The old cabin outside Sylvania had belonged to the Beaumont family for generations. The Senator recalled his grandfather saying it had been constructed sometime after Sherman's march, when Georgia was in enough chaos that it was fairly easy for even a dirt farmer to snatch up a little land. The building only had a wood-burning stove for heat, but Daniel had had modern plumbing installed at Vera's insistence. Vera had hated the old homestead, and frankly, Daniel couldn't blame her too much, he reflected, lowering himself into the rocking chair that was nearly as old as the cabin itself. The runners creaked and his joints creaked, and they were all old together. The poor old place hadn't been really lived in since he took up residence in Atlanta – good Lord, that was more than thirty years ago now. Good old Vera was a city girl, but she'd never made her husband sell off the place. Looked too good on the campaign trail. After all, it let Daniel Beaumont talk about being from the roots of Georgia, of being able to understand the plight of the man on the street. If Sylvania had two thousand residents, it only barely had them, so the Senator looked good as a true log cabin candidate.
There were sentimental reasons to keep the place, too, Daniel mused as he rubbed the oilcloth along the blue barrel of the rifle slung across his lap. Good to get away from all the mud-slinging in Washington, or to escape to after stumping for party candidates across the country. He could hunt overly-lazy deer in the sparse woods, and fish for trout in the Savannah River, and just reflect the way a man of seventy two years has every right to. In the capital, Senator Beaumont was the Chair of the Select Committee on Intelligence and he served on the Committee on Crime and Terrorism. In Atlanta, he gave interviews with Wolf Blitzer. At party conventions, he was the man any candidate needed to win over if he had a prayer of getting past the primary. He was wealthy, he was powerful, and he was to be feared and respected. But in the cabin outside of Sylvania, Senator Beaumont was just Daniel Beaumont, or Danny if he was feeling particularly nostalgic. He was the boy who used to make houses for birds out of sticks, or the young man going to war in a country he'd barely even heard of before arriving.
There was a scratching sound at the window, and it brought the Senator grumbling from his reverie. “Damn old bones,” he muttered, about to rise – with difficulty – from the comfort of his chair – but he stopped himself with a contented sigh when he gave the dirty window a second look. Just the old oak rubbing against the panes in the wind again. Vera had been right, he should have gotten the damn thing removed years ago. If he were a younger man, he might have chopped it himself, maybe posed for a few pictures to please his staffers at his senate office. The people who liked him would have cited it as evidence of him being salt of the earth, and the people who didn't would have said the Senator was pretending to be, “of the people,” again. Well, shit on them, old Dan Beaumont didn't have to pretend. Danny had campaigned the hard way, without all the old money families like the Kennedys had to kick around. He'd gone door to door for his bid for state senate, so long ago now he almost had forgotten it. He'd relied on cousins and friends to put up posters, borrowed so much money he couldn't look a single man from Sylvania in the eye, ignored Vera so much with his work she damn near walked out – but oh, hadn't it all been worth it, in the end? Hadn't it been grand to win his first election, to get his first taste of power, real power, and then to never, ever stop? A rise to the top like a firework on the Fourth of July. Yes, it had been grand.
Of course, that was just after the war – he'd been so young it was disgusting to think back on it now. Young and broke and full of lofty ideas about democracy and independence, fresh from securing it in Europe. The campaign had been brutal, too, especially with the Governor backing Dan's incumbent rival. He wanted to say he remembered election night with perfect clarity, but that would have been a lie. Danny had been so far down in the polls, his only comfort was to drink himself into a stupor in the old church hall, where too-kind friends were throwing a party to wait for all the votes to come in. “It's a victory party,” Vera had assured him as she straightened his tie and pinned a carnation into his lapel.
“The only way I'm going to get a victory is if Stan Michaels drops dead from a sudden cardiac arrest.”
Vera patted his jacket down and gave him that scowl he was to know so well. “You wanted this, Daniel, just you remember that. A lot of people put a lot on you, so you go out there and smile for them, and whatever happens will just have to happen.” And oh, Dan had smiled at first, had cracked jokes as the results came in, one by one...but the jokes got less humorous as the night wore on, and he stopped sitting by the radio to hear what the numbers were, and started sitting by the bar instead.
It was funny – well, maybe it wasn't so funny – but that was the haziest part in his mind, as the Senator reflected upon it in his old age; like he'd fallen asleep on his stool and dreamed everything that happened after, maybe even his victory.
“Danny boy,” that strange voice had purred in the glimmer of paper lanterns hung from the low ceiling. “You look like a man deep in his cups.” It had been a tenor voice, he was sure, both then and afterward, and it was smooth – but it didn't have any kind of Georgian drawl or southern twang he'd ever heard before. It almost sounded like the Limeys he'd traded stories with in France during the war, but then again, it also didn't. “Vera's not going to be happy with you for that.”
“I owe her father more than two thousand dollars for this whole idiotic idea,” he slurred, tossing back his G and Ts like he had to drown something inside of himself. “And another thousand to my cousin Marvin. In debt up to my ears – I don't know why somebody didn't stop me.”
“Why indeed...” Beaumont must have drank far too much, for he only remembered the gentleman in a soft blur, like he was a light Daniel was trying to peer at through a pool of water. “What started you on this Quixotic quest in the first place, if you don't mind my inquiring?”
“What?” His brows had pinched together as his head started to pound. “Why'd I run?” He took a deep breath and began his campaign speech. “We've got to make our government understand that we aren't interested in all these tax increases just so some-”
“Yes, yes.” The stranger had waved him off, and Daniel had noticed he wore white gloves, like he'd just come from some fancy party. Perhaps State Senator Michaels' own victory shindig in Savannah...It had made the young Beaumont scowl. “'Don't tread on me,' and all that, highly noble. I mean to say, did you have no personal motivations for seeking office?”
“What're you talkin' 'bout?” He was slurring by then.
“A state senator in grand Atlanta...a man from the sticks suddenly in a position of power and influence. It does beg the thought, you know; how easy it would be to pay off all those inconvenient debts when big companies come lobbying to you... And from there, who knows? A few years of lip service and you could be a Congressman in Washington. Fancy things for fancy Vera, respect, power...But I'm sure that was never a consideration for your scruples, was it?” Daniel had been silent. “No, I didn't think so.” The pale, bright stranger took a long drink from his own glass, a pale golden liquor there that the young Beaumont couldn't place. “Do you want to win?”
“'Course I want to win!” He was so drunk, it had been easy to set off his temper. “Do you think I went to all this trouble because I want to lose? Goddamn, you must think I'm some kind of idio-”
“Daniel.” The man held up that white gloved hand. In the glow of the paper lanterns, Dan had thought his teeth looked sharp. “What I may or may not think of you is, at this point, completely irrelevant. What I did wish to discuss is how I might help you.”
Daniel snorted. “It's a bit late for campaign donations.”
“Not for the kind I offer. What if I told you I could make sure you won tonight?”
“What, legally? All straight and that?”
“As straight as an arrow, I promise.”
Beaumont had taken another slug of his drink. “I'd ask what I had t'do for it.”
“Oh, I'm a man of simple pleasures. Suffice to say, it brings me enjoyment to see a man at the height of his power and influence – and then, if we're being frank, to bend that power to my own.”
“I don't rightfully get your meaning.”
“No, I suppose you don't.” He just vaguely remembered how that gloved finger had trailed along the edge of the glass. “It's not going to make sense to you, Danny boy, you've indulged far past all decency. But when you have power over someone – over someone powerful – why, think of how much grander you are. It's really rather simple, when you're clear-headed enough to contemplate it.”
“I suppose so...” Daniel didn't actually suppose anything, he just took another drink and crushed the ice between his teeth.
“Do you accept my bargain?”
He'd wanted to laugh – he might have, in fact, he'd certainly been drunk enough. “You get me to the state senate and then...what? When your company needs a senator to look the other way, I do, is that what you're after?”
“If that's how you wish to couch it, it suffices.”
Yes, he'd definitely laughed. He'd laughed fit to break. “If I say yes, what then? D'I lose my immortal soul? You ain't the devil, are you?”
If he'd been real, the stranger had smiled with his thin mouth. “Sadly, no.”
“Well, hell, I'll take that bet. It's no worse than the tax break Gordon wants for his sawmill.” And Daniel Beaumont had extended his hand, the way he had done a half a million times on the campaign trail. And that strange old fellow had taken it with his own gloved hand, shook once, and smiled.
“A pleasure doing business with you. Oh – and consider seltzer in the morning. For your head, that is, Danny boy, it's going to pound something dreadful.” That was certainly sensible enough advice – it may have even been what inspired Beaumont to keep right on drinking, because he didn't remember getting the odd man's name, or seeing him leave. In fact, he remembered absolutely nothing about the rest of the party until around midnight, when the final tallies were being read on the radio; when his friends had started hooting and hollering fit to wake the dead; when Vera had grabbed his face and kissed him like he'd just come back from France all over again. Whatever had happened at the party, one thing was for true: Daniel Beaumont had beaten incumbent Stan Michaels and had beaten him soundly.
Oh, and a second truth: his head had just about split open from the hangover he suffered. The Senator laughed thinking about it, how he used to drink in his younger days. Grand times, grand times. He had to lay off the sauce, now, though, doctor's orders. Senator Beaumont sighed a little, at last leaning his cleaned rifle against the corner. No more booze and no more cakes, if he wanted to see his grandchildren reach high school, which he supposed he did. A few more years of service to his country – and to the lobbyists that came to his office day after day, and to his accountant, and to his bank accounts – and it would be time to let some new, young, idiotic idealist campaign for his Senate seat. Time to let some wet behind the ears show-boater realize what politics really was; compromise and compromise, and basically no ideals, and yet more compromise. The Danny who drank himself to distraction in the church hall would have hated that. The Dan that rocked in his chair and blinked at the wood stove sleepily had no qualms with his decisions.
Senator Beaumont had been near to drifting off in the rocking chair when the scratching came again, and he grumbled around old, dry lips. That dang blasted oak tree, he'd have to call and-
Scritch, scritch, scritch. But not at the window. At the door to the cabin. Strange, he could think of nothing there to make that noise. A polecat, perhaps, sharpening its claws. A local raccoon hunting for goodies. Scritch, scritch, scritch. Beaumont's neck was hurting; he was too old to fall asleep in his chair anymore, Vera would have scolded him fiercely for it. With a grunt, he pulled himself up and dropped the oilcloth on the floor, ready to shuffle off to the comfort of his bed. Trout fishing tomorrow, perhaps some more the day after that, then back to Atlanta to meet with his campaign manager before he returned to Washington. He ignored the scratching noise as he walked to the old bedroom.
The Senator had just finished taking his exhaustive regimen of pills, had just finished pulling on his pajamas, had just been about to crawl under his grandmother's quilt – when he heard the faint whistle splitting the darkness, the thin strains of an Irish folk tune he was struggling now to place...
Then – the light, a pale glow, not at all electric – but a perfectly round ball that lip up a face as white as chalk, and gloved hands and a sharp, sharp smile. “Oh Danny boy...” the smooth tenor purred. “No nightcap, I see? Good man. It's a dreadful habit to get into, you know. Shall we depart, Senator?”
“...So the powder burn was here-” Sergeant Loren was pointing at the rough jamb of the bedroom door. Mulder gave the black stain the most cursory glance. “Meaning the intruder was in the bedroom, the Senator had to leave this room to reach the gun, and turn back and fire.”
“And if the intruder wasn't blocking his exit, then logically he would have come through the window...” Scully finished the thought as Georgia State Police Sergeant James Loren nodded, his face a grim mask in the dark of the rural cabin.
“That's right, Agent Scully, ma'am,” he nodded with genteel southern manners, watching as the small woman scribbled notes into her little book. “And here's where things get a might bit queer.”
“Oh good – the part I've been waiting for,” Mulder muttered as he popped a sunflower seed between his teeth. Dana shushed him with a brief look from blue eyes.
“Well, for a start,” Sgt. Loren graciously ignored the Federal Agent's comment; they did things differently in Washington, after all, and he needed the help. A disappeared Senator was no small matter. “We can't find any evidence that the window was forced – or even opened at all.”
“It's possible he came through the front door and moved around toward the window,” Scully murmured in response, giving the dark bedroom – its mussed linens, its cold floor – a quick scan. “But it's rather illogical.”
“The whole thing's illogical, ma'am. If you could follow me, please.” The pair followed the polished step of the officer obligingly, a short trip across the rustic cabin to the front door. “Here's what I really called you in for. I mean...” The man hesitated, slipping two fingers between his throat and collar and tugging slightly. “I mean, the Federal Bureau was notified as soon as we realized Senator Beaumont was missing, but it was when we started relaying the details that they recommend you as, er....specialists.”
Fox Mulder was smiling – that smug, amused, slightly put upon kind of smile that Scully had seen so many times, she couldn't keep track. The smile that reached his eyes and made the green stand out. “That's us alright, Loren. What do you have?”
“Well....sir....” Loren stepped away from the front door, motioning other officers and detectives back as well. Scully stiffened as the light of the open door shone upon the floorboards.
Claw marks – it was all they could be. Gouges so deep in the century old wood flooring that no human fingernails could have possibly carved the grooves, no matter in what desperation. They raked from the entryway to the door frame for more than a foot and a half, dug deep into the pulp of the wood, as if....as if they were dragging something. Or someone. Mulder started snapping pictures like the most eager photographer at a “Girl's Gone Wild,” shoot.
“You can see why I called you in, sir, ma'am.”
“Sgt. Loren...” Agent Scully began a little breathlessly, watching as Mulder lined a ruler against one mark to give perspective. “Have you called in a wildlife expert? Could a cougar or a panther or something have made these marks?”
“Ma'am, we did consider that, even got a zoologist in from Atlanta. Trouble is – it's just too darn neat. No blood anyplace in the cabin. And the Senator was a skilled hunter, ma'am, he came out to this cabin at least once a year to hunt. It's why he was here this weekend. I know he was a gentleman in his twilight years, but I have a hard time believing he couldn't fight off a wild cat – or at least get a good mark on one.”
“Sergeant.” The man's attention was drawn to Agent Mulder, crouching on the floor with something held between finger and thumb. “Did you note this in your crime scene report?”
“What's that, sir?” It was a feather, Scully realized, as the trooper asked – all tawny and soft, and Mulder spun it neatly between his fingertips. It made the slightest, “fwip, fwip, fwip,” sound as it twirled, around and around and around. “The feather? Why...no, Agent Mulder, I don't suppose we did. I reckon it probably got blown in through the open door by the wind.”
“I reckon,” the agent smiled, stretching to his feet with a grace that belied his height. He held Scully's elbow by the fingertips and began to lead her out the open door. “We'll have more information for you soon, Sergeant.”
“Agent Mulder – sir – don't you want to-!” Too late. The pair of special agents had already disappeared through the incomprehensible crowd of security. State troopers, the sheriff from local Sylvania – and then Secret Service agents, and Scully could spot a few National Guardsmen at the police line, keeping back a crowd of reporters who shouted over each other to get the best sound bites into their microphones.
The glare of lights for the cameras was like a solar flare, it lit up the dark twilight of the wooded area like the noonday sun. Scully blinked against it as Mulder opened her car door before sliding into the driver's seat. “Mulder,” the woman protested, sliding her field book into a pocket of her jacket. “I haven't finished taking notes.”
“Trust me, Scully, I already have the perfect lead.”
“Oh, you do, do you?” She didn't argue with him so much anymore – at least, not so directly. So long as he wasn't being too crazy, Dana was happy to give him his head and see where his instincts took him; they often weren't far wrong. “Do you feel like sharing that lead with me?” she asked, her eyes tilted down as she slid the buckle of her seat belt into its holster. “Since you obviously don't feel like sharing it with Sgt. Lo-” Scully stopped. A light – much brighter, much whiter than any of the camera flares – was glowing from Mulder's palm, where it rested on his lap. A crystal, as round and perfect as a globe, and Fox was holding it carefully in his hand. Perfectly clear, perfectly incandescent, and perfectly terrible. The woman sucked in a breath, pupils pinpricks in her blue eyes. “Mulder, you kept that?”
“It looked good next to my fish tank,” he explained with a smile, sliding the object back into the pocket of his long coat and turning the key in the car's ignition. The motor purred into life and the two began the long drive back to the Atlanta airport.
“Well, it's not by your fish tank.”
“I guess I felt like carrying a lucky charm for the flight down.”
“'Lucky,' is not how I would describe that...thing.” Scully's fingers carefully combed through the red bob of her hair, willing the tension away from her shoulders. Three crystals, three riddles, three nights. A trashed hotel room, a nectarine, three sobbing children. Three, three, the magic number. And then there had been Mulder, clinging to the sill of his hotel window, and a lithe and terrible man standing over him, crowing fit to be crowned while yellow eyes laughed in the darkness. And Scully, with the carpenter's nail in her hand- “And how do you know that it's the same. It's not like with the children; the whole country knows Senator Beaumont is missing.”
“Call it a detective's intuition.”
“Intuition nothing. Why.”
“Oh, the claw marks. This...” He tucked the long pinion feather up into the window visor, a small smile playing on his full mouth.
“A feather? Mulder, you heard Sgt. Loren. It could have come from anything.”
“And if I'm wrong, Scully, what made the claw marks? Because we both know it wasn't a panther.” His partner sat back in her seat, eyes fixed on the road, calculating. The crime scene presented more questions than answers. They didn't have a lot to lose by going by Mulder's hunches, but they had even less to gain. The man sighed. “How about a little music to liven up the drive, huh?” His finger hit the radio's button.
“The Devil opened up his case and he said, 'I'll start this show.'
And fire flew from his fingertips as he rosined up his bow
And he pulled the bow across the strings and it made an evil hiss
And a band of demons joined in and it sounded something like this...”
The radio had caught a local signal without a hitch, and Scully jumped slightly in her seat at the loud sturm and drang of a bass as a violin screamed wildly through the speakers. “A little country rock?” she asked, turning to face Mulder again – but she didn't bother saying anything else. Fox had his eyes on the road and the most awful, the most delighted grin spread across his face that she had ever borne witness to, like he intended to show every single one of his teeth.
“'Hell's broke loose in Georgia and the Devil deals it hard,' Scully,” he purred to her.