Andukha

See My First X-Files Story for the basic author’s notes.


Author's Notes: A special thanks to my son Chris, who helped flesh out the rough idea and helped with research by talking to his Wiccan friends.  The idea for this story came from—I’m sure no one will be surprised to find out—my training as a Detroit Zoo volunteer.  Everything in here regarding zoo volunteer policy is true, as is my description of the zoo, although all characters are fictional.

The title is the Tagalog (one of the Philippine dialects) word for “protection”—or at least as closely as I could get it translated.


Spoilers: Everything up until Season 7, does not follow canon for anything after “Je Souhaite.”  Second in my ‘Season 8 never happened’ series which began with “Hidden”.


Synopsis:. Mulder and Scully investigate a child kidnapping where the seven-year-old victim appears to have mysteriously killed her abductor at a zoo.


Size: 17,600 words


Much thanks to my incomparable betas, Cory and Alia, for their hard work—

I can’t imagine my stories without your polishing.


Disclaimer: These characters are not mine, never were, I just borrowed them for a while for non-profit use.  They’re back home where they belong by now, I’m sure.

 


Andukhâ

By Suzanne L. Feld

Rated R for adult situations and language


Day 1

“Why Detroit, Mulder?”

“It’s the Detroit Zoo but it’s not within the city limits, Scully.  It’s actually in the city of Royal Oak, which is a suburb of Detroit.”

“That’s not the point.  The point is that it’s August, it’s hot and humid, and this is not one of the states that we want to be in at this time of the year.  I’ve spent time in Michigan in the summer, so I know what it’s like.”

“Less hot and humid than D.C.”

“Not as pleasant as, say, Alaska this time of year.”

“You find me a case in Alaska and we’re there.”

She sighed as she turned to look out the tiny airplane window, holding her temper by dint of will.  Mulder was at his finest today, needling her in high spirits while she was getting more and more annoyed with him.  She wasn’t sure if he was oblivious to it or he didn’t care; either was dangerous.

Her temper was somewhat alleviated after they deplaned into the new terminal, which reminded her of Dulles.  She’d been expecting something more like LaGuardia: old, dirty, cramped, crowded.  Instead, they walked through a clean, bright, spacious new terminal that had bustling stores lining every wall and, while the place was very busy, it was wide open enough to not feel crowded once they were away from the gate.  “Wow—this is the last thing I expected to see in Detroit of all places,” Scully admitted as they stepped onto the moving walkway towards the baggage claim area.  “I thought Metro would be small and dirty.”

“This is a Northwest hub and was just recently rebuilt,” Mulder told her, shifting his heavy laptop case to the other shoulder.  Skinner’s insistence that both of them begin carrying laptops really got on his nerves, but after they’d mistakenly left Scully’s laptop in a rental car a few weeks ago and it was stolen, he guessed he could understand why, albeit grudgingly.  It wasn’t like anyone could get to the data on it as the Gunmen had encrypted it, and Scully of course had a full backup saved, but nonetheless… and if Skinner had known why they’d forgotten it, he’d probably string them up in the secret FBI dungeon, Mulder mused with a private smile.  Skinner’d take them another level down below their basement office, to the torture chamber reserved for partners who fooled around on duty.   But it had been worth anything Skinner could deal out, Mulder thought with a mental leer.  Just remembering their unexpected and wildly passionate tryst in the back of that rental Crown Vic while waiting for the towtruck was enough to make sweat break out on his forehead despite the airport’s air conditioning.

Though he had been afraid that once they made love they’d get bored with each other, exactly the opposite seemed to have happened.  And nothing could have made him happier, he thought.

“The look on your face worries me,” Scully said dryly from beside him, her laptop case and carryon bag resting at her feet as the walkway carried them across the huge terminal.  “I’m almost, but not quite, afraid to ask.”

“Just thinking about why I have to carry a laptop now,” he said, nudging her upper arm with his elbow.  “Why we forgot yours when the towtruck showed up earlier than we thought it would.  I’d like to try that position in a be—”

“Jesus, Mulder, keep your voice down,” she shushed him, shades of rose appearing on her cheeks.  He found it becoming and wished he dared kiss her, but between the moving walkway and the possibility of onlookers who might recognize them, he didn’t dare; in public and on a case they were nothing more than partners.  Then she glanced up at him and, despite herself, he suspected, gave him a crooked, close-mouthed smile.  “But it is a memory worth keeping.”

He was relieved that her temper seemed to be calming; he had no clue why she’d been so damn crabby on the plane.  She hadn’t said a word about where they were going when she’d read the file, only been as intrigued as he with the case, although, of course, for a different reason.  Without even being told, he knew that she assumed that it was a person who’d saved little Brianna Madrais from her kidnapper, while his theory was that it was a guardian angel or other spirit.  She hadn’t even gotten annoyed when he’d quoted a story by Mercedes Lackey about a possessed teddy bear, which saved a little girl from a pedophile.  Although she had, quite understandably, been highly amused that he was reading books by an author best known for writing stories about talking magical horses.

For some odd reason she hadn’t gotten pissed at him until they were descending into Detroit and the pilot had announced the local time and weather… weather, he realized.  It was 92 with a 79% humidity index, he recalled.  Oh.  Scully didn’t do well with extreme temperatures since her little sojourn in Antarctica a few years back, be it hot or cold.  Well, he’d try to keep her comfortable temperature-wise and see if that helped her annoyance levels at all.

They followed the signs to the baggage carousels without talking, both lost in thought.  By the time they’d climbed into their rental Cobalt—he didn’t say a word when Scully blasted the AC—and headed for I-94, she seemed to be back to her normal even-temperedness and had begun reviewing the file.  Mulder mulled it over in his head as he had won the coin toss and was driving.

Brianna Madrais, age seven, had visited the Detroit Zoo with her parents and older brother on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in August.  Their trip had been uneventful until they reached the Arctic Ring of Life exhibit that featured polar bears, seals, arctic foxes, and snow owls in as realistic habitats as could be managed in a zoo.  The main attraction was a wide acrylic tube that ran beneath the huge swimming tanks and allowed visitors to watch the bears and seals, separated by a clear plastic wall, in an aquatic habitat.  It was easily the most crowded exhibit in the zoo and it wasn’t unusual that children were lost from sight in it.  It was here that the Madraises “lost” Brianna, but after just a few minutes of searching, her father had immediately notified the nearest zoo staff members that his daughter was missing.

The zoo staff, used to dealing with children wandering away from their parents, had immediately sprung into action.  Mulder had discovered in his research for this case that normally child and parent were reunited within fifteen minutes.  But when nearly thirty minutes had gone by with no sign of Brianna, a red alert had been called and the zoo locked down, all exiting people and cars stopped and searched. 

Though it was rare, children were still sometimes openly snatched from public places and it was assumed that this might have happened.  Mulder knew from previous cases that pedophiles listed zoos on their websites as a prime place to watch children, although he couldn’t believe they’d be stupid enough to try and grab one from there with all the security cameras and so on now in public places.  Still, they were occasionally desperate enough to try it—and, horribly enough, sometimes got lucky when they did snatch a child.

But less than forty minutes after her disappearance, Brianna had been found behind the giraffe house by a zoo volunteer, her face streaked with tears, hair and clothes disheveled, her backpack missing but otherwise unharmed; not so much as a bruise or scratch on her.  It was her story of what had happened, stuck to with a child’s innocent stubbornness, that had called out the X-Files team.

Scully watched the huge water tower advertising the Detroit Zoo approach and then recede as Mulder drove past it.  “Where are we staying?” she asked, knowing it was too late to visit the zoo. “I just hope that it’s at least marginally better than that hellhole in Alabama.”

“The Woodward Arms Motel, two blocks north of Eleven Mile Road on the east side of the street,” Mulder said, recalling from memory the directions that were written down in the casefile sitting on the seat between them.  “It’s only a mile or so past the zoo; should be just a couple of lights up.”

As soon as they entered the office, they knew they’d not hit paydirt this trip, either.  “Hour or night?” the bored clerk behind a scratched and cloudy Plexiglas pane asked, barely glancing at them.

“Two singles, with a connecting door if you’ve got it,” Mulder said, rapping on the glass with his knuckles to get his attention.  “Next to each other if you don’t.”

The clerk heaved a sigh and turned to face them, his eyes going wide as he saw Scully’s badge pressed against the dingy barrier.  “Oh, uh, sure,” he said, now looking wary rather than bored.  “You, uh, ain’t with the IRS or anything, are you?”

“No, we’re investigating the kidnapping at the zoo yesterday,” Mulder said, thinking as he tossed his Bureau credit card into the metal tray set in the bottom of the Plexiglas that he’d never understand how the letters FBI and IRS seemed to be interchangeable at times to John Q. Public.  “Not sure how long we’ll be staying.”

“I’ll keep your rooms free until you tell me you’re leavin’,” the clerk said, sliding a pen and piece of paper back through the tray.  “Just fill that out for me.  Heard about that little girl; glad they found her okay, but was it really her guardian angel like they’re sayin’?”

Scully glared up at her partner as he grinned down at her.  “That’s what we’re here to find out.”

***

They left the Royal Oak police station even more baffled than when they’d entered it barely an hour before.  “That makes no sense, Mulder,” Scully said for the umpteenth time.  “How could the kidnapper just be dead with no cause, no injuries, no anything?  Human beings don’t just drop over for no reason!  I have to examine that body.”

“It’s waiting for you in the morgue at Royal Oak Beaumont Hospital, which is just a mile or so north of our motel.  Why don’t you drop me off and head over there?  I want to do some research.”

“Hmph,” Scully huffed, catching the keys he tossed to her, “research involving the adult movie channel at the motel, I bet.”

“I’ve given up that vice since we’ve been together, Scully.”  He winked then threw her a meaningful look as she slid the seat forward.  “No, seriously, I want to get on the Internet and see if I can find anything like this ever happening at the zoo before.”

“Is there even Internet access at that sleazy motel?” she wondered out loud, waiting for two marked police cruisers to pull out before she left the parking space in the cops’ lot.

“I called and made sure of it before we left D.C., though I didn’t realize just how bad the place was,” he said, loosening his tie and unbuttoning the top two buttons on his shirt.  “Ah, that’s better.  Yeah, I bet the old Woodward Arms will be hopping tonight.”

She didn’t ask; she didn’t want to know.

***

It was well after dark when she got back to the motel and found out what he meant.  Though it certainly wasn’t as obvious as some of the sleazier motels they’d stayed at, there were enough scantily-clad women in the small attached café as well as walking around aimlessly nearby to make it clear that if you were interested in female companionship, they were available.  One young lady in skimpy heels, skintight black Spandex bike shorts and tube top, and faux leopard-fur jacket was lounging innocently at the bus stop by the street.  She looked like an advertisement for Rebooks had crashed into a billboard advertising the movie “Pretty Woman.”

Though they eyed her, no one approached Scully as she climbed the stairway to the second floor where their rooms were.  She had discovered earlier, to her relief, that the accommodations were meticulously clean if decorated in Early American By The Hour.  “You’d better keep this door locked if you don’t want a visit from one of the many ladies of the evening wandering around out front,” she remarked as she walked in through the unlocked door.

Mulder looked up from where he was sitting on the bed with his laptop, surrounded by the case file and photos. “You noticed, huh?”  His disarming grin went straight to her heart and sunk in there.  He was comfortably attired in grey jogging shorts and a matching t-shirt, the air conditioning holding the room at a comfortable temperature that she appreciated after the humidity outside.  “They were just coming out of the woodwork when I went down to get a soda and I barely escaped with my life, let me tell you.”

She huffed, taking off her jacket.  “Compared to their regular customers?  I bet.”

His grin widened.  “Does that mean you’ll keep me?”

Scully refused to justify that with an answer and kicked off her shoes with a sigh of relief.  “So what did you find out on your cyberspace journeying today?”

“Well, I discovered that Miss October enjoys waterskiing, fresh-cut flowers, and—what?”  he looked over at her innocently.  It was always a toss-up on whether she’d shoot him or kiss him at this point.

“Mulder,” she said warningly, flopping into one of the two chairs that flanked a tiny 1960s-era table at the foot of the bed.  “I just got done with a very long, very puzzling autopsy with a very annoying assistant who wanted to talk about nothing more than our ‘Cops’ appearance which, as you well know, is not exactly a favorite subject of mine.  On top of that, my hand is used to the feel of a scalpel in it right now.  Don’t make me want to continue cutting with you as my subject.”

He looked properly abashed although she could see the sparkle in his eyes from where she sat across the room.  “Sorry.  In all seriousness, I was surprised to find that there have only been three abductions from the Detroit Zoo in the last fifteen years and two were by non-custodial parents.  So that leaves only one actual successful child kidnapping and that was in 1984.  That may be why this one tried it; though zoo security watches out for it, it’s been a long time since it actually happened.  On top of that, I did some research on protective spells, ghosts, guardian angels, and poltergeists.  There are spells to protect children that might be what we’re looking for, and I did find the legend of a late docent who really loved children who might have—what?”

She was glaring over at him, not looking quite as angry as she had at his Miss October remark but not exactly pleased.  “Can you get to the point, please?”

He decided that this was probably a good time to switch focus before he got threatened with a scalpel again.  She did look tired, at that.  “Er, that’s about it.  So what did you find out?”

“Our kidnapper died of a collapsed vein in the brain of a type I’ve never seen before in a closed-head injury.  It’s almost like someone pinched the vein between his or her fingers until the heart stopped, though that would take some time and this was instantaneous.  In addition to that, she had an odd, fresh burn on the palm of her left hand that we couldn’t figure out.  Other than that, this woman was the picture of hea—“

“Woman?”  Mulder said, surprised, sitting up and putting the laptop aside.  “I thought the report said that it was a man?”

“Ah, therein lies the rub,” Scully said with satisfaction, leaning back and lifting her nylon-encased feet to rest on the end of the bed.  “We haven’t positively ID’d her yet but she was disguised as a man, fake beard and all, and had women’s clothing in her bag.  We suspect that she entered the zoo dressed as a man and was going to change into women’s clothing after grabbing little Brianna and getting her behind the giraffe house.  She also had a bottle of Benadryl and a complete set of boy’s clothes in Brianna’s size with her.  Our guess is that she was going to cut the girl’s hair and dress her like a boy and probably carry her out sleeping on her shoulder; in different clothes and with a baseball cap to hide most of her face, it’s likely no one would have recognized the girl if she’d moved fast enough.”

“Fucking slick,” Mulder said with clear disgust.  “Enter the zoo as a lone man, exit as a woman carrying a sleeping child.”

“Yeah, but something happened to her and I’m still not sure what.  Veins don’t just pinch closed like that, Mulder.  There was no evidence of any other trauma to the body other than the burn and some bruises and scrapes where she fell; it’s like the vein collapsed and down she went, which would match Brianna’s statement.  She said that she felt a tingle and then the ‘bad lady’ fell down and went to sleep.”

“We’ll see if we can get more from her tomorrow.  It’s after seven, so did you want to get some dinner?”

“Once, just once, I wish we’d stay in a place where we could get room service,” Scully moaned, dragging herself to her feet.  “Let me go change—“

He got up and went over to her, placing his big hands on her shoulders and squeezing them slightly.  “How about I go out and get us something while you soak in a hot bath, then later we can take turns giving each other backrubs?”

Stepping forward, she wrapped her arms around his waist as he enfolded her in a warm embrace.  “I knew there was a reason I’ve stayed your partner all these years.”

He rested his chin on top of her head, his favorite position when she didn’t have shoes on.  “For more than backrubs in the last couple years, I’m guessing.”

“You’re guessing right,” she agreed, then, to keep him on his toes, reached down and gave him a caress that she knew would make her thoughts clear.  “So, how about we put dinner and my bath off for just a little while?”

To her delight—he rarely missed a hint and didn’t disappoint this time—he swung her up in his arms and grinned down at her as he headed for the connecting door, likely because his bed was covered in photos and the laptop.  “Just a little while?”


Day 2
The next morning they were at the zoo at eight a.m. sharp, an hour before it opened, met at the back gate by the security director.  “Brad Lavelle,” he introduced himself, shaking both their hands after they’d put their badges away.  “Glad to have you here, though I’m not quite sure what it is you’re investigating,” he told them as he led them through the open side gates and over a set of train tracks into the zoo proper.  “Brianna’s safe and her alleged kidnaper’s dead, so what’s left to find out?”

“Brianna’s attacker died in a rather odd way, and we’re also considering the possibility of another person being involved,” Mulder said as they followed the director down a winding path between a large wood-and-brick building, the metal front of the security office, and a red brick lavatory.  “Could you take us to where she disappeared first?”

“Certainly.  That’s why I wanted you to arrive before the zoo opens; the Arctic Ring of Life tunnel is usually packed from opening to closing,” he said as they began walking down the zoo’s main thoroughfare, a two-lane avenue divided by a wide grassy median that held extensive flowerbeds and a huge antique fountain featuring a pair of gigantic copper bears flanking a large dish down from which water splashed.  People were bustling everywhere, from keepers in their tan uniforms to volunteers, some wearing bright yellow while others were in red shirts, as well as plainly dressed people with gardener badges working in the flowerbeds.  The two FBI agents received many curious glances but no one approached them.  “We have three to four volunteers who work the exhibit at all times, one at the front door, one at the entrance to the tunnel and one at the exit, and during peak hours we have another one circulating,” he explained.  “It’s one of the most popular exhibits here.”

Scully looked over as they passed an exhibit that appeared to be of South American animals; she recognized what appeared to be some type of deer, llamas, and rheas but didn’t know what the small, fat, rodent-like animals were and hoped she’d have time to check out the sign on the way back.

The Arctic Ring of Life was, indeed, quite extensive.  It was a good five-minute walk on a twisting, gradually downward-sloping path past exhibits featuring polar bears, Arctic foxes, snowy owls, seals, and sea lions before they entered the building where the underground tunnel was.  Though the interior was echoingly empty, Scully could easily imagine it filled with people and the bottleneck that must happen when they entered the wide, clear acrylic tunnel.  Crystalline blue water stretched away on both sides and overhead, and both she and Mulder let out gasps when two huge polar bears appeared on the left and swam past underwater.

“That was our two older bears.  They don’t react to anyone in the tunnel so we let them out in the morning; the afternoon’s for the younger ones that give the guests a real thrill when they look in at them and bat at the walls,” Lavalle smiled as they watched the animals disappear into the depths of the exhibit.  “There’s an acrylic wall separating the seal exhibit from the bears.”

“Be pretty exciting if you took it out,” Mulder remarked.

“That it would, but not in a way we’d want the kiddies to see,” the director replied in a dry voice.  “Now, this tunnel is twelve feet wide and eight feet tall, and seventy feet long.  As you can imagine it can get packed even with the volunteers doing crowd control, but normally children don’t wander away from their parents in here; it’s usually just too crowded.”

The gigantic white bears reappeared and swam lazily past again, went to the surface for air then dove, paying no attention to the three humans in the tunnel.

“But when it does happen we immediately position extra volunteers at all exits and the entrance to look for the child, and call a general alert to all employees per usual,” Lavalle said even as they turned to watch the bears again.  “The only thing we can figure is that the kidnapper got Brianna out of here the moment her parents’ backs were turned and had her outside the exhibit before the alarm was called.  Our guess is that he had it very meticulously planned.”

They continued through the building and out into the bright early morning sunshine, blinking a little as they climbed the gradual upward slope.  “Here’s the closest exit, which is locked during non-peak hours,” he said, gesturing to a gate set in the low chain-link fence.  “But it was open when Brianna disappeared and we’re pretty sure the kidnapper took her out this way.  The other exits are a good two or three minute walk, and the main one ends up near the food court we passed on the way in, which is at the opposite end of the exhibit from the giraffe house.”

They went through the gate and down another sloping hill, passing a bank of smaller brown, black, and grizzly bear exhibits, although Scully saw no animals moving around in them.  Then they turned left, passed the hippo pool—also empty—and came out on the side of the giraffe exhibit, the tall, wide cement building a short distance away. Two adult giraffes were striding majestically around the grassy exhibit, and she spotted an ostrich in the back.

All of the animal buildings in the zoo were, Scully noted, made of molded concrete that was supposed to look like natural rock formations.  It was very 1960s yet, she thought, certainly looked better than the chainlink-and-bars exhibits of the Fairfield Zoo in Idaho where they'd investigated the disappearing animals back in '95.

“This is where the volunteer, Rosemary Rosenfeld, found Brianna,” Lavalle said as they walked around behind the exhibit towards a pair of tall wooden gates that stood open.  “Volunteers aren’t allowed to touch the children, but Brianna wrapped herself around Mrs. Rosenfeld’s leg and wouldn’t let go; in fact it wasn’t until her parents arrived that she let go of her.”

“The volunteers aren’t allowed to touch the children?  Not even to comfort a lost child?” Scully said, clearly surprised.

“Liability.” The director shook his head.  “If a volunteer takes a child’s hand to lead them, it could be construed as abuse or coercion.  These days,” he said with clear disgust as they approached an area blocked off with yellow police tape, “it’s damn ridiculous how careful we have to be around scared children, but unfortunately necessary.”  He held the tape up so that the two agents could duck under, then followed suit. 

Though there was no outline chalked on the concrete, a few flecks of dark, dried blood showed where the kidnapper’s body had lain.  Mulder walked around the area, looking into nooks and crannies and then coming back to where Scully and Lavalle stood watching him.  “So this is a cul-de-sac and no one comes back here other than zoo employees, right?”

“It is a cul-de-sac, but we’re updating the interior of the giraffe house,“ Lavalle pointed to a pair of double doors set in the concrete with an “employees only” sign on them, “so there are people back here on and off during the day, depending on what’s being done.  This week, however, we’ve got the crew concentrating on the red panda exhibit since we had a near-escape, so they weren’t working back here yesterday.”

“The kidnapper must have known that somehow,” Scully remarked.  “Otherwise I doubt she’d have risked taking the child to an area with possible zoo staff walking in on her.”

Mulder nodded.  “You didn’t have any ‘under construction’ signs or anything like that up?”

Lavalle pointed back the way they’d come to a set of yellow-and-black signs and two sawhorses set behind the hippo exhibit where they weren’t easily visible.  “We did; we moved them for the police.  But the gates were open due to the traffic that was back here previously.”

“That explains it,” Mulder said.  “She knew they’d be completely alone.”

“I heard that the kidnapper had a full set of boy’s clothes, including shoes, for Brianna,” the director mentioned.

“Shoes?” Scully said, noticing the emphasis.

“Shoes are the one thing that most kidnappers who pull that stunt miss,” Mulder said.  “You’re right, Mr. Lavelle, this was carefully planned.”

“The question is, how did she get Brianna to leave her family and walk back here without being suspicious?” Scully said as they headed back the way they’d come.  “Children are taught to be wary of strangers these days.”

Lavalle shrugged.  “I don’t know, because you’re right.  My two, who are aged eight and ten, would scream bloody murder if someone they didn’t know tried to get them away from me or my wife in a public place like this.”

“She might have been unconscious, from a knock on the head or chloroform.  We’ll go talk to Brianna and her family next,” Mulder said.  “Mr. Lavalle, I have to say that this is probably the nicest zoo I’ve ever been in.  The exhibits are huge, and it’s noticeably clean and well run.  I really didn’t expect this with the reputation that Detroit unfortunately has.”

“Well thank you, Agent Mulder.  It is sad that Detroit has such a bad rep, because this is one of the finest zoos in the country; we work hard to keep it that way.”

As they passed the South American exhibit again on the way out, Scully detoured towards the sign; after a beat and a glance passed between them, the two men followed.  “Capybaras,” she said thoughtfully, standing with arms folded, gazing in at the animals that were basking in the early morning sunlight.  “I had to find out what those were; I didn’t recognize them.”

“When I was about ten years old I dragged my mom into a carnival exhibit that said it contained the giant sewer rats of Paris,” Mulder admitted a bit sheepishly.  “They were purported to be so big that they could bite a man’s foot off.  This is what they were.”

Both Scully and Lavelle laughed as they walked towards the back gate.  “No wonder you wanted to check out Gibsonton all those years ago,” Scully said after they’d bid the security director goodbye and were heading for their car.  “You’ve got a thing for sideshows, don’t you?”

“If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be in this line of work—and neither would you,” he grinned over at her as they got in the Cobalt.  “Where to next?”

“Didn’t you want to go to Brianna’s house first?” Scully said questioningly as she opened the case file.  “Or we could go see the volunteer who found her; they’re about equidistant looking at this map.”

“Then let’s go see the volunteer first; it’s still early and the kids are probably sleeping in since it’s summer vacation.  Rosemary Rosenfeld, right?”

“Right.  Turn right out of here; it’s about two miles down.  She’s 48, married and a full-time homemaker, note here mentions that she has eight grandchildren, and she’s been a volunteer at the zoo for only two months.  There’s no suspicion by the police that she’s involved with Brianna’s kidnapping, however,” Scully said, closing the file as they headed south on Woodward Avenue.  “It appears that she just happened to be walking nearby and found her.”

“Coincidence, Scully?” he said, slowing for a red light.  “I think not.”

She huffed, preferring to meet the woman before making her a suspect.

A short time later they pulled up before a neat, two-story brick Colonial on a street flanked with varying types of architecture, no two houses alike and most separated by nothing more than a driveway.  It appeared to be a middle-class, blue-collar neighborhood much like those they’d seen around other parts of the country, although Scully did notice that there were a lot more trees in this area than in many places they’d been.  The Rosenfelds’ front yard was filled with flowers, both in the large bed in front of the house as well as replacing what might have been a small lawn around a huge oak tree.  They glanced at each other as they got out of the car, and Mulder remarked with a sly grin, “That’s one way to get out of mowing the lawn.”

She laughed as they went up the walk with his hand in its usual place on her lower back.  Before they’d agreed on a condo Scully had considered buying a house, but when Mulder had made it clear that he was not doing any type of yardwork, she’d given up that idea.

The middle-aged woman who answered the door was shorter than Mulder but taller than Scully, heavyset but not grossly overweight, her thick, gray-streaked, dark hair piled on top of her head in a untidy twist held by a black clip that threatened to fall at any moment.  She wore faded jeans and an oversized, plain black t-shirt with a pair of bulky tan Crocs on her feet.  She had a suspicious look when she first cracked open the door. but when presented with their IDs, she relaxed and opened it wider, ushering them in.  “Sorry, but the goddamn press has been all over me the last couple of days, believe you me,” she explained.  “I hope you don’t mind cats, I’ve got four of them.”

“No, that’s fine,” Scully said as they followed her to a large, airy dining room near the back of the house.  One large orange-striped tabby sprawled indolently across the top of the a sofa in the living room blinked at them as they passed, and two more—brown with white spots and jet black, respectively—darted out of their way and disappeared through a doorway as they entered the dining room.  She looked around for the fourth one but didn’t see it; after her run-in with the feral cats in Boston a few years back, she’d become wary of felines in general.

“Please, have a seat,” Mrs. Rosenfeld gestured to the oval wooden table.  “Can I get you anything to drink?  It’ll only take me a minute to brew coffee or tea, or I have bottled water and, tomato, uh, V-8 juice.”

“Coffee would be nice,” Scully said, and Mulder nodded agreeably as they sat down at the table across from one another, the older woman disappearing through the same doorway that the cats had.  In the middle of the table was a huge bouquet of mixed flowers that gave off a delicate scent, which she sniffed at unobtrusively but appreciatively.  They were likely from her huge garden out front, Scully thought.  Looking around, she noted that Mrs. Rosenfeld appeared to collect images of big cats that included figurines, plates, and paintings.  The house wasn’t decorated in any one motif, but there were images of lions, tigers, panthers, cougars and, most prominently, snow leopards almost everywhere she looked.  A tall, narrow china cabinet against one wall was nearly full of big cat statues of varying sizes and makes, and a wooden shelf above the archway leading back to the living room held a row of cat-themed decorative plates of the same type that Scully’s grandmother had collected, albeit hers had been of angels.

Mrs. Rosenfeld came out of the doorway carrying a wooden Lazy Susan containing coffee supplies and set it on the table, then perched on the edge of the chair at the end of the table between the two agents.  “The coffee should be ready in just a minute, but in the meantime I just had to mention that I really enjoyed your episode of ‘Cops.’  I wanted to ask, did you ever find that shapeshifting creature?”

Mulder grinned, as always thrilled with being recognized from the show, whereas Scully wanted to hide her head in her hands and groan but settled for a bland. close-mouthed smile instead.  “No, unfortunately we haven’t seen any sign of it since.”  He glanced over at his partner, noting her strained expression, and began, “Now, Mrs. Rosenfeld—”

“Just Rosie, please; I’m only missus to my neighbor’s kids because she insists on it,” the older woman smiled nervously.  Then from the kitchen came the burbling of a drip coffeemaker signaling its finish.  “Hold that thought and I’ll be right back.”

They exchanged glances as she got up and went back into the kitchen; Scully was beginning to wonder if Mulder’s suspicions were correct by the way the woman had evaded the question before it was even asked.  Something moved in her peripheral vision and she turned, expecting to see another cat, but it was just a tree branch moving in the wind outside the window.  She wondered where the fourth cat was, not liking the way her back prickled in expectation.

Rosie returned with three large, steaming, sunflower-patterned mugs on a matching tray and passed them out, then set the tray aside.  As each prepared their coffee using the supplies from the Lazy Susan she said, “Okay, sorry, go ahead with your questions.  I’m sorry if I seem a little freaked out but I’m nervous; I haven’t ever had to deal with reporters or the police or FBI before, at least not since I was caught shoplifting when I was twelve and that cured me of that, believe you me.”

Scully evaluated her behavior and realized that Rosemary Rosenfeld spoke the truth as much as she knew it; while she was no profiler like Mulder, she did get a feel for people and got nothing more than garden-variety nervousness from the older woman.  “You don’t have to be nervous around us, Rosie; you’re not a suspect.  We’re just trying to figure out what killed Brianna Madraises’ attempted kidnapper, and anything you saw, no matter how small or unimportant you think it might be, could help us.”

“I’ll do my best, but what with middle age and menopause and all, my memory isn’t quite what it used to be, believe you me,” Rosie sighed, looking down into and stirring her black coffee dispiritedly.  Then she brightened and looked back at Scully with clear bluish-gray eyes.  “But I’ll do the best I can, so fire away.”

“Just tell us exactly what happened, in your own words.”

The story as she told it was pretty straightforward.  Though she normally worked in the butterfly house, the Arctic Ring of Life exhibit was short on volunteers that day so she’d been stationed there for a few hours.  After her shift was over Rosie liked to wander around the zoo, unofficially answering questions and helping people if she could (“We’re not supposed to do that, only marked Zoo Ambassadors are, but it’s my guilty pleasure,” she admitted.  “I tend to run errands in my zoo volunteer shirt, too, just so people talk to me.”).   She had walked around the giraffe exhibit into the employees-only area hoping to spot the new baby giraffe, which was kept in a pen in the back, when the crying little girl had come running towards her, dodging past the construction barricades.

“God, she was just hysterical,” Rosie said, heaving a sigh.  “Poor little thing.  We’re not supposed to touch a lost child other than to let them hold our hand, you know, but she grabbed my leg and would not let go.”

“Weren’t you supposed to be out looking for her?” Mulder asked.  “I thought all zoo volunteers got mobilized when a lost child alert was called.”

“I didn’t hear it.  I had handed over my radio to my replacement before I left the arctic exhibit,” Rosie said, glancing briefly at him before looking down at her coffee again.  Scully noticed faint color in her cheeks and wondered if maybe she had heard the alert but ignored it in favor of getting to see the baby giraffe; it seemed likely from what she knew of the woman so far.  “I’ve only been there for three other alerts and have never found a lost child, or had to deal with the parents, before this.  It was pretty scary, believe you me.  The first thing we’re supposed to do in that situation is alert a zoo employee, and there I was, behind an exhibit alone with this hysterical little girl with no way to call for help.”

“So what did you do?” Scully asked, leaning forward over her cup.  She knew that using open and friendly body language often helped a nervous witness; she also already knew the answer to her question from the police report but wanted to her it from the witness’ own lips.

“What could I do?” the older woman countered, resting her elbows on either side of the steaming mug.  “I tried to pry her off my leg and tried to get her to hold my hand like they showed us in training, but she wouldn’t let go so I just carried her out of there on my leg and found a staff member as fast as I could, believe you me!”

“Did, ah, did you see Brianna’s alleged kidnapper?” Mulder asked.

“Not until later; I was around the corner from where he was when Brianna found me.  I went back to the giraffe exhibit to see what the fuss was about after her parents left and saw them loading the body on the stretcher and overheard two of the cops talking about what had happened.”  The older woman shuddered, though remnants of a blush lingered on her cheeks.  “You know, I’m agnostic and don’t believe in guardian angels or protective spirits or anything like that, but I did hear that the kidnapper had no cause of death, she just dropped like a stone.  Do you know if that’s true?”

Mulder choked back a laugh at the look on Scully’s face, disguising it as a cough and then taking a sip of his coffee. 

“I’m a medical doctor and I did the autopsy, Rosie, and while I’m not at liberty to say what did kill the alleged kidnapper, it was certainly no guardian angel,” Scully said with what dignity she could muster.  Something moved in her peripheral vision again and she took another glance around, but the fourth cat was still nowhere in sight.

“Oh.  Well, regardless, I’m glad that the bastard is dead, because anyone who would try to hurt a beautiful little girl like that that deserves to be.  I don’t care if that’s right or wrong; that’s how I feel,” the other woman said staunchly, her eyes steady and serious on Scully’s. 

Then Rosie looked down and her face was wreathed in a wide grin.  She pushed her chair back, reached down and scooped up something from the floor.  “There you are!”  she cooed, lifting a small white kitten to her lap.  “This is Dodger, our newest family member,” she said, still smiling.  “I also volunteer at the Pennies for Paws animal shelter and I just could not resist bringing him home when I saw him.”

“He’s adorable,” Scully said, and meant it though she had never cared much for cats even before getting viciously clawed by one.  The tiny kitten easily fit in the palm of the woman’s hand and had inch-long, fuzzy snow-white fur and guilelessly wide, round blue eyes that blinked innocently at her.

“Why did you name him Dodger?” Mulder asked.  Scully knew he was simply indulging his curiosity as they were pretty much done here.  Or at least she was; she was fairly well convinced that the older woman was telling the truth and didn’t know anything that could help them.

“Because the other cats aren’t too happy about him being here.  In the week we’ve had him he’s become quite adept at dodging out of their way, believe you me,” Rosie chuckled, using one finger to gently stroke the kitten, who sat quietly on her denim-clad knee and looked around.  “They don’t like him much and take a swat at him if they get a chance.  But, they’ll get used to him eventually.”

Scully was fighting the urge to blush when she realized that the fourth cat she’d been keeping an eye out for was this tiny white puffball.

“Well, Rosie, thanks for the hospitality, but I think we’ve got all we need,” Mulder said, rising from the table.  Scully also rose as the other woman stood as well, holding the kitten in her arms. 

“I hope I was able to help in some small way,” she said as she trailed them to the door.  But as they paused in the entranceway, Scully saw a large, framed photo on the wall to her right and, letting herself indulge her curiosity, went over to look at it as Mulder gave the older woman his card. 

It was a posed family photo of at least a dozen people of all ages from mid-fifties on down, standing and sitting among a large pile of decorative rocks with a small pond at their feet.  She recognized Rosie right away, perched next to a bald, portly man who carried a strong resemblance to the next-youngest adults.  The grandchildren, which they undeniably were, favored Rosie, though, she noted—and found it interesting that several of the adults were African-American, Middle Eastern, and Oriental, and most of the children mixed-race although both Rosie and her husband were Caucasian.  “That’s our family,” Rosie said, beaming with obvious pride and flicking on an overhead light that was focused directly on the photograph.  “It was taken last spring, our first complete family get-together since two of our sons live out of state.  It was too bad that Roger’s mom passed away last winter because we could have gotten four generations.”

“You have a wonderful family,” Scully said sincerely, smiling at the older woman, who beamed back.

“Is this you and your husband?” Mulder said, pointing to a smaller, slightly faded 8 x 10 wedding photo beneath.

Rosie giggled, a somewhat unusual sound coming from a woman her age, and a light blush suffused her cheeks.  “Yes.  1970, can you believe it?”

Scully moved over to see the photo closer and sucked her breath in, surprised.  The rather dumpy-looking woman in front of her and the portly man from the photo above had once been very attractive young people, he with a head full of feathered, dishwater-blonde hair and a thick mustache, she with curling, dark reddish-brown tresses hanging halfway to her waist beneath a sheer veil.  Both were slender and somewhat muscular, looking to be in good shape.  He was wearing, of all things, a powder-blue tux with wide lapels and had a mullet that hung down past the collar.  Rosie was in a tiny wisp of a floor-length, white silk gown, glowing with happiness.

“Our thirtieth anniversary will be in October, believe it or not,” she beamed.  “Some people say that there’s no such thing as marriages lasting that long any more, but it’s all in accepting the other person for who they are, believe you me.”

***

Outside, Scully glanced sideways at Mulder as they headed for the rental parked at the curb.  “Wasn’t that a wonderful picture of her family?” she mused, settling into the passenger seat and picking up the file folder from between them. 

“Yeah, I have to agree with you there,” Mulder replied as he slid into the driver’s seat.  “And wasn’t our Rosie quite the hottie when she was younger?  Row-wer.”

“They both were.  God, Mulder, tell me we’re not going to look like that in, what, fifteen years?”

He laughed.  “Couch potatoes, Scully, couch potatoes.  And we’re not.  Although who knows where we’ll be that long from now?”

“So, on to Brianna’s?”  She said as he pulled away from the curb, then into a driveway across the street and backed out, heading back the way they’d come. 

“Lunch first?  We skipped breakfast and I’m getting hungry,” he said. 

Scully checked her watch: barely ten-thirty.  “How about breakfast now and a late lunch later?”

She refused to let him stop at Burger King and so they agreed on a small diner right on the main drag that had a large sign advertising “Smoke Free – Breakfast All Day.”  As they waited for their meals, Scully sipping coffee and Mulder iced tea, they discussed their visit to the Rosenfelds.

“What do you think was the deal with Rosie?”  He asked, idly chasing the lemon slice through the ice in his glass of tea with the straw.  “She was acting nervous while we were there, but for once I think you’re right—she didn’t have anything to do with that little girl’s kidnapping.  No, that nervousness was something else I can’t figure out.”

“Me either,” Scully agreed, glancing around the small restaurant.  Two walls had a series of unusual pictures of what appeared to be fruit or vegetables until she looked closer.  Then the “peas” inside a pod were really jade beads, an apple cut in half was salt shaker, one of a half-dozen Brussels sprouts was a green golf ball, and so on.  She found them fascinating but turned her attention back to her partner as he continued speaking.

“You’d think that after a couple of days of media attention she wouldn’t be so skittish,” he added.  “And we can’t be the most intimidating cops she’s had to talk to.  I think we were pretty friendly and low-key.”

“She did seem… well, not intimidated.  I can’t quite put my finger on it,” Scully said, wondering if perhaps the older woman’s actions could be some kind of hint or tip.  She fell silent, thinking it over.

Mulder finally speared the lemon slice with the straw and grew bored with the game.  He glanced at the pictures Scully’d been looking at, figured them out instantly, and turned his attention to listening to the two waitresses behind the counter talking about their difficulties toilet-training their toddlers.  Before he could tune out of that conversion on his own, Scully exclaimed, “It was you, Mulder!  She was reacting to you!”

“What, was my breath bad or did I slurp my coffee—“

“No, I think she liked you, and I mean as in attracted to you, and wasn’t sure how to act,” Scully said excitedly, nodding unconsciously.  “Remember, she only glanced at you and half the time when she did, she blushed?  Ooh, Mulder, she liked you!”

His expression darkened.  “Oh come on, Scully—“

“No, no, that’s the only explanation that makes sense,” she said, grinning over at him delightedly.   “You’ve got a groupie, Mulder.”

“Oh you gotta be kidding me,” he grumbled, and was saved from having to protest even more by the arrival of their food.  As they ate he thought about it, and grudgingly admitted that perhaps Scully was right.  When he’d given her his card, she’s been studiously looking down and barely glanced up enough to take the cardboard from his fingers.  Though he didn’t quite understand it, he had seen that type of reaction before.  So he was tall and worked out enough to be muscular and still had a headful of his own dark hair; he still didn’t quite see why some women thought he was attractive, being as he was lanky and had a big nose and small chin.  As long as Scully liked the way he looked that was all that mattered, and now he was more than a little embarrassed to recall the way Rosie Rosenfeld had reacted to him.

“The good thing is, I bet we really did get honest reactions from her regarding Brenna Madrais since she was distracted by you,” Scully said, picking up the conversation a short time later as if they’d never stopped talking.  She patted at her mouth with a paper napkin, laying her fork on the plate that contained only smears of egg yolk and a sliver of multi-grain bread crust.  “And I don’t think I’m in any danger from her.”

Her meaning slipped by Mulder until she smirked over at him, and then he unthinkingly snapped back, “Twenty years ago I’d have gone out with her; she was pretty hot.”

The smirk faded and he thought he’d really fucked up until it was replaced with a small, sneaky grin. “Twenty years ago I’d have done her husband, and we could have had a foursome.”

He gaped over at her, nearly dropping the quarter of a BLT he still held.  Her laughter pealed out across the half-full restaurant like ripples on a pond before she clapped a hand across her mouth, her smiling blue eyes sparkling over at him.  Neither of them had to say it; they both knew what the other was thinking.  Yes, she still kept him guessing.

***

The Madraises lived in a very upscale, exclusive neighborhood six miles north of the Rosenfelds, in a twisting subdivision filled with nearly identical, stately Tudor-style homes set on lots of an acre or more.  There was maybe a quarter as many homes on the street as compared to the blue-collar neighborhood further south. 

According to the file, Brianna’s father Andreas Madrais was an immigrant from the Philippines but educated in the States, a pediatrician specializing in correcting genetic birth defects.  Her mother Jillian was a tenured professor of anthropology at Wayne State University, one of the top colleges in the country.  She had one brother, Yance, five years older than she, and at the time of the kidnapping Mrs. Madrais was seven months pregnant.

The house they walked up to was three times the size of the Rosenfelds’.  It had professionally landscaped grounds, etched-glass double doors, and a huge crystal chandelier in the cathedral-ceiling entranceway visible through the matching horizontal window over the doors.  When Scully hit the doorbell, it played a selection of Mahler’s Fifth, not the simple bing-bong of the previous one.  “I liked the Rosenfelds’ place much better,” Mulder leaned over and muttered in Scully’s ear.  “Can we say pretentious, boys and girls?  I knew you could.”

But the people inside the ostentatious house were nothing like the two agents had expected upon seeing the home.  Jillian Madrais, on sabbatical for the duration of her pregnancy, was warm, friendly, and welcoming. She was nearly as tall as Mulder, with short, mid-brown hair, slender other than her good-sized belly, which was prominently displayed beneath a snug turquoise sundress.  Her husband was at work, she explained, but the children were home on summer vacation.  It was no problem, she said, if the agents wanted to ask the children questions as long as she was there.  She called both in from where they were playing on a sprawling backyard playset that rivaled anything Scully had seen in public playgrounds—and then some.  The huge yard the agents glimpsed through a pair of clear glass patio doors was also painstakingly manicured, though the part with the playset was fenced off from the rest and looked a little less perfect with patchy grass and toys scattered around.

The crowning touch was an ancient basset hound dozing contentedly on the couch in the den; Yance had to pick him and set him the floor so everyone could be seated.  The old dog, his muzzle almost entirely grey, huffed and shook himself and tottered off into the kitchen, clearly unconcerned with the strangers in his house.

“We’ve had Ezra since Yance was born,” the tall woman explained, sitting down and gesturing the agents to a pair of matching chairs across an antique barn-wood coffee table from the couch where she and the children seated themselves.  “Not much phases him anymore.”

“He looks like a great dog for kids to grow up with,” Mulder remarked, smiling at the two sitting on either side of their mother, Brianna on her left and Yance on her other side.  He didn’t remark on the dog’s name, which he thought more than a little odd.  “So, Yance, could you tell us what happened from your point of view at the zoo the other day?”

Scully watched the children as the boy talked.  Yance seemed to be a normal twelve-year-old, fidgeting slightly as he talked, eyes darting around the room and studying both agents until they looked back at him, when his gaze would skitter away.  He was tall for his age—no surprise, she thought, look at his mother—with thick jet-black hair, an olive complexion, and tilted dark eyes.  Though slightly exotic-looking, there was nothing unusual about him, unlike his sister.

Brianna was, Scully thought, possibly the most beautiful child she’d ever personally seen in her life.  She had thick, curling dark brown hair with gleaming golden highlights, pulled back in the front by a barrette at the back of her head, the rest cascading over her delicate shoulders.  Her round face was pink-cheeked with dark eyes similar to her brother’s but their tilt slightly more pronounced, a delightful pug nose, and a wide, bow-shaped mouth not unlike Scully’s with naturally red lips.  Her eyebrows were perfectly arched, thick dark eyelashes ringing her nearly black eyes.  She was missing a front tooth but, other than that, her smile was as perfect as possible.

Like her brother, Brianna was dressed in play clothes, both of their knees dirty and sneakers streaked with grass stains.  But over the collar of her slightly stained pink and white shirt Brianna wore a beautiful silver heart-shaped locket on a fine serpentine chain, noticeable because it looked far more delicate and expensive than something a child normally wore while playing outside.  The size and shape of the locket looked annoyingly familiar, and she kept glancing over at it as Yance Madrais talked.

Then it hit her where she’d seen something roughly that size and shape not that long ago.  It was all she could do to not interrupt and wait until the boy’s words stopped, then she jumped in with, “That’s a lovely locket, Brianna.  Where did you get it?”

The little girl smiled shyly, reaching up to wrap one small hand around the silver heart.  “My auntie Rhiannon,” she said with an adorable lisp.  “She gave me this to keep me safe, she said.”

“It’s beautiful.  May I see it?”  Scully asked, doing her best to stay calm while thrumming with excitement.  “I won’t take or hurt it; I just want to look at it.”

Brianna looked up at her mother, who nodded.  “It’s okay, honey, they’re police officers.  She’ll give it right back to you, right, Agent Scully?”

She nodded, looking the child in the eyes.  “That’s right, Brianna.  I’m not going to keep it.”

As the little girl reached behind her with both hands for the clasp, Jillian looked over at the agent.  “Does this have anything to do with Brianna’s kidnapping?  Do you think maybe the… bad man… touched it?”

Scully nodded, unobtrusively putting a finger over her lips before accepting the locket, holding it carefully by the chain and letting the silver heart pendulum back and forth between her fingers.  “This is really lovely, Brianna, and I can see you take really good care of it,” she said, lifting the locket to eye level.  Sure enough, there were faint but discernable dark smears along both sides that could have been soot, but she didn’t want to touch them because Mrs. Madrais was right, there could be fingerprints on the silver.  She saw the tiny hinges and clasp where the locket opened, but didn’t touch either.  Then she handed it back to the child, who was looking more and more anxious the longer it was away from her.  “Do you wear it all the time?”

The little girl nodded briskly.  “My Auntie Rhiannon said as long as I wear it, no one will hurt me,” she said matter-of-factly.  “She said that pretty little girls like me are in more danger than ugly ones.”

“Brianna!” her mother exclaimed, obviously taken aback.  “That’s a terrible thing to say!  Did she really say that?”

She looked up at her mother warily, nodding.  “Is it a bad thing to say?”

“Well it’s not nice, I’ll tell you that much.”  She reached over and drew Brianna’s hair out from beneath the chain so that it lay flush against the back of her neck.  Turning to the two agents sitting across from her, Jillian explained, “Rhiannon is my husband’s sister; they came over together from the Philippines when they were teenagers.  She’s into all that Wiccan sh—er, stuff, you know; herbal teas and crystals and protective spells and what have you.  When we moved into this house just before Yance was born, she walked through it chanting with a burning sage stick and left rocks on every windowsill.  That sort of thing.  She’s a kook, but she means well and is harmless.”

“What’s a kook, Mom?” Brianna asked, looking up at her.

“Different from everyone else in a silly way,” Jillian said, smiling down at her daughter and smoothing a lock of hair back behind her shoulder.  “Doesn’t that describe Aunt Rhiannon?”

Both kids nodded, Yance grinning with a smile very much like his mother’s despite his otherwise-dissimilar looks.

“Do you think we could talk to this aunt?” Mulder said.

Both Jillian and Scully turned to look at him, surprised.  “Why?” The tall woman asked.  “You don’t think she had anything to do with—“

“Oh, no, not at all,” Mulder reassured her.  “But I’m interested in stuff like Wicca, the occult, and things of that sort.  I’d like to meet her.”

Jillian raised her finely manicured brows.  “Well, sure.  She lives in Ann Arbor, about an hour from here, but I can give you her phone number and address.  I don’t think she’d mind.”

“In the meantime, I’d like to have Brianna’s locket dusted for fingerprints if we could, Mrs. Madrais,” Scully said, thinking that she more wanted to find out what the black stuff on it was.  She and Mulder exchanged a glance and she saw that he got it.  “That would link the kidnapper to her beyond the shadow of a doubt.”

“What does it matter?” the other woman said, looking over at her with a slight frown.  “He’s… gone, and Brianna’s safe.”

“Just for the record,” Mulder inserted smoothly.  “If the fingerprints were from someone else, there could be an accomplice we need to look for.”

“There wasn’t anyone else,” Brianna piped up, looking upset.  “And no one’s taking my locket if that’s what you’re talking about.  Aunt Rhiannon said to never let it out of my sight.”  She looked up at her mother, who put a protective arm around her.

“No, we wouldn’t take it, Brianna, we’d just have some officers come in and do the work here in your house,” Scully said.  “You could even hold onto the chain if that makes you feel better about it.”

“Oh.  Okay.  If you think it’s important,” she said, looking up at her mother.

“If the agents do, I do,” she said, looking completely unconvinced.  Then she glanced over at them.  “When would you want to do this?”

“We’d like to speak to your husband as well, so if you could just give us a call when he gets home—“ Mulder got up and handed one of his cards across the coffee table—“we can come back and talk to him and have the fingerprinting done at the same time.”

“One thing we wanted to ask you if we could, Brianna—why did you leave your parents the way you did?”  Scully asked gently.  “We know that you know better than to go with a stranger.”

The little girl frowned.  “We was at the end of the tunnel and I was putting my hands in the ice there, and next thing I knew I was outside and that bad man was bending over me and touched my locket,” she said, frowning.  Even with that expression on her face the little girl looked adorable, Scully thought.  “I felt a tingle, like I was being tickled all over, and he fell down.”

It was almost exactly, word for word, what the police report had stated she’d said after being pried off of Rosie Rosenfeld.

“Were any bumps or bruises found on Brianna?” Mulder asked the mother.

She shook her head.  “No, the doctors—including my husband—found nothing.  They think it might have been some type of chloroform, but if so there was no evidence of it.”

There was silence in the room for a few moments while the agents digested this.  Finally they exchanged a glance and then said, “That’s fine, kids, thanks.  I think we’re done with the children, Mrs. Madrais.”

Brianna tugged at the bottom of her mother’s shirt.  “Mamu, can we go back outside and play?  Yance was showing me how to hide from the bad guys and he said I was real good at it.”

The agents grinned, the boy ducking his head with a slight blush.  Everyone except Brianna knew that that meant that he had her laying quietly in the grass or bushes while he did something else so she’d stay out of his hair.  “Sure, go ahead,” she said, and both kids took off through the large living room and disappeared into the kitchen.

“So, Mrs. Madrais, could you describe for us exactly what happened that day at the zoo from your point of view.”  Mulder said once the children were out of earshot.

The version they heard from the mother wasn’t much different from the children’s—one moment Brianna was there, the next she wasn’t.  “Yance was very upset,” she added at the end of her narrative.  “It was really he who keyed us into the fact that Brianna was missing.”

The agents exchanged glances again, then rose, the other woman following suit a bit more slowly.  “Thank you very much for your time and patience,” Scully said as they passed the glass patio doors.  In the backyard, Brianna’s big brother was helping her climb up into a net-encased trampoline; her first thought was that no Navy brat would have been caught dead on such a sissy thing.  It was safe, she mused, but was it as much fun as an open one where you had to consider the danger of bouncing off and breaking your arm?

“I’m still amazed at how much Yance loves her,” Jillian remarked as she walked the agents through the spotless house to the front door, pausing once to write down her sister-in-law’s address and phone number.  Regardless of the condition of the kids’ part of the back yard, the rest of the house was immaculate.  “Despite how much we prepared him when she was born, we were afraid he’d resent her.  But he’s been the quintessential protective big brother—he had hysterics when Brianna went missing at the zoo, even worse than her father and I.”

Mulder frowned slightly but didn’t say anything about it as they made their good-byes, Jillian noting that she expected her husband home sometime between six and seven and would call after they had dinner.

“Okay, Mulder, spill,” Scully said as they pulled away from the curb.  “What were you thinking?”

“I don’t know, yet.” He said slowly.  “I wasn’t that protective of Samantha when we were kids, and we were about the same age apart.  Maybe he saw more than he’s telling?  We can try drawing him out when we go back later.”

She pondered his idea for a few minutes.  “I guess,” she said reluctantly, doubting that the brother was involved in any way but willing to let him give it a shot.  “So, where to now?”

“Oh come on now, Scully.  We have a kooky witch of an aunt to investigate.  Where do you think?”

***

Rhiannon Madraises’ residence turned out to be a flat above a tiny occult store, which had a Closed sign on the front door and no lights showing inside despite it being two in the afternoon on a Tuesday.  There were three wrapped newspapers as well as a pair of advertising circulars sitting at the base of the door, which had a heavy security gate across it.

“Something’s not right here, Scully,” Mulder said as they stood in the narrow entranceway, peering into the shop.  The display windows flanking the door were dusty but contained interesting things such as crystals, candles, bunches of dried herbs, geodes, wicker brooms, incense, tarot cards, fairy and elf statues of all sizes, and more.  He pushed the papers with one wingtip-clad foot, adding, “No one with half a brain leaves these out where anyone walking by can see them and know they haven’t been out to pick them up, especially in this neighborhood.  That begs a break-in.”  He stepped back and waved a hand at the street; while not as bad as the neighborhoods they’d investigated in the bag lady case, it wasn’t exactly Park Avenue, either.  Ann Arbor was a college town, home to the University of Michigan, but this neighborhood was a good distance off-campus and certainly not one of the better ones in the city.

She nodded thoughtfully.  “You think maybe Rhiannon was in on this and took off after the kidnapping was thwarted?”

“No, I think something happened to her in regards to that locket Brianna won’t let go of,” he said, turning and hurrying around to the back of the building.  Scully, taken unawares, scrambled to catch up with his long strides, mentally swearing at him.  “I suspect it’s got some kind of protective spell, and often those can recoil on the maker if they’re activated.”

Scully bit her lip in lieu of a reply as she followed him around to the back door of the store.  It was a stand-alone building, several feet separating it from the others on either side, with a fenced yard that let out on an alley containing nothing more than a bank of large trash bins with a weathered wooden privacy fence on the other side.  With hands cupped around his face Mulder was already peering in the window of the grey metal back door, which didn’t have a security gate but did have wire mesh worked into the glass and was securely locked.  When he yanked on the doorknob the panel didn’t so much as quiver.  “Dammit,” he muttered, stepping back and looking up at the second story.  It had an open porch with large pillars and wooden railings, but the building up until then was wooden boards with nowhere to get a purchase to climb with—not so much as a window or rainspout.  Obviously, the staircase leading up was inside.

“You’re not going to climb up there, are you?” Scully asked, wiping sweat from her forehead with the sleeve of her blazer and then folding her arms.  It was as hot and muggy as she’d expected, but least they were in the shade back here from a large tree that grew between the building and the alley.  Just as she realized this, Mulder was at the base of the tree looking up.  She followed his eyes, seeing that one of the larger braches brushed the railing, easily wide enough at that point to crawl out on and then onto the porch.

“Nope. But this tree looks like it’s doable,” he said.  However, after a half-dozen jumps he was still unable to reach the lowest branch, which was a good five feet above his head.  “Shit!” he swore, brushing his sweaty hair back from his forehead and turning to her.  “Scully, if you get on my shoulders—“

What?! Are you kidding me, Mulder?  Not only am I wearing a skirt and heels, but it’s a lighter, shorter skirt than I usually wear due to the heat!”

“I noticed,” he leered, looking her up and down.  “But there’s no one back here but me to look up your skirt, which I’ve done many a time.  C’mon, Scully, help me out here,” he wheedled, giving her the innocent puppy-dog look.  “That poor woman could be unconscious, hurt, or something.”

She glared up at him; hands on hips, feeling herself weaken.  How in the hell did he talk her into things like this? She wondered angrily.  The only reason she’d agree to do it was because she had panty hose on, the type with a fairly dark panty that couldn’t be seen through, and they were loose enough for her to move comfortably in, which was a must when she bought hose for work.  “Fine, Mulder, I’ll do it but do you owe me one—and it’s only because I know you’re right, that there could be someone hurt in there,” she snapped, kicking off her Jimmy Choos.  “And don’t you dare let anything happen to my good shoes.”

He knew what that meant after he’d had to buy her a new pair once thanks to a long walk through a muddy forest.  “You got it,” he agreed easily.

Taking one last look around, she stepped into his cupped hands and he lifted her effortlessly so that she could step to his shoulder, where she stood for a few moments getting her balance and bearings.  Then she reached up and, with a strong memory of her childhood tomboy days, grasped the branch and swung herself up onto it, wiggling into a sitting position.  “Some things you never forget,” she said, reaching for the next branch up and then using it to pull herself to stand on the first one.  She looked down at Mulder but, luckily, he wasn’t leering, just watching her.  Shrugging, she glanced around one last time to make sure that no one else was witnessing this idiocy, then pulled herself up to the next branch, this being the one that went out towards the porch.

“Be careful, Scully; you’re a good fifteen feet up and I don’t want to have to catch you,” Mulder called up to her, moving around the base of the tree to keep her in sight. 

“Thank you, Captain Obvious,” she called back, standing at the foot of the branch and trying to decide the best way to do this.  While she was small and light enough that she could probably walk out there holding onto other branches, there was a distinct possibility that she could loose her grip and fall.  On the other hand, she didn’t want to sit or lay down and scootch her way along; that would definitely ruin not only her pantyhose but also her Donna Karan skirt and possibly the tailored silk-blend blouse she was wearing beneath her linen blazer.  How do I get myself into these things? she mused again. 

“You okay up there, Scully?” he called after a few moments had passed.  “Not getting cold feet, are you?”

If the tree she was in had been a pine instead of a cottonwood, Scully would have thrown pinecones at him for the bad joke.  As it was she ignored him, deciding that hands and knees were her best bet; it would shred her pantyhose and possibly her knees, too, but the safest way to go.  She kept in mind that she was doing this for the likely injured woman inside the building, not her far-too-charismatic-for-his-own-good partner and lover.

Mulder watched with his heart in his throat as Scully moved out on the branch, second-guessing his rash decision to send her up there.  If she fell, it was likely they’d both break more than one bone when he tried to catch her, and the branch she was on looked like a twig from here. 

“You owe me a pair of goddamn panty hose, Mulder!” she called in a cross voice when about halfway there. 

“They’re cheaper than the shoes,” he mumbled just loud enough for her to hear, walking beneath where she was.  “You okay, Scully?”

“Other than my knees being ripped to shreds, yes,” she snapped as she continued along the branch.  Loose bark rained down on his head, making Mulder to brush chips and shards out of his hair.  Then she reached the porch and very carefully put one foot out to rest on the railing, followed by a hand and then her whole body, twisting from the branch over onto the floor in one quick, smooth, fluid movement. 

“Come down and let me in,” he called as she disappeared. 

“Okay,” her faint voice replied, then only moments later, “Mulder, call an ambulance!  She’s here and alive but needs medical help ASAP.”

He pulled out his cell phone and did as requested, rattling off the address to the local emergency operator from memory.  “Come down and let me in as soon as you can,” he repeated as he flipped the phone closed.

“Be a few,” she called back.  “She’s badly dehydrated and barely conscious.”

“But at least we did hear her up there moaning when we came to check on her,” he said rather loudly, hearing faint sirens.

“Of course we did, Mulder.  I never would have climbed that tree without knowing someone was up here needing help.”

***

“According to Agent Scully I only had a few more hours before I’d have died of dehydration; I owe you both my life,” Rhiannon Madrais said, gazing up at Mulder from her hospital bed as he entered the room and stood beside his partner.  She was covered in tubes, up her nose and one in each arm, a large lump showing beneath the crisp white sheets that was her left leg in a cast.  She was still very pale and had brown rings under her eyes and hollows beneath her cheekbones and collarbones, but her dark eyes were bright and grateful.

“You’re lucky we heard you when we went around the back,” Mulder said easily, not daring to look at his partner.  “So, what exactly happened?”

The thin woman in the bed shook her head slightly.  “I’m not really sure.  I was feeding my cats when the next thing I knew I was laying on the kitchen floor feeling like every bone had been taken out of my body.  My head was splitting and my leg was on fire.”

“You have a compound fracture of the tibia and fibula; it was just bad luck that you landed on your leg the wrong way,” Scully volunteered, standing next to Mulder at the foot of the bed with her arms folded over her chest.  Though she knew it wasn’t likely, she kept thinking she felt a breeze going up her skirt over her bare legs and had to continually resist the urge to smooth it down.  Thank goodness she’d worn panties under her pantyhose or she’d really be nice and cool right now.  And just as soon as they left the hospital, Mulder would be stopping at the nearest drugstore to get her a pair of Hanes to finish out the day in, at least until she could buy the better ones she preferred and present him with the bill.  Of course when she’d gone up the tree she’d been wearing a ten-dollar pair of Givenchy hose…

“And if not for the fresh water I had put down for the cats I could have died from dehydration before you guys found me since I couldn’t get up,” she added.   “They’ll never go without again, you better believe that.”

Both agents smiled.  “So, Rhiannon, you don’t know why you collapsed?  No history of epilepsy or narcolepsy in your family?”  Scully asked.

“The only thing I can think of is that one of my amulets or charms got activated,” she said thoughtfully, picking at the beige bedspread with one thin-fingered hand.  “There aren’t that many, uh, real ones out there, mostly for family members.  This has happened before, just never so strong or sudden.”

It hit them both at the same time that this woman didn’t know about the kidnapping attempt on her niece.  Before either could say anything, a stout, black-haired man who bore a striking resemblance to Yance Madrais burst into the room behind them.  “Ree, are you all right?” he said, brushing past the pair at the end of the bed and going straight to the bedbound woman’s side.  “What happened?”

“Andy, these are agents Mulder and Scully from the FBI—they saved my life,” Rhiannon said.  “In case you couldn’t guess, this is my brother, Andy.”

He turned to the two agents, smiling with clear relief as he shook each of their hands.  He was an inch or two shorter than Mulder, much stockier and somewhat soft looking, though not overweight.  He had obviously contributed the dusky skin, tilted eyes, and thick, straight jet-black hair to his son, and Brianna had his round, friendly face.  “’Thanks’ is a bit inadequate, but I’ll say it anyway,” he said, going back to his sister’s side and taking her hand carefully.  “So, Ree, what happened?”

She repeated her tale, yawning a couple of times in the telling, and the agents saw Andy Madrais’ face close up and go cold when she matter-of-factly mentioned the protective charms.  “I know you don’t believe,” she finished up, yawning again, “But I know something happened to someone.  Are Jill and the kids OK?”

He glanced back at the agents and Mulder shook his head slightly.  “They’re fine,” he evaded.  “Listen, you look tired so why don’t you get some sleep and I’ll be back later.  I think the agents want to talk to me.”

“Let’s head down to the cafeteria and have a cup of coffee,” Scully suggested as they left the room, glancing back to see Rhiannon’s eyes already closed.  For once, she thought, one of Mulder’s crazy ideas had really panned out; had she not climbed that tree, it was possible that Rhiannon could have died alone.  That was, probably, why she kept going along with his seemingly-harebrained schemes such as going up the tree.

Once they were settled at a booth in a remote corner—the agents with coffee and Andy with a bowl of soup, roll and soda—he said, “I hope you don’t mind my grabbing a bite, I came right here from the hospital when Jill called me and I missed lunch.”

“Not at all,” Mulder assured him.

“So, what’s my sister’s prognosis, Doctor Scully?” he turned to the other agent with a rather stern look on his round face, black eyes direct and narrowed.  “By the way, what is your specialty?”

“Pathology,” she replied easily, appearing unfazed by the other’s hinted animosity.  “I specialize in forensic pathology.  Before the Bureau recruited me I was considering becoming a M.E.  And as for your sister, nothing that a few days of bed rest and six weeks in a cast won’t cure.”

Mulder was catching some kind of undertone but, not being sure what it was beyond something to do with the two doctors, decided to ask Scully about it later. 

“So why did you go to talk to her?”  Andy asked, breaking his roll in half and dunking an end in the soup, which Mulder thought was either lentil or minestrone.  At any rate, it smelled good.  “I don’t see what she has to do with someone trying to snatch my daughter.”

His accent, like Rhiannon’s, was very light; it was more the cadence of the words than an actual accent that gave away his origins as an immigrant.  “I asked to speak to her,” Mulder said, stirring his black coffee lightly with a plastic spoon.  “When your wife told me about her belief in the occult I wanted to meet her, because that’s one of my areas of interest.”

“That doesn’t explain what it’s got to do with Brianna,” the other man said suspiciously.  “Jill made it plain that you think there’s some kind of connection.”

Fuck this beating around the bush, Mulder thought. He didn’t dare glance at Scully because he knew she’d be giving him warning signs all over the place but he didn’t care.  “I do.  Did you know that her kidnapper had a burn mark on her hand the exact size of the silver locket Brianna wears?”

The other man stared over at him for a couple of beats, and then turned to Scully.  “Is he serious?” he asked with open hostility.  “Please tell me this is some strange kind of joke or something.”

Scully, as always, came to his aid. “No, Dr. Madrais, it is not.  We’re from a special division of the FBI that deals with, shall I say, unusual occurrences.  Believe me, we’ve seen and experienced things that most people would not believe exist.  That’s why we’re here.”

Mulder could have kissed her, and probably would the next time they were alone.  In the meantime, he added, “And there does seem to be a connection between your sister, your daughter, and the alleged kidnapper.  That much you can’t deny.”

The other man heaved a sigh, dropping the plastic spoon into the dregs of his soup, which, Mulder saw by the leftover lumps of pasta and vegetables, had been minestrone.  “I don’t believe in that garbage, I never have and I’m certain I never will,” he said sullenly.  “Ree has been into that stuff since we were children, long before we left the Philippines, and coming here only made it worse.  At least I got her out of believing in the holistic medicine crap even if she is still into spells and crystals and that sort of… thing.”

“Be that as it may,” Scully said, cynically remembering her one and only irrational foray into alternative medicine with Daniel, “we’d like to investigate the connection between Rhiannon, Brianna, and that locket if we may.”

“I don’t really care as long as no one upsets Brianna,” he said.  “I think she’s had quite enough anxiety just recently.”

“We’ve requested a fingerprint team to come out and check the locket this evening,” Mulder said. “But we told Brianna that she could hold onto the chain while they’re checking it.  Is that all right with you?”

“I guess so, but I’m still not quite sure what you hope to accomplish,” he said.  “Brianna’s kidnapper is dead, right?”

The two agents glanced at each other.  “Yes, but there is always the possibility that there could have been more than one,” Mulder finally said.  He knew that this excuse was thin but it was the best he could do; at least the zoo security director and Royal Oak police had bought it.  “But I would also like to look into the connection between your daughter and sister.”

“Just don’t push Ree any farther into this witchcraft crap,” Dr. Madrais said, gathering up his litter and scooting out of the booth.   “I’m going to go check on my sister one final time and then I guess I’ll see you at the house later this evening.  Say seven?”

“Seven it is,” Mulder agreed as he tossed their empty cups in the trash.  Standing by the exit from the cafeteria after Dr. Madrais had walked away, he turned to his partner.  “So, Scully, feel like having some Italian food?”

She stared up at him.  “Food?!  We just had a late breakfast/early lunch a couple of hours ago!”

He glanced at his watch. “It’s almost three-thirty and we ate around eleven.”

“Oh, fine, I guess I could use a bite,” she capitulated, realizing that it had been a while since their last meal even if she wasn’t hungry yet.  It never failed to amaze her how Mulder could eat the way he did and stay so thin, even with working out.  “But how about that Chinese buffet we saw right off the freeway, instead?”

“I suddenly have a taste for minestrone soup and I’d rather not get it here.”

***

“It’s almost six.  We should shower and head back to the Madraises,” Scully said, turning her head to kiss his lightly sweated shoulder.

“Mmn.  Let’s call them and reschedule for tomorrow,” Mulder said sleepily, rolling onto his side and gathering her close.  She went with little resistance, letting him pull her against his warm, bare body, their legs intertwining.  “I could go for more napping.”

She nuzzled his neck as he rested his chin on the side of her head.  “We haven’t done much napping.”

“Then we need more.”

She didn’t reply, letting the warm lassitude sweep over her again.  After their rather heavy, late lunch at Olive Garden, he had talked her into coming back to the motel for a nap—which had, of course, turned into more than just sleeping once they’d gotten into the bed together.  This was the sort of thing she’d been worried about before they’d become a couple, but she had to admit that in this case they had simply killed time before heading back to the Madraises’.  It certainly beat her previous way of doing so, which was usually going over case files, taking a bath, or reading a book.

They dozed for a while and then, shocking in the silence of the room, Scully’s phone rang; she had changed the ringtone after several answering-the-wrong-phone mishaps so they would know which one it was immediately.  She jumped up and snatched it out of her blazer pocket without putting anything on.  “Scully.”

“Agent Scully, this is Detective Vernon with the Royal Oak Police Department.  I’m calling regarding the Brianna Madrais case. ”

“Yes, Detective, what can I do for you?”  She felt a touch on her bare rear end and swatted Mulder’s hand away.  It was back a moment later and she turned to glare at him, to which he only grinned and made another grab at her bottom.  She stepped away, turning to face him and pointing at the cellular phone against her ear meaningfully.

“I wanted to let you know that while investigating Marie Redmond, Brianna’s kidnapper, we discovered that she was involved with an entire white slavery kidnapping ring that, to put it simply, no longer exists.  This went far deeper than just one little girl and a pedophile.”  This time Mulder went after her chest, managing to cup one bare breast before he got an elbow in the side and she spun away.

“That’s good to know, Detective.  Thanks for keeping us informed.”  This time he got a hand on her waist before she darted around the other side of the bed.  Then she mouthed ‘I’m going to hurt you’ at him but he seemed not the least bit daunted, instead stalking her around the end of the bed.

“I also wanted to thank your partner for alerting us to the fact that there could be an accomplice; that was what keyed us into looking further into Redmond’s associations.”  This time when Mulder went to grab at her she simply reached down and captured a very delicate part of his anatomy with one hand, glaring up into his face to make sure he got the message.  He froze, which was what she intended, staring down at her with wide eyes.  She would never, ever hurt this part of him as she valued it quite highly—but he didn’t need to know that right now.

“Thanks for letting us know.  I’ll be sure to tell him.” When he’s out of traction, she thought.

When she’d hung up and released Mulder, she told him about the call and added, “Did you call the police in the Madraises’ city and set up the fingerprinting?”

“Yes, and now I need to cancel.  At this point I don’t think I could get them to do it,” he said, clearly disgruntled as he moved away, very gently rubbing the abused part of his anatomy.  “I was going to have them send the print analysis to Royal Oak.  I’ll call everyone in a few minutes and cancel all our appointments this evening.”

She raised her brows, walking towards the bathroom, intending to take a shower.  “Then that means we’re about done here in Detroit, doesn’t it?”

Before she got more than a few feet across the room, he had scooped her up and tossed her on the bed.  “Not here, we’re not.  Besides, it gets my motor going when you get all rough and bossy with me.”

“Mulder!  We just got done!”

“That’ll teach you to keep your hands to yourself, now, won’t it?”


Day 3
“Thanks for seeing us again, Rhiannon,” Scully said, stepping through the doorway from the open porch into the other woman’s flat with Mulder following.  “How are you feeling?”

She wheeled her chair backwards into the large, airy kitchen, which was awash with morning sunshine from the bank of large windows facing the porch.  “Not bad; my leg doesn’t hurt at all, though my arms are getting quite the workout between the wheelchair and crutches,” she said.  “Please, come in and have a seat.  Would you like something to drink?  I was just going to have a cup of tea; I mixed up some fresh chamomile, red clover, and ginger root that will relax you and calm your stomach.  After that hospital food, even just one day’s worth, I know I need it.”

As indicated, the agents each took a seat on opposite sides of the large, marble-topped oval table.  They both noted that the chair on one end had been moved up against the wall and, from marks on the speckled white linoleum floor in the ensuing space, was where Rhiannon parked her wheelchair when at the table.  “I’ll have a cup if it’s not too much trouble,” Scully said.  “Can I help you with anything?”

“No, my friend Linda is here to help me; she’s in the bathroom right now,” she said, glancing into the other room.  “She’s also Wiccan so we can talk freely about what happened with Brianna.”

“What did your brother tell you?” Scully said.

“Well, I read more in the paper than he told me,” she said, sounding rather annoyed, for which neither agent blamed her.  “But going by the estimated time it happened, I’d bet I collapsed right around the time that woman took Bri behind the giraffe house.  And yes, I’m positive that it was my amulet that protected her; it did exactly what it was supposed to do.  I didn’t intend a killing blow, but if Bri was scared enough, it certainly could have been that powerful.”

While she was talking, a tall, thin blonde woman had started to enter the kitchen but stopped in the doorway leading deeper into the apartment and waited until Rhiannon was done before introducing herself as Linda.  Once the introductions were over, she put a kettle to boil on the stove and set out four heavy ceramic mugs on the counter then leaned one hip against the wall and listened silently to their conversation.

“So how does your spell work?” Mulder asked.

As they talked, Scully let her eyes wander around the large, airy room.   Bundles of herbs, most top-down, hung here and there from hooks in the ceiling.  An open, grey metal shelving unit near the windows held a variety of plants, some of which Scully recognized: aloe vera, basil, rosemary, bamboo, sage, lavender, African violet, and thyme among others she didn’t know.  There was a line of rocks and crystals on the windowsills as well as on many flat surfaces, including the sills over the three doorways that led out from the room.  The air smelled of the light but distinct scent of sandalwood, and as her eyes wandered around, Scully spotted a ceramic incense burner in the shape of an Indian teepee on a wooden shelf over the sink, faint smoke wafting from its top.  Also on the shelf was a row of tiny glass bottles labeled with different types of oils and essences, everything from jasmine to musk to ginseng; she was just close enough to make out the labels without squinting.

“Scully?”

She turned back to the conversation, feeling her face go warm when she realized that it was the second time that Mulder had said her name.  “I’m sorry—what?”

Both Rhiannon and Linda were smiling at her.  “I asked what you thought of our décor,” the woman in the wheelchair said as the blonde handed around the large mugs of steaming tea, each one with a small, white plastic teaball floating in the hot water.  Linda then seated herself at the other end of the table across from Rhiannon.

“It’s interesting—and I can’t help but wonder what you use the African violets for,” Scully said, gesturing towards the windows. “All of the other plants on those shelves are medicinal.”

“I have them just because they’re pretty, and a challenge,” Rhiannon answered, still smiling.  “I have most of my regular houseplants in other rooms, but the violets do best in here.  I think it’s the humidity from the cooking.”

“Is this where you make your charms?”  Mulder asked, taking a cautious sip of his tea and immediately setting his mug back down.  Scully had touched the side of hers and knew to wait a while.

“Mostly, except when the store’s open and I need to be downstairs,” Rhiannon said.  “But yeah, I prefer to work up here since I usually have everything I need in this kitchen such as the blender, mortar and pestle, and so on.”

“So what all goes into making a protective charm?”

The dark-haired woman gazed back at Mulder seriously.  “Do you want to know because you think I’m a kook like my brother does, or are you honestly interested?”

“I’m honestly interested,” Mulder said, projecting enough sincerity that Scully felt it.  “I’m open to extreme possibilities and don’t reject anything out of hand just because it may not sound rational, unlike my partner there who needs just about everything to be scientifically proven for it to be real for her.”

Scully huffed.  “Which is how it should be.”

“Texan vampires, Scully.”

“Fake teeth, Mulder.”

“Doesn’t mean they weren’t real vampires!”

“You still have yet to actually prove that.”

“We’ll discuss this more later.”

“Fine by me.”

Both of the other women were grinning at this byplay.  Then Rhiannon said, “To make a protective amulet, I start with something that is very special to the wearer—such as your cross there, Agent Scully.  I take it you’re a Christian?”’

“Yes, I‘m Catholic,” she replied cautiously, reaching up to touch the necklace with one finger.

She nodded.  “That would be exactly the kind of thing I’d start with.  For Brianna’s, I gave her that locket with pictures of us in it, then we each put a drop of blood on the pictures and I sealed it with blessed wax while chanting the protection incantation.  But a lot of it is, I think, the belief that it will work if needed.  And so it did; even you can’t deny that, Agent Scully.”

She shrugged, cupping her hands around the warm mug because the air conditioning in the flat was blasting and she was actually chilled despite knowing how hot it was outside.  “I’ve not seen any evidence that refutes your claim, but I’m still not convinced,” she said slowly.  “But to be fair, the damage to the kidnapper’s brain was like nothing I’ve ever seen or heard of before.”

“That’s more than you usually get from her,” Mulder told the other two women.  “For what it’s worth, Rhiannon, I think you saved your niece’s life with that locket.”

She smiled, clearly pleased, soft rose coloring her dusky cheeks.  “Thanks, Agent Mulder, I hope so—almost dying was worth it if it did,” she said.  “She is such a stunningly beautiful child that I was afraid something like this would happen.  So are you done here?  When are you leaving?”

“Uh, tomorrow afternoon.  Our, er, plane was delayed so we’re staying at a hotel near the airport,” Mulder said, pushing back from the table and standing.  “Speaking of, we’d better go check in.”  The others followed suit, Rhiannon rolling her wheelchair back before Linda went over to help.  “Thanks for seeing us on such short notice right after you got out of the hospital.”

Scully tried not to stare at her partner; this was the first she’d heard of a delayed flight.  It had been too late to get a flight out last night, of course, but she’d assumed that he’d booked them one for later today since Mulder always took care of the arrangements when they traveled together. 

When they were in the car with the windows up and air conditioner blowing, she turned to him with one arm over the steering wheel; it was her turn to drive again.  “So what’s this, Mulder?  Our plane’s been delayed?  First I’ve heard of it.”

He pulled a legal pad from beneath the passenger seat and set it on the console between them, then folded his arms across his chest.  “Actually I wanted to spend another night here; when I called Skinner this morning and gave him the prelim report, he said that since it was Friday we may as well take the rest of the weekend off.  He was pretty tickled about that white slavery ring getting busted on my, uh, tip.”

Scully narrowed her eyes at him.  “You’re damn lucky I’m keeping the truth of that under my hat,” she said drily, starting the car.  “And please, please tell me we’re not staying at the horrid motel one more night.”

“Oh, hell no!  I found us a very nice hotel in Dearborn, which isn’t far from the airport; that’s why we have our bags with us.  We’ll stay there tonight in the very lap of luxury, have some R&R time, and fly out first-class tomorrow evening.”

“First class?”  Scully glanced down at the directions which Mulder had scrawled on the yellow legal pad that sat on the console between them, then pulled out onto the main road heading towards the freeway.  “I know the Bureau didn’t spring for that.”

“Nope, nor the hotel.  My treat, we deserve it,” Mulder said, an odd tone to his voice.  “And we are, of course, under one of my pseudonyms so it’s no one’s business but ours.”

She glanced over at him but held her peace as she drove off; she’d find out what was going on all in good time.  In the meantime she was enjoying the rare but contented sense of having wrapped up a case—even if it wasn’t quite as neatly as she’d have liked—and having a little time to relax before the next one that dragged them off to who-knew-where.


EPILOGUE

Mr. & Mrs. Geo Hayle were ensconced in the Jacuzzi in their three-room suite, a half-empty bottle of good champagne chilling in a silver bucket beside the tub and Beethoven playing softly on the in-wall stereo system.  “Well, Mr. Hayle, I’d have to say you did very well,” Scully said, lounging in her partner’s arms and sipping from a crystal champagne flute.  He was sitting in one of the wide seats with his long legs braced against the opposite wall of the tub, she sideways on his lap with an arm around his neck holding her in place against the jets.   He had one arm around her waist, the other laying along the rim of the tub where it met the wall.  “How did you find out about this place?”

“Rosie Rosenfeld,” he grinned at her.  “I wanted something really nice but that wouldn’t break the bank, and I figured she was just the person to ask, which she was.  The Madraises are a little too high-class snooty for me.”

Scully laughed and kissed his evening-scratchy cheek, snuggling closer to his bare skin, which was a few degrees warmer than the water they were in as they’d been in the tub for a while.  His arm tightened around her waist and he turned his head to brush a kiss over her lips, then both sighed with contentment.  “About ready to get out?” she murmured, setting her flute on the flat rim of the tub.  “We’re going to turn into prunes if we stay in here much longer.”

“Hold up a sec,” Mulder said, holding her in place while reaching to the side with the other arm.  He took a deep breath, then handed her a small, black velvet ring box.  In a fast, nervous rush he said, “I know we can’t right now, but if we could or when we can, will you marry me?”

She stared at him open-mouthed, slowly taking the box with one hand and removing the other arm from around his neck.  “Jesus, Mulder, I had no idea…!”

He smiled at her stunned reaction, hiding the quiver of nervousness that shot through him when he realized that she hadn’t answered.  “Been thinking about it for a while now,” he admitted.   “At least look at the ring, would you?”

Almost fearfully she opened the lid and blinked in surprise at what was there.  Rather than a standard engagement ring, a finely braided, flat silver band rose from the black velvet.  She looked up at him, wordless, then plucked the ring from the box and held it up. 

“It’s a friendship ring,” he explained, taking it from her and holding it on the outside with two fingers.  “I figured that, for now, it wouldn’t require as much explanation as a regular engagement ring, which we can always get later.  That is, if you want… to, uh, get engaged… but if you don’t, I’ll understand—“

“Oh, Mulder,” she breathed, inserting her left ring finger into the band he held then turning her hand to cup his face, “I’d marry you right now if we could, right here in this damn tub.  Was there ever any doubt?”

His grin rivaled the evening sun shining through the windows on the other side of the room.  As their lips met he pulled her close with both arms, vastly relieved and happier than he could ever remember being in his life. 

At last.


finis