her eyes. "Getting very friendly these days, aren't they?"
"Just like a man's best friend," Mulder quipped.
Leah laughed softly, held out her hand. "Ray, nice to meet you." They shook. "Looks like we'll be working together. Or something."
Ray nodded once. "Hello."
Leah gave Mulder a sly, sidelong look. Mulder smiled. He was glad she was back. Leah had been forced on him a year ago, at the time of his arrival in Toronto. Her job, Billy'd told him, was to take care of him, to act as personal assistant, housekeeper, nanny...whatever he needed, Billy'd said. Mulder had determined quickly enough that she was not one of them, exactly, that she had her own mind, opinions, and a rather sharp tongue, but that she was certainly working for them. Resentful and grief-stricken, pacing like a caged animal along the edges of the boundaries set for him, Mulder had seen Leah as his jailer and had treated her accordingly. But he quickly found his attitude toward her softening.
She had a tendency to disappear for days, even weeks, on end, returning without so much as a single word of explanation. Mulder had never questioned her about her protracted absences, but he always noticed that for several days after she returned she would be moody, depressed, and withdrawn.
She was obviously trapped, too. It worried him a great deal.
Leah crouched again, and began dabbing gently at Will's face and fingers. Will giggled and pulled away.
"How come he howls when I do that, but for you, he just laughs?" Mulder asked, only half-joking.
"He's impervious to your many charms, I suppose," she replied dryly. Will tried to run away and Leah reached out and caught him around the waist. "Come here, silly. We're not done yet..."
The waist-length braid fell to one side. Mulder gaped at the back of her neck, surprised. A spray of purple flowers seemed to be sprouting from the neck of her bright yellow tank top, curling across her nape on a brilliant green vine and reaching all the way up to her hairline.
She looked up. "Excuse me?"
He gestured vaguely toward her neck. "Nice tattoo. Is it real?"
"It's old," She gave Will one last swipe and stood up. "And yes."
"Really? I never noticed it." But then, Mulder realized, Leah rarely wore anything even this revealing. The heat must have finally gotten to her.
She turned, lifting her braid to expose her neck and as much of her upper back as her shirt revealed. She tilted her head to the right. "Pretty, isn't it?"
"Very." He craned his neck to have another look. He fought down the impulse to pull back the curve of fabric and see just how much more tattoo there was to see. "Your tattoo guy must be really good."
"Yes," Leah agreed, a teasing note sounding in her voice. She spun round to face him and dropped her braid back into place, "*She* is excellent."
Will spotted an older woman walking her cocker spaniel a half-block or so up the street. "Gog!" he said, and started running.
"Mulder." Ray's voice took on a commanding tone as he started in Will's direction.
"Coming," Mulder answered, trying hard not to groan.
"I'll see you at the house," Leah called after him. "You can walk Fang when I get back. You look like you could use a few minutes."
A few minutes, Mulder thought, hurrying after his son. I could use a lot more than that.
A hell of a lot more than that.
Two days after William started walking, Billy knocked on Mulder's front door, at six in the morning, carrying what looked like an armful of lint.
"William wants a dog," he'd said, without a word of preamble. "This is the dog for William. His name is Fang. Have a nice day." With that, Billy had put the pile of bright-eyed fluff down on the rug, handed Mulder the leash, and left. As Mulder stood scratching his bare chest and trying to get either one of his eyes to focus, the ball of fuzz had gotten up, pee'd on the cuff of his pajama pants, and bitten his big toe. It had then curled up into an adorable ball and gone to sleep.
It had come as news to Mulder that William wanted a dog, of course. At eight months of age, William's communications repertoire included crying, laughing, grunting, pointing, and not much else. To date, he had not made any specific requests. Mulder had learned, though, there was no point in questioning Billy; Billy just didn't listen. And he couldn't have convincingly argued that, no, William didn't want a dog, when he knew full-well the child went dizzy with delight every time he saw one.
Still, a Bichon Frise had seemed a bizarre choice, considering how hyper-vigilant his *hosts* were, and Mulder had been thoroughly suspicious. He'd inspected every uncooperative inch of the animal, searching for implants, homing devices, strange spinal ridges, hell, he'd even checked for a battery compartment but, except for an intense need to chew up Mulder's socks, Fang seemed to be a normal, if puny, dog.
It had taken a few weeks, but Mulder finally realized exactly what Billy's words had meant: William and the puppy could run exactly the same distance before collapsing into their respective exhausted heaps. Fang really was *the* dog for William.
Fang loved going for a walk. He would scurry along as fast as his three-inch legs would carry him, barking at every suspicious leaf and twig that dared cross his path, thoroughly sniffing any and all objects he encountered. Unfortunately, after about seven and a half minutes of this unmitigated frenzy, the walk was over. The dog would stop, sit, and refuse to go any further. Mulder had learned that walking Fang inevitably involved carrying Fang for most of the trip. He had wised-up after the first few experimental forays; now, when he took Fang for a walk, with or without Will, he just popped the dog into the jogging stroller, and ran along the Boardwalk.
Fang seemed to enjoy this arrangement very much.
Mulder wheeled the stroller through the front gate of the complex, bidding an ironic good-bye to the shapely blonde in running togs who had been his obligatory blank-faced escort. He paused in the courtyard for a few moments, catching his breath and wiping sweat out of his eyes. He had run an extra few miles despite the smothering heat and humidity, hoping to tame the intense feelings of despair and rage that had plagued him all day.
One year ago, he thought dully as he parked the stroller in the shed at the end of the complex. The thought sent a wave of pain coursing through his body, but the pain didn't linger as it had earlier in the day. It's getting easier, he told himself. I'm turning into a regular Man of Steel.
One year ago, today. He swallowed the lump in his throat and wondered if there was some kind of finish line for this grieving thing; a day when he would wake up and realize he had arrived at the end of the line. Congratulations, Mulder, you made it, buddy. Today is the first day of the rest of your life.
He waited for Fang to jump down and start barking maniacally in the direction of Billy's front door. When this happened he would tell Fang to shut the hell up, and their late afternoon ritual would be complete. Mulder was hungry; incredibly hungry, so he lifted Fang, who seemed stupefied by the heat, impatiently down from the stroller and set him on the ground. For once, the dog simply sniffed the air in the direction of Billy's lair, then turned and headed for Mulder's front door. Mulder was mystified. "No Billy today, huh, boy? Maybe we got lucky and he took a permanent vacation." He retrieved his keys from his pocket, trying to remember the exact date of Billy's last disappearance. He slipped the key in the door, wondering if he should consider Billy's current absence a good thing or a bad thing.
He opened the door to find the house empty.
Mulder closed his eyes, slamming a lid on his immediate sense of panic. He inhaled deeply, called out cautiously. "Hello?"
"Out here." Leah's voice drifted in through the screen door that led from the kitchen to the minuscule patio behind Mulder's unit.
Mulder breathed. Okay, he thought, it's fine this time.
He kicked off his running shoes and peeled off his socks, wadding them up and throwing them in a corner for Fang to chew on. The rich smell of lasagna hit him as he crossed the hardwood into the kitchen. A tossed salad and loaf of crusty bread was sitting on the counter. His stomach growled in anticipation as he opened the screen door. His shower could wait.
What he found in the backyard surprised him. "Where'd that come from?" Mulder gestured.
Leah was sitting on the edge of a canopied sandbox that had not been there when he had left a little more than two hours before. She was using a purple plastic shovel to help William scoop sand into a garishly orange toy dump truck.
"Billy showed up about ten minutes after you left and told me William wanted a sandbox. Next thing I knew, a bunch of guys in Home Depot uniforms were putting together and filling said sandbox." There was something unsettling in her tone.
Scooping his sand-coated son up for a hug, Mulder reflected that he had never seen - never imagined - so many different kinds of sand toys in his life. He was strangely relieved to note that William was not building foo fighters in the snow-white sand. "I'm sure Billy meant well." It was the only response that came to mind.
She looked up at him, her nose wrinkling. "Yes, but...the Home Depot guys were like zombies, Mulder. It was very creepy." She said it without a trace of irony.
He shrugged. "No doubt."
Her look of dismay intensified. "Do you think..." she said anxiously, rising and brushing sand from the backs of her long legs. "What do you think Billy does to them, Mulder? Does it hurt? Do you think they were in any pain?"
The question surprised him. "No, Leah. I'm sure they were fine as soon as they left. Dazed and confused, but fine. Why? Did they seem to be in pain?"
She shook her head, relaxing a little. "I'm just being silly. And morbid." She gave him a wry grin. "You must be rubbing off on me."
"That must be it," he agreed genially.
"Still," she began again, her expression clouding, "to lose time like that. I wonder how it affects you. I wonder if..."
Mulder shook his head from side to side, emphatically. "I'm starving," he said pointedly, head still shaking. "I am absolutely starving, Leah. Let's eat."
Leah took the hint. "Oh. Yeah, me too. Starving."
But she looked disappointed, and, Mulder thought, not
a little frightened.
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