There was one constant in Mulder's work with the FBI. Regardless of whether he was with Violent Crimes or the X-Files, the families of tragedy always looked the same: shocked, bleary-eyed and disbelieving. The young woman whose death they were investigating, Laurie Peters, was an orphan and an only child, but she was engaged to Arun Singh, a software engineer. Just as he'd expected, Mulder's interview with her fiancé had yielded nothing useful. They were very happy, the wedding date wasn't set but they'd starting talking about it. No, there wasn't anyone that he could think of who would want to hurt her. No, she'd only told him generalities about her job--she worked in a high-security government facility on sensitive research. He'd been out of town working when her body was discovered. His parents and sister had driven up from Los Angeles when they'd gotten the news. The parents looked sad and surprised by their son's misfortune, but able and willing to support him through it. The sister looked almost as bad as her brother; apparently she and Ms. Peters had roomed together at Stanford, and she had been the one to introduce them. Talk about survivor's guilt. Okay, maybe the survivor's guilt was his projection.
Her colleagues at the government lab where she--did something classified--said essentially the same thing, that Laurie seemed very happy with her work and got along well with everyone. There was no one there who would want to hurt her.
Yet she was dead, so presumably someone had.
Her office had already been checked out by the local PD before he and Scully had been assigned the case and Mulder had turned up nothing new there. At Scully's suggestion, he'd gone back to their hotel to look over the initial photos taken at the crime scene, while she headed to the county morgue to perform the autopsy. He'd offered to go with her but she'd assured him she'd be fine. Of course she would.
It was absurdly late, nearly midnight now. He hated the idea of her being there this late at night but after seven years he knew better than to argue with Scully. There'd been a six hour wind-delay in Atlanta where they'd had to change planes. God, he hated that airport: it was noisy, over-crowded and so spread out that you had to take a train to get from one terminal to another, but it seemed they got routed through there every time they had to fly to the West Coast,
He thought the autopsy could wait until the morning but Scully had holiday plans for the following week she was hoping not to miss. Mulder didn't but that was nothing new. Scully was his family.
He spread the photos of their victim out on the bedspread. She had been found on Friday night by the cleaning crew at her facility who had been prompted by the unpleasant odor to call security to get the door unlocked. She was seated, with her head down and her arms on her desk, as though she was taking a nap. The door had been locked from the inside, requiring a code to get in. Her face looked surprisingly peaceful.
On the plane, Scully had suggested it had the look of a classic Agatha Christie-style "locked room mystery." Mulder wasn't so sure. If that was the case, he should already have a suspect with a motive and have turned up another dead body or two. He supposed he should try to sleep if he could. It had only been a few weeks since he'd been cleared for active duty after his impromptu brain surgery, and he was still having headaches. He could feel one coming on now. It was hard to stop thinking: about everything Scully had told him about the ship in Africa, about Diana's death, about what had nearly happened to him. He needed to switch off and rest his brain. After gathering up the photos, he placed them into their file envelope, then shut off the lamp next to the bed. He doubled up the pillows, leaned back against the headboard and grabbed the remote.
He was stretched out on top of the bedspread about ready to nod off to the second run-through of the Ginsu knife infomercial when his cell phone rang. He fumbled for it and flipped it open. "Mulder."
"Mulder, it's me."
"Yeah." He waited for a couple of seconds. "Scully, are you there?"
She sighed softly. "Yes. Mulder," she said, then stopped.
"What is it?" Her voice sounded odd.
"I found inoperable cancer in the victim's adrenal gland. It's already metastasized to her lungs," she said evenly. "I believe she may have taken her own life. I'm going to run some tests to see if I can determine what she might have used."
Tests, she said, not toxicology screens. "You think she might have poisoned herself. But you don't know with what?" A suicide. The woman was in her early thirties, with terminal cancer, but still.
"Not for certain. I hope to have something more definitive in a few hours." Science always had been Scully's most effective defense against the darkness, but Mulder knew some acts could not be explained with laboratory tests. Forensics could explain how a person had taken their own life, not why.
"Okay. I'll wait then before I wake the family."
"What? It's 2:00 a.m. You think I should call them now?" said Mulder.
"Do you really think they're asleep?" she said finally.
He thought about the grief-stricken faces of the Singh family. "Probably not. But I'd still rather wait until you know for sure." There was only so much suffering he could bear witness to, especially with news this devastating.
This just never got any easier. The family had gathered in Arun and Laurie's small living room. Arun sat on the sofa, his mother and sister on either side. Mulder was next to them on the single side chair, the father had brought a kitchen chair in for himself.
"This doesn't make sense. I didn't even know she was sick! Why didn't she tell me?" His frustration suddenly dissolved and he began sobbing, his mother holding onto one arm and his sister the other, both on the verge of tears themselves. The father was the only one who'd kept his composure.
"She may have left a note, though not in an obvious place," Mulder said. "There wasn't anything on her office computer but I assume she had something at home, a laptop maybe?"
Arun looked up. "Yes. She does."
"When you feel up to it, you can check in her personal files," Mulder suggested gently.
"She was like a second daughter to my parents. We all loved her and would have taken care of her. It did not have to be this way. She did not have to die alone."
When a decent interval had elapsed, Mulder cleared his throat, repeated the conventional phrases and made his escape, leaving his card on the coffee table in case they needed to get in touch. He was sorry for their loss but that wasn't going to make it any easier. He didn't know if anything would. And he had no answers for their impossible questions. Unless she had written a note or a letter, no one would.
He shut the door carefully, and walked quickly to the elevator.
Watching Scully go from a beautiful, vibrant and healthy young woman to a patient lying in a hospital bed, dying of inoperable cancer was the hardest thing he'd ever had to witness as an adult. She had gotten her "miracle cure," the chip he had stolen from the DoD. Still implanted in the back of her neck, it had come with a price tag, one they had not comprehended until he'd stood on Ruskin Dam and watched her being loaded onto the rescue chopper. Yes, it was now years later and the cancer hadn't come back and she hadn't found herself on top of Skyland Mountain--but Diana's death and his near death had demonstrated to anyone paying attention that the Consortium was back in business, risen from the ashes of El Rico.
As long as that microchip was inside her, she was potentially under its influence. He trusted Scully implicitly but even the Gunmen didn't understand its advanced technology and he didn't trust the motives of the men who had made it. Peters was a scientist who had certainly investigated her treatment options before she decided against pursuing them.
If Scully had known the chip could be used to summon her, that her volition could be that easily overcome, would she have been so eager to accept it into her body? Maybe yes, given the alternative, yet in the two years since, she hadn't seriously raised the issue of removing it. Mulder didn't want her to, didn't want to risk losing her, but why someone with the kind of control issues Scully possessed hadn't at least thought about it--that worried him. Maybe she had considered it and hadn't told him. That possibility worried him, too.
It was still dark when he'd gone in to talk with the Singh family. Coming out of the apartment, the glare made him wince. It was nearly the end of November in the Bay Area. Instead of the expected fog and cloud cover, the bright sunlight felt as though it was piercing his skull. He reached in his coat pocket for the sunglasses he'd taken to carrying with him everywhere and slipped them on. Better. That headache he'd been on the edge of all night was back though. Maybe what he needed was some coffee. He knew Scully could use some after being up half the night finishing the autopsy. They had good coffee in this city, he remembered. A local chain called Pete's but spelled funny. Peets. And maybe some aspirin. The throbbing pain had settled behind his left eye and showed no sign of leaving. He'd had more headaches this month than he'd had his entire adult life.
He decided to ignore the little voice in his head that kept repeating, "You ought to tell Scully. She would want to know and she is your personal physician." That voice was a wimp. It was just a damned headache. He'd survived much worse and so had she. Now he needed to go find that coffee.
The rest of the morning had gone smoothly; while Scully finished the paperwork, he got them on an early afternoon flight back to Washington, changing planes in Pittsburgh this time. At least it wasn't Atlanta he thought, accepting a cup of coffee and a package of pretzels from the flight attendant.
"Just water for me, please." Scully said, handing Mulder her pretzels.
He was still wearing the dark glasses he'd put on when he'd left the Singhs. Even the cabin lights were irritating. If he told Scully about the headaches, he knew what she'd say: how often Mulder, how long Mulder, call your neurologist Monday morning, Mulder. Maybe he should just do that and skip the third degree.
"Scully. Why do you think Laurie Peters kept her illness a secret from her fiancé?" he said suddenly.
Scully went still.
"Mulder, I don't know what to tell you. Just because I had cancer doesn't make me an expert on death and dying," she said finally.
What the hell are you talking about, he wanted to say. Look how many times we've both nearly died and come back to life. We're both fucking experts on death and dying.
"Okay." He fished a couple of aspirin out of his pocket and swallowed them with the rest of his coffee. "Sorry for bringing that up," he said as an afterthought. He leaned his seat back and tried to find a comfortable position for his legs. Sometimes he missed being able to read people's minds.
He could feel her eyes on him, as he shifted again in his seat. "Sorry," he murmured when he bumped her shoulder.
"It's okay. The flight will be over before we know it." From the tone in her voice, he knew there was more. Maybe she was going to ask him a personal question.
Ask away, Scully. My life is an open book.
"I've been wondering why you're still wearing those sunglasses on the plane? Is the light bothering your eyes?"
"Yeah." See. Open. Book.
She sounded worried. Well, so was he.
"It's okay, it's just a headache. I took a couple of aspirin." She clasped his hand and gave it a light squeeze. He captured her hand before she could let go and brought it to his cheek and then, throwing caution to the wind, his lips. He'd call that neurologist, Dr. Bricklin, in the morning.