Tesla, “Dirty Girls”

Written for wendelah1 for her contribution to Help Haiti. Setting is season one. PG. Profiler!Mulder. Gen with hints of UST.

Not only was there no concrete evidence of time-shifts in Converse, Tennessee, but Mulder’s witness had disappeared in a way even more mysterious than the original X-File. Unfortunately, the disappearance could be legitimate, and the police chief was strongly hinting that he found the FBI presence sort of embarrassing. Scully was beyond hinting, she was exasperated and had splashed iced tea on her last clean blouse.

Right over the, er, breast pocket.

One part of Mulder’s mind was engaged in how weirded out Scully had been over the sudden transparency of her blouse, and how she kept tugging the lapel of her jacket over her chest; another part was reflecting why she had suddenly starting shopping in the better suit wear departments.

He kind of missed her plaid jackets.

Mulder was on hold with the airline, trying to figure out when they could make a flight back to D.C., when A.D. Skinner’s admin assistant beeped in. “Hold for the Assistant Director,” she said.

“Are we in trouble?” Mulder asked.

“We?” Scully hissed, from across the room Mulder held up his finger.

“No, Mulder,” Skinner said, unamused. “The Bureau has been asked to assist in a kidnapping. You and Agent Scully are the closest available agents. You need to proceed to Walters Cove, Kentucky and give the local sheriff and K.B.I agents all the assistance you can, until someone from the nearest field office relieves you.”

“All the acting profilers busy?” Mulder asked, lowering his hand. Scully frowned.

“You and Agent Scully are to assist the investigation,” Skinner continued. “Two sixteen year old girls were kidnapped; one has been found strangled. You‘ll get the numbers of your contacts on your beepers.”

“We’re on our way,” Mulder said. He turned off his phone. “Where’s that road map, Scully?” He stared at her tea stain. It looked like the island of Hawaii.“There’s been a kidnapping and murder, another victim still missing.”

“Kids?” Scully said, correctly interpreting his expression.

“Two sixteen year old girls. I expect you’re wanted more than I am,” Mulder said, studying the interstates. “Trained forensic examiner on the spot, no waiting for the body to be sent to the state capital for examination.”

“Then let’s go,” Scully said. She held up her pager. “This is probably the coroner’s office. I hope there’s a decent morgue at least.”

“I hope there’s a decent café,” Mulder said.

::

It was sad but true that the local law enforcement was usually happy to see federal agents when there was a murder, and even happier when there was a chance that a victim could be rescued. (Of course, in case everything went to hell, the locals could also blame the feds, but Mulder didn’t explain that to Scully.) It was also sad but true that small town sheriffs were happier to see Mulder when he wasn’t asking about ghost stories, UFOs, zombie curses, or missing time. A county sheriff was prepared to talk about sexual perversion, homicidal maniacs or serial killers until he ran out of breath, willing to believe that Ted Bundy had a copy cat or Buffalo Bill had sprung to life—because a maniac wasn’t his hunting buddy or the supermarket manager or his brother-in-law. It was as hard to convince people of the killer next door as in the existence of aliens.

“No one wants to believe that a person just like himself or herself could rape a child or kill someone,” Scully observed. “Human nature, Mulder.”

“Human nature is over-rated,” Mulder said. “What did your contact say?”

“They’re waiting for me to do the autopsy,” she said, her nose wrinkling. “At least no one will ruin evidence. On the other hand, what fun.”

“I wonder if there’s been other missing girls, and they’ve been thought to be runaways,” Mulder said, passing a string of law-abiding under-the-speed-limit drivers. “Rather than these being the first victims.”

“More than likely,” Scully said, gloomily. “And then the field office will come in and take the case away from us.”

“And you can get clean clothes.” Mulder said. They were already building up their armor of black humor, because no one liked cases with kids. Mulder almost hoped that the sheriff wouldn’t be welcoming, wouldn’t want FBI input, or that he wouldn’t see anything, wouldn’t find a pattern or a signature.

But of course he would. He and Scully would be there until they were sick of the town and sick of the locals and sick of the coffee shop and the hotel. Scully was already showing signs of needing to breathe un-Mulder air for a while.

“Isn’t that our exit?” Scully asked.

They had caught a couple of breaks in this case. First and foremost, Sheriff Jim Henderson was a retired FBI agent, who had returned to his hometown. He and his deputies were not Andy and Barney from Mayberry. (“Do you spend your entire life in front of the television?” “Yes.”) The other big break was that the media was not on to the case yet.

Scully wrinkled her nose at the small space of the hospital morgue, but seemed satisfied. “Where did you find the body?” she asked, pulling on disposable gloves for a quick superficial exam.

“In the trunk of her car. This is Meagan Russell. She and Kara Taylor were going to the next county to a shopping mall. They never got there, of course. Her car was found by someone checking on his deer stands. We’ve dusting it for prints and other trace evidence right now.”

The dead girl lay in the helpless vulnerability of death, her blonde highlights the only color about her. Even her lipstick looked grayed out, her eyeshadow looking like bruises.

“Her parents were on a cruise. They’re en route right now. Kara’s mother is a widow, and she’s under sedation. She isn’t able to talk to anyone, right now.”

Mulder put his hands in his pants pockets, and watched Scully. She gently moved a strand of hair aside, frowned again, and then turned to Mulder and the sheriff. “I don’t know if she was strangled. I think we’ll find a blow to the head.”

Mulder nodded. “Can I see a picture of the other girl?” he asked. The sheriff picked up a file folder, and handed it to him. Mulder looked at the photo of the smiling girl, her wide ingenious smile, her bright blonde hair, and looked hard at the dead girl on the table. He felt a sudden flash of certainty, denial, panic, and then looked up, resigned.

“Kara is the target victim,” he said, the words dragged out of him. “Meagan was collateral damage.”

Sheriff Henderson didn’t blink. “You think she’s still alive?”

“Yes, as long as she fits his fantasy. This guy thinks he has his dream girl. He thought Meagan was a dirty girl. If Kara can keep him thinking she’s sweet and perfect, she’ll stay alive.” He glanced at Scully. “That’s just me, Sheriff Henderson. I used to work in the Behaviorial Science Unit. I have been known to jump to conclusions.”

“I’m familiar with BSU,” Henderson said, equably.

“This guy doesn’t like dirty girls,” Mulder said, and took one hand out of his pocket to loosen his tie.

Two of the ways that law enforcement could search for Kara would be first, a full scale media blitz, call out the local citizenry, and do a massive hunt; or, second, take advantage of the media ignorance and put all professional personnel in a search of the woods. The UNSUB was probably methodical and organized, of course, and it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility that he had a police scanner and was monitoring the police reports.

Or he had Kara at some secret place, some hiding place prepared in advance. He would watch the news just to make sure he was safe. Maybe he would give Kara rohipnal to make her compliant and feed his fantasy. In that case, he would be unmoved by any of the proactive measures, such as Kara’s mother being on the news, personalizing her. If this guy had stalked Kara, he would keep her alive just as long as he could maintain the fantasy.

Of course, the A-team from the Bureau could arrive at any moment, relieve Mulder and Scully and start something completely different…

That’s what he thought—what he said, to the Sheriff, was, “Did you get any good impressions of tire tracks from the dump site?”

“Not good,” Henderson said. “Too many leaves on the ground. Tracker dog found nothing. You’re thinking that he had another vehicle stowed back there?”

“I think he had a plan,” Mulder said.

“I’m going to the morgue,” Scully said, tapping his forearm. “Okay? I’ll call you if anything contradicts my first impression.”

“TOD would be helpful,” Mulder observed.

“Right,” Scully said, at her driest.

Mulder looked down at his cardboard cup and was surprised to find it empty. “I think this fellow prepared in advance, and watched Kara for long time. She may or may not know him, but he’s local. He won’t be anyone that would stick out. Your town borders a state forest and camping ground. He could be someone that visits, blends in with the other tourists. There’s what, hunting camps, cabins, privately owned rentals?”

“And caves,” Sheriff Henderson said. “We have spelunkers. If he had put Meagan’s body in a cave, we’d never have known what happened to her.”

“Well, there was the car to dispose of,” Mulder said. “Not that I disagree. It makes me wonder if pairs…or if the dirt bag was so angry at Meagan being with Kara at all. Maybe he had all his plans ready, and then Kara shows up with Meagan, and he was so angry at her for interrupting his fantasy, his big day, that he wanted to make some kind of twisted point.”

“I’m glad you admitted he’s twisted,” said one of the deputies.

Mulder looked again at his empty coffee cup. “Oh, this guy is twisted,” he said, with an effort. “But catching them means understanding their mind-set. “ He looked up. “Don’t think I have any sympathy for the guy.. He hasn’t got a normal mind.”

“We got more coffee brewing,” Sheriff Henderson said. “Deputy Jones didn’t mean anything. We’re all upset.”

“You may deal with perverts eight days a week in the FBI,” Deputy (apparently) Jones said. “We’re not used to it here.”

“Well, I actually don’t now, “ Mulder said, taking a metaphorical deep breath. “Agent Scully and I investigate less—emotional cases. We were the closest team available.”

“And you are an expert profiler,” Sheriff Henderson said. “And Agent Scully is a medical doctor.”

“Forensic pathologist,” Mulder said. “Not so much with the live patient skills.” He shrugged. “My concern about the BOLO? Either he’ll cut and run with her—or he’ll dig himself in, keep her hidden, and infiltrate the investigation so he can know what we’re doing. We’ll know more when Scully completes the autopsy, see if he raped Meagan.”

Mulder ran his tongue along the inside of his teeth, feeling an errant bit of sunflower seed. “He subdued and controlled two girls. He could have killed Meagan out of rage, or out of a blitz attack, or simply to make Kara compliant. If he raped Meagan, it means he’s a different kind of predator than I’m initially considering. But I don’t think he did. Let’s go look at the car, then let’s go see the crime scene. And then I need to find a dry cleaner, because I’m wearing my last clean shirt.”

::

Mulder popped a handful of gumball machine Chiclets in his mouth, and bent over a table spread with the tagged debris from Meagan Russell’s car. He scanned it, looking at anything that could retain a fingerprint—not that he thought they’d find any. He blinked, reached in his pocket for his pen, and poked at half a doughnut. “Hey, take a few pictures of this—and see if you can get a mold off it. “

“Bite marks on the victim?” the crime scene tech asked.

“Don’t know—but my partner is gonna tell us what’s in the stomach contents. I also want the parents to see if there’s anything in this mess that didn’t belong to either of the girls.”

Mulder straightened up. His back hurt and he felt very sorry for himself all of a sudden.

Mulder’s back hurt, his feet hurt, and he was pretty sure that he smelled. The only gratifying thing was that Scully looked as though her back hurt and she smelled far, far worse. Like someone who had been trawling through the more disgusting parts of the human anatomy and then sewing back the Y-incision in a torso, in fact, and forced to do it all and re-appear in her scrubs. Scully had, in fact, taken a shower after the autopsy and then been found that her street clothes had been taken to the dry-cleaners.

“They were trying to be helpful,” the sheriff said, rubbing his nose.

“Why do you look so calm?” Scully rounded on Mulder.

“I went to Wal-Mart and bought clean underwear,” Mulder said. He was wearing his glasses, which he thought would off-set his increasingly sweaty hair. “I could have bought you some, but all they had was granny panties.”

Sheriff Henderson turned away so he wouldn’t laugh in their faces.

“Well, you’re right—there’s no doughnut in the stomach contents. However, there’s other undigested food, but it’s snack cake of some kind. I would hate to speculate when she ate, but she was killed fairly soon after ingesting.”

Mulder looked interested. “Hostess Twinkie or Little Debbie?”

“Snack. Cake.”

Mulder sat down on the edge of a metal desk. “I was wrong,” he told the sheriff. “I don’t think he planned this. I think he may have stalked Kara, but he didn’t plan on taking her. I think he was at the gas station or convenience store and over-heard them. I think he overpowered one of them, probably Meagan, and forced Kara to drive the girls’ car to where it was found. He killed Meagan. He snatched Kara. She is probably playing along for now, because everything about her says she’s smart. She feels intensely guilty for not sounding an alarm, but of course she didn’t have the time or the resources to get help.” He looked around at the deputies. “If you canvass gas stations to see where the girls gassed up, you may get a description of our UNSUB or even a security video.”

“So if Kara is being compliant—” Scully began, processing.

“She lives. If she had—very understandably—become hysterical or fought, or in any way disturbed the UNSUB’s fantasy that they’re meant to be, he’d have killed her. Kara is smart. I’m willing to bet that not only is she playing along, but she’s going to leave us breadcrumbs.”

Sheriff Henderson crossed to one of the national forest maps. “There’s a lot of hunters’ shacks, vacation cabins, hell, deer stands out in these woods. He’s got hundreds of places to take her.”

“He’s going to cross jurisdictions, steal other vehicles,” Mulder said. He started looking around for his raincoat. “I’m sure our relief team will assist—”

“Oh, that,” Scully said, with grim pleasure. “Skinner called. He can’t spare a relief team. So you had better have bought another pair of boxers or do some laundry. We’re assigned to render this investigation all the assistance requested.”

“I would like you both to stay,” Sheriff Henderson said. Behind him, Scully gave him her narrowed-eyed smirk.

“Well, Scully’s gonna need some clean underwear.”

But even that was ruined by the woman deputy coming in with Scully’s dry-cleaning, pressed, on hangers and bagged.

Mulder’s back really hurt.

::

Through some mysterious female conspiracy, Scully appeared clad in her clean suit and freshly made up. Her hair even seemed bouncy-fresh. Mulder felt that his deodorant had failed long ago.

However, the Stop ‘n’ Rob on the highway north yielded not only a witness, but an identity.

“They were there,” the store clerk said. “I know them from school. And then Trey Smith left right afterward.”

“What’s your name?” Mulder said, sitting down beside her.

“Penny Martin.”

“You seem pretty sharp,” Mulder said. “I bet you’ve had suspicions about Trey Smith for a while.”

“Duh, he’s like a big old creep. He asked me once if I was a dirty girl.” She flicked her blonde hair back. “Y’all know what? I said,” and she leaned over and looked into Mulder’s eyes, ” Yes I am. He never bothered me again. ”

Behind them, Mulder was aware of the bullpen springing into action, deputies on the radio, a BOLO being ordered. He leaned back. “Penny, that probably saved your life. He was looking for a good girl.”

Penny’s eyes rounded. “Kara’s one of the best girls I know.”

“Does she think fast?”

“She’s All-County girl’s basketball team,” Penny said simply. “Are you gonna find her?”

“She’ll think fast,” Mulder said. “And we’re going to do our very best to think fast, too.”

“Why did you stop doing this?” Sheriff Henderson asked Mulder.

Mulder stopped polishing his reading glasses on his tie and looked at the sheriff. He decided to give him one of the many reasons. “Because I lost my taste for standing over the bodies of teenaged girls.”

He was aware of Scully’s becoming motionless, just in his peripheral vision.

The sheriff pinched the bridge of his nose. “It’s not something we’re used to, either.”

Scully said, “Sheriff? There’s something one of your dispatchers passed along. People have reported a hunting cabin broken into.”

“Let’s go,” Mulder said quickly.

“Could be nothing,” Henderson said.

“Could be everything,” Mulder said.

::

It was a cabin, tucked away off a dirt road. The owner looked gratified to see the sheriff. “I thought something was weird, Sheriff, so I came out and went out to the store and called.”

“What did you think was weird?” Mulder asked, holding up his badge.

“Someone’s eaten all the food and used all the toilet paper,” the man said. “And there’s blood. Just a little. But I heard the news about the girl.”

“Blood?” Scully asked, putting on her surgical gloves. “Show me.” Mulder and the sheriff were already walking around the single large room. It had a kitchen area, a wood-burning stove and bunks set up around the walls.

“Here–in the toilet.”

Mulder paused, staring out the smeared window. He refocussed. “Sheriff, have you got a fingerprint kit in the car?”

Scully was out of the toilet, holding a blood-stained wad of toilet paper. “I think they were here, and Kara was here, not more than 24 hours ago.”

“Why?” Sheriff Henderson asked, to both of them.

“Because I think she used this as a tampon. It was behind the toilet.”

Mulder smiled faintly. “I think she was here, too.”

“Lucky break for us,” Henderson said. “He didn’t catch her.”

Mulder straightened up. “You see what she’s doing.”

“Breadcrumbs,” Henderson said, smiling, faintly, in his turn. “You said she was quick and smart. I’m going to get on the line to the next county. This bastard is crossing jurisdictions.”

Mulder looked again at the window. Outlined on it was the clear print of a small hand.

Stay alive, Mulder thought. Just stay alive and I’ll find you.

“Kara’s mother hired a psychic,” Sheriff Henderson said. “And the tracking dogs lost the scent on the highway.”

“See if the psychic approached Mrs. Taylor or the reverse,” Mulder said, bent over a U.S. Survey map of the area around the cabin.

Scully’s eyes flicked over to him. “Who’s the skeptic now?”

“Well, if the psychic approached her, he or she–”

“She,” Henderson said.

“—She could actually know something about the kidnapper. Have some connection.”

Henderson shrugged. “Makes sense to me. I’ll put someone on it. Mrs. Taylor’s coming in with the information.”

Scully had pulled a small plastic bottle out of her bag. Mulder eyed her, absentmindedly, as she squeezed some lotion on her hands—she tended to wash her hands a lot—and he suddenly was back in the moment at the smell of coconut.

Coconut. Beaches, salt air, the hush of water.

Mulder wondered what Scully’s skin would taste like, on the beach.

He must have been standing there with an unusually blank expression because Scully blinked, while still capping the bottle with one hand. (Like a chemist, he thought)

“Mulder?” she said, her voice very slightly questioning.

“Is the psychic coming in?” he asked, falling back into familiar terrority. So much more comfortable for everyone.

::

Mrs. Taylor had looked up the psychic on the Internet, it turned out.

“They’re in a car,” she told the sheriff. “She saw them in a car.”

Mulder, per pre-arrangement, was jacketless and wearing a borrowed deputy’s badge dangling from his neck. He sat alongside the interview table, carefully taking notes.

“Really?” Henderson asked, his eyebrows climbing into his hairline.

“I don’t charge people for this kind of thing,” the woman said. “I know Kara’s alive. I know they’re in a car. He’s driving. I don’t know where they are right now or where they’re going.”

“We’ll check stolen car reports, carjackings,” Sheriff Henderson said.

The woman, a short round motherly woman with a placid, good-humored expression, didn’t look like a psychic. She looked directly at Mulder. “It must take a lot of energy to be you,” she said, benevolently.

“It does,” Mulder said, not even surprised.

“We’ll be in touch,” the sheriff said, sounding like the federal agent he used to be.

“Here’s my card,” the psychic said, putting a flowery, lilac-shaded card on the table. She stood and let herself be ushered out.

Well, that was interesting, Mulder thought. He looked up from his notes at the two-way mirror. He thought about Scully in a bikini. That was an experiment he’d definitely like to try, and he noted that his expression didn’t change.

“Since we haven’t found a body, a car is a good guess,” is what he said.

They found the stolen car, in a K-Mart parking lot; and had the license plate of a pick-up truck stolen from the same lot.

Their rental car left behind in Sheriff Henderson’s parking lot, Mulder and Scully were in a TBI helicopter on the way to the new crime scene. He sat in the back passenger seat with fresh prints of the cabin scene, marker clenched in his teeth, turning the pictures sideways, looking for the trash and stains to spill out something about the kidnapper. He wanted to see something that would reassure him that this guy wouldn’t kill Kara.

“Who the hell is this guy?” he muttered.

“No hits so far on his fingerprints,” Scully said over the headset. “He can’t be ex-military, no priors.”

“He didn’t learn this behavior out of nowhere,” Mulder said.

“Militia group,” the pilot said, unexpectedly. “Some of those boys are serious, a lot just like an excuse to fuck around in the woods. Always some nut that makes everybody look inbred and crazy.”

Mulder saw Scully turn to the pilot, her little beak of a nose prominent under the swept-back hair and Mickey Mouse headphones. She grinned.

Great. Aviator glasses and a leather jacket conquer another heart.

::

Because Mulder wanted so badly to believe, he was extraordinarily pessimistic as they searched the abandoned car. “No reason to believe she was here, there’s trash all over the car. This guy’s a slob.”

Scully was scrutinizing the passenger seat with a crime scene tech, her nose practically touching the stained fabric. “There’s two of everything, two sets of cups, two sets of hamburger wrappers…”

“Any receipts?” Mulder asked.

“Yes,” the tech said, fishing out a crumpled and soggy paper-sack, with a receipt stapled to it.

Scully pointed with a latex-covered finger. “See? Two orders.”

“Get on to corporate offices of that chain—see which number store it is,” Mulder said. “Then let’s see if someone’s got a clear picture of this bastard.”

They were staring at him. Maybe that last came out a little loudly.

Mulder blinked—he was aware that he hadn’t slept for a long while—but there was Sheriff Henderson.

“I got the guy’s juvenile file,” he said, “I left our county attorney general filing for a court order and, uh, talked to one of the clerks.” He opened a manila envelope and shook out photocopies of two, three, four booking shots of a teenager. “Kid hasn’t ever had a driver’s license. Juvenile fingerprint records were destroyed five years ago by mistake, since they’re sealed. His stepfather and mother are dead, and he kept living in the house, keeping their checks and paying all their utilities.”

“That’s why he was off the grid,” Mulder said.

“We can fax these to Quantico and get them enhanced for age,” Scully said. “Then send them out.”

“Which is why I thought I better get these to you,” Henderson said.

“Aren’t you taking a risk, Sheriff?” Scully asked, as Mulder began staring hard at the photos. Defiant asshole, this Trey Smith. Trey. Thomas Smith the III, but he stopped getting caught for anything after juvenile court. He probably lived with a mother, a mother who wasn’t called Smith…he probably wasn’t originally from that county…

“Hell, I’m a Tennessee sheriff,” Henderson snorted. “I don’t think I’ll have trouble being re-elected. If you catch him, my biggest concern will be keeping him alive for trial.”

Mulder knew Scully was watching him. “So, you’re thinking your prosecutor can get us the entire juvenile file?” he asked.

“Yeah, and he can do it without a federal order. The judge is reviewing the law, but we just located these files. You know old courthouses, courthouse annexes—boxes get lost or mislabeled. Y’all give me the fax number here.”

“This seems to be our command post for now,” Mulder said. Someone had brought him another cup of coffee and he gulped a mouthful. You can see how Smith evolves from thirteen to sixteen. He stops looking down and starts staring at the camera. The police camera.

Mulder dropped the coffee cup. “Henderson, we have to back-track. He’s doubled back. He’s taken her back home.”

“We searched his house.” All around them, the other agents were silent, leaning away from their phones, standing up from the folding tables.

“He’s doubled back.” Mulder went to a regional map the KBI/TBI guys had carefully marked with Smith’s route, his two cabin break-ins, and tabs for projected routes. “He may not go exactly home, but he’s going to go back to his comfort zone. He’s a combination of organized and disorganized.”

“With all due respect,” said the Special Agent In Charge, “Agent Mulder, we have every reason to believe that Smith will continue along your orignial profile.”

“This is a fucking art, not a science,” Mulder said. “Profiling can’t be rigid. We have to be flexible.”

“Mulder,” Scully said, in a quiet tone, “you haven’t read the juvenile file yet. You’re basing this on a hunch. You haven’t slept in what, thirty-six hours?”

“I’ll take you back with me,” Sheriff Henderson said.

“I’ll stay here and co-ordinate.”

The SAIC sighed gustily. “Hell, you need sleep, Mulder. Keep your cell phone.”

Mulder followed Henderson out of the quiet office, dragging his canvas bag from a chair and slinging on his black raincoat.

This would be the part where Mulder stood over a body and did not say, “I told you so.” It seemed to be his fate, whenever he was seduced back into believing that he could predict what a criminal would or could do. Sometimes he was hurt, sometimes his partner hurt, but usually, usually, the victim was hurt.

This time, though, he sat in a Ford Police Interceptor with police lights flashing silently and a sheriff calling in ahead to clear the traffic. “There’s an aunt, Sheriff,” said an unfamiliar voice. “She’s in a nursing home but the family still owns the house. It’s in the northwest section of the county, near Flint Bottoms. His aunt says she hasn’t seen Trey in weeks; she threw him out for stealing her pension checks.” The radio crackled off.

“Give me more detail on that aunt’s house,” Henderson said into his microphone.

The wind blew gusts of dead leaves across the roadways. By the time Mulder and Henderson reached the property, the air was cold and the sky pink-orange tinged by sunset. They stopped the car around a blind corner from the house, where a sheriff’s car waited.

As Mulder, Henderson, and two deputies walked up to the house, a cloud of starlings blew out of the trees in a raucous explosion of night dark wings.

Everything in Mulder’s mind cynically said, he was either too late or totally mistaken. Everything else said, she’s here.

The damp fallen leaves and the dead autumn grass cushioned their steps, which they took agonizingly slowly, guns drawn and held with straining, vibrating arms, picking their way around to all the windows and the cellar door and the back door.

Then Henderson rapped on the door. “Sheriff’s Department! Open up!”

There was a faint sound inside. “I think I hear a girl,” Henderson remarked, and his deputy hit the door with the portable ram. It split open like cardboard, and they ran inside.

Of course it was all dark, but there was a television going, and the grimy smell of food fried hard in a skillet. Single lights in the center of the ceiling, no friendly light at all. However, there was one person now prostate on the floor, Sheriff Henderson’s boot on his wrist, Henderson’s gun aimed at his nose.

“Clear” came from the kitchen.

Mulder went to the bathroom. “Let me in,” he said. “FBI. We’re here to take you home.” And incredibly, the door scratched open, and a girl who felt like a familiar friend peered out.

She touched the badge dangling from his neck with a finger tipped with chipped blue polish. “You really came,” she said.

Mulder said, “You left us a pretty good trail.” He took her arm, and helped her navigate, in her bare feet, across the littered floor. “Your friend didn’t make it. I’m sorry.”

Kara didn’t flinch. “I went with him because he said he’d do the same to me.”

“Makes sense,” Mulder said. “Your job was to stay alive and my job was to find you. We both did what we were supposed to do.”

No action films ever showed the dreary aftermath of the heroic rescue. It was long, and dreary, tiring, and would have been sad, except for the fact that there was a live victim, with no missing body parts.

A victim who turned into a scared little girl who really wanted to go home, but was being brave. “Not long,” Mulder lied. “The deputies will bring your mom to the hospital. We have to go get you checked out.” He was sitting in the ambulance, waiting for the paramedic to finish the emergency checks of Kara’s blood pressure and heart rate.

“There’s not gonna be any rape kit evidence,” Kara said, bluntly. “I mean, hello, showers and shampoo and stuff?”

“Hell, this guy may have six kinds of TB,” Mulder said. “You gotta get some antibiotics and a blow-dry before we let CNN see you.”

“CNN? Me?” Kara’s eyes stopped squinting for a moment.

“You’re a big story, but split ends show up on camera.”

Kara almost smiled. She was still pale enough for Mulder to see every freckle. She no longer looked as though she was about to cry, though. Which was good, because Mulder was ready to weep. There they were, she wearing dirty jeans and stolen flannel shirt, and staring at him scraping the mud from his dress shoes, with bags of dirty underwear scattered across three states. Staring at him like he was some kind of big fat hero. He saw her look past him, then pretend not to.

“Sheriff Henderson has taken him away,” Mulder said. “There’s a huge task force looking for you. That guy was good—he had us thinking you were in another state.” He reflectively checked his cell phone, but the battery was still dead.

“He has creepy friends in camo,” Kara said. “They helped him.”

Mulder felt an almost electric shock across his scalp. “Anti-government kind of creepy friends?”

“Redneck assholes,” Kara said. “He kept me hidden.”

The paramedic ripped the Velcro tabs on the blood pressure cuff. “Okay, young lady, we’re gonna go and get you cleaned up. Agent Mulder, you can ride back here.” He nodded to the driver, who slapped the doors shut.

“Put the sirens on,” Mulder said. Kara giggled, and he pretended to scowl. “I like sirens.”

The parmedic rolled his eyes. I get all the nuts his expression seemed to say.

::

At the hospital, per protocol, Mulder oversaw and counter-initialed all the evidence: photos of Kara, her bagged clothing, her fingernail scrapings. Then Kara’s mom came in, running like a bullet past the gathering crowd of hospital personnel and law enforcement.

Mulder did not oversee that. Instead, he leaned against the corridor wall, aching with post-adrenaline tiredness. Winning should feel better, he thought. But he could only think of the girl who was buried, of the parents who didn’t get their daughter back, and of what horrors Kara had endured. (And how he would like to have someone run at him like a bullet. No such luck, you sad son of a bitch.)

And, oh, shit, survivalists? Militia groups?

He saw Henderson coming through the double doors at the end of the corridor, with a man in a suit and tie beside him. “Mulder,” Henderson hailed him. “This is Jack Taylor, our prosecutor.” Taylor and Mulder shook hands.

“It’s all chain-of-evidence secured,” Mulder said.

“Never doubted it,” Taylor said. “And I understand we don’t have any Stockholm syndrome problems? This girl will be solid in her testimony? Won’t waiver?”

“This girl will never waiver,” Mulder said.

“Press conference coming up,” Henderson said. “The damned governor’s office and your field office and Lord knows who else are driving down the interstate.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose. “And, uh, your partner’s on her way, too.”

Mulder said, uneasily, “Scully doesn’t like press conferences.”

“Listen, I’m giving all credit to you and your partner,” Henderson said, earnestly. “If not for you—”

But at that moment, an FBI windbreaker-clad redhead came storming in, skittering on her damned heels, her stern blue gaze clearing a path. “I’m a medical doctor,” she said over her shoulder to someone, before spotting Mulder. She shook off her escort and came straight down the hall to Mulder.

“They’ve lost our luggage, Mulder,” she said, but what she did was throw her arms around his neck. “I knew you’d do it!”

Her hair smelled like coconut.

This is the longest I have ever been on a story, but it has also been one of the longest years of my life! One root canal, two sinus infections, car engine repair, and career shake up later, this fic is done! Thank you for being so patient!

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