Northern LightsAuthor: se_parsonsRecipient: hkathRating:
Moderate ViolenceAuthor's Notes:
The characters in this fic are the property of others. No profit is being made. The Paulding Light is a real X-file in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan that can be both visited and Googled. All the rest is invented for the purposes of this fic. Thanks to my beta for making this story ever so much more readable.Summary: hkath’s prompt:
X-Files crossover: Sam&Dean and Mulder&Scully get in each other's way during a case.
Mulder craned his neck to try to see past the good boat Benny Boo on its trailer. Some kind of hold-up ahead meant they were moving at a crawl - a tree sloth with mono could have beaten them in a footrace. The driver of the double-cab Ford in front turned his wheel spasmodically for about the 57th time since leaving Merrill. It blocked his view again and nearly slammed boat and trailer into Mulder's front bumper. To hell with tradition: next time Scully was driving.
His partner was staring out of the window of their rental, as she had been since leaving the airport at Wausau. Her only reward was lines of trees, broken only by the occasional farm or hamlet.Mulder supposed it was better than being taunted by the annoyingly cheerful rear-end of the Benny Boo for a hundred miles. What kind of people named a boat the Benny Boo anyway? He should arrest them; they were probably serial killers.
Scully was in one of her rare black sulks. When she got like this - everything he did, no matter how small, was at best an annoyance and at worst a twisted knife in the vitals.
And it wasn't like it was even his fault. The traffic had been out to get him even in Washington, where it took so long to get from the Hoover Building to the airport that they missed their first flight and had to wait two hours for another. Then there had been the turbulence over Pennsylvania that made her face turn green and her knuckles white. Then theplane change in Detroit, and again in Milwaukee, and now they were stuck behind the Benny fucking Boo in the middle of nowhere. He supposed she had a right to be annoyed.
But right now it seemed like she came straight from hell to drive him insane with wanting her to talk to him like everything was ok instead of just sitting there like a lump and staring out the goddamned window.
Mulder cursed as the Benny Boo swerved again and blocked the tiny glance he'd managed to get of the road ahead.
"Do you think he's drunk?"
It was the first communication Scully had deigned to have with him since they'd gotten into the car. Mulder was almost too surprised to answer.
“And I would know that how?" Mulder asked his partner.
She just looked at him, blue eyes cool. Expression detached.
He went back to staring at the boat to avoid looking at her stony face. He didn't want to see her anger -- or worse, her disappointment.
When he finally did glance over at her, she was angled away from him and looking out the window again.
Mulder stewed, and cursed as the Benny Boo kicked up a rock and cracked it against the windshield like a gunshot.
"Did it break?" Scully asked, examining the glass for cracks.
"I don't think so, but I wish we could get the hell away from it," he replied. "Or smash it into tiny bits. I think that might be a lot more satisfying."
"Well, we're almost there, according to the map," Scully said, as she read the road sign telling them they were in Conover. "It's only a few miles from here."
"Good," said Mulder grimly as the trailer swerved dangerously again. It would have given Mother Theresa road rage.
And now, just to add to the annoyance, he was being tailgated by some kid in an old black car, a real redneck special. But unlike the scores of two hundred-buck jalopies he had seen for sale along the side of the the two-lane, this one was devoid of even a speck of rust.
Some older guy was asleep in the passenger side as the kid rode straight up Mulder's tailpipe. Surely the driver had to realize there was nowhere to go in the endless line of RVs and boat trailers, but no, the kid was acting like somebody had set his ass on fire and he had to get to his destination or explode.
Mulder couldn’t help but slack up on the gas and make space between him and Benny Boo, earning him a sharp look from Scully. He just shrugged innocently and attempted a grin. Suspicious, she craned her little neck to look out of the rear window.
“Isn’t that a trifle childish?”
“Kid needs to learn a lesson.”
“And you’re going to teach him?”
“Somebody will, maybe not me,” Mulder said. “This kind of traffic, he’ll learn something one way or the other.”
Mulder slipped his speed down further, to 48 miles an hour. But instead of aggravating the kid, who was now tapping his hands against the top of the steering wheel in impatience, it just made him think he saw an opportunity. The kid floored it. The huge engine of the old beast of a car he was driving roared and he went from 48 to about 75 or 80 in seconds, passing Mulder and Scully and the boat trailer and the next two RVs in front of them in short order.
“Yes, that was some lesson you taught him there,” Scully apparently couldn’t resist saying. Mulder smiled like an idiot and hunkered down to wait out the traffic.
It was already turning out to be a long, long trip.
It didn’t get any shorter once they hit the epicenter of the reported strange phenomena/missing person combo that had gotten them on the case in the first place—the Ottawa National Forest.
“Mulder, how on earth can a place this far from civilization have not even one single empty room?” Scully complained after he came out of the third motel office shaking his head.
“Apparently there’s some kind of water ski show or something, plus it’s a big vacation weekend with the Fourth and all,” Mulder got back behind the wheel and headed back onto US2. “But the guy back there called around and found us something. He says you can’t miss it, but the directions sounded pretty obscure.”
Scully sat silently, looking out the windshield like she could intimidate the forest into coughing up a decent motel room using only the power of her laserlike glare.
“What is it about you and forests, Mulder, that turns everything into a disaster?”
“Don’t blame this on me, blame it on Paul Frazetti and Carlos Romero of Cicero, IL and a mysterious light in the sky” he said. They lapsed back into annoyed silence.
After two wrong turns and a long and dusty drive down a dirt road, they reached the place the motel keeper had told him about. It wasn’t even a motel. It was a bar with cabins that styled itself as a “resort.”
Mulder saw the car as soon as he pulled into the parking lot. He’d seen plenty of muscle cars today but not every one was driven by a reckless teen-aged NASCAR wannabe.
The kid was leaning against the side of the car, slumped into some elderly brown leather jacket like a portrait of James Dean as an angst-ridden teen. Or he would have been if he hadn’t been accompanied by a younger boy whose nose was buried in a paperback.
The kid gave Mulder a close look while appearing not to. It struck Mulder as wrong -- he recognized that look. You saw it from witnesses -- not the kind who were too messed up to give you any information but the good kind, the ones who remembered details no matter how bad a time they'd just been through. They were the sort of people who spent the rest of their lives checking the exits as they entered a room. They were the survivors.
The little one was doing it too -- checking out Scully as she fussed with a loose seatbelt, all the while pretending to read his book. It was slick but not slick enough; Scully noticed and looked over at Mulder. He gave her a nod in return.
“I’ll go and check us in,” he said lightly. “Looks like there’s a boat dock. Did you bring your swimsuit?”
A raised eyebrow was her only reply.
Mulder was still smirking at her when he backed into somebody coming out of the bar. “Oh, hey there, sorry,” he told the man, who was scowling at the keys in his hand like he wanted to set them on fire.
“No problem,” the man who had been sleeping in the front seat shrugged and turned all his attention to the boys by the car. “Cabin Four,” he barked, like a drill sergeant ordering his platoon. “I want that car totally cleaned out and detailed by 5 p.m. After that stunt you pulled, and nearly killing your brother, you’re damned lucky I don’t make you do it with your tongue.”
“It wasn’t a stunt,” the older boy said, not a bit of a whine or sullenness in his voice, belying his appearance. “That guy flew out of that side road, Dad. Nobody would have seen him coming.”
“If you’d been going anything close to the speed limit you wouldn’t have almost sent your brother through the windshield and made him spill his Coke all over the car.”
The guy was pretty big in good shape and had a very intimidating presence, but Mulder couldn’t be certain he was the reason for the boys’ survivor look. Despite the fact that both were dressed in very old jeans and t-shirts, they didn’t look badly cared-for and he couldn’t see any visible signs of abuse. Plus, what the man was having the older boy do as punishment was reasonable for the crime. No threats of physical violence. Mulder decided to keep an eye on them.
The smaller boy eyeballed the older one with a smug expression.
“Laugh it up, Sammy,” the older boy opened up the door of the car. “But you’re the one who can’t keep his grip in an emergency, not me.”
The man gave the boys a last glare and strode off to Cabin Four with a stack of local newspapers and an old leather-bound book under his arm. Mulder wondered where he’d gotten the newspapers and if there were any more to be had. But he realized he was behaving oddly watching the family-time street theatre and so went into the bar.
It was dark, and narrow and had more stuffed fish with beady yellow taxidermied eyes than Mulder had ever seen anywhere in his life. It was like being in the middle of the world’s saddest and dustiest aquarium. There were a couple of older guys in jeans and trucker hats sitting at the bar, and a room at the back with a couple of elderly pinball machines and a pool table. A tired looking woman was manning the bar. Mulder went to where she was straightening up.
“A man down at the Pines Motel told me you had some cabins available.” Mulder said.
“Oh, you’re the one he called about,” she said with a smile. “I thought it was the other guy with the kids at first. Lucky you we still have one left. It’s a two bedroom, so it’s a little more expensive.”
“Not a problem,” Mulder said, pulling out his wallet. “I saw that guy had some newspapers, do you have any here?”
“Sure, I’ve got the Daily Globe and the News Review, plus the Shopper,” she told him.
“I’ll take all three,” Mulder smiled his most charming smile. “Along with the room.”
“And this Ice Cream sandwich,” Scully had arrived and had somehow headed straight to the cooler full of ice cream back near the room where some kids were playing pool.
“Get one for me, too,” Mulder said, paying up for the cabin.
“We’ve got boat rentals, too,” the woman said hopefully.
“We might want one later,” Mulder said. “We’ll just be back in when we do. Thank you.”
“Do you really have “farm fresh eggs”? “ Scully asked, and then Mulder spotted the tiny sign tacked up on a shelf right next to “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.”
“We sure do. The owner keeps chickens and the eggs were just laid today. They’re brown,” the woman apparently expected that to bother them. Mulder wondered just what kind of people usually stayed here.
“There are pots and pans in the cabin?”
“Full kitchenette, refrigerator, too.”
“I’ll have a dozen, then,” Scully said. “I can’t remember the last time I got really fresh eggs.”
“Nice to see somebody appreciate them,” the woman bustled out the door behind the bar. “I just have them in back. I’ll get a nice dozen for you.”
“Who are you, and what have you done with .the health food-eating Scully?” Mulder asked, staring at her as she daintily peeled the paper from her ice cream.
“You don’t get much healthier than eggs from a non commercially farmed chicken,” she replied. “I haven’t had any since I was a kid. We had a friend who had a little farm off base and they had chickens. They were the best I ever had.”
I hope you’re not disappointed. Of course, that means we should get other food, too. I don’t think this bar serves food, does it?”
Nope,” said one of the men at the bar, not at all ashamed to have been listening to their conversation. “Got some groceries in the other room, though. You could get some bacon and bread and whatnot. But it’s pricey. Might want to go to town and go to Nordine’s. Or to Red Owl in Land O’ Lakes.”
“That’s not a Red Owl no more,” the other man said. “Hasn’t been for ten years, Jerry.”
“Um, thanks,” Mulder said. “We’re heading up to Robbins Pond later today. Will that take us by any of them?”
“Nordine’s is by there,” the first man told him. “There’s the gas station and laundry mat there too. And the bank and post office. You can’t miss it, it’s all one building.”
Mulder felt Scully’s eyes boring into the back of his head, but he manfully ignored it.
“If you’re goin’ up by the pond, you should really go to Bond Falls, too. Prettiest falls around here. Nothing as nice until you get over to Black River Harbor and see Rainbow.”
“You know they’re going to see the Light,” Jerry scoffed at his friend. “That’s what all the tourists do. ‘Specially now with folks missing.”
“Whatever made those FIPs get lost, it wasn’t the Light. It’s never hurt anybody.”
“FIPs?” Mulder asked.
“You’re not from Illinois, are you?” Jerry asked, suddenly suspicious.
“No. D.C.,” Mulder replied.
“That’s a long way,” Jerry’s friend commented, clearly wanting them to explain.
“Yeah, we wanted to get away from everything.”
“Well, you sure came to the right place,” Jerry told him. “FIPs are Fucking Illinois People, and they come up here to swim and ski and pretty much wreck it for the people who live here. People are pretty happy to take their money, but we can’t wait until they go back where they came from. The missing hikers are from Chicago. Which means they don’t know anything about hiking in the woods and probably just got lost or fell in a hole or something.”
“'Here you go!" The woman returned with an open carton of medium brown eggs.
“Oh thank you!” Scully handed over a small amount of cash, starting to resemble a human being instead of the evil statue of the ancient goddess Scowl that had been sharing a car with him for the last few hundred miles.
“If you folks are going to be in town tonight, go to Minnie’s for fish fry. It’s Friday and you can’t get better between here and Bruce’s Crossing,” Jerry said helpfully.
“Thank you, we really appreciate the advice,” Mulder said, genuinely grateful for the free intelligence. “Maybe we’ll see you later.”
“We’re usually around,” Jerry’s friend took drink of his Bud and saluted Mulder with the bottle.
“So which ones are ours?” Scully asked, as they walked blinking out into the bright sunlight.
“One,” Mulder replied, earning another death glare. “Number Five, it’s a two bedroom because that’s all they had left.”
“Oh,” Scully was still too happy about her eggs to be much fazed by having to share. “Ok, then. Give me the key and I’ll go open it up while you bring the car around.”
She picked her way across the dirt and gravel of the parking lot, carrying the egg box as if it held precious jewels.
As Mulder pulled the car around, he caught a glimpse inside Cabin Four, where the guy he assumed was the father of Teen Speed Demon and Little Bookworm was spreading papers across the kitchen table with grim concentration. It caught Mulder's attention because it was exactly what he planned to do inside his own cabin.
The man had a certain gruff hardness that struck Mulder as odd, reminded him of cops he had known, colleagues at the FBI, and above all, Skinner. But this man couldn't be undercover with those boys along for the ride. Off duty? A friend of one of the disappeared? Mulder knew it was no good to read too much into the absence of evidence. Nevertheless he vowed to keep an eye on the guy -- and get Scully to watch out for him too.
As Mulder got their suitcases out of the trunk, he looked around for Number Four’s boys.
They were down by the boat launch with the car. The little one was sitting on the dock, still with his book, while the older one, sans leather jacket, was using a rag and a bucket of water to clean out the car. Nothing to worry about there.
When he got inside, Scully had put her eggs away and was in one of the bedrooms.
“Dibs?” he asked.
“Not much difference, but this one is fine,” she said.
The place was old fashioned, with creaky wood floors and furnishings from the 1950s and 60s. It was paneled with knotty pine, which would have been nice if somebody hadn’t decided that it would look really great with lots of scalloped trim and calico draperies. It looked like very girly Seven Dwarfs had had their way with the place.
But it was clean. That was something. The bathroom light was dim, but it worked. The kitchenette consisted of an apartment sized fridge from the 1970s in a hideous shade of avocado, a white apartment sized gas stove with shelves over it containing cheap aluminum pots and pans, and a sink in a1950s style metal cabinet. At least it matched the 1950s diner-style table and chairs set. Rustic didn’t quite do it justice.
“Whose Grandma died and left them the furniture, do you think?” he asked as Scully came out of her bedroom and sat down on the couch that appeared to be upholstered in some form of brown burlap.
“It’s quaint,” Scully shrugged.
“If you say so,” Mulder headed back to the car to get his papers and the laptops.
He handed Scully the Daily Globe and took the other for himself to see if the locals could tell them anything they hadn’t been able to find from the police reports, the Chicago Tribune story and their own files. Both of the missing men had come up clean when they’d run them through their databases, no criminal records. Both were employed in ordinary jobs they’d been working at for more than five years, Paul Frazetti as an accountant and Carlos Romero in construction.
They read in silence for a while. The weekly News didn't go into much depth: just printed a small map of Paulding Pond with an X where the two men from Cicero were presumed to have vanished. He ripped it out. Scully had an intricately detailed Forest Service map and he had X marks the spot. It seemed better than a good start.
"Find anything?" he asked.
"There's an article that tells us what we already know about the missing men, but it also calls your X-file the Dog Meadow Light,” Scully said.
“Oh, that’s fine. They call it both, because it appears over Dog Meadow south of the town of Paulding. and just north of Watersmeet. The Light appears in the sky between two hills along the line of the old railroad grade off Robbins Pond Road."
“Local legends are contradictory; some say that the Light was first reported by Native Americans. Some say that the first sighting was in 1966 by local teens. Some say that about forty years ago, a railroad switchman was crushed to death between two cars and that the Light is the ghostly apparition’s lantern as he tries to signal others to keep away. Another legend has it that an engineer was murdered along the railroad grade and his body never found, or a mail carrier and his sled dogs who were murdered a hundred years ago at Dog Meadow.”
“Sounds like nobody really knows what’s going on,” Scully was obviously amused, but that was ok with Mulder because it was a lot better than the mood she’d been in before.
“Well, others claim that the lights aren’t supernatural at all, but that they have a scientific basis. But investigations by various scientists have found no cause for the lights’ existence, though they are clearly seen every night.
“And there are those that claim the lights are from outer space,” Mulder let that hang, but Scully didn’t rise to the bait.
“No matter what people say, the lights are there and draw spectators. The missing hikers apparently went down the trail by the old railroad grade, which a lot of other people have been doing for years with no ill effect. But they didn’t come back.”
“So which do you think it is, aliens or ghosts?” despite the seriousness of the missing people, Scully couldn’t keep the amusement from her voice.
“I’m keeping an open mind,” Mulder told her, and he was.
“And I’m betting it’s neither, seeing they wandered off into, hundreds of square miles of wilderness. Maybe they got between a bear and her cub,” Scully said.
“I already looked into that before we came up. The last time a bear killed anybody up here was 200 miles to the east and in 1948. And it was a three year old,” Mulder said. “It’s not like they’re Grizzlies. There’s another reason.”
“So do we want to head out and have a look around while it’s still light?” Scully asked, voice carefully neutral. Mulder knew the tone all too well. She was getting ready to disbelieve whatever came along, including the evidence of her own eyes.
“Let’s get some of that fish fry those guys were talking about and then go out to the site.” Mulder shrugged.
“I’ll go put on my hiking gear,” Scully said.
When they pulled up to the barrier at the end of Robbins Pond Road, Mulder was a little surprised to see the old black car with the Kansas plates was there already. He looked around for the man from Cabin Four and his kids, but they weren’t among the small crowd gathered there to look for the appearance of the lights. It wasn’t dark yet, but it was gloomy beneath the tall trees.
Mulder and Scully both pocketed their flashlights, and just to be safe Mulder added a candy bar and some matches to go with his maps and compass. Unexpected things happened when he and Scully went in the woods and wasn't about to be caught flat-footed again.
“You’re not gonna see it, if you go down there,” somebody stage whispered as they started. “It just messes it up. It doesn’t like it when people go down there. It gets really dim.”
Mulder just shrugged like, “what can you do” and pointed at Scully’s retreating back.
They trudged on down the hill, meeting a few teenagers coming back up.
“Nothing down there,” they said. “Can’t see anything. Not even the Light.”
“Well, we’re just out for a hike, anyway,” Mulder said, waving them off.
“Taking your life in your hands, man,” another kid called over his shoulder. “Some guys disappeared about a week ago, just after dark. Nobody’s goin’ down there after dark now.”
Mulder just shrugged again, best not to say too much. He trotted to catch up to Scully, who was making serious time down the hill despite her tiny, little legs.
If they hadn’t been on their way to try to find what had made two full grown men disappear, it might have been a nice stroll in the woods despite the hordes of mosquitos. Mulder was glad they’d dosed themselves liberally with DEET before leaving the car. He figured if he hadn’t, he’d have about a thousand bites already instead of just the one that was making his ear twitch.
A fluttering in the air ahead made him look up; but it wasn't the Light, it was just bats, hunting the tormenting mosquitoes.
“Go get ‘em, boys!” Mulder whispered to them.
He scanned the path ahead and found a lot of footprints; it was going to be next to impossible to find where the hikers had gone astray in all that mess. You’d have to be Daniel Boone or Sherlock Holmes or perhaps a bloodhound to make sense out of it.
He looked back behind him, but the crowd at the end of the road was no longer visible. Good thing, seeing they were bound to have to go off the path if they were going to find where the hikers had ended up.
The kids had been right about the lights not appearing when you got closer to them, though. He had seen them clearly, though dimly, from the end of the road, but now there was nothing at all, even though they should have been brighter and closer. He could see the raised ground of the old railroad grade and what looked like tracks through the tall grass leading up to it.
“Look,” he said, pointing the tracks out to Scully.
“I see. But do you think that’s from the hikers or from all the gawkers that have come out here since they disappeared?”
“No idea, but it’s somewhere to start.”
Scully nodded and trudged up the slope to the grade. The trail through the tall grass was equally plain there and they hiked along in silence. Mulder hoped he hadn’t just randomly followed some deer trail, but was rewarded with confirmation that the trail was at least made by humans by the mark of what looked like a boot in the edge of a puddle along the flat top of the track. Good thing he’d spotted it, too, as it was now starting to really get dark, the sun setting well down past the tops of the trees.
This was starting to bear a rather unpleasant resemblance to a trip they’d taken to the woods before, what with the big trees and the dark and the likelihood that something awful was lurking somewhere out there. Maybe Scully was right about them avoiding cases that took them out into the wilderness.
Suddenly, instead of Scully ahead of him on the trail, Mulder saw nothing but a brilliant golden light, bright as a car headlight and about the size of a beach ball. It was heading right for him, he dove to the ground in order to get out of its way.
“Mulder!” Scully cried, sounding a bit panicked and he felt her hand on his arm, but he couldn’t see anything in front of him but the blue-black afterimage of the blinding ball of light. He looked to the left and right and out of the corner of his eye he could see there was a red one hanging just behind Scully’s head, soon joined by a green one, that zoomed together and then apart and then shot over Mulder’s head in the direction they’d come from leaving them both crouched on the ground in the middle of the trail.
“How’s that for an X-File,” Mulder was annoyed to find his voice was a little shaky. But he hadn’t really expected to get quite so up close and personal with the Light.
“It’s certainly a strange phenomenon,” Scully agreed, but you could tell she was trying to get herself under control. “But you’re all right, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, except for the whole being blinded by the Light thing. Did you see where it came from?” Mulder picked himself up off the ground and dusted off his pants. His eyes were watering and he was still blinking around the blue spots into the darkness.
“The big one was just suddenly there, I could see the Light and then I turned around and it dive-bombed you. The other two came from behind me, so I supposed they were further down the path,” Scully still sounded a little rattled, but her brain was already recovered and measuring and calculating like the scientist she was. She looked behind them. Mulder was starting to be able to see her again, flash of pale face and red hair in the edges of the darkness.
“So we go on,” Mulder said, still trying to see.
“You don’t actually think it had anything to do with the hikers?” Scully sounded speculative. “I mean, outside of blinding you, I don’t see you worse for wear and that thing actually touched you.”
“It did?” Mulder asked.
“Yes, it did. It was all around you for several seconds,” Scully explained. “Like a spotlight on stage.”
“Like how many seconds?”
“Count of five or so,” Scully said.
“It wasn’t that long. It was less than one,” Mulder was sure of it. It had only been a second.
“It took me more than that just to get to you,” Scully shook her head. “I was way over there by that tree.”
“So I lost time. Like in Oregon,” Mulder said, scratching his head. Then he smiled. He couldn’t help it. It was more proof, and maybe there really was some sort of explanation for the missing hikers that would help them get closer to everything he’d been working for his whole career.
“It’s not the Holy Grail, Mulder,” Scully was annoyed now, like she’d just read his mind and disapproved of what she’d seen in it. “It’s a weird light that probably has some kind of explanation. It’s probably swamp gas, or some kind of interference from the power lines acting on all the iron ore in the soil up here.”
“Sightings pre-date electricity up here, Scully,” Mulder said, starting back down the path, squinting to try to find the way.
“The paper said the first ones come from the time of the railroad,” Scully replied. “It could even be the metal in the rails causing it.”
“But we’re not prone to wild speculation in the face of a lack of evidence or anything,” Mulder said, then he stopped. He’d heard something up ahead and there was a flash and a glow low to the ground off to one side of the railroad grade up ahead.
He pulled out his gun and motioned for Scully to follow and took point as quietly as he could. He slipped along the path, wanting to see the birth of the glowing phenomenon, but as soon as he got nearer he could see that it was actually just an ordinary fire, already dying down. He looked left and right, but his eyes were still too bad from the glare of the ball of light to see very far.
Scully elbowed him in the arm and pointed off to their left. He couldn’t make anything out, but she headed off in that direction, and he ran up to the fire. There, in a shallow pit was a pile of bones, human by the look of the skull, and covered in the remains of cloth, as though they'd been long ago put in a bag or covered in canvas from an old tent or tarp.
Mulder wasn’t a forensic anthropologist, but the lack of any meat on the bones made him think they might be too old to be the missing hikers. But, then, somebody could have removed the flesh, which meant either someone very serious about covering their tracks or very, very unbalanced. Bad news, either way. He’d need Scully to look at the bones to know even close to for sure, but he’d have to wait until they were no longer on fire to do that. And right now she was out there wandering around alone where whoever put the bones there and lit them on fire could be waiting for her.
He left them burning where they were and headed off in the direction Scully had taken. He ran as fast as he could over the forest floor, but there were a lot of downed trees and he had to pick his way around them. He couldn’t see her and he didn’t want to alert whoever had set those bones on fire by shouting. He wasn’t panicking. He didn’t panic, but he was going to get to her fast.
Then there was a light to his right. The normal electric light generated by a lamp and a head silhouetted in the square of a window frame. Mulder could just make out the shape of a small cabin over that way, about an eighth of a mile. And there were people in it trying to see what was going on out where they were. He hoped they’d be smart and stay inside.
He turned his back on the cabin and kept running after Scully. And then there was another flash ahead. Not like the electric light or like the phenomenon, but this was the illumination of a sodium flare. And just after it, the report of a gunshot, followed by two more in quick succession.
No reason to keep silent now, Mulder shouted her name. “Scully!”
“Mulder!” she called, but her voice was shaky.
“Scully!” Mulder ran headlong, not bothering to try to go around trees now, but jumping over them not caring if he hit something rotted and broke his ankle. His partner was in danger and there were gunshots. But his weren’t the only footsteps. He could hear something else crashing through the forest to his right. He looked in that direction and saw the beam of a flashlight. Someone else was coming.
He ran toward the flare, trying to keep his eyes off the brilliance of it and searching in the peripheral darkness for his partner and whoever might have been shooting. The gunshots had not all been from the same weapon.
“Don’t move!” cried a high-pitched voice. At first he thought it was Scully, but then he realized he didn’t recognize it. “Don’t make me nail you again!”
“It’s ok, Sammy, I got him,” said another voice, and there was the muffled sound of a blow.
“Scully?” Mulder cried, searching for his partner and still not seeing her.
“Over here,” she said, to his right. “Here, use these. Get them behind his back.”
“I know how to cuff a guy, Ma’am,” the voice said somewhat sullenly. “It’s not rocket science. Sammy, reload.”
“I am,” the other higher voice replied, also sounding sullen. A kid. And there was the sound of metal on metal as the kid, apparently, reloaded.
Mulder looked to his right. Whoever had the flashlight was still a little ways off, but now he wasn’t so sure that somebody else coming was a good thing. But he had to see if she was all right.
“Scully, you ok?” he burst out into the clearing to see the kid from the cabins hauling a grungy looking individual upright, while simultaneously kicking what looked like a semi-automatic pistol out of the way. “What the hell is going on here?”
“Good question,” Scully said, scanning the trees for more gunmen.
“Let him go, asshole!” a voice cried out from Mulder’s right, and he turned to find two more grungy looking men, one pointing another semi-auto at them and the other holding a flashlight. “You, drop that gun!” he gestured at Mulder with his own.
“Um, sure,” Mulder said, putting up his hands and slowly lowering his gun to the ground just as the little boy, Sammy, let loose with both barrels of the shotgun he was holding and blew the gunman backward into a tree.
“What the hell are you doing?” Mulder cried, at the same time noticing the kid’s victim wasn’t spouting blood from a gigantic hole in his middle.
The second kid jumped over the cuffed guy to try to take the guy with the flashlight, while Mulder also sprang toward him, raising his gun to point it at the downed gunman, who was gasping for breath and trying to raise his pistol up from the ground. He didn’t get it very high, though, when it was crushed to the ground under a booted foot.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” the boys’ father drawled, pointing a second shotgun at the gunman’s head. “Not if I had any real desire to go on livin’.”
“Who are you people?” the cuffed man asked, addressing the group in general.
“Good question,” Scully looked around at the heavily armed kids and their father and when they didn’t offer to introduce themselves, reached inside her jacket to bring out her ID. “Agent Scully, FBI.”
“Shit man, it’s the Feds,” the flashlight guy said, and began to visibly shake.
The boys and their father exchanged a pointed glance.
“There’s a cabin back there with the lights on, why don’t we all head in that direction and get to the bottom of this?” Mulder said gesturing that direction with his gun, not pointing it at anybody, but reminding everyone that he had it.
“All of us?” the father asked.
“I think that it would be a pretty good idea,” Mulder replied sternly, though there was no way he’d ever be able to manage the same command as in the father’s voice. “I kind of wonder what a heavily-armed ten year old is doing running around out here.”
“He’s got rock salt in that gun,” the man said, with the sullenness that showed where the boys got it from.
And Mulder put two and two together about the burning bones and at least one of the weird things that were going on in this investigation.
“So it was you that lit those bones on fire,” Mulder said.
“What are you talking about?” Scully was confused, but that didn’t stop her from continuing to scan the woods for additional intruders.
“You’d already taken off. The light was a grave full of old bones. On fire,” Mulder said. “So it turns out the story about the murdered train engineer was true.”
“Yes. His name was Albert Jameson,” the older kid said. “Killed during the Depression over money, it looks like. He owed some mobsters big down in Chicago. It was one of two graves in these woods.”
“The other one is the one that’s going to interest you and your partner, there,” the father explained. “It’s down that way, closer to the cabin,” he gestured over his shoulder with a thumb. “Couple of bodies in it. New.”
“The missing hikers?” Scully asked, glancing at the father, and then stopping to give him a really good once-over. Mulder felt slightly jealous, though he wasn’t certain she wasn’t cataloging him as a suspect. The guy was ruggedly good-looking like the Marlborough Man or something.
“Don’t think they were here for the hiking,” the father told her grimly. “They didn’t look much like hikers and they weren’t dressed for the woods.”
“Let’s get down to the cabin where there’s light and get to the bottom of this then,” Mulder suggested.
“Get up,” the older boy grabbed the handcuffed man on the ground and dragged him to his feet.
Mulder couldn’t help but notice that that man was raising some seriously scary kids.
The father did the same with the one that he’d held at gunpoint.
“Get a move on, then,” the father said in that same commanding tone. “You heard what the FBI man said.”
Mulder wondered just who had put the dark-haired stranger from Kansas in charge. But the three prisoners started off obediently toward the cabin, looking nervously one to the other and then back at Mulder, the father and his boys and Scully bringing up the rear, keeping all of them in her sights.
It was a long, twitchy and suspicious trudge down the hill to the cabin. Two doors, back and front. For a long amusing moment it reminded Mulder of every cabin in every teen horror flick he’d ever seen, or maybe the one where Ash had holed up in “Evil Dead.” It looked that rickety.
“Cover them,” the father ordered and then took cover on one side of the front door, with the older boy flanking him like a pro on the other.
“Wait a minute,” Mulder whispered. “You can’t take point, you’re civilians!”
“Inside the cabin, you’re under arrest! FBI!” Scully bellowed.
“Great, way to let them know we’re coming,” the teenager muttered.
He looked intently at his father for a long second and then the older man kicked in the door, professionally breaking it at the locking mechanism. Both of them pointed their shotguns inside. It swung open to reveal a lighted room with a few chairs and a ton of grungy lab equipment. No humans visible. They’d actually been dumb enough to all run out into the woods and leave nobody at the cabin.
“Meth Lab,” the kid said. “Crap.”
“Once I saw those two in the grave back there, I figured it had to be drugs somehow. Didn’t realize they were this enterprising,” the father sounded thoughtful. “Figured they were just dealin’ dope.”
With a small cry, the handcuffed guy started running off into the woods.
“Stop,” Scully yelled. “Stop, or I’ll shoot!”
But the younger boy beat her to it, letting loose with both barrels of his reloaded shotgun straight into the guy’s retreating back and laying him flat, face down in the forest floor.
“Remind me never to get on your bad side, kid,” Mulder said. He walked over to the meth guy and hauled him back to his feet and onto the cabin porch.
Without a word, the kid was already reloading.
“I’ve just seen you shoot that thing twice,” Scully said, as the boy intently reloaded with shotgun shells from the pocket of his jean jacket. “And nobody’s got blood on them. What is in those shells?”
“Rock salt, ma’am,” the boy replied.
“But why would you load a gun with rock salt?”
“They’re Hunters, Scully,” Mulder said, and saw the older boy’s eyebrows rise almost into his hairline. “They’re loaded for ghost.”
“For ghosts,” Scully said, in the slow deliberate way one used when talking to insane people or barking dogs.
“They do what we do,” Mulder explained. “Only for other kinds of phenomena.”
Now it was Scully’s turn for the eyebrows to creep up to her hairline.
“You were up here about the Light?” the man actually sounded interested in them for the first time. His tone had up until now indicated nothing but annoyance, like they were an impediment to whatever he was doing, and Mulder supposed they probably had been.
“Yeah,” Mulder looked at him directly, hoping his sincerity showed. It would not be good to mock this man, he was sure. That is, if this Hunter lived up to the reputation of the other Hunters Mulder had read about. “I thought it might have something to do with the hikers, and I bet so did you.”
“That is what it looked like,” the father said with a grim nod. “But I think we’ve found the real reason the hikers disappeared.”
“The dead guys were as much hikers as I’m the Queen of England,” the older boy glared at the guy he’d cuffed. After all the rock salt that had been flying around, the cuffed guy wisely kept silent.
Scully pulled her cell phone out of her jacket, dialed, listened and looked at it angrily.
“No service,” she said.
“So I guess we’ll have to walk them out of here,” Mulder looked back the way they’d come and realized it was going to be a massive pain herding three perps all the way back to the cars.
”I think we’ll let the two of you do that by yourselves,” the father told them. “Boys and I have an appointment to get to.”
“Worried you’re going to get busted for, oh... firearms violations, underage driving, grave desecration and assault?” Mulder looked over the heavily armed family on the cabin porch. They looked kind of like he’d always imagined the Hatfields or the McCoys, right down to the sawed-offs, jeans and flannel shirts.
“Kinda,” the man said, and then grinned, which basically transformed his face and made him look like somebody you might like to sit down and have a beer with.
“Well, your car is the way we’re going and you might as well come with us,” Mulder said. “You’ve been helpful, and I can’t see any point in bothering you. You can clear out before the cops get out here.”
Scully made a small sound of protest, but when she realized Mulder was serious, she piped down. The small boy had probably kept them all from getting shot all by himself, not to mention the help the older one and the father had offered. Usually people weren’t eager to assist law enforcement and arresting them seemed a crappy way to reward somebody for helping you.
“You three, get out in front and get a move on,” Mulder gestured at the three perps with his gun, and flipped on his flashlight, pointing it back in the direction of the railroad grade and the trail back to the cars. The lab guys exchanged glances and then realized their odds of getting clobbered by trigger-happy Sammy again were pretty high, so they began trudging slowly back in the direction pointed out by Mulder’s mag light.
“Sounds fair,” the man nodded dropping in beside them and keeping his shotgun pointed on the drug manufacturers as they marched. “But why are you so willing to cut us a break?’
“Yes, Mulder, why is that?” Scully asked, adding her own light to the path ahead.
“Because here’s an X-file that’s just gotten confirmed,” Mulder said, indicating the Hunter family and with a grin to match that of the man beside him. “I have an entire file cabinet full of reports of guys like this, and this is the first time I’ve ever met one of them in person.”
“There are other guys like this?” Scully asked, giving Mulder a hard look and turning her patented icy glare on the man with the shotgun.
“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” the older boy said, grinning even wider than his dad. He was a startlingly good-looking kid, too. Maybe there was something in the water in Kansas, if that was where they were really from.
“Ghosts don’t exist,” Scully declared.
“I believe the evidence of my own eyes, ma’am,” the older kid told her, before Mulder could say anything. “And I’ve seen and been thrown across a room and generally had my butt kicked by plenty of ghosts, so don’t tell me they don’t exist, ok?”
“But you believe in aliens,” the younger kid, Sammy said, quietly to Mulder. “I saw him on PBS. He was on a panel about people who believe in aliens. And Dad says they don’t exist.”
“Mulder believes in aliens,” Scully said, giving the younger, quiet boy a nod. “I haven’t seen proof.”
“And I believe in aliens because I’ve seen them with my own eyes, like the kid has seen ghosts,” Mulder explained. “So who am I to tell a bunch of Hunters what they should be doing?”
“Great, they’re all nuts,” one of the meth guys muttered.
“Save it for the lawyer,” the one in the cuffs said. “They’ll get us off for the way these guys did the arrest.”
“Have fun with that, Dude, when they check out your lab and the dead bodies of those two missing guys,” the older boy said.
“They have a point,” the father said. “We’d better not get out there with you where there are witnesses. Let me and the boys go ahead and then you can bring them out after we’re gone.”
“Probably a good idea,” Mulder agreed. “Thanks for your help.”
“Mulder, seriously,” Scully said, ready to protest.
“Seriously, it’s professional courtesy,” Mulder told her. “I promise I’ll show you the files when we get back to the office. It’s an entire cabinet going back forever, but the stuff on Samuel Colt alone will be a real eye-opener.”
“You’ve got files on Colt,” the man asked, taking his eyes off the meth guys to give Mulder a sharp look.
“You bet,” Mulder nodded. “I track everything out of the ordinary and that guy, not to mention the whole Winchester family and that creepy house of theirs, was heavily into the kind of stuff you do. A lot of it is available in the Library of Congress and other archives. I just have copies, nothing original.”
“Interesting,” the man said, “Library of Congress, huh?”
“Yep, all it takes is a library card,” Mulder grinned at him. The man smiled back.
“Gonna take the boys back to the car now,” the man told them.
“Thanks for your help,” Mulder said. “Stay safe.”
“We’ll try our best,” the man said, and herded his sons off into the darkness.
“I want a full explanation of this,” Scully was more than a little angry. “There is no reason that man should be allowed to take those boys out with guns like that. I don’t care if they’re loaded with rock salt. And this ghost nonsense!”
“It’s all real, Scully. People like them have been doing it for thousands of years. There’s a whole culture of Hunters and Hunter families. They’ve been in America since it was first settled, a real famous one called the Campbells took care of some of the most famous hauntings on the frontier back when the frontier was Ohio,” Mulder assured her. “I have a full filing cabinet back home. Tons of cases of hauntings, and black dogs, shape shifters and werewolf sightings, vampires, anything you can imagine. And most of them don’t come our way because of people like that man and his sons.”
“Because they’re out shooting ghosts with rock salt and burning bones.”
“That’s right,” Mulder explained.
“We are so totally going to get off,” the cuffed guy muttered.
“You be quiet!” Mulder ordered him. “And pick up the pace. I want you in jail before midnight.”
When they got out of the woods, Mulder could clearly see the Paulding Light, reduced now to a tiny red speck of itself, hovering merrily over the railroad grade. Nothing they’d done had seemed to affect it at all. So, clearly, the ghost theory didn’t hold water. He was still betting on aliens. But if it was them, they were pretty darned harmless.
The big black car and the Hunter and his boys were gone by the time they got the men from the meth lab out to the road. The onlookers dispersed in all directions, as they loaded the three prisoners into the backseat of the Olds and drove them into town, where Scully was finally able to get phone reception.
They woke the mayor and got them to open the town hall and then it took more than an hour for local law enforcement to arrive from Iron River and then another three to process the arrested perps. Mulder was more than happy to turn things over to the Michigan State Police by the time 6 a.m. rolled around and they were able to leave for their rented cabin at the lake.
The black car and its inhabitants weren’t there, either, Mulder noticed, as they pulled up to Cabin 5. Getting gone while the getting was good, he supposed.
Scully yawned so broadly her head looked about ready to split in half.
“I actually felt like an FBI agent today,” she told him as she unlocked the door. “We busted somebody conducting crime across state lines instead of going back to Washington to file a report about whatever we were looking at disappearing or mutating or turning out to be a weather balloon.”
“You’re chatty when you’re exhausted,” Mulder said, flopping down onto the old sofa and making it creak horribly.
“I’m also hungry,” Scully said eyeing the room as if a sandwich was magically going to appear out of somebody’s dead grandma’s furnishings.
“I have it on good authority there are farm fresh eggs in the refrigerator,” he mentioned.
“That’s right, but it means I’d have to cook them,” she yawned again and eyed the pans over the stove.
“Oh, I’ll help,” Mulder dragged himself off the sofa and got the frying pan down and put it on a burner. “Get out the eggs.”
“I’m not letting you off the hook about that man and his sons, you know,” she said as she emerged from the fridge with her prize.
“I didn’t think you would be, but I promise you, I can explain it when we get home,” Mulder went to the drawer to get out the spatula. “Hunter culture, ghosts and the whole shebang. I even have a database of known Hunters and Hunter families. We might even be able to ID old Dad and his kids, there. Their car had Kansas Plates, KAZ 2Y5. We can run them when we get back and ID them. Add them to my file.”
“Why haven’t we seen any of them before?” Scully broke eggs into the pan as she spoke.
“They keep a low profile, understandably. What they do is mostly illegal, even though most of them spend a lot of their time saving lives.”
“Who you gonna call?” Scully made a face and raised an eyebrow. “Some guy with a couple of trigger-happy kids in a big black car doesn’t sound very reassuring.”
“Saved our bacon tonight,” Mulder replied, and then added. “If only we had some now to go with our eggs.”
“Eggs, then sleep, then home,” Scully said. “Then we run the plates and look through the files. I want to know how many of them are out there.”
“And I want to interview them and get a real idea of the scope of their operations, so I don’t mind looking into it, either,” he agreed. “But first things first. Hunting the Hunters is way down my list of priorities. They’re the good guys.”
“If you say so, Mulder,” Scully was clearly remaining skeptical. But that was Scully all over, so what was new?
It was oddly reassuring, actually. Whatever happened, no matter how weird or not weird any investigation turned out to be, she was always going to be there challenging him, forcing him to examine his assumptions and pushing him for proof. It was one of the best things about her.
Or maybe he was just so tired that he loved even the annoying things. But whatever, he was just going to go with it because this day was already turning out to be 100% better than yesterday had been. And he was not going to ruin it for himself. He was just going to be happy for once.
Scully moved the eggs around the pan and Mulder went out onto the porch to watch the sun come up over the lake. It was quite a light show, the soft pinks and oranges and the golden glimmer on the surface of the water, even better than the lights from the night before, though this was no mystery. But then, some of the best things in life weren’t mysterious at all. It was what they were all fighting to preserve, both himself and Scully and the Hunter and his sons.
Mulder closed his eyes and turned his face toward the light of dawn.