10 X 3: MA QUY
By Martin Ross
Spoilers:
One Breath, The Truth
Category: Casefile

Rating: R for language and racial terms that may be offensive to some.
E-mail: Martin at rossprag@fgi.net

Skinner and Kersh must set aside their hostilities to battle an otherworldly enemy who knows their deepest secrets...

 

Santa Theresa , Calif.

12:16 a.m.

          Skinner was driving not out of deference to Kersh’s rank within the Bureau, and not because Kersh was any more exhausted than he – the battery of task force meetings in Sacramento, the prospect of tomorrow’s strategy session in L.A., and the acrid but potent coffee that had flowed all day had left them both wired, restless, occupied.

The deadhead downstate car ride, especially together, had been the dreaded culmination of a battering day. The FBI’s restructuring in the wake of whistleblower allegations of Bureau ineptitude pre-9/11 had drawn attention to operational budgeting in the media, Congress, and the more expensively appointed offices of the J. Edgar Hoover Building. It was decreed that Deputy Director Alvin Kersh and Assistant Director Walter Skinner could set an excellent example of fiscal responsibility for the troops by taking a staff vehicle, rather than a jet, to the City of Angels.

“How you doing there, Skinner?” Kersh inquired. It was the first full sentence either had uttered since they’d departed the state capitol four hours earlier, and Kersh’s question rang of official conscientiousness rather than any real concern. “Find a place, and I’ll take a turn at the wheel.”
          “I’m fine,” Skinner murmured as the lights of a mid-sized town beckoned.

“Nonsense,” Kersh said. “It’s been a hectic day, and you’ve been driving for hours. You must be beat. Find a spot; I’ll take the next shift.”

Skinner began scouting the broad avenue ahead for a gas station or restaurant parking lot. It was easier simply to let Kersh have his head than to argue over such a trivial matter. A minimart loomed, fluorescent light exploding from its high glassed front. Skinner angled in in front of a bank of newspaper machines and shifted into park, engine idling.

“Need a pitstop,” Kersh announced, “and a large cup for the road.” The director unbuckled and marched, stiff-legged, toward the automatic doors.

Skinner swallowed a sigh and locked up. He’d elected to drive as an excuse not to engage in any smalltalk, and in the hope Kersh would drop off for a few hours. Of course, Kersh had remained rigidly awake, staring silently out at the California scenery as Skinner drove in a silence of equal depth.

Skinner didn’t like Kersh, whom he considered an officious coward, a good Nazi who answered to power rather than conscience, a tiny man who in the one seemingly courageous act of his bureaucratic career may have committed an unpardonable act of personal and, possibly, human betrayal. Since Mulder’s escape from a government death sentence, abetted by Skinner and Kersh, the deputy director had become even more distant, more withdrawn. Did Kersh’s distance signify the anxiety of a foot soldier-turned-rebel, or the calculating stoicism of the traitor awaiting his next marching orders?

Skinner knew Kersh cared little for him, as well. Skinner had given Mulder and Scully wide latitude in pursuing their paranormal prey – in Kersh’s view, a waste of manpower and resources in the service of an insubordinate, mentally unstable UFO-chaser. Skinner had tacitly aided Doggett and Reyes in their attempt to implicate Kersh in a shadowy, possibly otherworldly conspiracy. And then Skinner proved his true colors with his fervent science-fictional defense at Mulder’s military tribunal.

Skinner planned to fake a nap as soon as possible after they returned to the road.

**

          “Good evening!” a cheerful voice shouted from the front counter as Skinner’s entrance activated an electronic “chime.”   “How you doing?”

The assistant director glanced at the smiling, elderly Vietnamese man, bracketed by racks of Morleys and Camels and a counterful of cheap breath aids, diet capsules and dietary supplements, lighters, and Lotto ticket dispensers. Skinner had done a tour in country, and knew by the cadence of his speech, the turn of head, his facial physiognomy that the owner/manager was Vietnamese, rather than Chinese or Thai or Japanese.

“Hi,” Skinner smiled back, breezing past the man toward a back wall crammed with refrigerated sodas, teas, and sports drinks. Kersh already had disappeared into the men’s john next to the nacho cheese machine.

Skinner kneeled before a display of ornately bottled teas laced with gingko biloba, ginseng, echinacea , and other modern miracles of nature designed to enhance health, memory, and energy and reduce stress and fatigue. He didn’t buy into the New Age hype, but they came in larger bottles and tended not to taste quite as chemical or bitter as the big brand iced tea at the top of the case.

“YOU GET OUT OF HERE NOW!!” Skinner turned toward the frantic voice of the Vietnamese man, still in a crouch but going for his shoulder holster. He peered around a long rack of potato chips and pretzels. The owner/manager had a shotgun leveled at a medium-height, medium-weight man in a polo shirt and khakis. The man’s arms hung at his side – not rigid, as if in terror; not loosely, as if he were drugged or in a posture of surrender.

The man murmured something Skinner could not hear, in a calm, almost amicable voice. The old man tightened his grip on the gun.

“YOU GET OUT NOW! I KILL YOU!!”

The man seemingly chuckled.

Skinner heard a click to his right, and swiveled to see Kersh exiting the men’s room. As the deputy director gaped at his armed associate, the A.D. roughly grabbed his suit coat and yanked him to the scuffed linoleum.

“What the hell is going on here, Skinner?” Kersh whispered hoarsely.

“Maybe a robbery in progress, but I don’t know. Guy doesn’t seem to have any weapon out, and he’s just talking to the owner.”

Kersh craned around the snack rack. “Looks like the owner has things in hand. You take this aisle, I’ll come around to the right, ‘case this guy’s got something going we can’t see or the owner goes squirrelly.”

Skinner nodded, and crabwalked along the chips as he’d learned in Basic and at Quantico. Three-quarters of the way up the aisle, he sprung to his feet, piece gripped in both hands. “Hands on your head, Mister.”

Showing no alarm and not turning toward the agent, the man slowly raised his arms, as if about to fly. His palms rested gently on each side of his cranium.

“Sir, you can lower your weapon now,” Skinner advised the old Vietnamese man as Kersh materialized with his weapon to Skinner’s right flank. The owner/manager’s aim didn’t waiver, his wrinkled fingers did not loosen on the trigger or barrel. “Sir, put away the gun. Everything’s under control now.”

“Tell him to go,” the old man ordered quietly, staring only at the man before his counter. “You tell him to go, I put the gun away.”

Skinner glanced at Kersh, who wore an expression of confusion. Both agents kept their guns at 45 degrees. Skinner nodded at the deputy director, and stepped forward slowly. He patted the “robber” down from calves to shoulders.

“This man doesn’t have any weapon, sir,” he told the owner/manager. “I’m reaching into my jacket for my ID – I’m with the FBI, and so is this man.”


          The Vietnamese man made no move toward Skinner, and ignored the ID sleeve he held at arm’s length.

“Sir,” Skinner said more emphatically. “This man can’t harm you. Let’s put the gun down before somebody gets hurt.”

“He leaves now, nobody gets hurt. You don’t know.”

“What don’t I know?”

The owner/manager looked annoyed for a second. “He is, ah...” the old man began to utter a vaguely familiar Vietnamese phrase, then sputtered with frustration. “He is evil.”

“He doesn’t look evil now,” Kersh said tensely, gun aimed at the counter.

“No, no,” the man breathed. “He not evil man. IS Evil.”

**

           Skinner blinked and looked to Kersh, who shrugged. “What do you mean, he is evil? You mean like he’s the personifica --, that he’s some sort of evil entity, being?”
          “For God’s sake, Skinner,” Kersh growled.

“He is...” the owner/manager repeated the Vietnamese phrase.   “Like demon, devil. Freddy the Nightmare Man.”
         
Freddy Krueger, like in the movies,” Kersh offered, incredulously. “What’s your name, mister?”

Skinner now considered the silent “robber” fully for the first time. He was Caucasian. And that was about it. The A.D. searched for any distinguishing feature, any scar or blemish, an outsized nose or jug ears. The man was average, if anything over-average. And he did not seem alarmed at the shotgun trained on his forehead or outraged at the show of weaponry occasioned by his unarmed presence.

“John,” the man finally supplied.

“Full name,” Kersh barked.

“Smith...”

“Aw, shit,” the deputy director sighed.

“...John Smith.”

**

          “I’m going to call 911,” Skinner informed the owner/manager, his left hand snaking into his jacket for his cell phone. “We’ll take him to the police station and sort all of this out. OK?”

          “NO!” the old man yelled. “You don’t call nobody! He fool you. He escape police.”
          “Sir,” Kersh began. “What’s your name, sir?”

          “Tran, Tran Li Nguyen.”

          “Mr. Nguyen, this man is obviously unarmed. What leads you to the conclusion that he poses any threat to you?”

          The old man’s glance flickered to Kersh and back to John Smith. “Two weeks ago, he start coming in. Cigarettes, Lotto, beer. He ask questions about Tran, Tran’s family. He know things, but don’t say. Things about Tran’s village, about war.”

          “That right, Smith?” Skinner asked.

          “Smalltalk,” Smith explained in a smooth, average voice. “My older brother, he was in ‘Nam. I was just exploring our common bonds.”

          “You got a problem with Asian-Americans, sir?” Kersh said, low and intent. Skinner could see a vein working in his colleague’s jaw. “Maybe you don’t like Mr. Tran here coming into your neighborhood here, running an honest business.”

          The man turned with a sardonic smile, hands still on head, to face Kersh.   “Yeah. That’s it. I don’t like the slopes and the gooks taking food from our mouths. I thought your kind didn’t cotton to them much, either.”

          Kersh smiled coolly at the man’s mocking redneck parody, at his attempt to bait the African-American agent.

          “No,” Nguyen snapped. “He try to fool you. He not that way -- he make you think he is.”

          “Just what is your problem?” Skinner asked Smith. Smith turned.

          “Just a faithful customer. I value loyalty. Semper fi , know what I mean??”

          Skinner’s eyes widened, and his gun dropped a quarter inch. “How did--? What did you mean, ‘Semper fi?’”

          “It’s written all over you, Soldier,” Smith said. “By your age, I’d guess you probably spent a little time in Tran’s backyard, pissing napalm and shooting little yellow people.”

          Skinner’s eyes narrowed. It could have been a guess, or maybe, if the man actually had a brother who’d been in country...

          “Kind of like a class reunion, huh, Agent?” Smith continued. He turned to Kersh. “Don’t suppose you were over there with the big guy? Didn’t think so.”

          “You got a clever mouth for someone in the middle of an NRA convention, don’t you?” Kersh said, his face expressionless, his gun at a rigid 45 degrees from his body.

          Kersh,” Skinner said slowly. He probably did project Uncle Sam and olive drab, but the jab at Kersh’s essential insecurity, his invasive probings into Nguyen’s ... “Mr. Nguyen. Put the gun away, and we’ll settle this with the local police. If this man’s been harassing you, we can make sure—”

          “What? He leave me alone?” Tran glared hatefully at Smith. “He never leave me alone. You don’t see. I got no choice.” The gun raised a notch.

          “Convince me,” Skinner said suddenly. “I can’t let you kill this man. Convince me. Then we can figure out how to deal with this situation.”

          “Skinner,” Kersh warned.

          Nguyen’s gaze shifted to Skinner. “What he say. It true? You were soldier?”

          “Yes.”

          “You hear of ma quy you over there?”

           “It sounds familiar.”

          “That what he is – ma quy, demon,” Nguyen said, gesturing with the gunbarrel toward Smith. “He come here. For me.”

**

          Skinner had been practically a boy when he’d served his hitch in country.  Even so, he’d quickly learned that despite the French colonization, the Communist incursion, and the ensuing battle for hearts, minds, and resources of Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese had preserved a rich folklore laden with fairies, devils, ghosts, and legendary characters who personified their loftiest virtues and darkest vices. Faithfulness, family honor, and duty – these were the major values upon which they had constructed their folk culture.

          “You know how it was there,” Tran Nguyen explained, eyes unwaveringly on Smith. “Everything mix up, confused, nobody know who will win. Whoever win, they’re in charge, they control. I must protect my family, wife and daughter. I am counterintelligence with your CIA.”

          Skinner was surprised, not shocked. A South Vietnamese spy chief, one of the best in his day, ran a clothing alterations shop near the Capitol. Professorial credentials, financial acumen, social or familial title – these had bought most Vietnamese little opportunity when they arrived on U.S. soil except a fresh start.

          “Also I work for...them,” Nguyen added silently. Skinner’s brow rose. “We do not know. I must protect family.”

          Skinner felt none of the anger or judgment many vets might have felt. He’d been in Nam ostensibly to rescue the Nguyens and their countrymen but it had taken him just a few short weeks to understand that rescue was a relative concept. After blowing the head off a 10-year-old boy who’d entered his camp covered with grenades, Skinner recognized the cost for these people of the U.S.’ rescue mission.

          “So you’re saying Smith here followed you to the U.S. because of your...”

          “Disloyalty.” Nguyen spat the word, as if it were a bitter piece of meat he was forced to consume. “I am disloyal, and he come so I not forget.”

          Kersh sighed, his gun hand growing stiff. “So you say this, this demon, waited, how long, 15, 20 years to walk into your store. Where’s he been?”

          “He must wait,” Nguyen said. “The Viet Cong, your CIA, they will not protect me. I leave with my wife, my daughter, nothing more. Luckily, have family, friends here. They find work for me, I save. He must wait.”

          “For you to become successful,” Skinner said. “You can’t squeeze blood out of  a turnip.” Nguyen frowned at the American idiom. “He can’t take what you don’t have.”

“Yes. Yes, that is right.”

“Please,” Smith snorted. “Maybe you buy this horsecrap , Semper Fi, out of G.I. Joe guilt, probably. But surely the civvy here doesn’t believe this load of Third World bullshit.”

“Just shut up, Smith,” Kersh snapped. “Unless you want to piss him off enough he blows your head off just to stop your yapping.”

“You leave,” Nguyen told Smith. “I don’t want to blow heads off. Just leave me. I know what I did – I have pain enough. You leave; I won’t hurt you. Promise.”

Smith smirked. “You won’t hurt me. If I was a demon, like a demon would choose this body, what makes you think that shotgun would make a dent in me?”

          “Don’t test him, Smith,” Skinner said tensely.

          “You believe him, don’t you?” Smith laughed. “Jesus, they must’ve done a job on you over there – you must’ve sniffed too much napalm. Right, Alvin?”

          The agents froze, and Skinner’s heart began to pound. He’d used Kersh’s last name earlier, but had made no reference to his first. It was too stupid a blunder on Smith’s part to be unintentional. “Smith” was playing with them, flexing his muscles.

          “Enough of this shit,” Kersh said evenly. “Put the weapon down, Nguyen. This can only end badly if you don’t.”

          Nguyen smiled oddly, his shoulders shifting slightly but the the shotgun remaining rigid. Smith’s face went blank, and he slumped to the floor.

          “How badly you want it to end, Alvin?” Nguyen challenged. Except Smith’s voice flowed from his lips.

And the lights went out. Skinner fell instinctively into a crouch. Kersh!!”

Don’t fucking move, Nguyen!!” Kersh roared. He was answered by a sharp explosion and the sound of a display of chips splintering behind him. A silhouette rushed from behind the counter, crashing through the plate glass to the left of the counter and slapping across the minimart lot.

The agents crunched through the pebbles of glass onto the tarmac. “Nguyen!” Skinner shouted, targeting the dark shape headed for the street. But the figure was too fast – far swifter than the elderly man who’d sold beef jerky and Lotto tickets behind the minimart counter.

Skinner and Kersh pursued the figure for three blocks before it turned onto a side street, and they lost sight of him. The street dead-ended a half-block past an alley, and the agents peered into the inky blackness of the alleyway.

“Let’s split up,” Kersh ordered. “But watch your ass, Skinner.”

Kersh disappeared, and Skinner, gun tight in both hands, plunged into the darkness to his left.

**

          “Here, boy.”

          Kersh whirled around, disoriented. It was the kind of disorientation that occurred when a coworker materialized at a neighborhood block party, when the guy down the block pops up at the same hotel during a vacation a half-continent away. Except this was a dual dislocation, occurring in time as well as space.

          Kersh had been only a child when he’d heard the voice, and he had heard the voice only once, while in a state of profound terror. But the cheerfully belligerent voice, young and stupid but full of a sort of ancient hatred, had remained logged in the back of Alvin Kersh’s brain.

          He was standing by a spattered, fragrant restaurant Dumpster, smoothing back his tangled, overlong hair, one hand jammed into the pockets of his vintage jeans. The jeans weren’t the stone-washed, two paychecks’ worth of denim jeans you bought at the gap, but the deep-dyed blue jeans criss-crossed by orange thread that teens today would howl at or howl at being forced to wear. The boy who called to Kersh had been only a few years older than the agent – when the agent had been a 10-year-old living on the razor’s edge of fear and hope that for black Americans had been the late ‘60s.

          “I thought coons could see in the dark,” the boy jeered. Kersh could now see that his other hand held a large and wicked switchblade. “See King Nigger got his last night. You goin’ to the funeral, boy?”

          Kersh remembered the hormone-cracked adolescent voice for two reasons. He’d met the smirking youth the morning after Walter Cronkite had informed his weeping mother and father that Dr. Martin Luther King had succumbed to gunshot wounds delivered by an unknown assassin.

          “Who are you?” Kersh could barely get the words out. His gun was aimed at the youth’s chest, and the kid’s “pigsticker” was no match for his Bureau-issued armament. But the deputy director’s gun hand trembled slightly.

          “That all you can say?” the punk sneered. “Or the cat got your tongue now that the King Nigger can’t talk for you? Not so sassy, now, huh, boy?”

          “I don’t even know you,” Kersh murmured. It had been precisely what he’d said more than three decades before, when he and Franklin Joyner had been cornered by this boy and three more like him. Fed no doubt by years of evening suppers filled with racial scapegoating and paranoid speculation about the rising stock of the Afro-American, the stupid white boys were riding high on King’s death, and Alvin and Franklin happened to be the first Afro-Americans unfortunate enough to cross their paths that day.

          Kersh wondered inanely where the rest of them were – the other three silently menacing, acne-pocked bigots and his friend Franklin, who could never keep up with Alvin. Franklin was dead, a voice his own but not reminded him. The other three, he’d never seen again.

          “Did a number on your fat coon pal,” the boy cooed, playing with his knife blade. “They found him the next day next to the tracks, they figured it was the Klan. Course, you was probably hiding under your bed, makin ’ chocolate in your pants, at the time.”

          Alvin and Franklin had both been duly warned it would be like this that day, and, in fact, Alvin’s mother had practically begged him to stick around the house until “things had settled down a bit.” Alvin of course had laughed it off, as Franklin had done with his own mother.

          However, per parental instructions, Alvin and Franklin kept their mouths shut, and did nothing to provoke a response from the older boys. They kept walking toward the safety of a neighborhood the white boys did not dare enter – an act which only enraged the thugs. Verbal taunting soon escalated to an exchange of epithets, and when the smirking boy spat in Franklin ’s face, war broke out. Alvin began throwing punches, but when the boy unsheathed his knife, he broke free and sprinted for home.

          Over dinner that night, he was uncommunicative and unreceptive to what amounted to a funereal meal. When Mrs. Joyner called regarding her missing son’s whereabouts late that night, Alvin claimed not to have seen him, and when the news broke the next day about the battered body found in the train yard, he fell into a stoic silence he had maintained for weeks.

          Kersh had never shared the secret of his friend’s brutal murder with anyone. Though mentally he had managed to compartmentalize the escape that had saved his life, introspective moments brought to the surface feelings of profound shame at what adult Alvin had always viewed as an act of unpardonable cowardice and responsibility for Franklin ’s death.

          “Well?” the teen snapped. “You wanna stand up like a man this time and take your medicine?”

          “What...What are you?” Kersh asked.

          “I’m Donald James Gulik, the man shishkabobbed your nigger buddy while you was leaving a piss-trail down Fourth Avenue ,” the boy said, swelling. “I’m Bobby Cleland, remember me from Quantico?” Gulik shimmered and morphed into a clean-cut, pleasant-looking Ivy Leaguer. “You like those little memos I sent you and the other darkies at the academy, ‘bout what a mistake Hoover had made letting your type in the Bureau? Had you buffaloed, didn’t I, ‘Al,’ with all that brotherhood bullshit?

          Cleland beamed brightly and transformed into a grim, scowling older man with thinning hair and an icily dignified bearing. The alien regarded Kersh clinically. “How long do you think you can run, Kersh? We’re onto you – we know about your covert act of disobedience with Mulder. When you no are longer of use to us, you will make an excellent lab specimen. A scared white rat forced to watch as organ after organ is removed from his flabby human shell...”

          An explosion rocked the quiet California night. It was only in the middle of the next five shots that Kersh realized he was unloading his weapon into the alien- Gulik-Cleland. It took a few moments longer for him to realize he was alone in the alley, shaking uncontrollably.

**

          Skinner heard the shots, coming in a rapid succession the assistant director recognized as a likely panic reaction. Though the sound echoed through the deserted neighborhood, he thought he could pinpoint the source, and he sprinted toward it.

          Skinner was first struck by the acrid scent of burning tobacco. A cloud of cigarette smoke trailed down the narrow alleyway, growing thicker and more pungent as it culminated in a black open doorway under a scripted sign heralding “The Nail Nook.” The smoke had an odd greenish tint to it as it swirled in the doorway. The A.D. tightened his grip on his weapon, and slid into the inky shop.

          He faltered his way through what was obviously a storeroom, toeing boxes out of the way as he located a sliver of light at the bottom of a door. He sought the cool metal of a knob, and entered the front of the salon.

          Skinner’s nostrils were assaulted by foul, faintly organic chemicals, and, silhouetted against the streetlit front window were two rows of heavily laden work tables, a cash register, sign-in kiosk – and a seated man whose head was wreathed in smoke. A red dot moved before the face and settled at the end of the intruder’s arm.

          “Ah, Skinner,” the man greeted with an effete dryness the A.D. recognized at once. “How are you, my old friend?”

          “What...What the hell are you doing here, Spender?” Skinner growled, drawing a bead in the center of the silhouetted head. “You have something to do with all of this?”

          “Careful, my friend,” the Cigarette Smoking Man chuckled. “You’re beginning to sound as paranoid as Mulder . Except we both now know that paranoia is merely the cold breath you feel on the back of your neck before the lions lunge.”

          “Answer my goddamned question,” Skinner roared. “What’s this all about? Is this some kind of trap? Is Kersh in on it?”

          Kersh? My goodness, Walter. Oh, Walter, Kersh is even more in the dark than you or your flunkies Doggett and Reyes. He’s no longer a true believer – he’s come to realize just who, or what’s, pulling the strings on this cosmic puppet show. Now all he can do is pray the cat doesn’t develop a taste for his particularly breed of mouse.

          The cigarette swung in a lazy arc to the shadowy man’s head, and flared as Spender sighed gratefully. “You are in far more of a dilemma. Kersh’s god was the Book, the Bureau. Yours’ is far more powerful and much more ungainly. Your insignificant role in that little drama we staged in Southeast Asia; your belief that somehow you’ve been preserving order and decency, shuffling paper and occasionally perpetrating some act of civil disobedience in the name of Walter Skinner’s Personal Code of Honor. But your ‘religion’ is a slippery thing, isn’t it, Walter? You deny anything beyond the four walls of this wet, dying planet, despite your little day pass into the Great Beyond.”

          Skinner’s arm straightened. “How do you know about that? The only person I—”

          The cigarette waved impatiently. “Yes, yes. Agent Mulder was kind enough to share your little war memoir with me. As well as many other things, over the years.”

          “You’re full of shit!”

          The silhouette chuckled again. “Think about it, Walter. How better to keep tabs on our independent-minded assistant director than to co-opt him in policing the eccentric Agent Mulder ? The cat watches the mice while we bell the cat.”

          Skinner snorted. “That the best you can do? Get up, Spender, slowly.”

          The A.D. saw the shadow’s shoulders shrug, and the man rose from the chair. Skinner gasped as a stripe of streetlight illuminated his wrinkled Asian features. Nguyen took a puff on his cigarette and smiled.

          “Morley Extra-Cool,” the minimart owner piped. “Special promotion, two carton for one. You like?”

          Skinner was momentarily frozen, even as he heard a round being pumped into the chamber at the man’s feet. Nguyen brought the shotgun up; Skinner for a second glimpsed the black hole that led into eternity.

          The shop rang with explosive force, and Nguyen crashed back into a worktable, sending polish, remover, and implements flying.

          Skinner pivoted. Kersh’s face, behind his newly fired weapon, was gray, beads of sweat twinkling in the light that leaked in from the street.

          “What the hell is going on here, Skinner?” Kersh whispered.

          “Green smoke,” Skinner murmured absently, grabbing a towel from a nearby table to swab his face.

          “What?”

          Skinner looked up. “Green smoke. In ‘Nam, after a mission, after a raid, Airborne’d drop green smoke bombs near the casualties to let Medevac know the coast was clear, they could come in and retrieve the wounded. When I came in the back, I saw green cigarette smoke. Like a joke. Aimed at me, specifically. Like the way it, he, taunted each of us back at the minimart . Preying on our security, on our trust.”

          Kersh was silent for a moment. “We’re going to have to call the locals, though I have no idea what—”

          The deputy director had been glancing toward the body. Skinner turned.

          The bare, bloodless linoleum gleamed in the halogen lights of the deserted street...

**

          Three squad cars and a plainclothes unit were illuminating the minimart lot as Skinner and Kersh trudged back toward the light. Neither man had any idea how they conceivably would explain the circumstances of the “case.”

          A hefty man in a T-shirt, jeans, and windbreaker broke from a conversation with a uniformed cop and strode purposefully toward the pair. “I don’t ‘spose you two are the FBI guys?” He looked fiercely annoyed

          “Deputy Director Alvin Kersh , Assistant Director Walter Skinner,” Kersh rapped out, flashing his ID. He nodded toward the garishly lit market. “You check out the scene in there?”

          The cop silently studied the agents. “Yeah, let’s talk about that. You sure this is the minimart? You couldn’t be confused? They all kinda look alike...”

          “What are you saying?” Kersh asked, glancing quickly at Skinner.

          “C’mon,” the cop snapped, marching across the tarmac.

**

          The electronic “chime” greeted the cop and the agents. It surrendered to the hum of refrigerated cases and fluorescents, and Skinner reconnoitered the store. Cigarettes, air fresheners, lighters were all neatly arranged at the counter. The floor was scuffed with the rubber of thousands of shoes but gleaming and free of blood or human tissue.

          A uniform and a deeply bronzed man with glossy black hair shoved through the stockroom door at the back, the latter clearly agitated and hurriedly dressed – shoes with no socks, shirttail hanging outside sweatpants.

          “Anything missing, damaged, Mr. Patel?” the plainclothes cop called.

          “Everything appears to be in order, but I would like some explanation for this disruption,” the man said, controlling his tones in obvious deference to the authority surrounding him.

          “Sorry about having to haul you outta bed,” the detective said. “Mr. Patel, these guys are FBI agents, and they say there was a shooting here tonight, maybe an hour ago.”

          “We close promptly at 10 p.m. Three robberies in two years, and my cousin Ashvin still feels pain in his right leg. It is not worth the few extra sales.”

          “Tran Nguyen,” Skinner interrupted. “That name familiar, maybe an employee?”

          “We are family run entirely,” Patel swelled, as if taping a commercial for the six o’clock news. Then his brow furrowed. “Nguyen?”

          “Yes.”

          Patel rubbed fretfully at his immaculately groomed mustache. “My father, he bought this market from a Vietnamese gentleman. Nguyen may have been his name. I would be delighted to check our records. However, this would have been 10 years ago, and the Vietnamese gentleman was very ill. This is why he sold the store – this I remember.”

          Skinner and Kersh exchanged looks, and Kersh looked away.

          “You fellas look like you seen a ghost,” the detective observed.

 

J. Edgar Hoover Building

Washington , D.C.

Four days later

          Kersh was sitting at his desk, fingers templed, deep ridges in his forehead, as Skinner entered the office. No busied shuffling of papers designed to intimidate or reemphasize the command chain. No penetrating stare – the calm before the storm. Just reflection and concern on Kersh’s face.

          “Please have a seat,” Kersh invited, and Skinner settled in before the desk. The deputy director sat back and considered his colleague. His right hand floated to a folder on his desk. “I’ve read your report of the incident in Santa Teresa. It reads like a bad Stephen King story. Do you really believe that this is an accurate and rational account of the evening’s events?”

          Skinner leaned forward. Kersh held up a hand.

          “Because,” the deputy director drawled, “while you and I may differ in our approach and philosophies and we may have had our run-ins, you remain a valuable resource to the Bureau. The records on Mulder’s hearing are sealed, and so only a handful are aware of your wildly speculative conspiracy theories. This report--” Kersh tapped the folder. “This report could undo much of what you’ve accomplished here at the Bureau.”

          “As well as what you’ve accomplished,” Skinner added quietly.

          A smile played at the corner of his lips. “You may choose to believe what you believe – I will concede that I have no desire to wind up in some basement office, sorting through tales of aliens and phantasms.”

          “You know,” Skinner reminded him, more intensely. “You know what’s out there. You’ve seen it. You’ve--”

          “That boy’s psychic fairy tale about aliens walking among us?” Kersh murmured.

          “You know,” Skinner’s voice rose. “You even risked you career, your life...”

          Kersh’s chair straightened, and his palms met his expensive desk blotter. “Assistant Director Skinner, I am going to do you a great professional and personal favor, and not allow you to destroy your life, your career. Whatever happened that night – collective hallucination, fatigue, whatever – I will not accept this report.” He pushed the folder across the desk. “You dispose of this however you see fit, but I would recommend you dispose of it.”

          Skinner and Kersh stared intently across the desk for a moment, and then the assistant director reached for the folder with a grim smile. Skinner lifted his muscular frame from the leather chair and turned for the door. Kersh’s brow rose as the A.D. turned, a frown creasing his face.

          Kersh,” Skinner began, “just between us, two men, not FBI agents. I had an experience in ‘Nam. I was 18, and we were on patrol. My company was ambushed, and I was hit pretty bad. I left my body, or at least it seems I did – I could see my corpse on the ground, as the Cong looted me. I was technically dead; they had me in a body bag. They brought me back, but I had seen – things. Until recently, I was afraid to look beyond that experience. I now accept it, that there are things we don’t know, things bigger than humanity or maybe even our universe.

“Until now, I shared that story only with Agent Mulder . But Nguyen, Smith, whatever you choose to call him or it, knew about my near-death experience. Just tell me. It won’t leave this office. Just tell me: When you and I were separated back there, did he talk to you? Did he know things he couldn’t have known?”

          Kersh sat rigidly behind his desk, eyes locked with Skinner’s. The deputy director sighed. “I’m sorry. I had no such encounter.” He looked back to his papers. “That’s all, Skinner.”

          Skinner nodded and carried his folder to the door. As he gently clicked the door shut, he spotted Doggett waiting in the outer office.

          “Agent,” he greeted, passing briskly through to the hallway.

          “Sir,” Doggett responded automatically. The agent frowned and moved to the inner door.

          “John, sit down,” Kersh muttered, leafing through reports. Doggett waited patiently in a sort of ingrained parade rest, until the deputy director looked up. “I have a special assignment I’d like you to take on. One that I believe requires your unique insights.”

          “An X-File?” Doggett queried.

          “Nothing so exotic,” Kersh said drily. “No, I’m referring to your empathy, your desire to see the victimization of innocence avenged. Specifically, the victimization of a child.”

          Doggett’s face hardened, whether at the obvious reference to his own personal tragedy or at the thought of innocence victimized, Kersh had no idea. The deputy director handed him a freshly compiled casefile.

          “Franklin Joyner, 10, found beaten to death in a railway yard back in 1968, case never solved,” Kersh said. “I can’t reveal the source of my information, but it’s come to my attention that a man named Donald James Gulik may have had some complicity in the murder. You’ll see that Gulik’s had a string of arrests for white supremacist and militia-related activities, but no convictions. I want you to look into this, see if you can make him for the homicide.”

          Doggett bit his lip as he studied the casefile, and he looked up quizzically. “This happened more than 30 years ago, and the local cops basically shoved it under the carpet, as I guess was the practice back then. And you’ll pardon me, but didn’t you grow up in this area?”

          Kersh’s face grew solemn, and his eyes focused tightly on the agent. “Agent Doggett, I owe you neither explanations nor details. However, since it may aid in your investigation and underline the importance of this case, yes, I was personally familiar with this crime. Joyner was a close friend of mine, and I remember his death vividly. But what’s of paramount importance here is that we have an opportunity to bring felony charges against a dangerous and destructive man while bringing a measure of closure to Franklin Joyner’s family. You can understand that, can’t you?”

          Doggett pursed his lips and nodded. “I’ll catch the first flight out.”

          Kersh relaxed. “Very good. One more thing: You know an Agent Robert Cleland?”

          An expression of suppressed displeasure crossed Doggett’s craggy face. “Yeah. I know him.”

          “He’ll be working with you in the field. I specifically requested his involvement, and I want you to keep him apprised of every detail of the case. Agent Reyes will have plenty to do in your absence. That’s all.”

          Doggett knew better than to question or object to the directive. He nodded again, and turned to leave.

          “John?” Kersh called, all tension and gravity seeping from his voice.

          “Yeah?”

          “How are you doing these days? With respect to the revelations regarding your son’s death?”

          Doggett looked curiously for any sign of subterfuge or subtext, but saw none in Kersh’s slightly bothered expression. “I’m fine, sir. I mean, of course I think about Luke, about the men who killed him, about how things might have been... I guess I just take it one day at a time, like they say – I hold onto the good parts, and live with the rest.”

          Kersh seemed to be somewhere else. “And your current assignment. It’s changed you, I’ve seen that. John, would you say you believed in demons?”

          The agent’s jaw dropped slightly open, and he considered an answer to this uncharacteristic inquiry. “Well. Probably not in the supernatural sense, little guys with pitchforks and red eyes and wings. But I suppose I’ve come to see that the evil men do comes back to haunt them. That our own doubts and secrets can choke us or even bury us alive. That probably ain’t what you mean. You’re gettin’ too deep for me, Director.”

          “I doubt that,” Kersh said. “I doubt that very much. Uh, that’s all, John. I appreciate your cooperation on the other matter.”

          Doggett looked down for a second or two longer at Kersh, who seemed perched on the edge of some emotional or ethical precipice. But the deputy director was temporarily lost to this world, and the agent left him to his thoughts and whatever demons rested on his shoulders.

 

Chicago

7:36 p.m.

          Mahfoud Alhabad cruised gracefully into the curb before the Palmer Hilton, National Public Radio and a spicy aroma of incense wafting from the windows of his cab to merge with the warm Chicago evening.

“Ruth Chris Steakhouse,” the man ordered, sliding into the backseat. He placed his expensive leather briefcase on the cracked vinyl beside him and smoothed his summer Armani slacks. “You know where that is, don’t you?”

Mahfoud nodded.

“Used to be every Chicago cabbie knew the city like the back of his hand,” the man lamented. “Now, you practically have to get behind the wheel and help them find their ass. No offense.”

Mahfoud shrugged slightly. The man sat back and peered out at the great stone buildings and narrow storefronts of the Loop, and the driver headed for the river.

At the steakhouse, the man absently told Mahfoud to keep the change. Mahfoud handed him an expense receipt and a card. “You call me; I’ll come right over.”

He doubted the businessman would use the card – the Loop was crawling with cabs of every description, and the riverfront restaurants were a focal point of weeknight traffic. But Mahfoud would manage to be at the right place when the man exited the steakhouse. The man certainly would not recognize one Arab cab driver. Mahfoud – that is, the one who had assumed the shape of the treacherous Mahfoud, who had fled Iran after selling out his militant compatriots, only to be shot for his meager cashbox three years before -- had a thousand little tricks, and few missed their mark. All right, with the exception of that episode in California , with the Marine.

But this man was made of far weaker stuff than “Skinner.” It was what made him steal from his employers, what made him a faithless husband and an apathetic father. They would have a long talk about faithfulness and trust and loyalty. It was, quite literally, what he lived for...