Author: aka "Jake"
Rating: PG-13 (Language, Violence)
Classification: X, MSR, Post Ep, Post Series, Fill-In-the-Blanks
Spoilers: Everything in Seasons 1 - 11 and both movies is fair game.
Summary: Thirty years after Eugene Victor Tooms was mangled to death inside a moving escalator, several murder victims are discovered with their livers missing, ripped from their bodies without the aid of cutting tools. There are no identifiable points of entry at any of the crime scenes. Could Tooms be back?
Special thanks to xdksfan for beta.
Disclaimer: These characters belong to Chris Carter, FOX, and 1013 Productions. No copyright infringement intended. Fun, yes. Profit, no.
Authors Notes: I must be out of my mind to be writing another fic after all this time but I wanted to explore the idea of Tooms returning after 30 years. How would that be possible? And what would Mulder’s and Scully’s lives be like five years after losing their son at the hands of CGB Spender and learning Scully was pregnant once again?
“I’ve always wondered how this was going to end.” -- Mulder in "Nothing Lasts Forever"
“What have you got, Mulder?”
Scully folded laundry on the kitchen table. Mulder’s t-shirts, her running shorts, Katie’s PJs, the purple ones with planets on them. Mulder had been teaching their daughter about the solar system. Thankfully, he’d left out any mention of alien life. So far.
Mulder mugged a look of surprise and produced a file folder from behind his back. A sense of unease settled over Scully as soon as she saw the familiar classification printed on the folder’s tab.
“Looks like an X-File,” she said, her guard up.
Mulder smiled. “So it does.”
“In case you’ve forgotten, I don’t work for the FBI anymore. I retired, as you’re well aware, in 2018, seven months before our daughter was born.”
When Scully told him he was going to be a father, back on that awful night when she’d lost William a second time and nearly lost Mulder, too, she’d felt torn but hopeful. Mulder simply looked confused. And why not, given their history. Happily ever after was never in the cards.
“You’re too young to retire, Scully.”
“I’m a 59-year-old woman with a 4-year-old child.”
“So? I’m older than you and I’m still working. And Katie will be five next month.”
She dismissed him with a frown. “I’m not interested in your X-File.”
“You’ll be interested in this one.”
“No, I won’t. I’m done with all that. I no longer chase aliens.”
“This isn’t about aliens.”
“Does it matter?”
“It’s a mutant.”
She returned to sorting clothes, plucking matching socks from the pile, glad that Katie was asleep in bed and not listening in on this all-too-familiar conversation.
“A liver-eating mutant,” he added.
It couldn’t be, could it? Eugene Victor Tooms?
“Mulder, that case was --”
“Thirty years ago.”
She turned to face him, laundry abandoned. “I don’t have to tell you, we saw Eugene Tooms chopped into a million pieces by an escalator.”
“I noticed that.”
“City Square thoroughly cleaned the area before the shopping mall reopened. They sent us their bill.”
“Maybe they missed a spot.”
“And what, Tooms grew a new body from a finger or a pinky toe?”
Mulder tapped the end of his nose.
“No.” She shook her head. “It’s impossible.”
“Can’t the human liver regenerate itself? Isn’t it possible that Tooms’s unusual diet or unique physiology might allow him to regenerate himself?”
“It takes at least 51 percent of the original liver to regenerate back to its full size. There wasn’t a piece of Tooms left that was more than half his total body mass. Besides which, we’re not talking about a single organ; we’re talking about a whole man.”
“We’ve seen that before, too.”
“If you’re referring to Leonard Betts, he grew a head, Mulder, not an entire body.”
“Didn’t he?” Mulder opened the file and placed several crime scene photos on the table. “Two unconnected murders. Points of entry undetermined. Windows and doors all locked from the inside. Both victims were found with their livers missing. Ripped from their bodies. No cutting tools were used. Sound familiar?”
“Did the killer take any trophies?”
“The reports mention a missing teacup -- the saucer was left behind -- and a family photo.”
“Maybe it’s a copycat.”
“Thirty years later?” Mulder pushed a photo of a mutilated torso toward Scully. “Tooms killed five people in 1903, again in ’33, and again in ’63 and ’93. Now we have two identical murders in 2023. It’s Tooms, Scully.”
She wasn’t convinced, but if it somehow was Tooms, did that mean she had to live her life like wheelchair-bound Detective Frank Briggs, hunting Tooms into her dotage? She remembered Briggs saying, “If Tooms gets away now then the next time he takes a life, you'll be nearly my age.”
“What about our daughter, Mulder? I have other responsibilities now. I can’t go off chasing mutants with you. Not anymore.”
“Let me do the chasing.” He collected the photos and notes and tucked them back into the folder. “I’m only asking you to go over the autopsy reports, look at the photos, and give me your medical opinion.”
Right. That’s how it always began. She could already feel herself being dragged back into the dark realm of monsters and demons against her will. Frank Briggs had lived with the Tooms case for nearly half his life. Now it was looking as if she and Mulder would do the same.
“Fine, I’ll take a look. But text me the files and take those photos back to the office and keep them there. I don’t want them in the house where Katie might find them.”
He nodded. Then bent for a kiss. “Thank you,” he said, before pressing his lips lightly to hers.
Scully poured milk onto Katie’s cereal and returned the carton to the refrigerator.
“Mommy, can we go to the park today?” Katie dug into her breakfast. The girl awoke each day with an exuberance that Scully envied.
“I like the swings.”
“I know you do.”
“Can I go on the climbing wall?”
“No, you’re not old enough.”
“But Daddy lets me climb.”
“Oh, really? He does?”
“Yep. He did on Saturday.”
“I’ll have to talk to him about that.”
“So, I can climb today?”
“No, not today.”
Katie nodded, clearly not disappointed. It was as if she expected there would be different rules depending on which parent she was with. Scully made a mental note to bring up the subject with Mulder the next time an opportunity presented itself.
She palmed Katie’s head, delighting in the feel of her soft, dark hair. Katie wore French braids today and her favorite hair clips: two bright plastic ladybugs.
“Will there be other kids at the park?” the girl asked, her mouth full.
“Probably. Don’t talk and eat at the same time.”
Katie chewed and swallowed. “Can I play with them?” She opened her mouth to show Scully it was empty.
Scully couldn’t help but smile. “If it’s okay with their mom or dad.”
“It will be,” Katie said with the assurance of a preschooler, before scooping another spoonful of colorful corn puffs into her mouth.
Scully leaned against the counter, sipping her coffee and watching her daughter eat. Katie looked so much like Mulder it sometimes took her breath away. She had his coloring, the shape of his eyes, his slanting grin. She shared his zest for exploring. She was daring like him. She constantly questioned the truth of things.
Yet, their daughter wasn’t entirely unlike herself either. Katie had inherited her compact frame and love of science. The girl studied her options before coming to conclusions. And she adored her daddy and yearned for his approval much the way Scully had done with Ahab.
Cataloging Katie’s similarities to Mulder and herself helped calm Scully’s sporadic fears about genetic tampering and experiments gone wrong. Emily and William, children who were and yet were not hers, who were never meant to be, haunted her. In the years since Katie’s birth, and even the months before she was born, doubts about her baby’s origins had plagued Mulder. From the moment he learned she was pregnant, he made it his personal quest to ferret out the truth. Dozens of genetic tests confirmed again and again what they both hoped to be true: Katie was their natural child, not the product of a shadowy government conspiracy.
Katie began singing between bites of cereal. Her head bobbed to the beat of her song, a monotonous rendition of One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Once I Caught a Fish Alive.
That was another thing she’d inherited from Scully: the inability to carry a tune.
Scully turned to key her password into her tablet, which lay out of Katie’s view on the counter. Mulder had forwarded her the crime scene photos earlier that morning and she’d promised to take a look, as much as she didn’t want to get involved in this or any case.
When she first joined the Bureau and was assigned to the X-Files, she’d been excited to work with Mulder. It turned out to be the most intense and challenging work she’d ever done. During those first out-there cases -- Eugene Tooms, the Jersey Devil, that fat-sucking Don Juan-a-be “2Shy” Incanto -- she’d never felt so alive. True, she could’ve done without that flukeman or Robert “Pusher” Model, but the work was never dull and it helped her grow as an investigator.
Her relationship with Mulder was also possibly the most intense and challenging she’d ever experienced. Exhilarating in the beginning. Impossible later on. Sometimes precarious but mostly hopeful now.
Scully studied the M.E.’s photos of Lauren Freeman, age 33, Caucasian, killed six days ago, the victim of the first murder. Her torso was torn open, the liver missing, removed without the aid of a knife or other cutting implement. Seemingly ripped out with bare hands. Just like Tooms’s victims.
A swipe of the touchscreen brought the images of the second victim into view. Aaron Ruiz, age 44, Hispanic, also single. Torso torn open, yadda, yadda.
Was it really possible Tooms was back? And if so, how? Scully enlarged an image of Ruiz’s wounds.
Odd, the dermis, fascia, and muscles of the abdomen appeared to have been pushed or pulled in only one direction, starting from an irregular point of entry at the victim’s right hypochondriac region and ending to the left of the sternum on a level with the sixth costal cartilage.
A quick look back at Freeman’s wound showed the same pattern. Scully didn’t remember noticing these details on the 1993 victims. Then again, that was three decades ago and although she would never forget the case, some of the particulars were now fuzzy.
“Mommy, I’m done,” Katie announced, bringing her empty bowl to the counter.
Not wanting Katie to see the gory images, Scully quickly powered off her tablet.
“Get your jacket, sweetie, and we’ll go to the park.”
Katie hurried off to the front closet. Scully rinsed their breakfast dishes in the sink. Loading the dishwasher with one hand, she pulled her cell from her pocket with the other and punched in Mulder’s speed dial number.
“What’s happenin’, Mama?” Mulder answered.
“I looked at your crime scene photos.”
“Can you send me the ’93 pictures?”
“You’re saying Tooms is back?”
“No, I’m not saying that.”
“Then what are you saying?”
“Just send the photos, Mulder.”
Mulder paced just inside the shopping mall’s main entrance, waiting for Doofus Dinglehoffer to return with a key that would unlock the access panel at the base of the escalator. His name wasn’t really Doofus or even Dinglehoffer, but the scrawny kid with a reedy voice didn’t fit his real name: Lance Kingman. He wore his hair in some sort of reverse mullet. It repeatedly flopped into his eyes, causing him to swipe it away or jerk his head every few seconds...almost as often as he peppered his sentences with the word “like.” He appeared far too young and awkward to be managing a mall of this size.
Not that the place was hopping with activity. In fact, it looked like a ghost town. Most of the stores stood dark and empty behind closed gates. Light shone in only a handful of shops: Chapeaus, Capitol Candles, Nailed It! Nail Salon, Big Top Cones, which was playing a tinny rendition of “Entry of the Gladiators.” None of these had any customers. Two senior citizens in sweats and sneakers walked a circuit around the shops for exercise.
“Is it always this quiet?” Mulder asked when Lance returned.
“Ever since Amazon started drone deliveries, like, no one comes to the mall,” the kid said with a nervous smile. He held up the key. “Found it.”
Lance knelt to unlock the panel. “What is it you’re, like, looking for, Agent Mulder, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“A 100-year-old liver-eating mutant.”
The kid’s eyes widened. “For real?”
“I’m just messing with you.” Mulder helped the kid lift the panel to one side. “You have mall security here?”
“Yeah, like, two guys during the day. One at night.”
“I’ll need their names and contact info.”
“Sure.” Lance powered off the escalator. It slowed to a stop, gears squealing. He peered down into the hole.
“‘Like,’ now?” Mulder asked.
“Oh! Yes, sir.” Lance hurried off.
Mulder removed his suitcoat and tie, just as he had done 30 years earlier after telling Scully she could get the next mutant. Should’ve specified liver-eating mutant, he thought. That way she’d still owe him.
He lowered himself carefully through the opening in the floor. Space was tighter under the escalator than he remembered. And darker. He pulled out his pocket flashlight to light the way. He kept his head low as he crawled between support struts.
Scully was right, the area had been cleared out. The air no longer reeked of bile. No yellow-green slime dripped from above or puddled on the floor. But a multitude of candy wrappers, clothing tags, buttons, pins, and other trash had fallen through the gaps in the escalator over the past three decades and now littered the ground. A thick coat of oily dust clung to every surface. Dirt soon caked his palms and knees, streaked his dress shirt and trousers.
The tunnel narrowed as he moved further in. He stuck the flashlight between his teeth to free his hands to pull himself along. It took only a few minutes before he reached the spot where Tooms had built his nest in ’93. There was no sign of it now. Not a shred of bile-covered newspaper or rags remained.
The Tooms case had been one of his first with Scully as his partner. He’d learned a lot about her during that investigation. It was her profile that helped identify Tooms. She chose working with Mulder over climbing the corporate ladder with Tom Colton, cementing what would turn out to be a decades-long partnership. But there were other things he’d learned that surprised him even more.
The first came when Scully joined him in his car for an unauthorized stakeout in front of the house where Tooms had a court-appointed room. Scully expressed her trust in him. Only in him. “Mulder, I wouldn’t put myself on the line for anybody but you,” she’d confessed. He was pretty certain he fell in love with her at that very moment. Startled by his unexpected attraction, he made a joke about it. “If there’s an ice tea in that bag, could be love.” She accused him of being delirious from lack of sleep. Maybe he was. Then again, maybe not.
The second surprise came the next morning when Scully lied to A.D. Skinner on Mulder’s behalf. She told Skinner she was engaged in Mulder’s unauthorized surveillance and that “Agent Mulder was orienting me on the situation at the time Tooms was admitted into the hospital.” She claimed that Mulder couldn’t have attacked Tooms because he was with her.
In the fourteen months they’d been working together, how many times had Scully lied to their superiors in his presence? None. And how many times had she joined him on unauthorized surveillance...when she was actually aware it was unauthorized? Never. Scully's fib to Skinner popped out of her pretty little lipsticked mouth without the slightest hesitation. Her voice never wavered. She kept a perfect poker face. Mulder was both shocked and impressed, and had a hard time keeping his own expression from giving them both away. He remembered wondering, “Who's going to keep me honest, Scully, if you've crossed to the dark side?”
Expert poker player or not, she did keep him honest. Her strict rationalism and science had saved him countless times over the decades.
Mulder wriggled backward through the tunnel until it widened enough for him to sit up, turn himself around, and remove the flashlight from his mouth. He snaked his way back toward the entrance. As he was about to pull himself out of the hole, his phone rang, startling him. He hunkered in place and pulled it from his pocket. Scully’s name appeared on the display.
“Mutants, Incorporated,” he answered.
“Where are you?”
“Reliving our past.”
“They’re right when they say you can’t go home again. No sign of Tooms, by the way.” He swiped a sticky, partially-eaten lollipop from his trouser leg. “Where are you?”
“Finishing up some errands with Katie before heading to the park.”
Mulder waited for her to say more. When she didn’t, he asked, “Not that I don’t always enjoy hearing from you, Scully, but was there something you needed?”
“I just wanted...,” she began, sounding worried. Then her tone changed, became firmer. “I was thinking about something Detective Briggs said to me before we searched the Ruxton Chemical Plant for the body of Tooms’s first victim, and I know I don’t need to tell you this, Mulder, but he said, ‘You've got to trust your instincts.’”
“You know me, I’m all about instincts.”
“Yes, I know. I do. But....”
When she didn’t say more, he assured her, “I’m fine, Scully.”
He waited through another long pause.
“Yes, of course. Just...please, be careful.”
He was about to ask what brought all this on but she hung up.
It wasn’t like her to worry about him at work. After all, he’d been doing this job forever. And she certainly knew he always pursued a good hunch, in spite of any pesky facts to the contrary. Was she apprehensive because they were parents now? Or was this case bringing up old fears about his mental state and the fragility of their relationship?
When she moved out in 2009, six months after the Father Joe case, he was at a low point. With no X-Files, nothing to do, chafing from boredom, he’d stopped taking his meds. It scared her. *He* scared her. She tried to help him but he refused to let her. He trusted she would somehow work a miracle and save him despite himself.
Scully had always been a healer who believed no sickness or injury was too great for her doctor’s hands. Disease and accident were her enemies and she fought them like a fearless warrior. She refused to accept defeat. He’d been lucky to have her by his side. For years, she patched his wounds, both external and internal. Body and soul. She propped him up time and time again. She never abandoned him to death or despair. She was too determined to cure his ills to step away and leave him untended.
Until the day she did.
In the end, she said she couldn’t watch him self-destruct. Even then, he knew it was too much to ask of her. But that didn’t make it hurt any less when she left.
He pocketed his phone and pulled himself up and out of the access hole. Lance was waiting for him in the lobby.
“You have blueprints of this building?” Mulder asked.
“Like, hardcopy?” The young manager looked incredulous.
How old did this punk think he was?
“Digital is fine. Where’s your phone?”
Lance pulled his cell from his back pocket.
“Bump?” Mulder asked.
Mulder bumped the kid’s hand, transferring his contact info and proving to Dinglehoffer he wasn’t ready for a nursing home yet. “Send them there.”
Mulder grabbed his coat and tie and headed for the exit.
Scully settled onto an empty park bench where she could keep an eye on Katie. Her outgoing daughter was already making a new friend, a pigtailed girl about the same age. The two of them were wearing matching ladybug barrettes in their hair, Scully noticed. Two peas in a pod, fated to meet, it seemed. The girls giggled and ran to the slide, a low corkscrewing affair, perfect for younger children. Katie waved to Scully from the upper platform before launching herself down the slide. She whooped with delight as she slid. When she landed on her feet, she pumped her fists in the air, and then waited for her new friend to reach the bottom, too, before they hurried back to the stairs for another go.
Nothing could have surprised, frightened or, in the end, pleased Scully more than learning she was pregnant again. She was eager to tell Mulder, but he was off looking for William. It wasn't until after the horrible events at the Sugar Factory, standing on the wharf together, having just lost William, seeing Mulder’s grief, she blurted out the truth. He was going to be a father. She carried their child.
Although they both had a million questions, they didn’t have time to discuss it then. They hurried to search for Skinner, who they found unconscious and badly injured under his car. They called 911 and followed his ambulance to the hospital.
It was there in the hallway outside of the ICU that Mulder proposed to Scully, reminding her of another hallway years earlier when he’d confessed, “You've made me a whole person. I owe you everything, Scully, and you owe me nothing.”
Truth was, she did owe him. For many things but most of all for leaving him when he needed her most. Endogenous depression. She’d diagnosed it herself. He’d become a recluse, holed up in their small house, removed from the work that once gave his life meaning. He spent his time bemoaning a world that didn’t take his obsessions seriously. That included her. Then when he refused to take his medications any longer, saying he didn’t like the way they made him feel, instead of helping him, she gave him an ultimatum. He needed to change his ways or she’d leave.
Needless to say, he didn’t change. So, she carried through with her threat and walked out, ending their relationship and distancing herself from him by throwing herself into her work at Our Lady of Sorrows Hospital.
Those were the loneliest years of her life. Many times, she considered returning to him. She worried about him non-stop. But she knew her own emotional health would suffer if she went back. She might end up hating him. Hating herself. They weren’t good for each other the way they once were. Or maybe they’d never been good for each other.
Yet, they seemed fated to be together. It took several years, but they did finally manage to reconcile. Almost by accident, it seemed. Thrown together by work. Drawn to each other romantically by both a physical attraction and an emotional connection. Just like the first time. And now, most days their relationship felt solid, more so than ever. Especially since Katie’s birth. Other days, it seemed as fragile as a child’s wish.
Mulder’s hallway marriage proposal wasn’t a hearts-and-flowers, down-on-one-knee kind of proposal. Mulder came at everything his own way and this was no exception.
“Scully, care to hitch your wagon to this old horse?”
“I have a wagon?”
He leaned around her to look at her backside. “You do.”
“I hope that’s a metaphor.”
He smiled, mischievous but earnest.
She reached out to stroke his cheek. He looked hollowed out. Blood stained his clothes from his earlier encounter with William at a hotel in Norfolk, where, as Mulder put it, he “made everyone’s head explode, literally.” Mulder had done all he could that night to save the boy he thought was his son.
“You’re not such an old horse,” she said.
“Thank you.” He withdrew her hand from his cheek to kiss her palm, then pulled her close, wrapped her in a tight embrace, and rested his chin on the top of her head. “Marry me, Scully, before Kersh ships me off to the glue factory.”
“We can’t have that.”
“So, your answer is yes?” He leaned back to look her in the eyes.
Was marriage a good idea? Would it work for them? She wanted to be with him...needed to be with him, now more than ever.
“My answer is yes.”
Three days later, Skinner came off life support and his condition was upgraded. His docs scheduled him for surgery to pin the broken bones in his leg and replace his shattered left hip. He slept sedated in his hospital bed, while Mulder sat, legs outstretched, in one of the visitors’ chairs and Scully paced.
“What kind of wedding do you want?” Mulder asked her.
The question brought her up short. What exactly did she want?
“If Mom were still alive, she’d push for a church wedding.” Scully checked Skinner’s vitals on the monitor for the umpteenth time since arriving. A massive bruise blackened the left side of his face. “Something simple, Mulder. A civil ceremony at City Hall. A couple of witnesses. If that’s okay with you.”
“City Hall is good. Less chance I’ll be struck by lightning at the altar.”
The day after Skinner’s surgery, the two of them went to City Hall to get married. Mulder had asked Chuck Burks to serve as a witness and he joined them there. A clerk named Maria Rodriguez stood in as the second witness because they had no one else to ask. Mulder and Scully exchanged vows and wedding rings, her parents’ rings. Mulder had wanted to buy her a new ring but she insisted on wearing her mother’s. It represented unwavering faith and love to her. She couldn’t hope for more than that for her and Mulder and their unborn child.
After they signed the forms, Chuck took photos of them standing outside on the front steps. Later that night, he texted some electromagnetically enhanced images to Mulder along with a message that Mulder read aloud to her, “Wild energy in the Missus’ mid-section. Mulder, you old dog. Congrats!”
“He doesn’t say that.”
“He does.” He handed her the phone.
Sure enough, Chuck’s photo showed a series of brilliantly colored auras radiated outward from her abdomen.
“I want a print of that, Mulder.”
“I’ll get it framed.” And he did. It now sat on the nightstand beside his side of their bed.
Scully absently twirled her wedding ring around her finger and watched Katie and her new friend move from the slide to the swings. They pumped their legs to push their swings higher.
Scully’s phone sounded an alert, a text message from Mulder with attachments. The older Tooms case files she’d asked for. She was about to open the first attachment when a young, pregnant woman approached the bench and sat down.
“Mind if I join you?” she asked as she sat. She looked to be about eight months along. “My feet are killing me.” The woman’s gaze held steady on Katie and her new friend, putting Scully on alert. “That one’s mine.” She pointed to the girl with Katie.
Scully relaxed a little. “And the girl next to her is mine.” She tucked her phone away. “I’m Dana, by the way.” She smiled at the woman.
“I’m Ella.” The woman smiled back. “Your granddaughter is adorable. They’ve become fast friends already.”
Scully bristled at the woman’s mistake. “Actually, I’m Katie’s mother.”
The woman showed surprise, then embarrassment. “Oh, I’m sorry. I-I shouldn’t have assumed....”
Scully decided to change the subject. “You have another on the way. Boy or girl? Or will it be a surprise?”
“A boy. His dad is thrilled. Ray loves Isabelle, of course, but he’s already planning to teach junior here,” -- she patted her stomach -- “how to play baseball. He wants to take him to the Orioles’ season opener next year. Bought him a little baby-sized jersey already. How about you? Do you have more children?”
“Yes,” Scully said, not wanting to discount William and Emily but not wanting to go into any details either. She was saved by the tinny circus music of an approaching ice cream truck, which brought Katie and Isabelle running from the swings.
A Big Top Cones truck pulled to a stop about 300 yards beyond the park’s basketball court.
“Mommy, can we have ice cream?” both girls begged.
Ella rose from the bench, already searching through her purse for her debit card. “Nice to meet you, Dana,” she called back as she took Isabelle’s hand and headed for the truck.
“Can we get ice cream, too, Mommy?” Katie pleaded.
“Sorry, sweetie, it’s almost lunchtime. I don’t want you spoiling your appetite.”
“I won’t spoil my ap’tite.”
“It’s time to go.”
“We have ice cream at home. I’ll make you a sundae after you eat your lunch.”
“With cherries and nuts and fudge sauce, like Daddy makes?”
“Sure, like Daddy makes.” She took Katie by the hand and steered her away from the busy ice cream truck and back toward their car.
Mulder ducked into the men’s room to scrub his face and hands, and comb whatever-the-hell it was out of his hair before heading to the basement. He looked and smelled the worse for wear after his morning romp beneath the escalator. His shirt and trousers were a mess. Scully always told him to keep a spare set of clothes in the office, given their line of work. Unfortunately, this was his spare set.
He entered his office and tossed his suitcoat and tie over the coatrack by the door. He sat down at his desk and powered up his computer.
The file he’d requested from the mall manager was there waiting for him. He clicked on it and a set of blueprints materialized on his monitor. He enlarged the image to bring the details into view. Still unable to see the plans clearly, he snatched his glasses from the top of his inbox and put them on.
“Damn progressives,” he muttered, tilting his head up and down in an effort to bring the small print into focus. Finally, he found an angle that worked.
City Square was two full stories and 300,000 square feet. It held ninety retail stores. There were multiple entrances. Two sets of escalators at opposite ends of the building. Four passenger elevators and one cargo elevator. Three stairwells, including a large, curving staircase at the center court. It would take twenty agents to cover them all.
“Son of a....”
The Deputy Director wasn’t going to like getting his call. Thankfully Kersh was no longer in that position. Mulder must’ve been a very good boy in 2018 because not only had he married Scully and become a father that year, he got his Christmas wish when Kersh unexpectedly quit, citing family obligations. After years of butting heads, Mulder was finally free of Alvin Kersh.
As it turned out, Skinner, who had recently completed several months of physical therapy, was promoted to the position. His docs warned he would never walk again but he surprised everyone when he showed up for work on his first day as Deputy Director, limping along with only a cane and not rolling up in a wheelchair.
Five years later, Skinner still needed the cane. He would never work in the field again but his disability certainly didn’t interfere with his competence to lead the Bureau. Mulder was glad for Skinner. He deserved the position after decades as A.D. CGB Spender had intimated that it was Skinner’s ill-advised support of Mulder, Scully, and the X-Files that had held him back professionally. The possibility weighed heavily on both Mulder and Scully. Skinner had turned out to be an invaluable ally, despite their recurring doubts about his loyalty. In the end, he proved himself to be a genuine friend and they owed him their lives.
Mulder dialed Skinner’s number.
“What is it now, Mulder?” Skinner sounded as surly as ever.
“Sir, it’s been at least two weeks since I asked you for anything.” Mulder tossed a pencil at the ceiling. It struck the tile and stuck there, surrounded by a dozen other pencils. “Miss me?”
“Get to it. I’ve got a full schedule.”
“Okay, I need twenty agents--”
“Stop right there. The answer is no.”
“You don’t want to know why?”
“No, I don’t.”
“It’s Tooms, sir. He’s back.”
“Eugene Tooms? That’s not possible.”
“You gave me this case, sir.”
“I gave you a case that had similarities to the Tooms case. I never once believed he’d come back to life.”
“It’s him, sir.”
“One of your hunches.” It was a statement, not a question, and Skinner’s tone clearly indicated he didn’t believe Mulder’s theory.
Some things never changed. “Yes, one of my hunches.”
Skinner was quiet for a moment.
“Sir?” Mulder prompted.
“I can’t give you any agents, Mulder.”
“Tooms is back. He’s killed at least two people and he’s going to kill more. He’s living at 66 Exeter Street, I’m sure of it.
“Where’s your proof?”
“He’s a creature of habit.”
“I can’t authorize additional personnel based only on gut feelings, Mulder. Not even yours. I need irrefutable evidence. Budgets were tight before the 20/21 Pandemic. They’re non-existent now. Find another way.”
Skinner hung up, not waiting for a response. Mulder dropped the phone’s handset into the cradle.
Irrefutable evidence. That was Scully’s bailiwick, not his. He missed having her by his side, providing rational explanations to their superiors to gain their cooperation. He realized now how often her tactics, not his, helped move their cases forward.
But that was then and this was now. Things changed forever after Scully discovered what CGB had done to her, done to them both, through William. She put the Bureau and the X-Files behind her forever, and buried her anger, not wanting it to control her. He wished he could be more like her that way and ignore his resentments. But learning that he wasn’t William’s father had shaken him deeply. It meant Scully had been the victim of medical rape a second time. That knowledge infuriated him still. Justice would never be served and it gnawed at him. Emptying his clip into the man responsible hadn’t been enough. If it were possible to kill CGB Spender more than once, he’d do it in a heartbeat.
Scully, being Scully, turned her focus almost immediately to her new responsibilities. He agreed, of course, caring for herself during her pregnancy and then caring for Katie after her birth were top priorities. It may be awful to say, but loving their daughter helped ease the guilt they both felt for what happened to William. If they’d kept him and protected him, would things have turned out differently? Then again, William was never theirs from the start. Maybe nothing would’ve saved him.
Mulder opened his lower desk drawer and pulled out the results of the most recent paternity test he’d had performed only two months ago. One of many he’d had run at various labs since Katie was born. They all said the same thing.
RFLP Inclusion Report
Tested Man: Fox William Mulder
Mother: Dana Katherine Scully
Child: Katherine Abigail Mulder
Combined paternity index = 533,475
Probability of paternity: 99.9998%
The .0002% bothered him more than it should. Scully assured him the results meant he was, without question, Katie’s father, but he would’ve felt better if the report said 100%. At the end of last year, she asked him to accept the results and please not submit any more tests. So, he continued in secret, unable to completely vanquish his doubts.
He tucked the report away. Returning his attention to Tooms, he picked up the phone again, this time to call the City of Baltimore for their employee roster, starting with Animal Regulation. Maybe Tooms was a creature of habit in more ways than one and got his old job back.
Supper dishes scraped, rinsed, and stacked in the dishwasher, Scully dried her hands, hung the towel, and turned out the lights, all but the one above the stove, which she left burning as a nightlight. The sweet fragrance of autumn phlox drifted in through the open windows. The weather was warm for an evening this late in September. Summers seemed to hang on longer than when she was a child.
She found Mulder in the living room, stretched out on his back on the couch, Katie sprawled across his chest fast asleep. Mulder looked relaxed in faded t-shirt and jeans. His feet were bare. Katie was dressed for bed in a sleeveless, cotton summer nightgown. The book they’d been reading was stacked atop Katie’s other favorites on the coffee table. Mulder gently stroked their daughter’s hair. Scully wanted to hold time still. This was her heart’s desire at this point in life. No dangerous conspiracies, no malice or tribulations. Just her husband and her daughter, right here with her, safe in their own home.
“You going to take her up or you want me to?” she asked, keeping her voice low though it wasn’t necessary. Katie could sleep through a 21-gun salute.
“I will. In a minute.”
Maybe he was enjoying this moment, too. She sat down in the overstuffed chair across from him. She could smell the faint scent of the shampoo he’d used to scrub away the grime from City Square after he’d returned home from work. His shirt was still soaking in the washer. His trousers would need dry cleaning. It was hard to believe thirty years had passed since he last crawled under that escalator. They’d both been so young. And while he had been a seasoned investigator even then, she was a green agent with plenty to learn.
“Mulder, do you think of me as old?”
His hand stalled on the crown of Katie’s head. “Careful, Scully, the last time we had this conversation I’m pretty sure you ended up pregnant.”
“Judy and Chucky Poundstone, telepathically connected twins who played a deadly game of Hangman. St. Rachel Motel. We shared a suite with connecting rooms. You came to my bed. Twice. And I’m pretty sure it wasn’t because my pull-out couch was so comfy.”
“You didn’t want me there?” she teased, knowing full well he had enjoyed their impromptu lovemaking as much as she had.
“I think I showed my appreciation.”
At the time, she thought her advances might surprise him. Not that they hadn’t been doing better together but they hadn’t been intimate for some time. Nine years, in fact, if you didn’t count that one time in 2012 that turned out to be a disaster. Yet he seemed to take it in stride. As usual, he knew her better than she knew herself. When she came back to the door that connected their rooms a second time, he was waiting for her on the other side.
He resumed stroking Katie’s hair but kept his eyes trained on Scully. “My answer hasn’t changed. You’ve still got it going on.”
“‘Scoot in my boot,’ Mulder?”
“Yes.” He chuckled, clearly recalling their previous conversation. “What brought this on?”
“A young woman in the park thought I was Katie’s grandmother.”
“Oh.” He grimaced in sympathy. “Did you correct her?”
“I did but then felt angry at myself for letting it get to me.” She tucked her feet up into the chair and leaned into the cushions. “Her daughter was about the same age as Katie.”
Mulder nodded but said nothing.
“She was pregnant with her second child. A boy.” An unexpected wave of envy rolled through her.
“Did you want another child?” he asked, echoing the same question he’d asked her back in the St. Rachel Motel.
“Well...yes and no. I’d love a sister or brother for Katie and I miss holding an infant. But I have no wish to be listed in Ripley’s Believe It or Not as the world’s oldest mother.”
“You’ve got a long way to go to earn that title. Mangayamma Yaramati of India gave birth at age 74.”
Scully winced at the idea. “Katie’s enough for me, thank you. I’m very happy.”
“Well, if you decide to try for another,” -- he cradled Katie as he shifted to a sitting position -- “I’m always happy to do my part.”
“Very generous of you.”
“I’m going to take her up. If you change your mind....” He tilted his head toward the stairs and waggled his brows.
Before she could respond, his cell phone trilled with a text notification.
“Ignore it,” she said, irritated by the interruption. She may have no plans for future pregnancies but making love to Mulder sounded like a very pleasant idea at the moment.
“Sorry, Scully, I can’t...not while I’m on a case.” He stood and passed Katie over to her before reaching into his pocket for his phone.
“You’re always on a case.”
“Not like this one.” He thumbed the screen to read his message. “There’s been another murder. That makes three out of five.”
Mulder flashed his badge at the local police in the hall outside the apartment, gaining him entry. Pocketing his ID, he brushed past three uniformed officers, a plainclothes man, and two detectives. The body of Michael Chase, white male, mid-40s, lay sprawled face-up on the living room floor next to a blood-spattered couch. A ragged hole gaped in his hollowed-out abdomen. Intestines draped the body and the carpet. The liver was missing. Mulder squatted for a closer look.
“Can I help you?” asked a detective, sounding annoyed. Tall, brunette, attractive, she pinned Mulder with a steely, gray-eyed stare.
Mulder squinted at the name-badge clipped to her jacket. Possibly M. Dearborn. He’d left his glasses back on his desk. He dug out his badge again and aimed it at her.
“May I ask what you’re doing here, Agent Mulder?” she asked.
Clearly, she had no problem reading the name on his badge.
“Your chief called me.”
“And why would he do that?”
Ignoring her question, Mulder rose to inspect the room. Detective Dearborn shadowed him as he walked the perimeter.
“Were the doors and windows all locked from the inside?” he asked.
“Yes, as a matter of fact, they were.”
A narrow air vent high up on an inside wall caught his attention. He grabbed a nearby wooden chair, dragged it to the wall, and climbed up on it for a closer look.
Annoyance creased Detective Dearborn’s brow as she watched him. “Agent Mulder, what are you looking for?”
“Point of entry.”
She gave a derisive snort. “Do I need to point out that vent is only about seven by sixteen inches?”
Her mockery reminded him of Tom Colton and all the many other disbelieving people who considered “Spooky” Mulder out of his mind over the years. He’d given up letting their closed-minded opinions bother him long ago.
He stepped down from the chair to help himself to a fingerprint kit on the breakfast bar that separated the living room from the kitchenette. He noticed a ring of salt on the counter next to a pepper grinder, but there was no salt shaker in sight. Not on the stovetop or on the small dining table nearby. Another trophy? He pocketed a fingerprint lifting card before dipping a fiber brush into black powder.
Detective Dearborn blocked his path when he tried to return to the vent.
“Excuse me.” Mulder stepped around her and back up onto the chair. He daubed the vent’s grate and surrounding wall with Redwop, revealing two elongated prints: a right thumb and index finger.
“What the hell is that?” The detective gaped at the prints.
Mulder handed her the brush and retrieved the lifting card from his pocket. It took only a couple of seconds for him to transfer the prints. “Evidence,” he said, waggling the card at the detective. He slipped it back into his pocket, took out his phone, and snapped a quick photo of the prints using the FBI’s new app for the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System. He clicked “go” to start the program that ran the image against the database. The phone image couldn’t be used in a court of law -- not yet anyway -- but it would provide Mulder with a timely assessment. He stepped down from the chair. “You’ll find more prints inside there,” he said to Dearborn, hooking a thumb at the vent.
While the detective signaled to her men to open up the grate, Mulder returned to the victim. Phone still in hand, he dialed Skinner’s number.
“You better have something, Mulder.”
“I do. Irrefutable evidence.”
“Meaning what exactly? Where are you?”
“Crime scene. Michael Chase. Tooms forgot to clean up after he ate. I pulled two prints.”
“You’re certain the prints are his?”
“Do you know of any other liver-eating mutants with ten-inch long fingers?” Mulder checked the app. Sure enough, the system found a match: Eugene Victor Tooms. “IAFIS says they’re his. Can I have those agents now?”
“Sorry, Mulder, Tooms’s fingerprints at a crime scene aren’t proof he’s living at City Square.”
“He’s there, sir. He’s always lived there and will always return there.”
“Be that as it may, bring me something airtight that puts him at the shopping mall or I can’t help you. Sorry.”
Skinner ended the call. Mulder dialed Scully’s number.
“I need you, Scully,” he said when she answered.
“In general or are you talking about your investigation?”
“Both but right now I’m looking at a dead body and could use your medical expertise.”
“We’ve had this conversation before. Recently, in fact. I don’t work for the FBI anymore.”
“Pretty please?” Mulder glanced over at Detective Dearborn and saw she was watching him. “I’m desperate. The statuesque Detective Dearborn is about to kick me out of here.”
“Legs up to here.” He knew Scully was more than a little jealous of tall women and he wasn’t opposed to using whatever leverage was necessary to get his way.
“Fine.” Scully capitulated, just as he knew she would. “Describe the wound.”
“Think ‘Berringer Crater.’”
“Can you be a little more specific? Does the opening of the wound appear to start on one side of the body with the flesh and organs pulled to the other?”
Mulder crouched for a closer look. “Sort of.”
“Turn on your video so I can see it for myself.”
Mulder clicked the chat icon. He’d gotten much better at using his phone’s video options since that strange were-lizard case. He aimed the phone’s camera at the body just as Detective Dearborn took a step toward him. “Hurry, Scully. Cast your forensic peepers on that. In your medical opinion, does it look like --”
The detective reached out and blocked his camera with the palm of her hand. “Agent Mulder, I’m going to have to ask you not to share any images of the crime scene outside of official channels. And I’d like that fingerprint card you pocketed. We wouldn’t want to break the chain of custody and make the evidence inadmissible in court, now would we?”
Keeping his phone turned on, Mulder rose to his feet and handed over the fingerprint card.
“Are you finished here, Agent Mulder?” Detective Dearborn asked, clearly hoping he was.
“For now.” Mulder headed for the door. Once in the hall and out of earshot of the two uniforms guarding the apartment, he lifted his phone and spoke to Scully as he walked to the elevator. “Did you get any of that?”
“I got that you’re causing trouble again. How many times have I warned you about stealing evidence?”
“When have I ever stolen evidence?”
“Do you really have time for me to answer that?”
He smiled. “The fingerprints I lifted at the scene are Tooms’s. I ran them through the IAFIS app and they’re a match.”
“Need I remind you, results from that app aren’t admissible in court?”
“Doesn’t mean they aren’t accurate.” Mulder arrived at the elevator and pushed the down button. “The wound, Scully, what are you thinking?”
“I looked at the older photos you sent of the 1993 victims and compared them to the more recent ones. The wound patterns don’t match.”
“How do you mean?”
“In the older photos, it was clear that Tooms used both hands to tear open his victims. Penetration started at the center of the body with the victims’ flesh and entrails forced to either side. The newer photos are different. The abdominal tear appears to start on one side, cross the body, and end on the other side.”
“The killer is using only one hand.”
“Maybe Tooms only has one.”
“If the killer is Tooms and, as you seem to believe, he was able to regenerate a whole body, why wouldn’t he grow a new hand?”
“Maybe it’s a recent injury and regeneration only occurs during his period of hibernation. Or maybe it’s like you said, the human liver needs 51 percent of its mass to regenerate completely. Maybe there wasn’t enough of Tooms left under that escalator to regenerate his entire body.”
“A single hand is only a fraction of the body’s total mass.”
“Maybe he’s missing more than just a hand. I’ll recheck the city employee roster and extend my search to all county government workers with missing appendages.” The elevator arrived and the door slid open. “Nice work, Scully. I told you I needed you on this,” he said before stepping inside.
Scully and Katie sat together on the living room rug, working on one of Katie’s favorite jigsaw puzzles. They’d finished dinner more than an hour ago. Katie was bathed and dressed for bed. Mulder’s dinner was being kept warm in the oven.
“This one goes here,” Katie said proudly, fitting another piece into place.
“Good job, sweetie.”
Scully glanced at her phone again to check the time and look for a message from Mulder. There was nothing.
Katie must’ve noticed because she asked, “When is Daddy coming home?”
“I hope so.”
“Can I stay up ’til he gets here?”
“Bedtime is 7:30.”
“What time is it now?”
“You have twenty minutes.”
“But what if Daddy isn’t home by then?”
“Then you’ll see him in the morning.”
Katie was getting that heavy-lidded look she got every evening in the half-hour before her bedtime. She put down the puzzle piece she was holding, scooted closer to Scully, and crawled into her lap. Scully wrapped her arms around her, enjoying the smooth warmth of her daughter’s small body against hers.
“Tell me a story from before I was borned,” Katie asked, snuggling into Scully’s embrace.
“What kind of story?”
“A mewdant story.”
“A mutant story?”
“Which mutant story?”
“The one about the were-lizard.”
“Did your Daddy tell you that story?”
“That’s a pretty scary story right before bed.”
“It’s not scary, Mommy. It’s about a lizard that turns into a man and then back to a lizard again. And you get a dog named Daggoo in the end! I like it.”
“How about I tell you the story about the night you were born instead?”
“Yay!” Katie smiled up at her. “That’s my favorite story.”
“Mine, too.” Scully smoothed Katie’s hair away from her brow and kissed her forehead. “On a chilly October night almost five years ago, I felt a gentle kick inside my belly.”
“That was me.”
“It was. Then I felt a twist and a pinch and I knew you were on the way. I woke your Daddy up and told him--”
“Time to go to the hospital!”
“That’s right. He hurried to get dressed. He pulled on a pair of jeans only to realize he hadn’t taken off his pajama bottoms!” Scully mugged a look of shock, making Katie giggle. “He soon got straightened around, grabbed our ‘baby bag,’ and off we went to the hospital.”
“I took a long time to be borned, didn’t I?”
“You did, you little stinker. Your Daddy and I talked about old cases while we waited.”
“What’s ‘old cases’?”
“Mutant stories mostly.” This made Katie smile. Scully continued, “Daddy drank a gazillion cups of coffee. I ate one popsicle.”
“Yes. Finally, after hours and hours of waiting, you arrived at 11:22 a.m. on Thursday, October 18, 2018.”
“That’s my birthday!”
“My birthday is this many days after Daddy’s birthday.” Katie held up five fingers.
“That’s right. The doctor passed you to your Daddy and said, ‘you have a feisty girl.’”
“What does ‘feisty’ mean?”
“Lively. Determined. Courageous.” Katie seemed satisfied with the answer, so Scully continued, “We named you Katherine Abigail Mulder because Katherine means ‘pure’ and Abigail means ‘my father’s joy,’ making it the perfect choice. We nicknamed you Katie and right from the very start, you were the apple of your Daddy's eye.”
“What does ‘apple of a eye’ mean?” Katie asked through a yawn.
She seemed to ask new questions each time Scully told this story. Someday soon she was certain to ask for details about where babies came from.
“It means Daddy fell in love with you the moment you took your first breath. You squirmed and cried with such gusto when he lifted you into my arms.”
He grinned like a lunatic, too, Scully recalled, and cried openly when she put the baby to her breast and coaxed her to suckle.
"You told Daddy I had his eyes," Katie said, sounding drowsy. Her lids closed as she leaned her head heavily against Scully’s chest.
“I did. Your eyes were full of wonder. A tuft of soft, dark hair fuzzed your little scalp. You smelled like morning mist. Daddy couldn’t get enough of sniffing you. Or counting your tiny toes and fingers, marveling at your minute nails, your long eyelashes, your shell-shaped ears.” Scully traced her finger around the outer edge of Katie’s ear. Katie didn’t stir. She was fast asleep.
“But most of all, he loved the warm weight of you in the crook of his arm,” Scully continued anyway, kissing the crown of Katie’s head, rising to her feet, and carrying her up the stairs to bed.
Six and a half pounds of pure perfection, Mulder had boasted at the time, his voice thick with nervous pride.
Scully laid Katie gently down in her bed and pulled a sheet up over her legs to her waist. No need for blankets tonight. The warm weather was hanging on. She drew the curtains but left the windows open. The air smelled muggy and fragrant, reminding her of her childhood, staying out after dark to play Kick the Can with the other kids on the Base.
She sat down on Katie’s bed to watch her sleep for a few minutes. It was a nightly ritual she treasured. Her love for this child was boundless, it seemed. Overwhelming at times. Especially when she thought about the children that weren’t here with her, the children she’d lost. Emily, hers by blood if not birth, and bound to her still by a mother’s love. She would be almost 29 years old if she were alive today. What would Katie think of her? Would they be friends as well as sisters? And William, her sweet boy, carried in her womb, borne by her, and tied to her by an inexplicable psychic connection. What would he think of his family if things had worked out differently?
As often happened, Scully found herself wishing her mother was still alive. Maggie would’ve loved her granddaughter every bit as much as she did. And it would’ve brought solace to their relationship, strained almost to the breaking point after Scully gave William up for adoption. Telling her mother what she had done was one of the most difficult things she’d ever had to say to her.
Scully remembered every detail of that terrible day, which started with a call to Dr. Carson at Quantico. Feigning illness, she had asked if he would take over her classes for the week. He graciously consented. His helpfulness brought scant relief. Teaching might have been a welcome distraction from the unrelenting ache in her chest.
She longed to hold her child. She longed to hold Mulder, too. Never had she felt so alone. She had done the right thing, the only thing possible to save William. Hadn’t she?
A thick overcast grayed Georgetown beyond her apartment windows. Freezing rain drummed the glass. Feeling chilled, she briefly considered lighting a fire in the fireplace, but just as quickly forgot the idea as her attention wandered to the neat piles of baby clothes, bedding, diapers, and toys that covered the sofa and coffee table, waiting to be boxed up and taken to Good Will. Monica and John were coming by later to dismantle the crib, cart everything away. She wanted to be rid of it all as soon as possible. Give it to someone who could put it to use. Unopened jars of strained carrots and pureed bananas, bottles of juice, baby wipes, no-tears shampoo....
She picked up the doll Mulder had given her when she was pregnant, a family keepsake, he had said, and hugged it to her chest. It was one of a few items she would keep, along with William’s Christening cap, a bib from the Gunmen decorated with a cartoon of Yoda and the words “Judge me by my size, do you?”, a lock of William’s hair, a copy of his birth certificate, and a few photos, including her favorite, the only picture of Mulder and William together, taken the day after William was born, the day Mulder left to go into hiding. She planned to pack this meager evidence of her son’s existence into a box and tuck it away in a closet until a day came when she could look at it again without her heart breaking. Tears pricked her eyes as she stroked the doll’s embroidered face. Grief left her feeling hollow and adrift. An empty vessel, slipped from its mooring.
A knock on the door startled her. It was too early for Monica and John. She put down the doll, wiped her eyes, and crossed the room to peer through the peephole.
Oh, God, it was her mother. Fighting despair and a desire to flee to her bedroom to hide, she unlocked and opened the door.
Maggie’s smile faded at the sight of her. “Dana, what is it? What’s happened?”
“Mom....” Where to begin? How could she explain what she had done, why she had given away her own child, Maggie’s grandson?
Maggie looked past her to the baby’s things. “What’s going on?”
Scully fought back tears, but failed.
“Dana, where’s William? Is he in the nursery?” Maggie took a halting step toward the baby’s room.
Scully snagged her mother’s arm. “No, he’s not there.”
“Then where is he?”
“Gone? I don’t understand. Did Fox come home? Is he out with William?”
“No, Mom.” Scully steeled herself for her mother’s reaction before blurting out the truth. “I gave William up for adoption.”
“What?” Maggie's eyes rounded. She shook loose from Scully’s grasp and strode across the room to the couch. She lifted a small jacket from one pile of clothes. Soft blue corduroy. It matched William’s eyes. “I don’t believe it. Why would you do such a thing?”
There was no easy answer. No way to convey the extraordinary circumstances, the implausible, yet very real threat to her son.
“You should’ve come to me,” Maggie admonished now. “I wouldn’t have let you do this.”
“That’s why I didn’t come to you.”
Maggie tossed the small jacket back at the sofa and glared at her daughter. “It’s a mistake. We have to undo it. Now.”
“No.” She would not undo this awful act. She would not risk her son’s life to assuage her own or her mother’s pain.
“What does Fox say about it?” Maggie asked.
“I have no idea. We haven’t spoken in months.”
“Ah. So that’s it.” Maggie’s frown deepened. “Dana, if you were having trouble raising William alone, you should have said so. I understand it’s hard for you to ask for help, you’ve always been that way, but I would’ve been happy to do more.”
“It’s not that--”
“A lot of women are single mothers and they do just fine.”
“Your father was gone for months at a time and I managed. It never crossed my mind to give any of you away.”
“That was different, Mom. You didn’t have assassins trying to kill your children.”
Maggie threw up her hands. “More conspiracy nonsense.”
“It’s not nonsense. It’s the truth. William isn’t safe here.”
“But he’s safe now, with strangers?”
Was he? It was a question Scully could not honestly answer. But she was certain of one thing.
“He’s safer with them than he is here with me.”
“With his own mother? How can you say that? How can you think it?” Hands on her hips, Maggie looked as angry as Scully had ever seen her. “I can’t accept this. If you don’t do whatever it takes to get William back, you’ll never forgive yourself.”
That turned out to be true, Scully thought sadly.
And her mother? It seemed she was unable to fully forgive her, too. Over time, they mended their relationship but it was never quite the same.
Scully rose from Katie’s bed, reached down to stroke her cheek, and considered digging out the box of William’s things, maybe giving the doll to Katie. Instead, she went downstairs to the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea. Just as she set the kettle on the stove to heat, her phone rang. It was Mulder.
“Where are you?” She hoped she didn’t sound as annoyed as she felt.
“There’s been a fourth murder. I’m about to leave the office to head to the scene now. Sorry I didn’t make it home before Katie’s bedtime.”
“Speaking of which, did you tell her about the were-lizard?”
“That’s a great bedtime story, Scully. She loves it.”
“So I was told. And while I’ve got you, did you let her go on the climbing wall at the park?”
“It’s a good skill for a kid to have. Builds endurance and confidence.”
“She’s only four, Mulder.”
“She’s almost five. She probably should’ve started sooner.” Mulder cleared his throat and changed the subject. “I checked the City and County employee rosters for anyone with a missing hand or arm and came up with bupkis. If Tooms has a job, it’s not with local government.”
“Maybe he’s not working at all.”
“Maybe. It’s not as if he needs to pay rent or buy groceries. I checked with the Bureau of Unemployment while I was at it, in case he was working and then lost his job. There are no records he filed for compensation. He hasn’t initiated any Workers’ Comp claims either for accidental loss of a limb or any other reason. That said, he’s a creature of habit, so I believe he has a job somewhere and is targeting his victims at his place of work.”
“If he is living at City Square, it’s possible he’s picking out his victims there.”
“And then following them to their homes.”
Whenever Mulder started responding to her ideas with “it’s possible” or “maybe” it usually meant he had a very different opinion.
“Mulder, what do we really know about the victimology?”
“I notice you said ‘we,’ Scully.”
“I’m just wondering if there’s any commonality among the people he chooses.”
“Not anything obvious. Same as thirty years ago. The victims seem completely unrelated and random.”
“Send me the M.E.’s reports. I’ll see if I can find something that ties them together.”
“Sending them now. This feels just like old times, Scully.”
“No, this doesn’t mean --” She didn’t get the chance to finish before he hung up on her.
Moments later, his attachments came through. She opened the first of several reports and started digging through the details.
“Too much like old times.”
Mulder steered his car down Prentice Street, a broad, tree-lined avenue in a middle-class neighborhood. Emergency lights flashed up ahead on the right. Black-and-whites crowded the shoulder in front of the DeLong residence, a two-story craftsman-style house with a sprawling, covered front porch. The entire house was lit up inside. Crime scene tape separated the front lawn from the sidewalk. Uniformed officers kept a gathering of onlookers from trespassing. Mulder’s phone trilled just as he pulled in behind a local ambulance. Scully’s name appeared on his dashboard’s Bluetooth display.
He put the car in park, unhooked his seatbelt, and fished his phone from his pocket.
“Mulder, I found something interesting in the M.E.’s reports,” she said when he answered.
“Lay it on me, Scully.” He shut off the engine and exited the car.
“Stomach contents. All three victims ate ice cream shortly before they were murdered.”
“Vanilla or chocolate?”
“Neither. Mint Chip, Rocky Road, and Tutti-frutti.”
He made a face, thinking he’d rather have his liver ripped out than eat Tutti-frutti ice cream. “So, what does that tell us?”
“It’s been unseasonably hot? The victims all liked ice cream? None of them were lactose intolerant? I don’t know, Mulder, but it seems like more than a coincidence.”
“It does and you know how I feel about coincidences.” He reached the DeLong’s front walkway. “Thanks, Scully. I’ll let you know what I find here.”
He ended the call and swapped his phone for his ID, which he held out to the uniformed officers in the front yard. The taller of the two nodded, lifted the crime scene tape, and waved him through.
Detective Dearborn met him on the front porch. She appeared almost relieved to see him, a complete turnaround from their last meeting.
“You’ve got a lot of manpower here, Detective,” Mulder said by way of greeting, noticing there were at least three to four times the number of officers at this scene than the last one.
“We’ve got more bodies, too.” Her tone was bitter, her expression shaken. “Come this way.”
She led him through the front hall into a living room where a police photographer was taking pictures of a deceased male on the floor next to a fireplace. The victim lay on his back, his torso gutted. Blood and entrails spattered the carpet, the fireplace screen, even the nearby drapes. The man’s liver was missing.
“The deceased is Ray DeLong,” she said. “Age 32. Any idea why the killer takes their livers? Is it a trophy? Some kind of disturbing fetish?”
“He eats them.”
Her eyes widened. “How do you know that?”
“I know this killer.”
“You might’ve mentioned that the last time we met.”
“You didn’t seem interested in what I had to say the last time we met.”
“Well, I am now.” She leveled her gaze at him, all her former hostility gone. It was an apology of sorts, the best he would get from her. “There are two more bodies upstairs,” she said.
“Two?” This surprised him. Tooms consumed only five livers each 30-year cycle. Mr. DeLong was victim number four. Two more would put Tooms over his usual limit. Mulder took out his phone to take some pictures of the dead man but stopped himself in a rare show of deference to the local authorities. “Mind if I...?” he asked the detective.
“Be my guest. Any help you can give us, Agent Mulder, is welcome.”
That was a change. Mulder snapped a few photos. “Can you get the autopsies expedited?” he asked, since she was clearly in a generous mood. “And send me copies ASAP?”
“Certainly.” She pointed to the living room door and the stairs beyond. “This way.”
Mulder began to follow her but paused at the fireplace to check the flue. It was open. A fresh dusting of soot-blackened the hearth. Detective Dearborn waited, looking skeptical.
“Find something?” she asked.
“Maybe.” He followed her out to the front hall. “Did you determine a point of entry?”
“No. All the doors and windows were locked from the inside.” She started up the home’s front staircase. “No sign of a break-in, which would indicate the victims knew him and let him in.”
“And then relocked the door behind him?”
“Well, you don’t think he came down the chimney like Santa Claus, do you?” Her tone clearly indicated disbelief.
“Not quite like Santa, no.”
They turned left at the top of the stairs.
“Prepare yourself,” Detective Dearborn warned before leading him into a child’s bedroom.
The walls were painted with rainbows and flowers. A canopy bed fit for a little princess was piled high with stuffed animals. On the floor at its foot lay a young woman, her abdomen ripped away much like the man’s downstairs.
“Ella DeLong, Ray’s wife, 29 years old,” the detective said. “We found her 8-month fetus under the bed, a boy, his liver was missing, too.”
“I wish I were. That,” -- the detective pointed to an open closet -- “is her daughter Isabelle, 5 years old.”
Katie’s age. Bile rose to the back of Mulder’s throat. His knees felt like they might buckle. He had to force himself across the room on numbed legs. Once he reached the girl, he knelt to still his trembling. She was small. Defenseless against a monster like Tooms. Mulder fought the urge to gather up her scattered entrails and stuff them back into the gaping hole in her abdomen. He couldn’t help but imagine Katie in her place and thought he might vomit.
“See why I welcome your help, Agent Mulder? I don’t ever want to see anything like this again.”
Neither did he. He fumbled for his phone and his hands shook as he took a few photos. He hated the idea of sharing them with Scully. He considered cropping out everything but the wound but knew Scully would balk if he censored the evidence in an attempt to spare her feelings. As quickly as possible, he returned to the dead mother to shoot a few final pictures.
“Is anything missing from the house?” he asked the detective.
“Not that we noticed,” she said. “Oh, the girl is wearing only one barrette in her braids. It looks like a plastic ladybug. Cute. We didn’t find the other one. But you know kids, it could’ve been lost anywhere.”
He nodded, though he suspected Tooms took it. “I have what I need. I’ll get back to you.”
He lurched from the room and down the stairs, gripping the bannister. Outside on the porch, he drew in deep breaths. His heart was pounding. Sweat dripped down his back between his shoulder blades despite a mild evening breeze. He punched Scully’s speed dial number with his thumb and shakily brought the phone to his ear.
She answered after only one ring. “What did you find?”
He tried to speak and failed. Cleared his throat. “Is Katie in bed?”
“Yes, of course. It’s after 10 o’clock.”
His daughter was safe in her own bed. Then again, so was Isabelle before Tooms snuck into her house and murdered her, her parents, and her unborn brother.
“Mulder, are you okay?”
Was he? Maybe Scully was right and it really was time to pack it in, give up the X-Files and all they entailed. Stop chasing monsters, human or otherwise.
“Yeah. I’m okay. I’m fine.” Could she hear the unease in his voice?
She paused a moment. “What did the victim’s wound look like? Was it similar to the others?”
“Victims plural, Scully. There were three...uh, four.” Good god, Tooms ate the unborn fetus’s liver. It would’ve been tiny, a single bite.
“That’s two more than expected, I know.”
“This doesn’t track with Tooms’s past pattern.”
Was she still doubting Tooms was back?
“No, it doesn’t.” He couldn’t explain the extra victims but this was Tooms, he was certain. Wanting to put some distance between himself and the grisly scene inside, he descended the porch steps and followed the walkway to the street. He nodded at the uniformed officers as he passed them. “Maybe a need to super-size his quota has something to do with his missing hand...arm...whatever. Or maybe there’s more than one Eugene Tooms,” he said. “It’s possible the cleaning crew at the mall left behind more than just one piece.”
“Multiple mutants. That’s a creepy thought.”
Arriving at his car, Mulder leaned against it for support. “I’ve got pictures of the deceased if you want to see them.”
“Yes, of course.”
“They’re not easy to look at,” he warned.
“It’s a heinous crime, Mulder, but since when have I been squeamish?”
You might be when you see little Isabelle, he thought. He decided to start by showing her the photos of the wife and husband. “Okay, texting them now.”
He unlocked his car and slid behind the steering wheel, giving her time to receive and study the pictures. He was fitting the key into the ignition when he heard her gasp.
“Oh my God, Mulder, that’s the woman I met at the park.”
“It’s her. Her name was Ella.”
“Ella DeLong. Yes.”
“Jesus, she was eight months pregnant.”
Mulder decided to spare her the details about the fetus. “The male victim is her husband Ray.”
“What about their daughter? Is Isabelle alright?”
“Sorry, Scully. Tooms...he killed her, too.”
The crowd of lookie-loos was growing larger in front of the DeLong house. Several media outlets had arrived in vans. People loved a tragedy. Imagine if they knew the truth about this particular killer. No one would sleep tonight.
“The stomach contents, Mulder, the ice cream,” Scully said. “The killer could’ve been driving the ice cream truck that came to the park. That could be how he’s targeting his victims.”
“Do you remember the name of the company?”
“It had something to do with a circus. There was a red and white striped tent pictured on the side of the truck. Big Top, I think. Big Top Cones.”
“They have an outlet at City Square. It was one of the few stores still in operation.” He turned the key in the ignition and started the engine.
“Where are you going?” Scully asked.
“Where this all started more than a century ago: 66 Exeter Street.”
“Who’s your backup?”
“Give Katie a kiss for me,” he said and then hung up rather than tell her he was going alone. Skinner had made his position clear. There would be no additional agents, not until he could prove Tooms was at the mall. Well, he’d prove it, send Skinner photographic evidence, and finally get the help he needed. He put the car in drive and pulled out onto the street.
Late hour be damned, Scully immediately dialed Walter Skinner’s number.
“Dana?” Skinner sounded alarmed. “Is something wrong?”
She decided to get right to the point. “Did you assign backup for Mulder?”
“For...? What’s he done now?”
“He believes Tooms is back and has gone after him. Alone.”
“City Square, 66 Exeter Street.”
“Call him and stop him. Tell him to come back and wait until morning.”
“Stop Mulder from chasing after a monster? I think you know him better than that.” She checked the time again. How long would it take Mulder to drive to City Square from the crime scene? If the DeLongs lived near the park, it would take only about 20 minutes at this time of night. “Walter, you have to send someone. Now.”
“It doesn’t work that way anymore.”
“You’re the Deputy Director of the FBI! Certainly, you can authorize backup for an agent in danger.”
“He isn’t considered in danger because he isn’t supposed to be going off on his own without proper authorization, which I expressly denied.”
“When has that ever stopped Mulder before?”
“I’m sorry, there are protocols now, protocols even I can’t ignore, put in place for good reason after the 20/21 Pandemic. Mulder and I have discussed this. He needs to stand down, wait until I can get his request pushed through the appropriate channels.”
“You sound like a bureaucrat, Walter. You sound like Kersh!”
“Kersh followed a personal agenda,” he said, his annoyance clear, “which is why I go by the book.”
“I’m not seeing much difference if it puts Mulder’s life in danger.” She let her own annoyance bubble over. “Why haven’t you assigned him a new partner by now?”
“I’ve tried. Numerous times. The only partner he’s willing to accept left the Bureau five years ago.”
The accusation stung but she knew it was true. Mulder had told her outright he didn’t trust the agents Skinner pushed his way, either because they were too inexperienced or too rigid in their beliefs. He trusted only her. It was an old argument that had gone unresolved since the day she handed in her badge.
“I’m sorry, Dana, truly I am. This is our new reality.” The gruffness had gone out of his voice. She knew he was being sincere. “Look, I’ll call Mulder, order him back.”
“Not that he takes orders.”
“Be that as it may. I’ll also initiate a requisition for additional agents but I have to be honest with you, my order won’t go far at this time of night,” he said, frustration evident in his tone. “Mulder told me he lifted some prints at one of the crime scenes, said they matched Tooms’s. Do you think Tooms could really be back?”
Mulder had mentioned the prints but she still wasn’t convinced, not when his claim relied on a beta version of the IAFIS app.
“It doesn’t matter what I think. Mulder believes it.” She would question any theory, always, until it was proven, but years of working on the X-Files had taught her not to discount Mulder’s intuition out of hand despite any doubts she might have. And whether or not Tooms was back was beside the point. A cold-blooded killer was at large and Mulder had gone after him. Alone. He would need backup sooner rather than later. There had to be a way to get him the help he needed.
“Walter, I have an idea.”
Mulder drove slowly around City Square, taking a counterclockwise route as close to the sprawling mall as possible. His headlights illuminated loading docks, dumpsters, fire escapes, and delivery vans. The night guard’s security vehicle sat empty next to an employee entrance on the building’s south side. A call to the guard five minutes earlier had resulted in nothing but a recorded message. No one responded when he rapped on the locked doors at the front entrance either. Exit signs and security lights glowed dimly within the mall’s deserted interior. He was certain Tooms was in there but where exactly?
Thinking back to the blueprints the mall manager had supplied, he felt confident that Tooms would build his nest either in the storage unit on the second floor above the location of his original den or, more likely, higher up, on the roof near or inside the HVAC system. Tooms preferred tight, shadowy spaces for hibernation. Both locations fit the bill, but Mulder’s gut told him Tooms would choose the rooftop where the HVAC’s ductwork could provide easy access away from prying eyes.
Streetlamps cast ghostly puddles of light over the vast, empty parking lot that surrounded the mall. Many were unlit, their old mercury-vapor lamps burned out long ago and never upgraded with LEDs. A few cars raced along the Expressway to the west. Further away, the busier harbor neighborhoods glimmered with nighttime activity.
Mulder steered around one of the larger anchor stores. He slowed when a Big Top Cones ice cream truck came into view on the far side. It was backed up to a loading dock. The loading dock door was closed. He parked his car a few feet away. Scanning for any sign of movement, he shut off his engine and headlights. He waited a moment for his eyes to adjust to the relative dark before exiting the car.
The night air was unseasonably warm. Immediately, his suitcoat felt too hot. His fingers slid to his sidearm and he drew his gun. He stepped up to the truck, head swiveling, eyes and ears alert to the slightest movement or sound. A flapping noise brought his hands together, gripping his weapon, arms outstretched. He took aim at...two pigeons on the roof of the ice cream truck.
Annoyance huffed through his nose. He lowered his gun.
The truck’s side awning was down, blocking the serving window. Mulder peered cautiously into the side door window. The van had been retrofitted with a steering nob on the wheel for a one-armed driver. So Scully was right; Tooms was missing an arm. Mulder tried the door handle and found the vehicle was locked. He moved to look through the front windshield. A face mask printed with Big Top Cones logo dangled from the rearview mirror. It looked like a typical FDA-approved face covering for food handlers, required even two years after the pandemic ended. Seeing no movement within the van, he circled to the driver’s side.
Laying on the ground, face-up, was a middle-aged man wearing a bloodied, mall security uniform. His abdomen was torn open. His liver missing. This made victim number eight, putting the body count well over Tooms’s usual limit. Why was this creature of habit breaking his 100-year-old practice? Could there really be more than one Eugene Victor Tooms? He hoped not as he knelt beside the guard. The name on the man’s ID tag matched the name on the contact list he’d gotten from the mall manager.
Trying to work as quickly as possible, he took out his phone and snapped a photo, which he texted to Skinner with the message “Proof enough for you?”
He didn’t wait for a reply. He grabbed the guard’s keycard and rose to his feet.
A public side entrance was located about 90 yards away. Closer than the main entrance out front, it would get him inside more quickly. He jogged to the door, weapon in hand, eyes darting left, right, up, and back.
A swipe of the keycard unlocked the door. He pushed through. Security lights provided enough illumination to see without a flashlight. He stuck close to one wall as he made his way through a long food court. The various takeout counters were shuttered, either for the night or permanently. A centralized dining area had been thinned out, presumably two years ago during the pandemic, to leave extra space between the tables to allow for social distancing. Although a vaccine had eventually conquered the virus, the public was slow to embrace eating out like they once did.
His phone vibrated, alerting him to a text message. He fished the phone from his pocket. The message was from Skinner. “Finally,” Mulder mumbled as he opened the text.
“Help is on the way,” it said. “Do NOT go after the killer alone.”
Mulder punched in, “Too late,” and added a Face-Blowing-a-Kiss emoji for good measure, before shutting off his phone.
As stealthily as possible, he patrolled the shopping mall’s large central hall. The hall opened up into a spacious center court, with additional hallways snaking north-south and east-west. A curved stairway led up to the second level. Capping the two-story center court was a pyramid-shaped skylight. A quarter moon glowed above the glass panels. Mulder warily started up the stairs.
His footfalls echoed through the empty space. It was impossible to keep a lookout in every direction and he found himself missing someone to watch his back. Specifically, he missed Scully. He understood her reasons for leaving the Bureau but that didn’t mean he didn’t wish she was still his partner, right there with him.
He paused at the top of the stairs to try to reorient himself to the blueprints in his head. He wasn’t good with maps, he knew. He stared down one long, dim hall, then pivoted to look down another. The service wing was this way. Wasn’t it?
A flash of movement ahead saved him from making a decision. He caught a glimpse of a shadowy figure wearing a white uniform. The man stared at him with glowing yellow-green eyes. Even at this distance, he recognized Tooms. And Tooms recognized him, registering surprise before turning away and breaking into a run. Mulder gave chase. He began to gain on him when, halfway down the hall, Tooms abruptly scaled a closed security gate and slithered into a tiny air vent high up on the wall. It all happened in less time than Mulder would’ve thought possible. He continued to run, skidding to a stop only when he arrived in front of the gate. The roll-down grille provided scant room for finger and toeholds. He grabbed hold and hoisted himself to the top, but found the vent out of reach, at least five feet above his head. The opening would’ve been too small for him to crawl through in any case. He lowered himself back to the floor.
Tooms may have the advantage when it came to climbing but Mulder had the guard’s key to the cargo elevator. He set off at a jog to find the service wing. He didn’t have far to go. A sign ahead indicated a narrow side-hall, which led to public restrooms and, further down, a restricted area marked “Employees Only.”
Mulder hurried down the hall and, reaching the employee entrance, swiped the guard’s keycard across the pad. The door unlocked and he slipped through. On the other side, he found storage rooms, an employee lounge, and a large cargo elevator. At the elevator, he punched the up button. His instincts told him Tooms was headed to the roof through the HVAC vents.
It took only a few seconds before the car arrived and the door slid open. He stepped inside and pressed the button for the roof.
The ride between floors wasn’t long. The car soon slowed, then jerked to a stop. Mulder raised his gun, readying himself in case Tooms was waiting for him on the other side. The door opened with a quiet hiss. The room beyond was empty. He crossed the short distance to the windowless exterior door. Gripping his gun in his right hand, he turned the handle with his left and slowly cracked it open. Warm night air flowed into the room, carrying a smell of car exhaust and oily roofing tar combined with the murky odor of the nearby Patapsco River. He cautiously stepped out onto the roof, aiming his gun left, then right. Tooms was nowhere in sight.
There were plenty of hiding places. Solar panel arrays overlaid much of the expansive rooftop. Several pyramidal windows poked up over atriums below, including the large skylight above the mall’s center court, where Mulder stood only minutes ago. Vents snaked in and out of a colossal HVAC system. Hulking fans hummed loudly nearby. The roof consisted of various levels. Guardrails protected their perimeters. Pipes containing utility lines zigzagged across the flat surfaces. Several satellite dishes dotted the roof at distant intervals.
For the first time since arriving at City Square, Mulder thought maybe Skinner was right and he should’ve waited for backup. This was a lot of area for one man to cover.
Too late now, he thought, and moved away from the elevator room. The moon provided scant light but store signage attached to the outsides of the building supplied an ambient glow around the roof’s perimeter.
Mulder stepped carefully over raised pipes and beneath support struts as he worked his way toward the HVAC system. Its housing would provide plenty of protected nooks and crannies where Tooms could build his nest. He passed the skylight over the central court. The court with its curved staircase was visible through the glass. The distance to the tile floor two stories below caused his stomach to roll.
A metal unit about the size of a shipping container hunkered atop a raised platform 100 feet ahead. Ductwork linked up to the housing on several sides. The internal machinery hummed like an army of giant insects. Mulder knew HVAC systems contained water pumps, heating and cooling coils, blowers, and filters. The largest components were the cooling towers and air handling units. Fans moved air through supply and return ducts. Years ago, Scully was nearly sucked into a spinning fan at Eurisko Headquarters, when the COS that controlled the building’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system went rogue. If not for some fancy shooting on Scully’s part, that case might’ve been their last together. Just one month after they first met Tooms.
Twenty paces brought him halfway to the unit. That’s when he smelled it, the familiar acrid odor of bile: vinegary, brackish, bitter. Tooms’s nest was close by.
He followed his nose to a loose panel at one end of the air handling unit. On top of the unit, directly above the panel, were the items Tooms had stolen from his victims. He’d lined them up in a neat row. In the order they were taken, Mulder noticed. Lauren Freeman’s teacup, Aaron Ruiz’s family photo, Michael Chase’s salt shaker, an Orioles cap presumably belonging to Ray DeLong, a cheap keyring with Ella DeLong’s initials on it, and little Isabelle’s ladybug barrette.
Most killers collected trophies to relive their kill later on, experience the thrill of the murder again through the trophy. But why would Tooms take these things? Thirty years ago, Mulder had told Scully to think of Tooms as an animal that killed only out of necessity or self-defense. He had no reason to keep reminders of his victims.
None of the stolen items were valuable in and of themselves. There didn’t appear to be anything especially significant or even personal about them. All of them were just ordinary, everyday objects.
Mulder wondered if that might be the reason Tooms took them. They made him feel normal. Maybe he didn’t want to be what he was.
The thought was sad but Mulder wasn’t going to waste time feeling sorry for Tooms.
The loose panel had been left leaning in place against the frame. The corner screws rested inside the teacup. Once again, Mulder found himself wishing for help...Scully’s help...to watch his back while he lifted the panel aside. It was made of aluminum, so wouldn’t be heavy, but would require two hands and he wasn’t willing to holster his gun. He gave a cautious look over his shoulder before tilting the panel out far enough to peek behind it.
It was impossible to see anything in the dark but he heard movement, like snakes slithering in their underground burrow. The inside of the unit appeared packed with wet newspapers and rags, similar to the nests Tooms had built in the past. A greenish-yellow goo dripped from the upper edge of the opening. The smell was nearly overpowering.
Holding his breath, he used his foot to help slide the panel to one side. Ambient light filtered into the nest. Something fleshy squirmed within the hollow of sodden paper scraps. Several somethings. He pulled his flashlight from his pocket and pointed its beam into the cavity.
The light exposed four partially formed creatures, each the size of a two- or three-year-old child. They were miniature versions of Tooms except less complete. Their bodies amorphous. Shockingly so. Mostly torso with nubs for arms and legs. Short necks attached to deflated faces with gaping mouths and sunken eyes. Their bodies lengthened and contracted, able to squirm and twist but not functional enough to crawl from their nest. Mewling noises hummed in their throats. Air snuffled from holes where their noses should have been. As Mulder’s light panned over them, they opened their mouths, exposing thrashing tongues. They squeaked like baby birds begging for food.
It occurred to Mulder that Tooms must have to feed them. They were essentially helpless. This was why he had taken the extra livers. To keep his underdeveloped “siblings” alive.
A wallop from behind to the side of the head sent Mulder sprawling. Blood gushed from his left temple and flooded his eye. He blinked, trying to see. Shook his head to clear the stars from his brain.
A kick to his right wrist drove the gun from his hand. It skidded several yards away, impossibly out of reach. He scrambled to turn and face his attacker.
It was Tooms. And yet it wasn’t, not quite. His left arm was missing. But that wasn’t his only deformity. The side of his face...it appeared collapsed, the lower jaw half gone. His nose leaned to one side, malformed. When he sneered, he displayed several missing teeth. The mask in his van would’ve hidden these facial abnormalities from the public. Unmasked, his disfigurement appeared shocking. Regenerated from scraps of his former body, he was not completely reborn.
He limped toward Mulder, one leg clearly shorter than the other. Mulder struggled to his feet. He was barely upright before Tooms lunged and plowed into him, head to gut. The blow knocked the wind from his lungs, pushed him back several paces. He stumbled, tripping over a raised pipe, but managed to remain upright. Before he could catch his breath, Tooms came at him again. This time Mulder was ready.
He blocked an uppercut. Threw a punch of his own. Struck Tooms in his disfigured nose. He followed with a second punch that slammed into the other man’s jaw. Tooms wobbled but didn’t drop or yell out. Blood drooled from a split in his lower lip.
“Eugene Victor Tooms, you’re under arrest,” -- Mulder hoped he sounded more intimidating than he felt -- “for the murders of Lauren Freeman, Aaron Ruiz...and...and a shitload of others. Including a fucking fetus!”
Tooms swiped the blood from his lip, then smiled slowly. He waited only a second or two before he charged. His shoulder rammed into Mulder’s ribs. Hard. The impact forced a grunt from his lungs. Tooms continued to push him backward, shoving him across the roof toward the outer edge of the building.
Mulder was astonished by Tooms’ strength. He scrambled and pressed back with all the force he could muster, hoping to slow their progress. After what seemed an eternity, they came to a standstill next to the safety railing. The barrier appeared woefully inadequate, low enough to toss or push a man over the side to certain death. Mulder had no doubt that Tooms had the strength to do it.
“You have the right to remain silent,” he continued, stalling for time while searching for a way to gain the upper hand. He considered trying to handcuff Tooms to the rail, just as Scully had cuffed him to her bathtub so many years ago. “Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.”
To shift them away from the edge of the roof, Mulder lobbed an uppercut that sent Tooms staggering backward. He pressed his advantage. Threw a haymaker that forced Tooms even further from the rail, back toward his nest and the relative safety of the central roof.
“You have a right to talk to an attorney and have them present while you’re being questioned.”
Tooms responded with a punch. It hit Mulder’s chin with surprising force, rocking him on his heels. He regained his balance and struck back at Tooms. Again. And again.
Though bruised and bleeding, Tooms remained upright. He seemed unfazed by the rain of blows. His strength unaffected. His reactions as swift as when their fight began. He didn’t even appear winded. With a look of smug assurance, he launched himself at Mulder, hooked his arm around his neck, and tightened his grip into a chokehold. Mulder struggled as the pressure on his throat intensified.
“If...you cannot...afford to hire...an attorney--”
Tooms placed his lips against Mulder’s ear and whispered, “I’ve been waiting for you.”
“Cut...cut it out, Eugene!”
An elbow to the stomach loosened Tooms’s grip. Mulder broke free. Gulped air into his lungs. He stumbled several paces, widening the space between them, but was prevented from further escape by the pyramid-shaped skylight behind him.
Tooms smiled again. Confident. Unafraid. A predator having cornered his prey. His skill as a killer had been honed by a century of practice. From five feet away, he stretched out his arm. It continued to extend, growing inhumanly long. Mulder blinked in surprise. He knew Tooms possessed this ability but to actually see it was shocking. Elongated fingers reached toward him. Snatched his wrist. Twined around his arm.
The sound of breaking bones startled Mulder almost as much as the ungodly pain that shot through his arm. He screamed. His knees buckled.
Tooms wasted no time and leapt on him. He wrapped his disproportionately long arm around Mulder’s body. Squeezed him. Tighter. Tighter still. Mulder struggled to break free. To breathe. He rocked his body, trying to unbalance Tooms. He managed to roll on top of him as they collapsed against the slanting skylight, legs tangled, arms locked. Mulder felt like he was in the grip of a boa constrictor, being crushed, suffocated.
His body pinned Tooms to the glass and he wondered if the window could hold their combined weight. Or would he gasp his last breath just before he and Tooms plunged through the skylight together, dying on the tile floor two stories below?
Dizzy from lack of oxygen, his vision grayed. He was losing consciousness.
He heard Tooms laugh as if from a great distance. The thud of his own pounding heart muffled all other sounds. He no longer heard the hum of the HVAC. Or his own gurgled shouts. Something exploded far away, reminding him of a slamming door.
Tooms’s head jerked backward. A look of shock flitted across his features before his eyes lost their focus and his expression went blank. A trickle of blood leaked from a dime-sized hole in his temple.
The pressure on Mulder’s body slackened. He sucked air into his lungs. His vision began to clear. That’s when he saw fragments of Tooms’ skull and a spray of brains splattered across the skylight beneath them. A spider web of cracks formed in the glass around a bullet hole. The breach began to expand, snapping and popping as it grew larger. Mulder couldn’t move, couldn’t pull away. He was trapped in Tooms’s deadly embrace.
Then he felt hands on the back of his coat. He was being tugged upward, off Tooms, off the breaking window. He cradled his broken arm. Moaned.
“I’ve got you,” Scully said, her arms reaching around his waist, pulling him away from Tooms, toward safety.
The skylight gave way with a tremendous crash. Tooms tumbled through the breach. Scully gasped.
Mulder, swaying unsteadily, took a faltering step toward the skylight but was halted when Scully blocked his way. “Mulder, please sit down before you fall over.”
When he tried to push past her, she put her arms around him and held on.
“I don’t want to dance, Scully.”
“Let me help you.”
“I need to be sure he’s dead, not hanging by his 10-inch fingers from a ceiling fan.”
“Fine. We’ll both look. Together.”
With her holding onto him, they approached the shattered skylight and peered down. Tooms wasn’t miraculously alive, saved by his unique physiology. He lay in an expanding pool of blood on the tile floor, his legs and one arm twisted at unnatural angles.
“You were right, Mulder. It really was Tooms.”
“More or less.” He didn’t feel up to gloating. “This time, let’s be sure to pick up all the pieces.”
Every bone and muscle in his body ached. Blood from the cut on his brow rained onto Scully’s sleeve, drawing her attention to his battered face.
“But alive. Thanks to you,” he said through gritted teeth. Then it occurred to him, the strangeness of her being there. How and why had she come? “Where’s Katie?”
“Don’t worry, she’s with ‘Uncle Walter.’” She helped Mulder sit. “He wasn’t able to get you the backup you asked for in anything approaching a timely manner, so it seemed only fair that he watch over his god-daughter tonight while I came to help you.”
“Skinner knew you were coming here?”
“I mentioned it, yes.”
“And he let you go?”
“Let me...?” She raised an eyebrow. “You know, I was an agent for a lot of years. A lot, lot of years.”
“But nothing. It’s like riding a bike, Mulder.” Scully tenderly prodded his brow to determine the extent of his injury. Noticing the way he was supporting his left arm, she carefully ran her hands along it. “This is broken and you need stitches to close that cut on your forehead. I’m calling 911.” She moved away to make her call.
Mulder struggled to his feet, earning a glare from Scully. He hugged his arm to his chest. It hurt like a son-of-a-bitch, but he wanted another look at the nest. He shuffled over to the HVAC unit.
The four odd beings were just as he’d left them, curled around each other. For warmth? For protection? On closer inspection, Mulder noticed minor differences between them. Not just their disparate sizes but the extent or lack of their appendages. Fingers sprouted from the shoulder of the largest being, complete with fingernails. Another had a partial foot growing from its hip. One appeared to have no eyes. Another had only one. All were lopsided and top-heavy.
“Scully, you have to see this.”
“You need to sit down.” She placed an arm around his waist when she joined him beside the nest. “Oh my god,” she said, seeing them for the first time.
“He was caring for them, feeding them. That’s why he needed the extra livers.”
Almost as if the creatures understood his words, all four opened their mouths and emitted anxious squeals.
“These all came from pieces of Tooms?” she said, clearly surprised.
He nodded, sending a jolt of pain to his head. “It’s like you suggested, they must not have had enough mass to regenerate into whole beings.”
Broken arm folded tight to his chest, Mulder struggled with his other hand to dig his phone from his pocket. “I want pictures for my records. My cell...I can’t reach it.”
“You need to stop moving around.”
“Then you take the pictures.”
“Fine, I’ll take pictures. You sit until the paramedics arrive.”
Feeling ready to collapse, he sat and watched her snap photos of arguably the strangest mutants they’d ever encountered.
Katie was going to love this story.
Mulder’s injuries earned him a week away from the office. For perhaps the first time in his life, he didn’t mind it. In fact, he was enjoying his recovery at home. His broken arm throbbed, the stitches in his forehead stung, and he could barely see out of his blackened left eye, but he was still lying in bed after 8:00 a.m., wearing nothing but pajama bottoms, the bed as comfortable as a homecoming, and best of all, he had his family nearby. Scully was downstairs making breakfast, dishes clattering in the sink, the smell of cinnamon wafting up the stairwell. Katie sat cross-legged on the bed beside him, quietly drawing pictures on his cast with colored markers.
Family. He’d been looking for one for decades. Since before his mother committed suicide. Before his father was murdered. Before his parents divorced. The moment he truly lost his family was the night Samantha was taken. Hard to believe that was 50 years ago. An immeasurable emptiness had dogged him ever since. Until now. Finally. Scully and Katie filled that emptiness in a way he never thought possible.
Katie placed her small hand gently over his fingers just below his cast. Her touch was feather-light. “Does it hurt, Daddy?” she asked, staring at the solid, plaster cast that encased his arm from his knuckles to just above the elbow.
“No, sweetheart. It’s fine.” A lie, but he didn’t want his child to worry.
Her gaze shifted to his face. Tears filled her eyes. Her lip trembled. “Does your face hurt?”
“No.” He wrapped her in a hug and kissed the crown of her head. “Your old Dad is okay,” he whispered against her hair.
“Mommy says you’ll have a scar.”
“She’s probably right. She knows about these things.”
Katie pulled back to look at him. “But I don’t want you to have a scar!”
“I already have a scar, Katie. More than one, in fact. They don’t hurt and they didn’t change who I am.”
Now she looked more curious than concerned. “Where is your scars?”
“There’s one right here.” He pointed to the old gunshot wound on his left shoulder.
“That’s a scar?”
“How did it get there?”
Telling her that her mother shot him was probably a bad idea, so he changed the subject instead.
“Did you have a good time with Uncle Walter?”
She nodded. “It was okay. He doesn’t have any toys.”
“No, I imagine not.” He handed her a marker so she would start drawing again. “What did you do there?”
“He told me a story.” She drew several purple squiggly lines near his wrist. “A mewdant story!”
“Which mutant story?”
“The one about the fluteman.”
“Ah.” He picked up a marker and drew the flukeman’s sucker-like mouth. “You liked that story?”
“I love that story! You fell into a pool of poop!” Katie dissolved into a fit of giggles.
“You think that’s funny?”
“Uh-huh. Uncle Walter said you stank for a year!”
“Uncle Walt exaggerates.”
“Stretches the truth.”
“You didn’t fall in poop?”
“Almost time to eat,” Scully announced as she walked into the bedroom. She leaned down to kiss Mulder.
“Saved by the breakfast bell,” he murmured against her lips.
“Mommy’s making cindamon rolls!”
“Katie, go downstairs and finish setting the table, please. I need to talk to your father for a few minutes.”
“I want to hear!” She waved her colored marker like an orchestra conductor, punctuating each word.
“Please, do as I ask.”
Katie didn’t look happy about the idea. She dropped her marker and clung to Mulder’s hand.
“Make sure to put out my favorite coffee mug,” he said to encourage her.
“The one with the spaceships?” She brightened.
“That’s the one.”
Katie planted a quick peck on his lips before bouncing across the bed and climbing off. She did a ballerina twirl on her way out the door.
“Oh, to be young and energetic,” Mulder said. He reached for Scully’s pillows to raise himself into a seated position.
“How are you feeling?” She sat on the edge of the bed.
“I still have my liver.”
She didn’t smile.
“Speaking of Tooms,” he said, “what’s happened to him?”
“Skinner ordered him cremated.”
“The science geeks at Quantico must be disappointed. No doubt they were hoping to study his remains.”
“We science geeks are like that.”
“You’re certain they didn’t save a body part in a jar somewhere?”
“I hope not.” She regarded his black eye, the stitches in his brow. “To make sure Tooms stays dead this time, I’m having his cremains mixed with cement and poured into your Bigfoot foot impression as a mold.”
“Ah! That’ll make a perfect tombstone for me.” He readjusted the pillows to sit himself up a little higher. “What happened to the mini-Toomses?”
“Homeland Security took possession of them.”
“So they’re in cages somewhere.”
“That’s probably not far from the truth.” She traced one of Katie’s squiggles on his cast with her finger. “Do you realize I’ll be almost 90 when those creatures wake up from hibernation?”
“And I’ll be chasing them in a wheelchair.”
“Katie will be only 35.”
“Good, she can take care of us.”
“Do we really want to put that on her?” She looked at him with obvious concern.
“Scully, you’re going to live forever. Clyde Bruckman said so.”
She allowed herself a tiny smile. “And we know what he said about you.”
“It’s a wonder I’ve lasted this long.” He reached out and lightly tapped her arm. “You didn’t send Katie out of the room to talk about the case. We could’ve discussed Tooms after she was in bed. Something else on your mind?”
Worry played across her features. She paused, gathering her thoughts or maybe her courage. Whatever she planned to say, it was going to be serious.
“I never apologized to you,” she said at last, avoiding his eyes.
“For not believing me about Tooms? I expected you to challenge that.”
“No, Mulder, for asking you to change. Giving you an ultimatum and then carrying through with that ultimatum by leaving you.”
“Oh. That. I can be hard to live with, I know.” He chanced taking hold of her hand. Loosely, in case she decided to pull away.
“I fell in love with you for who you are,” she said, looking him in the eyes at last. She didn’t withdraw her hand. “Who you’ve always been. I lost sight of that, Mulder, for my own reasons. I was the one who changed. I’m sorry I didn’t see that more clearly. And act more selflessly.”
It dawned on him that these were the words he’d been longing to hear since the day she’d walked out. He’d been blaming himself all this time, giving her the benefit of the doubt. Her departure made him question himself, their entire relationship, and wonder if she ever truly loved him.
“Do you remember our conversation in the Cathedral of the Sacraments, about prayer and the transitive power of faith?” he asked.
“Do you remember what you whispered in my ear at the alter?”
Rising up on tiptoes, she’d whispered something he hadn’t expected to hear: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, Mulder. My hope is to be reunited with you. In all ways. That’s my prayer.”
He’d looked at her, trying to determine if what she said was true. She continued, saying aloud, “That’s not my 4-year-old self looking for a miracle. That’s my leap of faith forward. And I’d like to do it together.”
He’d nodded at the time, saying, “I’ve always wondered how this was going to end.”
Deep down, however, doubt prevented him from accepting her prayer as the truth. But he believed her now. She’d changed, in a way that could work for them both. She’d clearly reconciled who he was, who they both were at this point in their lives.
If A equals B and B equals C, therefore A equals C. The transitive property of faith. By whispering into his ear that day, she was speaking to God through him. And it seemed her prayer was answered after all.
His, too, extended through hers.
She reached for the photo Chuck Burks had taken on their wedding day, on display on the nightstand. Looking contemplative, she ran her fingers over the image. “I meant what I said in the church, though I’m not sure you believed me.”
“I wanted to believe.”
“And now? Do you believe?”
“I’m still right here beside you, Scully. That was my choice then and it’s my choice now. It’s always been my choice.” He was almost afraid to ask his next question. “Is it yours, too?”
“Yes, Mulder, it’s my choice, too.”
She handed him the photo. What a strange picture it was, capturing Katie’s life force within Scully’s womb, mere weeks after conception. He wondered now how he ever could have doubted their bond, her words, her love.
“I’ve got good news for you.” He set the photo back on the nightstand.
“You’re quitting the FBI?”
“Maybe not that good.” He bestowed a sympathetic smile. “Skinner offered me a new partner and I’m...going to accept this one.”
“Special Agent Einstein?”
“God no. A more open-minded agent, only a year out of the Academy.”
“And you’re going along with this now because...?”
“Because young Agent Matthew Somers distinguished himself earlier this month when he wrote up a report about a killer he described as a ‘preternatural monster, similar to the Snallygaster’.”
A soft, derisive snort chuffed from her nose. “A snollygoster is a clever, unscrupulous person."
"What are you implying?" he asked, mugging an offended expression. At her shrug, he clarified, "Snallygaster -- with two A's -- is a nocturnal creature reportedly seen right here in rural Maryland. Part reptile and part bird, it’s said to prey on poultry and small children.”
“By any chance, did Agent Somers catch this ‘preternatural monster’ with two A's?”
“No. But he believed in it, Scully. That shows promise.”
His cast itched and weighted his arm in a way that made him feel clumsy and slow. It surprised him how easily he’d been overpowered by a one-armed, limping, 100-year-old mutant. He hated to admit it, even to himself, but he wasn’t as spry as he used to be, despite all the workouts at the Bureau gym and the miles he jogged. What happened to that kick-ass agent who just a few years ago put down Russian Commander Al in a lengthy session of hand-to-hand combat at Titanpointe? Okay, maybe he didn’t feel so great after that fight either, but that had been at the end of a really long, hard day.
“You may have noticed, Scully, I’m not getting any younger.”
She replied with a noncommittal, “Hm.”
“I’ll need someone to pass the torch to...eventually. Somers is young and fit. He can take the ass-kickings. But, even more important than that, he and I are of like minds.”
“If you’re of like minds, who’s going to keep you honest?”
“I’ve still got you for that.”
“What about Somers, after you pass the torch?”
He reached for her and pulled her down onto the bed beside him. A rare giggle escaped her lips.
“Somers will have to find his own Scully,” he said into her neck, nuzzling her, enjoying the smooth, inviting feel of her skin. “Do you think Katie’s okay on her own for a couple more minutes?”
“I think we better go feed our child, Mulder. We can pick this up again tonight after she’s in bed. That way, you can give me more than a couple of minutes.”
“One of the few advantages of being an older man.”
She kissed his nose and rose from the bed. At the door, she paused and turned to him.
“Snallygaster? Really, Mulder?
(Posted September 7, 2020)
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