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PERCEZIONE DELL'IDENTITÁ 3x01

Written By: 2Shy X-01001
Original Post Date: 11/19/02
Send the author feedback!

WITH THE X-FILES DIVISION CLOSED, SKINNER RACES TO FIND ANSWERS FOR SCULLY'S MURDER AND THE LOCATION OF THE MISSING MULDER.






Continued from 2X22, "A Piori"...

SACRAMENTO COUNTY MORGUE
DECEMBER 21ST, 2000
3:58 P.M.

Skinner searched the black depths of the back of his eyelids, letting his mind tiptoe over a multitude of thoughts while numerous emotions tussled for superiority. His lips pursed tightly, he took a slow, deep breath through his nose, tilting his head back just slightly. A metallic scraping violated his introspection, and the assistant director lowered his head, opening his eyes to examine the shiny tile below him.

"Sir?" a soft voice prompted him.

Skinner stared silently at the floor for another moment, slowly putting a shaky hand to his temple. He turned to face the young morgue attendant, his fingertips lightly brushing over his tired skin as he moved. The attendant had a pained expression scrawled across his features, an unspoken apology evident in his frown. "Is this her?" he asked softly.

The assistant director kept his eyes locked onto the young man's, hoping that somehow it could all be reversed. There was understanding in the attendant's eyes, a common bond of grief that the two shared. Skinner knew that the young man had lost someone recently too; his compassionate look was too strong to signify anything else.

Skinner regretfully turned his attention to the stainless steel drawer that was pulled out for him. Scully lay atop it, her shiny, red hair spread beautifully over the cold metal. The assistant director squeezed his eyes shut, fighting the moisture that threatened to spill out. He nodded slowly, and the attendant pulled the sheet back over Scully's head.

Skinner angled his head back towards the floor, his body beginning to shudder from the suppressed sobs. The drawer scraped as it was slid back into its place and a soft thud announced that the door had been shut as well. The assistant director softly cradled his face in his palm, covering his eyes. Finally, he wept freely, the pitying attendant watching uncomfortably.


MANASSAS, VIRGINIA
8:12 P.M.

The narrow street was alive with activity, cars and vans lining the sides of it. A light drizzle pattered on the foliage as red and blue lights bounced off of the brick walls and glided across the wet pavement. A sleek, black car slowly rolled on through the atypical buzz, its driver utterly confused.

The car's taillights burned a brighter red, and the car lurched to a stop. The door swung open abruptly, and Obsidian jumped out, the engine still running. He raced past a newsvan and onto the cobbled sidewalk, heading for a familiar apartment building.

A burly officer stood guard at the main door. Obsidian continued to run directly at him, his black curls bouncing in front of his intense eyes. "Sir!" the officer shouted, widening his stance for more stability. Obsidian ignored the man, bounding up the stairs. "Sir! You can't come in here!"

Jack Welsh slowed his pace, easing to a stop in front of the officer. "What happened here?!?" he demanded.

"Someone died," the officer replied coolly. On cue, an ambulance came to a stop behind Obsidian's car, its sirens and lights not in use.

Obsidian grabbed the man's shoulders roughly. He leaned in close to the officer's face, his nostrils flaring. "Who died?" he whispered, his expression bordering on derangement.

"Some lady. I don't know." The officer's voice wavered, worried about what his interrogator was going to do. Obsidian shoved him to the side, and stalked into the building. A newscrew stood before the elevator, their large camera sitting on the floor. They didn't even note the newcomer's presence, their attention focused on the slow-moving numbers above the elevator doors.

Obsidian changed his course, pushing open a thick metal door on his left. He trudged into the stairwell, lost in a maze of disparaging thoughts as he made his way up the steps. Loud voices could be heard from the second floor as he ascended towards it, the muffled mix of conversations bouncing off of the cold, cement walls of the stairwell.

He came to the next landing, not hesitating for an instant before flinging open the door. Men in suits dotted the hallway, most of them clustered around an open doorway. A middle-aged man turned to face Obsidian, who stood completely still, staring blankly into the open apartment.

"Who are you?"

Obsidian slowly looked up to the man, unaware of what question he had just been asked. "What happened here?" he breathed.

"A woman was murdered tonight." The middle-aged man eyed Obsidian suspiciously. "You never said who you were," he reminded him.

"I think I'm her ex-husband," Obsidian mumbled absently, slowly walking towards the apartment.

"You think?" the man repeated, starting after him.

Obsidian kept walking, flinching as he saw a long line of blood splattered across the carpet ahead of him. Instinctively he slowed down, not wanting to see what was around the corner in his old living room. "Was it Alicia Browning?" he asked softly.

"We're really not sure," the man revealed. "We think so, but there's no face left to identify." He paused, hoping his words didn't seem too merciless. "I take it you're Jack Welsh?"

Obsidian stopped and turned, facing the man again. He nodded slowly. "Yeah, that's me."

"We've been looking for you," the man replied almost immediately. "I'm Detective Canzon." He offered his hand, and Obsidian shook it weakly. "We were hoping to find out if you knew where your son was."

Welsh's demeanor changed instantly. His brow furrowed, the news surprising him. "You don't know where he is?" he asked indignantly.

"Nobody does, it seems."

"No, no," Obsidian protested. "He's at his grandmother's house, or a friend's house." His eyes quickly scanned the floor, hoping that he could find an answer there.

"Mrs. Browning doesn't have him," the detective said. "Plus there's evidence here that indicated your son may have been abducted from his room."

"No," Obsidian whispered, shaking his head violently. "No!" His voice jumped to a shout.

"Mr. Welsh," the detective started. "We need to ask you a few questions, to get a feel for who could have wanted to take him. Now, did you and your wife have issues over his custody?"

Obsidian's head snapped up, an outraged stare locked on the detective. "Am I a suspect?!?"

"No, sir. Not yet."

Obsidian stomped over to the man. "I know who did this!" he roared, spittle flying into the detective's face. "It wasn't me," he insisted. "I'll get you the man who did it." He rudely forced his way past the man, bumping him into the wall as he stormed out of the apartment, flashbulbs still popping, documenting the gruesome scene.


DECEMBER 22ND, 2000
OFFICE OF PROFESSIONAL REVIEW
WASHINGTON, D.C.
8:00 A.M.

Frank Warner shuffled papers uncomfortably, finally lifting his gaze to meet Walter Skinner's. The assistant director sat erect in a chair opposite the panel, the small table in front of him completely empty. Warner cleared his throat, deciding on the right words to use. "I don't like having to convene this panel on the Friday before Christmas," he finally started, "But the matter at hand is a very serious one, and one that needs to be settled in a timely manner. I want everyone to be able to spend time with their families, but we have to make sure this does not put the FBI in a negative light."

Skinner lifted his chin, attempting to give the panel a confident stare. Warner narrowed his eyes, looking intently at the bald man. "Mr. Skinner, you positively identified Agent Scully's body yesterday?"

"Yes," he replied, straining to keep the emotion out of his succinct answer.

"And Agent Mulder is still missing?"

"Yes, sir. He disappeared without warning from Sonora Community Hospital in Sacramento two days ago."

"What exactly was Agent Mulder doing in California?"

"He was investigating a case. That's his job." Skinner couldn't keep his irritation hidden.

"The reason I ask, Mr. Skinner, is because we've found no records that would indicate that you had any knowledge of what they were investigating. There are records of plane tickets purchased, with a destination of Austin, Texas, but no requisitions for cars or any other form of application for their travel." Warner pierced the assistant director with a condescending stare. "Did you know anything about the case they were investigating?"

Skinner breathed out slowly, shaking his head just slightly. He looked back up at his inquisitor, hoping to give him a defiant stare; his attempt failed miserably. "Again, Mr. Skinner- did you know about the case Agents Mulder and Scully were investigating?"

The assistant director cast his eyes to the floor. "No," he mumbled.

Warner continued on, glad that Skinner had provided him with the answer he wanted. "You see, Mr. Skinner, it appears that you are letting these agents operate without any bounds. For an assistant director, that is an awful form of misconduct. Someone needs to be held accountable for Agent Scully's death, and without an explanation from Agent Mulder, you seem most responsible."

Skinner didn't give Frank Warner the satisfaction of a response. He ran his eyes down the panel, hoping that another assistant director would give him a sympathetic look, one that revealed that they also thought the idea was absurd; he found nothing of the sort.

Another voice piped up. "Mr. Skinner, we'll have to put this matter under review in the new year." The bald man turned to face the new speaker, looking at the indifferent expression of Alvin Kersh. "While this matter is being investigated, you will be placed on suspension and the X-Files will be closed pending Mulder's return. You'll need to turn in your badge and weapon before you leave."

Skinner shook his head in disgust, standing slowly. "You can have them," he spat. "It's a sad day when the FBI starts crucifying its own just to find an easy answer."

"No one is being crucified," Warner said. "You're only under temporary suspension. I'm sure that when Agent Mulder resurfaces we can put this matter to rest and reinstate you."

Skinner unhooked his holster and removed the gun, letting it fall onto the table with a heavy thud. He jammed his hand into his suit and yanked his badge out, dropping it beside the weapon. "This matter won't be put to rest," he muttered, "Because none of you want to accept the answers you'll find." He turned and walked calmly to the door, the panel silently watching him leave.


NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK
EAST 46TH STREET
11:32 A.M.

Obsidian slammed his car door, stalking towards the imposing brick building, whose walls seemingly stretched into the sky. He cast a quick glance at the traffic on the road, but started across regardless. Tires squealed as the driver of a green sports car slammed on his brakes, the back end of his vehicle jumping as he came to a hasty stop. Obsidian ignored the noise, his attention still focused on his destination.

Drivers on the other side of the road slowed, having seen the near-miss just moments before. Jack Welsh didn't notice their courtesy, thinking only of continuing his march across the wet asphalt. He stepped up onto the opposite curb, slipping his left hand out of his jacket pocket to push open the building's glass door.

He slithered into the warm interior, stopping for a second to slide up his jacket sleeve and check his watch. Obsidian immediately looked back up, his unwavering stare piercing the far end of the hallway, and the elevator doors built into it. His shoved his hands back into his pockets as he walked, his eyes never leaving the cold, steel entrance.

Obsidian quickly arrived at the elevator, and immediately jabbed the arrow imprinted on a button. He glanced up at the digits above the doorway, not moving his head as he watched the light jump from one number to the next. With a soft ping, the doors opened, not a moment too soon for the impatient conspirator.

Welsh hurried into the elevator car, pressing the button for a familiar floor. The doors slid shut and he unbuttoned his leather jacket, pulling a Glock from his side holster. He switched the weapon to his left hand and used the other to depress a button marked "Call Cancel". The elevator continued its ascent unabated as Obsidian tried to calm his nerves.

The machine bumped to an uncomfortable stop, and the steel parted, revealing a hallway covered in thick, green carpet. He stormed out of the elevator car, gun gripped tightly in his hand as his leather coattails swept out behind him. He stopped before an unmarked door, disgust building in him as he thought of the unethical deals made behind its rich wood. Obsidian lifted the weapon, wrapping his right hand around the grip. He took a deep breath, carefully eyed the frosted-glass window, and unleashed a ferocious kick into the wood. The hinges ripped from the frame, and the door flew into the office space.

Obsidian rushed in, immediately training his weapon on an old man eating lunch. Welsh cast a glance at the second man in the room. "What the hell are you doing here?" he asked.

"I work for Spender, remember?" Krycek retorted sarcastically. "You do still remember what that's like, don't you?"

Obsidian eyed him cautiously. Was Krycek just keeping up appearances, or was their alliance a sham? "Funny," he managed to reply. Quickly, he turned his attention back to the Smoking Man, who continued to eat a cheeseburger. "Someone of your age really should cut back on the fatty foods, you know. Bad for the arteries."

Spender took another bite, chewing slowly. "You have a gun pointed at my head, Jack," he finally pointed out. "Possible bypass surgery isn't the foremost thing on my mind. In actuality, I'm wondering why our door is sitting in the entryway."

"What the fuck did you to him?" Obsidian's voice maintained its calm, gravelly tone.

The Smoking Man chewed carefully, swallowing his food and chasing it down with a swig of an unidentifiable liquor. "We don't know what happened to Agent Mulder, either."

"Agent Mulder?!?" Obsidian laughed. "Stop playing games, old man. The last time we talked I told you not to touch my son, but you just wouldn't listen, would you?"

C.G.B. Spender took a long drink from his glass, nodding slightly as he did so. "Ah, I should have known that it would have been your son that pushed you over the edge like this." He stopped for a moment, looking at his cheeseburger as he thought. "Well, he isn't dead, at least not to your knowledge, or else you wouldn't be asking what I did to him. So that leaves only one other thing that would get you this angry, Jack. How long has he been missing?"

Obsidian shoved the gun forward at the man threateningly. "Stop it with your fucking mind games! Tell me where he is!" The Smoking Man continued to eat calmly, his visitor becoming more agitated with each second. "Look at me, you piece of shit! If you don't tell me where he is, I will blow your fucking brains onto the wall!"

Spender dropped the small remaining bit of his cheeseburger to the plate and looked up. "Jack, do you realize how ignorant that is? If you are so convinced that I know something, how will killing me help you?"

Obsidian didn't respond, trying to find a good reason to enact his threat. Reason won out quickly, though, and he lowered the weapon. "His mother is dead," he whispered, eyes downcast. "I'm all he has left. You can't do this to me, you just can't."

The Smoking Man took another drink from his near-empty glass. "Jack, check into a hotel; get some rest. You can't do anything in your condition, and I have connections. I'll see what I can do."

Welsh's eyes jumped back up to the old man, his surprise evident. "Really?"

"Really, Jack. Go get some rest." Obsidian complied immediately, shuffling past the lonely door and through its former locale into the hallway.

Krycek broke his silence, completely confused. "Why would you do that?" he asked.

"I know what it's like to worry about your family," he said. Krycek still eyed him warily, not believing the explanation. The Smoking Man coughed uncomfortably and tried again. "Besides, it's simply an even exchange, Alex. I do something for him, and I'll make him do something for me."


MANASSAS, VIRGINIA
1:47 P.M.

"He's not home."

Detective Canzon slowly looked up at the young officer who stood nervously before him. "Did you try his office?"

"There's no place of business on record for him, sir."

Canzon set down his pen, reaching back to scratch his neck. "Family, friends? Have you tried contacting any of them?"

"No, sir." The officer cast his eyes to the floor, avoiding the detective's stare. "I'll get right on that." The young man turned quickly, shuffling out of the room, relieved that the short meeting was over.

Canzon ran a hand through his sandy blond hair, exhaling slowly. Christmas always brought a nice stream of murder-suicides, but this case was different. It was a horrific, gruesome crime, leading him to believe that the perpetrator acted out of a suppressed rage.

"Detective?" A short, plump woman stood in the open doorway, a stack of folders and paper in her arms. "I finished up that background check you wanted."

The man smiled at her. "Thank you, Marie. I really appreciate that." She walked leisurely to his desk, depositing her load onto the wooden surface.

"Let me know if you need anything else," she offered.

"I sure will," he replied, still grinning. She took the cue and left quietly, the detective already shuffling through the information.

Canzon chewed his bottom lip, his eyes narrowing as he perused the documents. He'd seen the same types of forms before, numerous times, but immediately he could tell this subject was a mysterious one. Page after page revealed the same; very little was known about Jack Welsh. The man was something of an enigma, having supported his family for two years without any sign of a job.

The detective leaned back in his chair, studying the ceiling. Welsh could have been making money through illegal channels, and if his wife had found out, that could have easily led to their divorce. Perhaps his underhanded business had even led to his ex-wife's murder, a revenge killing for unpaid debts. Canzon shook his head and sighed; there were too many blanks, and without being able to talk with Welsh, he didn't have much to go on.

He rocked forward, snatching the phone from its cradle. He swept his fingers over the keys swiftly, dialing a very familiar number.

"Speak," a voice commanded him.

"Yeah, Frankie, it's Sam. I need you to do a little bit of work for me."

"Explain," Frankie ordered.

"I've got a suspect for a homicide, but his past has more holes in it than anybody I've ever run across. I need you to see what you can dig up for me, through... unofficial channels."

"The name?"

"It's Jack Welsh, spelled like it sounds."

"Social?"

Canzon slid the papers around on the desk, soon finding the right one. He reported the number to his friend, his voice barely above a whisper. "Now, Frankie," he started, his eyes locked on his open door. "Don't call the office about this, alright? Everything you tell me comes through my cell, O.K.?"

"I got it, Sam." The detective was offered no chance for an exchange of pleasant goodbyes as his shadowy friend quickly hung up the phone.

Canzon drummed his fingers on the desk, his well-trained mind leapfrogging from one possibility to the next. Eyewitnesses were nowhere to be found in the apartment building, leading the detective to the conclusion that the killer had used a silenced weapon. That fact usually pointed to a professional hit, but nothing at the crime scene added up. All of the forensic evidence would lend itself to a profile of an unorganized killer, someone who knew the victim, but a professional hitman would have the complete opposite type of profile.

He heard footsteps approaching his door and he quickly reached out for a paper, holding it in front of his face nonchalantly. A soft knock bounced across the room and Canzon tilted the sheet of paper down, glancing over it to see his visitor. "Detective Pruitt," he called out, his features softening into a grin. "How's the legwork coming?"

The man sauntered into the room, moving his short frame to a chair in front of the desk. "It's been pretty difficult so far," he admitted. "This guy seems to be pretty damned shady."

"So I've discovered."

"I did just come across one thing, though. Atlantic Bell has a cellular customer whose billing address matches the one on file for this Welsh. The name is different, though, but I figure we can still give it a try. Run the records, see who he's been calling. Maybe he talked to his ex the night she was shot."

"Go ahead and do that," Canzon agreed. "Let me have that cell number, though. No one knows where this guy's gone to, but maybe this way we can get a hold of him."

Pruitt stood slowly. "The info's in my office, but I'll you in a minute with the number and then talk to the folks over at Atlantic Bell to get those records faxed."

"Thanks, Ryan."

"Absolutely, Sam." Pruitt hurried out of the office and Canzon leaned back in his chair again, closing his eyes as he hoped they were finally making progress.


CRYSTAL CITY, VIRGINIA
3:17 P.M.

The air was completely still in the darkened apartment, as stagnant as the water that sat in a full glass on the endtable. Skinner lay silently stretched out on his couch, his angry stare burning a hole through the ceiling above. He had been there for hours, completely still, not a single thought running through his mind as he focused his attention on an invisible spot somewhere overhead.

The ringing of a phone pealed through the quiet living room, but the assistant director remained motionless. His eyes never moved, continuing the staring contest with the indifferent plaster. The phone rang again, an unneeded distraction for the stone statue lying on the couch. He listened absently as his answering machine clicked on.

"This is Walter Skinner. I'm not available, so leave me a message."

The assistant director closed his eyes, finally ending the unwinnable battle with the ceiling. A hushed woman's voice came forth from the machine, skittering through the still room. "Mr. Skinner, this message is of the utmost importance. You cannot let your suspension discourage you. There is more going on than meets the eye, and you are the only person who still wants to find the truth. An assault occurred in a small town a few miles northwest of Kansas City. I can't provide you with the answers you need, because I don't know them myself. This is just a place to start." The assistant director's eyelids had popped open during the recording, and now he jumped to his feet, scurrying to the phone. The answering machine beeped just before Skinner lifted the receiver, and as he pushed it to his ear, he was greeted with the dull hum of a dial tone. He glanced at the keypad and punched three buttons, letting the phone company's callback service work for him.

"Operator," a woman answered cheerfully.

"Who is this?" he growled.

"Sir, this is the switchboard operator. How may I place your call?"

"Switchboard?" he repeated. "For who?"

"The Air Force Office of Special Investigations," the woman offered, her happy tone fading.

"You just called me," he protested.

"All outgoing calls are rerouted through this trunk extension," she explained. "You don't know who it was you spoke with?"

"I didn't," he mumbled. "I just missed the call."

"Well, sir, there's no way for me to find out who called you. I'm very sorry, but hopefully they'll try back in a few minutes."

"Right," Skinner whispered, mindlessly sticking the receiver back into its cradle. He stood awkwardly, examining the floor as he thought. The mysterious call was a complete surprise, but he wasn't doing anything helpful by lying in the dark. He'd have to follow the lead and hope it could point him towards enough evidence to persuade the OPR panel to reinstate him once it reconvened. The assistant director hustled to the door, grabbing an overcoat from the rack on his way out of the apartment.


NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK
4:13 P.M.

"Yes, thank you." C.G.B. Spender hung up the phone disdainfully and took a long, deep drag of his cigarette. Krycek watched him expectantly as the elder man slowly exhaled, his empty gaze penetrating the hazy cloud of smoke.

"What did they say?" Krycek wondered.

Spender calmly put the cigarette to his lips again, inhaling coolly despite his irritation. He quickly blew another puff of smoke into the room, resting his burning Morley in an ashtray. "Agent Scully's body is missing," he hissed, his voice the only sign of his internal rage. "The coroner who was to examine the body has also disappeared."

Krycek blinked owlishly, caught off-guard by the news. "Do you think the same person who took Jack's son took Scully's body?"

The Smoking Man nodded sagely. "Yes, I do, but that still doesn't explain the coroner's disappearance."

"Maybe he's the one who took her," Krycek posited.

"Perhaps." C.G.B. Spender glanced at the younger conspirator. "Whatever happened, it looks like someone is trying to cover something up, something that an examination would have revealed."

"Such as?"

"Maybe what caused her death. Regardless, whoever took her body also thinks that Jack knows something important enough to warrant kidnapping his son."

"Unless the two events are just coincidence," Krycek pointed out.

"There's no such thing as a coincidence, Alex. Everything is related, even if we can't see the connection." Krycek eyed the ashtray, preoccupied with the Smoking Man's aphorism. The elder man coughed painfully, but continued speaking. "You need to find out where Jack decided to stay. We need to catch him up on the latest news." Spender deftly picked up his cigarette, thumping the glass with the slender stick, ashes falling into the bottom of the tray. He took a prolonged, appreciative puff from the shrinking cigarette and gradually blew out the smoke, relishing the mystifying fog it surrounded him with. "It's time for our friend to return my favor."


LAUINGER LIBRARY
GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY
WASHINGTON, D.C.
4:27 P.M.

The doors slid open along their track, a hiss of air entering the library just before the sounds of the outside world penetrated the room. Skinner strode confidently through the entryway, the shoulders of his trenchcoat speckled with snowflakes. A librarian looked up from the circulation desk, measuring the new patron with her eyes. His brow was furrowed with worry, yet he still threatened the floor with a determined stare.

Without a glance upward, he approached the wooden counter, seemingly on autopilot as his mind carefully chewed on a problem. "May I help you sir?" the librarian whispered, wondering what troubled the new guest so deeply.

Skinner slowly lifted his head to meet her inquisitive stare. "I need to see the newspaper microfiches," he replied, his lethargic words barely escaping his mouth.

"We're a little more advanced than that." The librarian grinned as she stood to help the assistant director. "We have a huge periodical database that can be accessed by any computer workstation in the library. There are hundreds of newspapers, magazines, you name it - whatever you're looking for, we're bound to have." Her breathless speech had a feel of rehearsed perfection, and her glued-on smile only added to the sense of a fabricated sincerity.

"I'm looking for some recent articles in the Kansas City Star," Skinner told her, watching as she shuffled out from behind the desk.

"I'll get you set up with a workstation, and you'll be well on your way." The practiced smile returned as she led Skinner to a row of computer terminals. "Just pull up 'Periodicals' from the desktop, and you're ready to roll," she explained.

"Thank you," he mumbled, waiting for the librarian to excuse herself before he took his seat. Skinner rolled his cursor to the desired icon and double-clicked, peering at the screen. His fingers danced across the keyboard, their staccato rhythm unconsciously filtering through his focused brain.

The assistant director stared intently at the bright screen, his hands continuing their frenetic work. His eyes narrowed as an article popped onto the monitor. "Unbelievable," he murmured, instinctively clicking on a pull-down menu to print the document. Skinner drummed his fingers on the wooden desk as the printer sprung to life, and he re-read the short snippet on-screen, shaking his head slightly in disbelief.

A single sheet of paper dropped quietly from the printer into the tray below, and the bald man quickly grabbed it. He promptly hopped up from his chair and started back towards the entrance, leaving the tiny article on the screen. The librarian looked up as the patron rushed out of the building and watched him through the glass doors as he urgently ran to the parking lot.

Her inquiring mind willed her out of her comfortable chair and towards the computers. She slipped a pair of reading glasses onto her nose and sized up the words on the monitor. Her imagination kicked into gear as she read the headline: "Small-town bar brawl turns deadly"


MANASSAS, VIRGINIA
6:58 P.M.

Short, rapt knocking commenced in Samuel Canzon's open doorway, but the detective held up a single finger in response, preoccupied with the paper he was reading. Detective Pruitt stopped knocking and stood up straight, silently holding a thick stack of papers in one hand.

Canzon ran a blue highlighter over a line of text and glanced up at his visitor, smiling as he realized who had knocked. "Ryan, come on in! Any luck with the cell phone records?"

Pruitt grimaced slightly as he entered. "Not really, Sam. Assuming this cellular customer is our guy Welsh, he didn't call the victim the night of the murder. Only two calls were placed that night, and both of them to the address of a Tunisian diplomat in D.C."

"A Tunisian diplomat?" Canzon raised his eyebrows inquisitively, hoping his colleague was about to give him some more information.

"Yeah, Sam. I had about the same reaction." Pruitt looked down at the stack of papers clutched tightly in his hand, trying to remember every last detail without referencing the documents. "That number showed up a heck of a lot. So did a number in New York City."

"Did he ever call the victim from that phone?" Canzon wondered.

"One call in the past two months, and it was made the day before the murder."

"Then if this isn't Mr. Welsh, that's one hell of a coincidence, don't you think?" Pruitt nodded in agreement, feeling foolish for not having noticed that himself. "So then what is the connection between our Mr. Welsh, a Tunisian diplomat, and a good friend in New York?"

"I don't see how we can find out, Sam. Diplomats are practically holy. I remember this Russian diplomat once who killed someone in a car wreck and got off scot-free."

Canzon nodded in agreement, unconsciously licking his lips as he thought. He stopped suddenly and glanced up at Pruitt. "Then maybe this friend in New York can help us out. Get on the phone and call him up, see what their connection is. Maybe he knows something about this diplomat as well."

"Absolutely, Sam. I'll get back to you as soon as I know something."

"Ryan," Canzon called, stopping his co-worker on his way out of the office. "Leave those files here. I want to pay our diplomat friend a visit and see just how holy he really is."


CAFFE DANTE
NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK
8:29 P.M.

The limousine came to a gradual stop on MacDougal Street, and the patrons who were dining outside watched with interest to see who exited the fancy vehicle. Inside, the driver gave a curt message to his passenger. "This is the place. Go."

Obsidian peered through the tinted windows at the tables lining the sidewalk and the narrow entrance to the Manhattan coffeehouse. "Go," the driver ordered again. Obsidian gave him a dirty stare and opened his door, stepping out into the chilly winter night. He slammed the door behind him, oblivious to the tourist family watching him intently from their table.

Obsidian approached the glass door and swung it open, surprised by the peaceful atmosphere of the coffeehouse amid the bustle of the Village. He accustomed his eyes to the dim lighting and spotted a familiar pair sitting at a table in the furthest corner from him. He passed by the glass display window filled with delicious confections, absorbing the soothing sounds of the classic Italian machinery humming behind the bar.

"Please, have a seat, Jack," the Smoking Man greeted him.

Obsidian failed to reply, removing his jacket and slinging it over the fourth chair at the table. He slumped into his seat, exhausted, and cast a glance towards Krycek. "Well, you two summoned me here, so what's the deal? Do you know where my son is?" His words lacked the impassioned energy of that morning, but his eyes still showed his concern.

"No, Jack, we don't," the Smoking Man shared, his sentence slow and measured. "We might be able to get you started looking in the right direction, though."

Obsidian leaned forward, cradling his tired head in his hand, arm propped up on the tabletop. "What do you mean?"

"There's another disappearance that looks to be connected to this. We think that perhaps if you can find our missing person, it'll lead you to yours."

"So this is just an uninsured quid pro quo? I'm seeing how you get what you want, but how do I know I'll get what I want?"

"You can't be sure, Jack." The Cigarette-Smoking Man paused, sipping his Caffé Fantasia. He carefully placed the mug back down, thinking momentarily. "Nothing comes without a price, and nothing worthwhile comes without risk." C.G.B. Spender glanced up at the approaching waiter, and Obsidian turned his head to follow the old man's gaze.

"Can I get you anything, sir?" the waiter queried.

"Go ahead, Jack, it's on me," Spender offered. "You really should try the Latté Machiatto."

Obsidian wrinkled his forehead, surprised by the man's generosity. "Sure, I'll have one of those, then." The waiter scribbled down the order and left, allowing the trio to continue their discussion. Welsh turned back to face the Smoking Man, his expression clearly questioning the new philanthropic attitude.

"Oh, don't look so shocked, Jack," the old man said. "If you do what we ask of you, a couple dollars for a coffee won't be anywhere near enough in reparation."

Obsidian leaned forward again. "And what exactly is this you need me to do?"

"Agent Scully's body disappeared from the morgue in California. I think it's no coincidence this occurred the same night that your son was kidnapped. Someone is trying to cover something up."

Obsidian shook his head, not grasping the connection. "I... I'm not seeing how my son fits into this."

C.G.B. Spender took another sip of his coffee. "There was something that would have shown up in Scully's autopsy, something that someone didn't want known. That's obvious with the disappearance of her body. But now that we learn your son was kidnapped the same night, I think someone is trying to keep you quiet about something you know."

Welsh stared at the tabletop, his mind skating over what possible damaging information he had. "I just don't know. Maybe I'm too stressed out to figure it out."

"Or maybe it's something you don't even realize is important." Obsidian glanced up at Krycek, wondering why the double-agent hadn't spoken a word since his arrival. Alex stared coldly back, not allowing Welsh to ascertain anything from his appearance. "Just relax for now," Spender continued. "Your coffee will be out in a few minutes. Just enjoy it and relax until morning. You can't do anything until then."

Obsidian nodded slowly, trying to size up the older man with a quick look. He still looked just as unthreatening as always, but Welsh knew better. He'd have to be careful, watch himself, be completely sure that there were no traps waiting up ahead. He leaned back in his chair, staring at the Sepia prints lining the walls, as he tried unsuccessfully to relax.


DECEMBER 23RD, 2000
WASHINGTON, D.C.
8:24 A.M.

The detective's cell phone rang suddenly, startling him as he traversed a short sidewalk. He fished the phone out of his pocket and pushed a button before pressing it to his ear. "Samuel Canzon," he announced.

"Hey Sam, it's me," the caller replied.

"Ryan! How's the New York lead coming?" Canzon arrived at a short flight of stairs and bounded them quickly, stopping in front of the door of an upscale apartment building.

"Well, I'm not exactly sure," Pruitt started. "Ya see, I didn't get an answer at all last night, and I kept trying until probably eleven. Then I call this morning and it's answered on the first ring. But once the guy hears my voice, he tells me I've got the wrong number and hangs up."

"That's definitely weird," Canzon agreed, referencing a scrap of paper in his hand. He glanced at the numbers above the apartment building and swung open the door.

"Oh, that's not all, Sam. I called right back and then nobody picked up, they just let it ring. So I keep trying throughout the day, and now it's disconnected!"

"You call the phone company to confirm that?"

"I sure did," Pruitt responded proudly. "The call came into their offices to disconnect the number within 10 minutes of my call this morning. Took 'em a few hours to process the order, so I guess they just turned off the ringer or something."

Canzon strode confidently to the elevator, glancing at his scrap of paper again. He boarded the elevator car and pressed a button quickly. "So do we have an address to match this disconnected phone number?"

"Yeah, but it's completely bogus. I already had some guys up in NYC check on it for us."

The elevator doors opened on the desired floor and Canzon began walking down the hallway, looking for the correct apartment. "Well, whoever these guys are, I figure they need a phone to communicate. Keep someone on those records in New York, looking for new phone lines that are being installed. Run the sweep back to when they ordered the disconnect, and look for another bogus address. I figure that they'll be the only new line with a fake address today. Then, find the guy who installed the line, and find out where he actually had to go to install it. My guess is that they gave the right address for the installation, and then changed it on the records afterwards."

"Yeah, that's a good idea Sam, I'll do that." Canzon found the right apartment and knocked on the door loudly. "Hey, where are you, Sammy?" Pruitt asked.

"I'm going to talk to our diplomat friend from the lovely country of Tunisia," he retorted dryly. Canzon knocked again impatiently.

"What? No one's home?"

"No, I guess not." He paused and removed a lockpick from his other pocket. "That's probably even better, though."

Pruitt knew exactly what his colleague meant. "Naw, Sam, you can't just bust in there. This guy's a diplomat. He's like the fuckin' Pope, man- you can't touch him!"

"I'm not busting in," Canzon stated flatly. "I'm picking the lock, which is much less noticeable than the busting-in method."

"Sam, you really shouldn't be doing that, buddy. This kinda shit can mean your badge!" Pruitt continued to warn against entering the apartment, but Canzon turned off his phone and set to work on the lock. Moments later he grinned with satisfaction and eased the door open and slid into the apartment quietly.

He quickly scanned the entryway, making a mental overview of the layout of the posh apartment. The apartment windows faced west, so the rooms were dim in the early morning hours. Canzon searched for a light switch and easily found one and he flicked it on, bathing the foyerway in rich light.

The detective sauntered down the hallway, scrutinizing everything. There was so much that he wanted to be able to peruse, but he had to be as quick as possible, yet thorough. There was no telling when the diplomat would return home, and Canzon didn't know if he'd ever get a second chance to explore the apartment.

He soon found himself in the living room, surrounded by expensive art and luxurious leather furniture. Canzon's eyes quickly spotted the answering machine beyond the living room, in the kitchen, and he rushed to it. The indicator light flashed at him, proclaiming the presence of messages. The detective hit a button and whipped out a notepad, ready to jot down any important details.

The machine beeped at him and then a male voice sprang forth from it. "Alex," the caller urgently said, "Spender is onto us, I know it. My son is gone... I know that bastard killed my wife, but I... I just don't know what to do. Call me back as soon as you can."

Canzon scrawled down the names frantically, surprised by Welsh's message. After another beep, Obsidian's voice came out of the machine again. "Alex, you need to call me immediately. I think Spender is setting us up. I've got cops asking me questions, because they think I killed Alicia. I wouldn't be surprised if he mixes you up in this somehow. Watch yourself, man, and call me."

The detective stared at the floor as another message from Obsidian played itself back. He was close to a connection, and he could feel it. If Pruitt could get him an address, they might have a true solid lead to go on, and more people to interview. The messages were making this murder look more like a conspiracy to commit murder, and he wanted to take down every responsible party. Suddenly his thoughts came crashing to a halt in a jumbled pile of ideas as he latched onto the most important one. "Holy shit," he breathed. "The address!" Canzon jammed his notepad back into his breast pocket and darted towards the door, completely sure he was onto something.


TADY, KANSAS
10:27 A.M.

Overwhelmingly bright sunlight bounced off of the hot asphalt, the Kansas countryside bathed in a golden glow. Skinner rested on his haunches, peering at a crimson stain in the roadside dust. He pinched a small amount of the tainted dust between his forefingers and thumb, rubbing it against them. The hard, clumped dust broke apart, back into hundreds of miniscule particles.

Skinner glanced up at the decrepit bar sitting not far from the road. No parking lot was present for its patrons, just a cleared-out plot of dust, bordered by cornrows. The familiar ring of his cell phone brought the assistant director to his feet, and he removed the phone from his pants pocket. "Walter Skinner," he announced just after putting the device to his ear.

"Mr. Skinner," a sensuous female voice began, "I take it you're in Kansas?"

"Who is this?" he asked, his typical, terse voice making the question into a demand.

"I'm a friend, Mr. Skinner. The same friend who pointed you in the direction you are now going."

The assistant director stared off into the distance, down the long, desolate road, the black surface releasing hazy waves of heat. "I'm having a hard time determining exactly what direction that is," he finally replied. "And frankly, I'm wondering why I'm in the middle of the Great Plains, staring at nothing, when I should be at home, watching the claymation Rudolph save Christmas again."

"I told you, Mr. Skinner, I don't have the answers. I only share the information I receive in the hopes that you can find those answers for us." The woman paused, her voice growing quieter as she continued. "Agent Mulder was there. Why? Neither you or I know, but once he is found, he can answer that, and hopefully tell us what happened to Agent Scully."

"So what am I supposed to do?" Skinner quizzed her, "Just wait for some divine inspiration while I'm playing with bloodstained dirt? This isn't a reasonable investigation!"

"You've been the AD on the X-Files for seven years now. You should know that none of Agent Mulder's cases are reasonable investigations, even though they usually are still successful."

"Mulder is used to being in the field, though," Skinner pointed out. "Assistant Directors aren't let out of the Hoover Building very often."

"Word on the grapevine is that they've let you out indefinitely," the woman responded, disappointment evident in her voice.

"At least until Mulder can straighten this out," Skinner muttered.

"Well, find out what his connection is to this fight, and find out why he went there from California. You're an investigator, Mr. Skinner. Put your skills to good use."

The sounds of a car approaching stole the assistant director's attention, and he turned around, squinting against the sun. The dark Ford pulled off the road, and as it eased to a stop alongside him, out of the blinding backlight, he noted the driver's tan uniform. The driver killed the engine and popped open his door, immediately greeting the bald man. "G'morning, sir! 'M Sherriff Lockwood. Got a call someone was pokin' around out here, 'n I decided to check it out."

Skinner looked around at the spacious fields. "I didn't even think there was anybody out here, much less a phone."

The sheriff nodded at the nearby bar. "Proprietor of this 'stablishment phoned it in. Lives in a room at the backa the place."

"Sort of removed from the rest of the world, isn't it?"

The sheriff shrugged, looking at the building with the glimmer of a memory in his eyes. Breaking free from his nostalgic indulgence, Lockwood looked back at the assistant director. "What exactly are you doing out here, then?"

Sinner paused for a minute before launching into an explanation. "I'm looking into a death that occurred outside this bar a few nights ago."

"Who you with?" the sheriff asked defensively. "KABC? This place is clean, I'll have you know. Ol' Man Nokey's been servin' here for over 40 years, and ain't never served a minor."

Skinner smiled slightly, gazing back down the road. "No, no, I'm not with the KABC. I'm just out here doing a favor for a friend."

The sheriff nodded slowly, noticing the cell phone in Skinner's hand. "That who you callin'?"

The AD looked down at his phone, realizing he'd forgotten about his source. He pushed the phone to his ear, but the woman had already hung up. Skinner glanced back at the sheriff. "Well, I had been talking with her," he revealed, "But, now, uh..."

"Yeah," the sheriff said, nodding again. "So why exactly are the two of you interested in this bar brawl?"

Skinner hesitated again, trying to mix just enough truth with his story. "We think a mutual friend might have been involved. He likes to go out drinking almost every night, but now he's been missing for a while, since the day of the fight. She read about the fight in the paper and called me, asked me to come check it out."

"Well, your friend prolly ain't the one who's dead," the sheriff laughed, grinning sheepishly. "We already had that body claimed." He stopped speaking, looking out beyond the bar. "There was one guy, though... involved in the fightin', but wasn't nowhere to be found once we got here. Figger he must've jus' run off into the fields." Skinner eyed the cornfields expectantly. "Oh, he ain't out there, neither, buddy. We'd already looked 'em over."

The assistant director shuffled his feet in the dust, trying to decide what course of action to take. He closed his eyes momentarily, hoping a flash of insight would come, but to no avail. Skinner looked back up at the sheriff, wrinkles surrounding his narrowed eyes. "Do you have a card I can take, in case I need anything later?"

"Awe, no, I sure don't," Lockwood responded, flattered. "Not much need for us to carry 'em around here, y'know?"

"Well, I'll probably be able to find you if I end up needing to. Thanks."

Skinner started towards his rental car, but the sheriff shouted after him. "Sir!" The bald man stopped just a few feet from his car door and turned back to the man. "Sir, be more careful pokin' around crime scenes, y'hear? Folks 'round here like to carry guns, and they sure know how to use 'em!"

"Thanks again," Skinner muttered, flinging open his car door. He turned back to the rental and hopped into the seat, hoping that something would soon point him towards his missing agent.


WEMBLEY AIR FORCE BASE
12:19 P.M.

Jeffrey let his eyes scan the dark room, having adjusted to the lack of light almost a year before. Almost immediately he noticed that the newest patient wasn't lying atop her bed, even though all of the others were. He lifted his head off of the bed and looked behind him, trying to make sure that she hadn't just been moved. His search attempts fruitless, Jeffrey let his head fall back onto the uninviting pillow. She was most likely being tested on again, as the patients were only removed from the room for their tests. Still, he wondered why no one else was suffering through the tests as well.

A faint moan came from the bed closest to him. The sound had become so common he had almost ceased all reaction to it. The nights were long and restless for all of them now, as more and more often their sleep was invaded by nightmares and vivid recollections of their tests. "Sssh," he whispered, trying halfheartedly to calm the woman down. "It's alright, Mom. It's just a dream."

Cassandra Spender's low moans continued, and her son gave up his futile attempts at reassurement. In his mind he could see the way she had looked as they had both shuffled down the bright hallways to their test that morning. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to push the depressing picture out of his mind, hoping to make the haggard, pained face of his mother disappear.

A loud click echoed throughout the room as the door handle was turned, and Jeffrey immediately turned his attention towards the noise. The large metal door swung open, and he watched a backlit woman stagger into the room, two soldiers trying to hold her up. Carefully they moved her to her bed and lifted her up onto it, strapping her arms and legs down almost as soon as she had touched the sheets.

Cassandra slowly awoke as the sounds around her broke into her sleep, and she looked up groggily at the action taking place in the room. She tried to mumble something cognizant, but her mind was still half-asleep. The soldiers offered her only a sideways glance and briskly exited the room.

The metal door slammed shut behind them, and Jeffrey immediately talked to the recently returned patient. "Hello? Lady? Are you alright?"

"I'm fine," she replied, moving her arms and legs against the restraints.

Jeffrey furrowed his brow in thought. Her voice was strong and not at all like the beaten-down patients who endured the tests. "Did they perform the tests on you?" he asked, just above a whisper.

"Yes, over and over," she softly told him. "It makes my head hurt, and everything is so fuzzy."

He stared up at the ceiling, trying to make sense of what she was telling him. "It makes your head hurt? What about your skin? Doesn't it itch after they let the oil crawl through you?"

The woman was silent for a moment, somewhat confused by his question. "I... I'm not exactly sure what you are talking about."

"Don't they pour the oil on you and let it enter your body? That's what they do to all of us. We're just lab rats, used to test their vaccines and the effects they have on us."

The woman shook her head, rustling against the uncomfortable pillowcase. "No, that's not what they do to me at all. That sounds awful." She sounded genuinely compassionate towards the other patients, and Jeffrey began to wonder who she was.

"What do they do to you?" he asked.

"I'm not sure," she replied slowly. "They put a large-bore needle into my head, but I can't feel it at all. I don't know what they are doing, but after it is over, my head aches and my memory isn't very clear."

"Do you remember how you got here?" he quizzed her, become increasingly intrigued by this newest and most assuredly different patient.

She thought for a moment, trying her hardest to find one fuzzy memory to latch onto. "No," she finally breathed. "No, I can't."

Jeffrey raised his eyebrows, surprised by the revelation. "Well, what can you remember? Do you know who you are?"

The woman gazed straight ahead, into the open air above her. It seemed to be such a simple question, one that would be almost instinctive to answer, but for some inexplicable reason, she had absolutely no idea. "I... I can't say," she stammered, shocked at her own inability to remember such an easy fact. "I don't even know who I am."

Jeffrey bit his lip as he mulled over the interesting facts regarding the woman. He closed his eyes and thought carefully, hoping to piece together the puzzle of the newest patient.


MANASSAS, VIRGINIA
4:34 P.M.

Canzon carefully set the two Styrofoam coffee cups on the round table and stuck a hand into his coat pocket. Pruitt mumbled his thanks as he continued to peruse documents, and Samuel slid an envelope on top of the page his colleague was reading.

Ryan titled his head inquisitively, eyeing the envelope. "What's this?" he asked.

Detective Canzon took his seat and nodded towards the small white packet. "That's a very interesting letter from a Mr. Alexander Lazreg, Tunisian diplomat, sent to our diplomat friend, Malik Ubadah."

Pruitt parted the already-torn seal and slipped a folded sheet out of the envelope. "What's it say?" he asked, even though he still unfolded it and began to scan its contents.

"Mr. Lazreg thanks Ubadah for a payment and talks about something going down on December 21st."

"The same night as the murder."

"Bingo." Canzon took a sip of his coffee and leaned back into his chair. "He never explicitly says what he is going to do, but it's just too much of a coincidence."

"You find anything else in the apartment?"

"Oh yeah." Canzon flashed a huge grin. "Jack Welsh left numerous messages at this guy's house, totally freaked out after his ex-wife was murdered."

"Then what are you so happy about?" Pruitt grumbled. "These diplomats are completely immune from us, man, and Welsh's defense team will just use those phone messages to beat a murder rap."

Samuel shook his head slightly, still grinning. "No, no. Here's what I'm thinking." He leaned in close to the table, as if to reveal an earth-shattering secret. "Welsh hires Ubadah to kidnap his son. Ubadah in turn hires this Lazreg guy, pockets a tidy profit. Something goes wrong during the kidnapping, and Alicia Browning is shot and killed."

"Felony murder," Pruitt breathed.

"Exactly. Murder in the act of a kidnapping-for-hire. It doesn't matter whether or not Welsh intended for it to happen, we can still lay the felony murder charge on him."

"That's absolutely excellent thinking, Sam." Pruitt looked down at the documents he had been reading minutes before. "It plays perfectly with these records I've been looking at. Welsh had his custodial rights terminated during the divorce proceedings, after he failed to show up in court."

"Judge figured if he can't show up for a court date, he's gotta be an unfit father."

"Right." Pruitt rifled though the sheets of paper, soon latching onto the one he sought. "Then, less then a year later, Alicia Browning goes to court again, this time to change her son's name from Matthew Welsh to Clayton Browning."

Canzon folded his hands and closed his eyes, musing. Pruitt watched him silently for a moment before averting his gaze and awkwardly shuffling his papers. "She wasn't trying to hide him," Samuel finally said, startling his fellow detective. "If she did, her name would've changed too, and the kids last name wouldn't have been changed to Browning."

"So then what was she doing?"

"Erasing an unpleasant reminder of the past? Keeping her kid in the dark about his father? I don't know Ryan, I'm just throwing out ideas."

Both men fell into an uncomfortable silence, staring at the tabletop as they lost themselves in careful deduction. Suddenly Canzon looked back up at his partner. "What about the phone company in NYC?"

"No luck," Ryan sighed. "That looks like a dead end."

Detective Canzon chugged the rest of his coffee and rose from his seat, crumpling the cup in his hand. "Alright, then. I'm going to head over the DA, see if we've got enough for the felony murder yet. Hopefully we can have a warrant out for this guy before Christmas."

"And me?"

"Head over to the Tunisian embassy and see if we can set up an interview with Lazreg or Ubadah. We'll never be able to stick any charges on them, but maybe they'll flip Welsh for us."

"O.K. then, Sam. I'm heading out right after you." Pruitt shoved his papers into a haphazard pile and clutched it to his chest, struggling out the door with his important load.


HOSPITALITY INN
TADY, KANSAS
5:46 P.M.

"Communications Center, this is Holly."

"Hello Holly, this is Assistant Directory Skinner." The bald man sat atop a hotel bed, holding his small cellular phone to his ear.

"Good evening, sir!" Holly's voice was bright but quickly softened. "I heard about your hearing, sir. I'm very sorry."

"It's alright," he lied. "It's only temporary."

"Well, sir, I'm glad to hear it hasn't got you down, but that move still only hurts the FBI. You do a wonderful job."

Skinner smiled despite his exhaustion and frustration. "Thank you," he finally remembered to say.

"What did you need?" she asked him, hoping she didn't sound rude or impatient.

"Oh," Skinner mumbled, remembering why he had called. "I need you to check on some credit cards for me, see where the card was charged at, and what for."

"Absolutely. Just give me a window and the card numbers, and I can get that for you."

"I don't know the card numbers," he admitted. "But I want you to check Mulder's company card and his personal ones. If you call the credit card companies and tell them you're with the Bureau, they should release his numbers to you."

"O.K., sir. What time period are we looking for here?"

Skinner glanced at the hotel notepad he had scribbled on before making the call. "Run the sweep from December 15th through today. I can't have you fax it out here to the field office, since I'm on suspension, so just give me a call back at this number."

"Absolutely, sir," Holly agreed.

"And Holly," he quickly added, "If this gets you into any trouble, lay it all on me."

"Sir," she began to protest.

"Just do it," he said. "I already might lose my job, so why not take the fall for a good agent?"

"Thank you," she mumbled, blushing. "Oh, and sir, if I can't reach the credit card companies tonight, I probably can't finish this for you until after the holiday."

"That's alright," Skinner said, nodding. "I understand completely. Thank you very much, Holly."

"It's no problem, sir."

The pair exchanged polite goodbyes and Skinner set down the phone lightly on the bedside nightstand. He grabbed the right bow of his glasses and pulled them off, rubbing his temples. The stress was absolutely overwhelming, and every fiber of his being ached for rest, but he had to press on. Christmas Day might provide him a slight reprieve, but he had to continue the search. The new year loomed just days away, and the next OPR hearing along with it. He needed to find Mulder, to find the answers that would show the panel that he was right. Skinner closed his eyes and sighed, his eyes fluttering shut against his will. In minutes he was asleep, completely oblivious to his search and his problems, a peaceful expression on his haggard face.


MANASSAS, VIRGINIA
DECEMBER 26TH, 2000
9:12 A.M.

Samuel had his cell phone to his ear almost as soon as he heard the first ring. "Canzon," he curtly announced to his caller.

"It's Frankie," his friend told him.

"Hey man, have you got any info for me?" Excitement had filled Canzon as soon as he heard the voice of his source.

"Yeah, I've got some stuff for ya."

"Outstanding," the detective said. "We're looking to nail this guy for felony murder now."

"That'll be hard," Frankie told him monotonously. "This guy is ex-CIA, Sam. The whole Jack Welsh persona was created when he got out."

"Well shit," Canzon whispered. "That explains a lot."

"Like what?"

"This guy, he has connections with Tunisian diplomats, and when I went to the DA a couple of days ago, they wouldn't give me a warrant to arrest this guy for felony murder."

"Diplomats? You want me to look into them too?"

Canzon raised his eyebrows; Frankie rarely offered favors, only doing them when asked. "Sure," he replied, jumping on the rare opportunity. "They're Alexander Lazreg and Malik Ubadah. If you can, see if you can find out anything about a payment Ubadah made to Lazreg. We think it was for a kidnapping, and that could maybe get us the warrant regardless of his CIA ties."

"Yeah, maybe," Frankie grunted. "I'll get on this, Sam, but be careful. The CIA likes to protect its own, even after they're out."

"Sure thing, man. I'll talk to you later." Canzon hung up the phone, thinking about his friend's warning. He knew that Frankie was right, but he couldn't just drop the case out of intimidation. This was a big one, the huge case he needed to really propel his career. He stood up from his desk quickly, walking briskly to the coat rack on his way towards the door. Canzon knew he had to tread carefully around Welsh now as well, and that the diplomats were off-limits, but he also knew that there was a chance that their acquaintances had loose lips. He flicked off the light switch and pulled the door shut behind him, letting it slam as he made a quick exit from the building.


TADY, KANSAS
2:13 P.M.

The cell phone sent a ring reverberating through the small hotel room, bringing Walter Skinner out of another deep, much-needed sleep. He rolled over with a groan and grabbed the small device, answering it groggily. "Hello," he mumbled.

"Good morning, sir," Holly greeted him, feeling guilty for waking the Assistant Director.

"Oh, good morning, Holly," he replied, his mind slowly fighting through the constrictive cobwebs of his dreamworld. "Did you get that information for me?"

"Yes, sir," she told him, her voice unconfident.

"But what?" he asked, realizing she was hiding something.

"But Agent Mulder only had one thing charged to his credit card during the window you gave me."

"What was it?" Skinner demanded, not worrying about the impatience creeping into his voice.

"It was a medical bill from a hospital in Austin, Texas. Evidently Agent Mulder didn't go through the insurance company for it."

Skinner grabbed his glasses from the nightstand and slipped them on, thinking carefully. He had no idea why Mulder wouldn't have used his insurance to cover a medical cost, and was even more perplexed as to why his agent would have visited a hospital in Texas while on a case. "Any idea what the bill was for?" he finally queried.

"Well, I figured you'd want to know, sir." Holly sounded extremely proud of her foresight. "I called the hospital and asked around enough to finally find out that he was in for an X-ray on his upper body."

"Upper body," Skinner mumbled, mulling over the problem.

"That's really all I could find," Holly apologized, cutting into the bald man's musings.

"That's fine, Holly. Thank you," Skinner replied, still distracted by his thoughts. He hung up the phone without a goodbye and set it down mindlessly, focusing on the bedspread as he contemplated the news.

The new information presented quite a perplexing puzzle. Skinner could not fathom why Mulder would be having an X-ray taken, unless he was injured in the line of duty. Even then, he would have used the FBI insurance and reported his injury, to recoup any medical losses and get pay for any leave he had to take. It seemed like his agent was hiding something, but he had not even an inkling as to what it was. Perhaps whatever Mulder was hiding, it would explain why he had disappeared so suddenly. Skinner sighed heavily, confounded by the numerous questions bouncing in his head. He stared at the sheets crumpled in front of him, lost in thought as he contemplated his next step in the confounding search.


WEMBLEY AIR FORCE BASE
7:12 P.M.

The door was flung open and the patients squeezed their eyes shut against the bright intrusion. The cries of a young boy filled the room and Jeffrey opened his eyes slightly, squinting into the light.

Two soldiers gripped the arms of the young boy, who was flailing his legs about wildly above the ground. The men carried the boy to a bed and struggled to force him down onto it. One soldier finally laid across him as his colleague rapidly strapped down the boy's arms and legs. The soldiers left even quicker than they had come, leaving the boy wailing in the darkness.

"Hey," Jeffrey whispered to him. The boy continued sobbing, either unable to hear the soft voice, or too concerned with his own emotions to care. "Hey!" Jeffrey shouted at the boy. The crying stopped immediately and patients who had been asleep stirred in their beds. "What's your name?" Spender asked him.

The boy sniffled and paused before answering. "Clayton," he finally revealed.

"Clayton, you don't need to be afraid. All of us in this room are very nice."

"I just want to go home," he bemoaned. "But my mommy's dead now."

"What about your dad?" Jeffrey wondered.

"I... I don't have one anymore," Clayton whispered, ashamed.

"Well, that's alright, buddy. You just get some sleep and we'll figure out how to get you out of here, O.K.?"

Clayton nodded his head in the darkness, his hair rustling against the starched sheets. He sniffed again, unable to wipe his running nose with his restrained hands. Spender closed his eyes in the darkness, seething. Something new was definitely starting, with the arrival of the amnesiac and a young boy. He had no idea what the Syndicate was planning, but he was sure he needed to help the boy escape somehow. They had done many evil things in the past, but kidnapping a child to use in the tests was by far the worst. Jeffrey gritted his teeth and tried to force himself to sleep, still outraged by the Syndicate's atrocious actions.


NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK
11:09 P.M.

Alex Krycek stared blankly at his hotel television, completely ignoring the late local news. His thoughts focused on the dangerous game of alliances and backstabbing that he had become so deeply entrenched in. He knew there was always the danger that the people he was trying to hoodwink were in fact quite aware of his schemes, but he remained confident.

Obsidian seemed like an extremely reliable ally. He was unsure of his place in the Conglomerate, looking for direction in the vast plans against colonization. His son's disappearance served only to make Obsidian more desperate, more eager to find guidance. Alex had known this and immediately used it to his complete advantage.

His cell phone vibrated on the nightstand, rattling against the wood. Krycek rolled over on the mattress and grabbed the shaking phone.

"Hello," he sourly greeted the caller.

"Alex?" The First Elder's rich baritone sounded unsure.

"Yes, it's me. What's wrong?"

"Nothing," the First Elder reassured him. "I'm only calling to make sure everything is still running smoothly."

"Absolutely," Krycek said, a sly grin breaking out upon his face.

"Spender is still in the dark?"

"He's completely clueless. He doesn't suspect me or the group, and I think he still believes that Scully is dead."

"Excellent." The First Elder paused, and Krycek could picture his contented expression. "Lazreg delivered the boy this evening."

Alex nodded at the news, pleased. "Welsh came to Spender right away, just as we anticipated. He thought the old bastard was behind the disappearance."

The fat man laughed, a hearty, low chuckle, relishing his own ingenuity. His merriment subsided quickly, however, as he remembered the sole problem that they had yet to tackle. "What about Mulder?" he queried, his voice grave.

"Still no news," Krycek replied, disappointed. "I'm working on it, though."

The First Elder pursed his lips, not satisfied by Alex's attempts to make the problem seem less threatening. "Well," he finally began, "Work quickly. The doctor in California believed that Mulder had undergone a fugue."

"A fugue?"

"Yes, a fugue, a psychological breakdown that causes amnesia. Mulder is a clean slate now, working on starting a new life. We can bring him to our side if we find him first."

Krycek paused, his mind churning as he internalized the new bit of information. "Alright, then. I'll get right on it."

The pair exchanged goodbyes and the double agent set down the phone slowly, staring through the television yet again. His brain raced over hundreds of possibilities, hoping to settle quickly on the safest and most beneficial scheme. Krycek leaned back against the headboard, working silently on devising a new master plan.


NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK
DECEMBER 27TH, 2000
11:31 A.M.

Obsidian cracked open his hotel door, looking out at his unexpected visitor.

"Good morning," Krycek greeted him dryly. "I've got some big news for you, my friend."

Welsh opened the door wider to let Alex enter. "What's up?" he asked.

Krycek walked into the apartment and waited for the door to close before explaining himself. "O.K., Jack. It's time for you to know what's going on here."

Obsidian raised his eyebrows in interest and waved towards the hotel beds with his arm. The double agent took the invitation and sat on the edge of the nearest mattress. Welsh looked at him expectantly, and Krycek began to enlighten him.

"Spender is completely out of the loop here, Jack. Remember when I offered you this partnership I told you we were going to stick it to him." Alex delivered the reminder as a statement rather than a question, but Obsidian nodded regardless. "He's been cut off from all of the planning. He's out of the group, and I'm completely leading him on. It's you and I, Jack, who control this show now."

"Us?" Obsidian was extremely surprised by the news.

"Yes, us," Krycek told him. "We can control Mulder and Scully, control the X-Files." Welsh's facial expression spelled out his confusion. "Scully isn't dead, Jack. The body in the morgue was one of our hybrids, made using her DNA to look just like her. She's actually in a lab in California, undergoing memory experiments."

"Memory experiments? That's new for the group." Obsidian's voice carried both disdain and sarcasm.

"Extremely," Krycek agreed. "Testing the effects of creating memories for the population that survives colonization. But, you see, that's where we can screw over the group as well. If we take Scully, we can create memories for her, make her trust us. And with what I just learned, we can do the same with Mulder."

"They have Mulder too?"

"No," Alex said slowly. "But he underwent a fugue, which created an amnesiac state. He's just as pliable as Scully is, once we find him. Now you see? The X-Files can be ours, and we can completely control the plans from here on out."

Obsidian nodded, finally seeing the big picture. His eyes were still pained though, as he fought his emotions to ask the toughest question. "What about my son?" he finally managed.

"I think the group may have him as well," Krycek told him, hiding his culpability in the scheme. "I think they want to use him as leverage to ensure your loyalty to them rather than Spender. Of course, on the other hand, he could be the one using your son for leverage."

"So I assume you want me to go kidnap Scully from this lab, and hopefully I'll find my son there as well?"

"Most likely," Krycek started, "But this lab is on a military base."

Obsidian nodded again, aware of the added danger. "Well, I might as well go for it. This is closest I've come to finding Matthew."

"I'm sure you will, Jack. I've been giving this a lot of thought, and I think that's where he has to be."

"O.K. then, Alex. I'll have to trust you." Obsidian sat down hard on the other bed and stared into the floor, mentally preparing himself for the odyssey.


MANASSAS, VIRGINIA
DECEMBER 29TH, 2000
9:08 A.M.

Pruitt stopped chewing his donut and watched his partner quietly as he answered the phone.

"Detective Canzon," he announced. Samuel nodded as he listened to the caller, his face showing the frustration mounting as he continued to nod despite his obvious displeasure. Ryan raised his eyebrows quizzically, hoping for some sort of gesture from his partner that would erase his befuddlement.

"Yes, sir," Canzon said. "Thank you. We'll be waiting to hear back from you." He hung up the phone, disgust chiseled on his features.

"What is it?" Pruitt wondered.

"We're off the case," he muttered.

"What? How... Why'd they do that?" Pruitt was completely taken aback, almost as angry as his partner.

"The chief doesn't know, only that the order came from somewhere in the governor's office. He said he'd look into it when he gets back from vacation."

"Well shit," Ryan breathed. "We're in here working our asses off on a big case while he's sitting in the goddamned Bahamas, and we're the ones who get the shiv."

Canzon had already risen from his desk and headed towards the door. "Where are you going?" Pruitt asked him.

"I don't care if I'm on the case or not," he growled. "This is one big motherfucker, and I'm not going to let it die. I'm going to head to New York and see exactly what is going on up there."

"Sam," Ryan started in protest, but his partner cut him off.

"Don't worry about it, Pruitt. This won't reflect on you at all. If you want to drop it like they say, go ahead, but if not, keep pressing those friends I interviewed the other day. Either way, I'll be in touch once I get there."

Pruitt slumped back in his seat, knowing there was nothing he could do. When Canzon made a choice nothing could stop him, not the chief, not the governor, and certainly not his younger partner. He shook his head sadly, hoping that Samuel was making the right move.


CRYSTAL CITY, VIRGINIA
DECEMBER 30TH, 2000
10:05 P.M.

Skinner sat alone in his darkened apartment again, staring out his pristine glass windows and over the balcony towards the other condominiums across the street from his building. His telephone rang and he rose slowly to answer it, not sure if he was in the mood to talk.

"Hello," he mumbled.

"Mr. Skinner?" a woman queried, her voice extremely unconfident.

"Speaking."

"Mr. Skinner, this is Angela again. I have more information for you, information that is very important to your search."

The assistant director's interest was piqued but he was too tired to visibly show it. "What is it?" he asked.

"Agent Mulder has been spotted, just east of the Ohio-Illinois border."

"How long ago?" Skinner wondered, unaware his question came off demanding.

"Earlier today," Angela shared. "I'm not sure where he is at now, but he has been travelling by foot and bus evidently. He'll have to run out of money soon."

Skinner nodded as he finally made a connection. Mulder must have stolen money in the bar brawl or at some other point, or he would have been unable to ride buses or buy clothing. If he'd stolen a wallet, he'd have been using a different credit card than the one he'd had Holly search.

"How has the search been going?" Angela questioned him.

"Not well," Skinner sadly admitted. "I spent over a day driving to Austin and the lead there turned up completely dry."

"What lead were you following?"

"A credit card charge for a medical bill, for an X-ray performed there. Nobody really knew anything, though."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Angela said, her genuine compassion coming through clearly on the line. "But now you can go look for him in Ohio, which is a much smaller state than Texas." She laughed softly, but Skinner kept a straight face, disgusted with what he had to tell her.

"I can't go," he finally muttered.

"What? Why not?"

"I have an OPR hearing in a little over 48 hours, and I have to prepare for it. My career is riding on this, and if I have to explain that I'm late because I was searching for Agent Mulder, they'll can me for sure."

"Hmmmm." Angela's utterance made it clear she had heard of Skinner's troubles at the Bureau. "I'll try to keep tabs on his movements for you, then, see if he's seen anywhere else in the next few days. I'm thinking he's about at the end of the line now, but I'll let you know if that changes."

"Alright then," Skinner agreed. "Thank you very much, Angela. I'm sure you'll be in touch again soon."

"Of course," she cooed, hanging up just after the last word left her mouth. Skinner stood stock-still, holding the phone in his hand and staring out the window again, out into the night. He set the phone down carelessly, his mind elsewhere as he fought an internal dilemma between the two options. The assistant director closed his eyes in frustration, knowing he had to make the less appealing choice, because he was of no use to Mulder without his job at the FBI.


WEMBLEY AIR FORCE BASE
DECEMBER 31ST, 2000
1:18 A.M.

Obsidian slowed his car to a stop in front of the guard station, trying not to look directly at the MP who manned it.

"How may I help you, sir?" the man asked Welsh.

"My name is Galid Cosmas. I work for Mr. Strughold," he lied in a convincing Arabic accent.

"Alright sir, let me check your clearance level and get you a pass." The MP ducked back into his booth, looking in a binder. He was extremely focused on the pages he skimmed through and was completely oblivious to the slight movement as Obsidian picked a silenced pistol up off of his lap. Welsh pointed it towards the MP, but kept it hidden in the shadows of the car.

The soldier can back out of the booth, his forehead wrinkled. "Mr. Cosmas," he began, butchering the name, "You aren't in my clearance book here. Let me make a call and see what levels you can get into."

"That is my fault," Obsidian apologized in his Arabic voice. "Mr. Strughold sent me on not many notice. I can hold for you."

The MP went back into his booth and Obsidian the gun just above the bottom edge of the car window, pointing it through the glass window of the booth at the soldier's head. As the young man lifted the phone out of the cradle, Obsidian fired a single shot, shattering the glass and felling the man instantly.

Welsh threw the car into reverse and sped back down the road, whipping it into a darkened ditch about one hundred yards away from the base entrance. He took off his jacket and shoes and threw them in the backseat before exiting the car quietly, keys still in the ignition, and sprinted silently in his socks back towards the guard station. He knew no one had heard the gunshot from his weapon, but was still concerned about the sound of the breaking glass. Regardless, the risk was a minimal one for him to take if his son was being held inside.

Obsidian reached the booth and crouched down to avoid being seen in the light coming from the solitary room. He took quick, squatting sidesteps into the booth and took the dead man's uniform off, careful to stay down below the windows. He took off his own pants and shirt and stuffed them into the trash can and pulled on the uniform. Welsh started to grab the man's hat, but quickly realized that it was too bloodsoaked to use.

He looked around the booth for a pair of scissors to cut his hair with, but saw none. Almost instantaneously an idea came to him and he pulled his pants back out of the trash, removed a pocketknife from a pocket, and stuffed the pants back in the can. Obsidian grabbed a handful of his hair and worked the knife through it, trying to make a fairly level cut, so as not to seem out of the ordinary. After only three minutes of fighting with the long curls, Obsidian had severed inches off of his mane and added the locks of hair to the trash's contents.

Welsh stood up in the booth, hoping that he would not run into any Syndicate members in the base. His haircut would most likely help him pass by any other soldiers unnoticed, but one of his former co-conspirators would be sure to recognize him. If he could avoid them, he would probably be able to move about the base at his will.

Obsidian knew this base well. He wasn't sure if Krycek was aware of that when he had been sent on the mission, but as soon as he realized Wembley was his destination, he knew the job would be much easier. Before he had defected, he had overseen the scientific development in their labs, so if things had not changed, he knew right where to find Scully.

Welsh walked casually towards the laboratory wing of the complex, heading for the entrance closest to where he was anticipating she'd be. It took him less than a minute to reach the right door and he opened it nonchalantly, stepping into the cool, air-conditioned hallway. Obsidian passed another soldier who was exiting the building and nodded curtly to him, and the other man returned the gesture. The imposter was sure to wait until the real soldier had left the hallway to let out a sigh of relief.

Obsidian continued to walk on, rounding a corner and smiling slightly as he neared his destination. Seconds later he came to the right door and tried the knob, his grin widening when he saw it was unlocked. Welsh shot a glance over each shoulder to make sure he was alone and then slid into the pitch-black room, easing the door shut behind him.

"Who's there?" a small voice asked. Obsidian's breath caught in his throat and emotion overwhelmed him as he recognized the speaker as his son. "Who's there?" the boy asked again.

"I'm here to help you," Obsidian whispered. "You and a woman named Scully."

"Who are you?" an adult male asked him.

"I'm his father," Obsidian managed, his throat constricting with emotion. Tears welled up in his eyes as he struggled to use his son's new name. "I'm Clayton's father."

"You're here to take him back?"

"Yes, and Agent Scully, too." The tears and overwhelming feelings were evident in Obsidian's shaky voice.

"There's nobody here by tha..." the speaker started, trailing off as he realized who the man was referring to. "We've got a new patient, though, we all named her Annie, because she didn't know her name."

"That's her," Welsh exclaimed, cringing as he realized how loudly he had spoken. "They've been doing memory tests on her, erasing her past."

"Well, we'll help you get both of them out, if you'll just help to get us out of these beds."

"Absolutely," Obsidian agreed, moving towards the voice. He knew from his time at the base that all of the patients would have arm and leg restraints. Welsh grunted in pain as his knee smacked into a bed.

"That's mine," the unknown man told him. The conspirator reached down and felt for the restraints, unbuckling the man.

"You'll help me unhook the others, too?" Obsidian said, more of an order than a question.

"Of course," the man said, his emancipator unaware that he was Jeffrey Spender.

The pair worked quickly, moving from bed to bed until all twenty-seven patients had been freed from their restrictive beds. Some were in such awful conditions that they were unable to speak and barely able to walk.

"Look," Jeffrey murmured to Obsidian, "I want to help you get your son out. I think it's absolutely sick that they kidnapped him and used him for tests. Just let us know how we can get you three out of here safely."

Welsh turned and looked into the darkness, now able to faintly see figures after his short stint in the complete black. "Clayton, Annie, you two are going to come with me. My car is just out in front of the base, and while we head out there, these other patients will run around throughout the complex, creating a diversion for us, O.K.?"

Those who could speak all mumbled their agreement and Obsidian led the way towards the door. "I'll head out first, to make sure it's all clear, since I've got a uniform on. When I wave you all out, Annie and Clayton come with me, and the rest of you head the other way."

The conspirator went to the door and opened it slowly, walking into the hallway confidently, attempting to keep a knowledgeable air about him. There was no one in the hallway, and he waved his arm in a circular motion, signaling the patients.

Scully and Clayton walked out to him first, squinting against the bright light. He herded them towards the corner, and the exit beyond it, down the adjacent hallway, and the rest of the patients filed out behind him. "O.K. guys, run the other way now." He smiled in thanks, wet streaks of emotion still scrawled upon his cheeks. "I hope some of you can make it to freedom."

Pounding footsteps hit the shiny linoleum tiles and Obsidian led his two patients around the corner and to the exit. He paused in front of the doors, turning to address his freedmen. "Once we get out here, we have to run. Clayton, I'll try to carry you, O.K.?"

The little boy nodded and Scully whispered something that Welsh could only assume was a confirmation of understanding. He shoved the door open and swept his son up in his arms, breaking into a run towards the base's main entrance. Scully kept up close behind, their breathing labored as they rushed towards freedom.

All was still silent as they ran towards the guard tower where Obsidian had left the dead soldier. Suddenly, a siren pierced the night air and men could be heard shouting. The pair pumped their legs harder, Clayton beginning to feel like a lead weight in Welsh's arms. They heard the commotion behind them as soldiers raced for their weapons and they pushed themselves even further, knowing the glorious prize that awaited them just a few hundred yards away.

They passed the guard tower, the boy's eyes growing large as he caught a quick glimpse of the bloody corpse lying inside. Scully spotted the form of the car in the ditch and sprinted towards it, Obsidian starting to fall behind her with the extra weight slowing him down.

The redhead reached the passenger door and flung it open, hurrying inside. She stretched into the backseat and popped open one of the back doors. Obsidian finally reached the car and shoved his son into the backseat, slamming the door shut. He whipped open his own door and jumped into the seat, twisting the key in the ignition frantically. The car sprung to life and he threw it into reverse, bullets spraying the hood of the car as it sped back out of the ditch.

Obsidian reached down and jammed the automatic transmission into drive, spinning his tires in the dust momentarily before making the turnaround and speeding away, a bullet shattering the rear passenger window just inches from Clatyon's frightened face.

Welsh pushed the gas pedal down harder, racing away from the commotion, out of the range of the bullets, leaving the soldiers at Wembley Air Force Base alone to rush into Jeeps for a useless chase. The trio all breathed heavily, their adrenaline rushing as they left behind a horrible chapter in their lives.


NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK
JANUARY 1ST, 2001
2:17 P.M.

The Cigarette-Smoking Man snatched the ringing phone from its cradle. "Hello," he mumbled, his lips holding a cigarette in the corner of his mouth.

"I've heard that you are searching for Agent Mulder," a male said menacingly.

"He is here, in Haskell, Ohio."

"Who the hell is this?" he asked again, his voice rising.

"Happy New Year," the man told him, his words calm and measured.

The mysterious caller hung up quickly, leaving the Smoking Man alone with his thoughts and a dial tone. Spender carefully put the phone back in its cradle and took a slow, methodical drag on his cigarette, his face completely emotionless.


OFFICE OF PROFESSIONAL REVIEW
JANUARY 2ND, 2001
9:14 A.M.

"Mr. Skinner, we have learned that you have been traveling cross-country since our last meeting, for the purpose of which we can only assume is to find Agent Mulder," Frank Warner announced.

"Yes, that's correct," the assistant director replied coldly.

"It isn't your place to do that," Warner chided him. "We have a task force established to find Agent Mulder, and that alone is enough manpower and workhours devoted to that cause."

"I was on suspension," Skinner reminded him. "My investigation was done on my own time, with my own funds. It doesn't hurt the Bureau at all."

"That may be true, Mr. Skinner, but it doesn't reflect well on the FBI. What are people supposed to think about an organization whose leaders spend their vacations chasing unicorns?"

"My search for Agent Mulder is completely reasonable," he growled. "The only reason you find it so preposterous is because you want him to stay missing."

Warner looked like he had been slapped. "That's quite a weighty accusation, Mr. Skinner."

The assistant director glared at his inquisitor. "What am I supposed to think? You tell me to stay away from the case so that your task force of pretty boys and rookies can go out there and do exactly what you want. You were afraid of Mulder because he couldn't be reined in, and now you're afraid that I am going to become him."

"That's not the case," Alvin Kersh said calmly. "We aren't afraid of that, we were just concerned that your duties as an assistant director were being compromised." Skinner turned his attention to the new speaker, trying to let his anger subside. "You are being reinstated, Mr. Skinner, but you have a very short leash- no more looking for Agent Mulder, no looking into X-Files. You are to do only what your job calls for, and nothing more. The task force is doing a fine job in their efforts, and will continue to do so."

"A fine job?" Skinner scoffed. "They have their thumbs up their asses. I'm the right man for that job, and you know it."

"No, you're not, Walter, and if you continue to pursue this, you won't have your job, end of story."

"Fine," he muttered, standing to leave. "Are we through here?"

"Yes," Warner replied. "We'll deliver your gun and your badge to your office shortly."

Skinner turned quickly and stalked out of the room, his frustration and anger still boiling just below the surface.


FBI HEADQUARTERS
9:32 A.M.

Skinner paced around the meeting table in his office, lost in thought. He had felt like he was so close to finding Mulder, but the panel's decree was perfectly clear. He valued his job greatly, and they would probably know the minute he set foot in an airport. Briefly he envisioned driving to Ohio, but he quickly pushed the thought away; driving would take too much time, and Mulder could be states away by the time he arrived.

The telephone on his desk suddenly rang, and the assistant director darted over to it. He glanced at the display, noticing that the call was from a different area code. Skinner whisked the phone from its cradle and put it next to his ear. "Hello," he said cheerily.

"Hello, Walter," Alex Krycek whispered menacingly. "I've heard you are a busy boy."

"What do you want?" Skinner growled.

"Word is that you are trying to find Mulder so that you can look good in front of the OPR. That's not what's going to happen, though. If you do find him, you will bring him to me immediately. No one else will see him, and no one can know that you have found him."

"Alex, they'll have my badge if I keep looking for him. I'm of no use to you without my job."

"That's my call to make. Remember, I still run this show, Walter. It's all about what I think is best."

Skinner started to reply, but a dial tone rang through the line clearly. He jammed the phone down into its cradle, grimacing as a burst of pain flashed through him. The pain returned, this time in an unrelenting rush, and he crumpled to his knees, his veins standing out on his neck. Skinner slumped to the floor beside his desk, breathing heavily, thick blue lines popping out all over his skin. He took another raspy breath and tried to loosen his necktie, but unconsciousness swept over him and his head fell into the carpet.


HASKELL, OHIO
10:47 A.M.

The Smoking Man sat solemnly in his rental car, watching the full-service Shell station intently. He slowly produced a lighter from the center console, his narrowed eyes still locked on the rundown building. A Morley cigarette dangled precariously from his lips and he cupped his left hand around the end of it, lifted the lighter to it without any thought given to the familiar ritual. His hand stopped in midair, the cigarette hung further out of his mouth, and his breath caught in his throat for an instant as he spotted Fox Mulder walking out of the building, a huge grin on his face as he went to help a customer.

C.G.B. Spender pulled the cigarette from his mouth slowly, setting it on the dashboard along with the lighter. They slid down to the windshield, but he didn't even notice the slight noise, his wide, awed eyes watching Mulder engage in a friendly conversation with the customer. The Smoking Man popped open his door and left the car, briskly walking across the narrow two-lane road, bearing down upon the gas station. He approached Mulder, who nodded at him courteously. "I'll be right with you, sir."

Spender stood completely still and silent, observing Mulder as one would an old friend after years apart. Fox grabbed a squeegee and quickly washed the windshield of his customer's station wagon, taking extra care to prevent streaks. "You need any gas today?" he asked the female driver.

"No, sir, but thank ya," she replied with a southern twang. "I was just headin' north, and could hardly see the road through all that muck."

"Well alright then," he said cheerily. "You have a safe trip."

The woman nodded in appreciation before climbing back into her vehicle. Mulder watched her drive off, waving as she departed, the Smoking Man still watching the scene unfold in complete amazement.

Mulder turned back to him. "What can I do for you, sir?"

C.G.B. Spender searched for the right words, finally speaking, but not without hesitation. You... You don't remember me?"

Mulder put his left hand on his hip, still holding the squeegee in the other hand, and eyed the old man carefully. "Nope," he finally decided with a wide smile. "I don't think I've ever met you."

The Smoking Man shook his head, staring at the faded asphalt just in front of his shoes. "Then it's true," he mumbled to himself.

"What's true?" Mulder asked him, confused but still smiling.

"You don't know who you are, do you?" Spender said quickly. "If you trust your memories, then you didn't have a life before a few weeks ago. It's all blank, an uncertain past that lets you decide who you will be."

Mulder's smile had disappeared with the old man's initial question. His eyes tried to probe this visitor, to discover how he could know the truth that he hadn't revealed to anyone. "Who are you?" he managed to whisper.

"A man from that past you can't recall, a man who can return it all to you."

"How?" Mulder wondered, blinking back tears.

"In time you will see, but you must come with me." The Smoking Man offered his hand, trying his best to look compassionate.

Mulder looked around himself at the gas station and the barren Ohio landscape around him, finally gazing forlornly at the squeegee in his hand. "This is my life now," he said, barely audible.

"But here you have no family, no heritage, no past," Spender pointed out. "I can give that all back to you, for a price."

"A price?"

"Yes. This too you will see in time, but it is imperative that you come with me now." He stuck his hand out a little further, a sense of urgency in his small action. "You have to trust me, Fox. I'm the only person that you can."

Mulder cringed at this foreign first name but stared at the old hand, overly aware of the promises and answers it held. His mind fell again on the thought of leaving his life behind, but remembered the man's words- no family, no past. His eyes ran up from the man's hand to his tired eyes. "Alright," Mulder said. "I'll go."

TO BE CONTINUED...