By Suzanne L. Feld
Although I didn't want to let Mulder know in case he took it the wrong way, I was more than happy to be driving across Michigan's upper peninsula with him. Unlike my usual griping and complaining on a case like this that wasn't a clear-cut X-File, I sat relaxed and quiet against the rental car's seat, gazing out at the scenery. It was cold but clear out, the road flanked by snow-dusted pine trees with a bright blue sky overhead. I lifted one hand and pressed the back of it against the window, feeling the icy bitterness against my skin while the interior of the car was warm and comfortable. After the problems between us thanks to the Smoking Man and his manipulation of me I really needed to get away for a while, and you didn't get much farther away than where we were going and still be in the continental United States.
“You OK, Scully?”
I turned to glance over at Mulder, who was driving with his white shirt rolled to the elbows, tie askew, first two buttons undone. His suit jacket was tossed over the back of the front seat between us, but I wore my blazer plus an outer coat; the ride from the airport to the first witness' house wasn't that far. The puddle-jumper that had brought us up here from Detroit had been blasting hot air and he'd complained about being too warm, but this was too far the other way. “Fine, why?”
“You're awfully quiet. You read my initial report and have nothing to say?”
I shrugged. “What is there to say? There's someone dressing up like a bear or Bigfoot running around up here scaring people and eating the occasional cow or goat and we get to stop them. It's pretty country, isn't it?”
He glanced over at me. “If you like snow, I guess. I get enough of that at home. What makes you think it's someone instead of something? There've been three different types of teeth marks that all match the same pattern.”
“There's got to be a mistake there, Mulder. I'm going to look over the records for myself. There's no way that bite marks from both a bear and wolf, never mind something that appears to be a gorilla, can have the same tooth pattern.”
“Bigfoot, Scully, not gorilla. The hair they recovered from the cow was not simian—it wasn't any mammal on record that anyone can find although it was fairly close to human. There was some speculation that it might be from a Cro-Magnon or even a Neanderthal, but the sightings don't match.”
“Another Jersey Devil?” I repressed a sigh. “At any rate, there's no way it can match. There's got to be a mistake somewhere.”
“I'm thinking shapeshifter of some kind. Someone who can turn themselves into any type of animal, and is trying to throw off discovery while they hunt by being several different ones. And remember, this has happened before. There was a rash of unexplained animal attacks in 1985 that were very similar.”
I looked over at him. “But whoever it is isn't killing every time, Mulder,” I pointed out. “The reports vary from people catching a glimpse of it-slash-them running away to finding it peeking in the window at them to seeing it take down a full-sized cow. I'll put my money on bored teenagers—there isn't much out here to do, and it does sound like the kind of thing kids would do for kicks.”
“How close are we?” he changed the subject with his usual lightening rapidity. This man needs to beep when he changes direction like that. “There's what looks like some kind of town coming up.”
I glanced down at the map, then at the series of handwritten directions paper-clipped to it by the helpful Avis clerk. “That should be Brimley if I'm not mistaken, and we go through town and make a left at the blinking red light.”
We didn't talk other than directions until we arrived at the Kneese farm, which reminded me a lot of the Peacocks' farm in Pennsylvania; I could only hope this wouldn't turn out to be anything like that. It was large, rambling, and appeared rather unkempt, although it did have electricity and the house seemed to be in halfway decent repair. As Mulder got out of the car and shrugged into his jacket and then coat I turned to the back seat and dug out the pair of rubber boots I'd bought the minute I'd found out we were going somewhere rural. The last pair of good Elle pumps I'd ruined in the mud would be the last, I vowed.
Now a good 6” shorter than Mulder but with warm dry feet, I trudged beside him up the gravel walkway to the house. We had barely made it to the bottom of the steps when Farmer John stepped out, a big burly man in overalls, a plaid shirt, brown Carrhart jacket, and almost the exact same brown rubber boots I was wearing; I think that endeared him to me because he was far nicer to me than to Mulder. But that could also have been because I wasn't the one trying to convince him that a Bigfoot had killed his cows.
Mr. Kneese had actually seen the whatever-it-was take down and rip the throat out of one of his prized cows in the back pasture, although he'd been over five hundred yards away at the time. He seemed fairly well positive that it was a bear, although he did admit that he thought he'd seen... hands.
As we drove back towards Sault Ste. Marie, Mulder was shaking his head. “That wasn't done by any kid in a costume, Scully,” he said with finality. “If it's not a shapeshifter of some kind or a Bigfoot, then maybe it is a gorilla because I don't know what else could do that.”
I was inclined to agree but didn't want to say so; it was never a good thing to agree with him too early into the case. My skepticism keeps him sharp and focused even if not always on what I'd like him to focus on, namely proof rather than guesses. “The carcass was pretty ripe, Mulder, and with that much decomposition it's hard to tell what killed it,” I said. “I honestly thought it would be better preserved up here than that, but we didn't count on an early thaw.”
“Yeah, that reeked,” he agreed. “I think he was as relieved to be able to get rid of it at last as we were to get away from it.”
“Ready to grab a bite to eat?” I asked, seeing a diner coming up on the right.
“Yeah, and then let's go check in to the hotel,” he said, stopping the car in a snowy dirt lot on the right of the diner. The lot was dotted with four-wheel-drive vehicles from new Subarus to battered old pickups to expensive SUVs. “Mina told me it's right on the Soo Locks, so it ought to have a decent view.”
I shrugged as we walked inside, and no matter what the food ended up being like it sure smelled good. I've learned in all our travels not to guess a book by its cover, or a diner by its appearance. Some of the rattiest-looking places we've eaten have turned out to be the best, especially in rural areas like this.
In this case I was wrong. Mulder ordered something called a “pasty”, which was apparently a local delicacy and came highly recommended from the waitress. To me it looked like nothing more than a hamburger meat pie smothered in gravy, but he raved over it. I didn't like the sound of the name and instead got a chef salad and bowl of soup, but in both cases it was a bad choice—the chicken noodle was greasy with no visible real chicken and mushy noodles. The salad was wilted and I didn't eat more than a bite or two of the ham or turkey strips because they tasted a bit off—not bad, just not right.
My stomach was uneasy by the time we found the Soo View Motel which did, indeed, boast a view of the famous Soo Locks, which were a series of interlocking channels which were raised and lowered to allow ships to pass back and forth from the higher Lake Superior to the lower Lake Huron. They were, however, closed for the winter so our rooms had a less-than-stunning view of the iced-over lake with a couple of drab administration buildings and a few concrete walls that were the actual locks. The hotel was not a hotel but a motel, the kind that I remembered staying in as a child when we traipsed back and forth across the country following Ahab to his duty stations. It was the kind with cheap plywood panelling, orange and/or brown carpet, and garish bedspreads with desperately matching curtains. If it cost more than twenty bucks a night I'd eat one of my undamaged shoes—the FBI number-crunchers were going to love this one. So much for my hopes of a nice B&B or, at the very least, a Holiday Inn. Suddenly I wasn't quite so happy to be off on another wild goose chase with my now-annoying partner.
As we got our suitcases out of the trunk after he'd checked us in I glanced over at Mulder, who was studiously looking away from me, and remarked, “So you had your pal Mina book this for us, eh?”
“I did,” he admitted, still not looking my way. “She did a great job on my Memphis vacation a few years back. I'm rather surprised at this.”
Mina Kennedy was a well-meaning older agent with the world's biggest crush on Mulder, which of course he was oblivious to. I wondered what he'd done this time to piss her off to get us these digs, but didn't say so—my stomach was roiling and I suddenly dropped my suitcase, turned and ran for my room. Luckily I had my key in my hand and made it inside and to the bathroom before the contents of my dinner came back up.
When I finished vomiting, flushed the toilet and started to get up, I felt warm, soothing hands on my shoulders holding me in place. “Mulder, get out of here,” I choked out, embarrassed that he'd seen me like this. “I'm all right, just let me be.”
One hand disappeared and then reappeared holding a wet but not dripping washcloth, which he pressed to my forehead. It was cool, not cold, and felt like heaven. “Doctor Scully, I'll no more leave you alone than you would me if it was me worshiping the porcelain god after a bad meal,” he said in a soft voice close to my ear. “I'm not going anywhere until I'm sure you're all right.”
“It was that damn salad,” I said, sitting up and wiping my mouth on a piece of toilet paper. “I thought it tasted a little off, and I shouldn't have eaten as much as I did.” He moved the cool washcloth from my forehead to the back of my neck, his other hand holding my hair out of the way. That felt even better and I had no plans on moving, even if I felt like an idiot sitting on the bathroom floor of a cheap motel. “Thanks, that feels good.”
He rubbed the washcloth lightly over my neck. “It's what my mom used to do for me when I ate too much Halloween candy after trick or treating—usually all of mine and most of Samantha's—and was sick all night.”
I chuckled weakly. “I think the last time I threw up was after my medical school graduation party. Bill insisted on it because both he and Ahab were home on leave, and I decided to throw caution to the winds and get plastered. Too bad this isn't from partying, I'd feel better about it.”
He chuckled lightly, understandingly. The washcloth was removed and my hair fell back, then I felt his hand gently stroking over it, fingers running through the strands in an almost sensual manner. I wanted to look up at him but couldn't, still feeling a little embarrassed. “How're you feeling now?” he asked, getting up from where he was kneeling next to where I was sitting cross-legged. Thank goodness I'd decided on a pantsuit this morning instead of a skirt.
“Better,” I said, and it was the truth. “Still shaky, but I think now that it's out of me I'll be all right, and probably be hungry as a bear in a bit.”
He helped me up, then put an arm around my shoulders and led me over to the bed. His body heat arrowed right through my coat, jacket, and shirt and warmed me better than an electric blanket could. “I'm not taking any chances,” he said as he gently pushed me down to sit on the edge of the bed and knelt in front of me. “Lay down and relax for a while, make sure there's nothing else coming up. I'll bring in the suitcases.” He took off my shoes, setting them neatly to the side, then kneaded my feet, ankles, and calves gently through my wool slacks before standing up and pushing gently on my left shoulder. “Lay down already,” he admonished.
I did as he urged even though I was still wearing my good Burberry and didn't want it wrinkled. It did feel better to be horizontal, and I curled on my side and watched as he brought in my suitcase, briefcase, and laptop bag. The cold air that blew through the open door felt good and had a refreshing, snowy smell. Although I was very comfortable where I was, I finally sat up when he hauled the last bag in and said, as I took off and hung up my coat and blazer, “I'm fine now, Mulder, I can--”
“No, you're not,” he argued, popping open my suitcase which he'd placed on top of the low dresser. I was so surprised that I didn't react right away. “You need to take it easy until at least tomorrow morning. Time for bed, Dr. Scully. Is this your pajamas?” with both hands he held up a thin spaghetti-strap camisole, black with lace around the top of the bodice.
I flew over there and grabbed the lingerie out of his hands, stuffing it back down among my other clothes. “You never mind what that is! I'll get my jammies on and lay down if you want, just stay out of my suitcase!”
He had a big shit-eating grin on his face and I wish I hadn't risen to the bait, but it was too late. He knew me far too well but I was just too beat and sore to resent being manipulated. I found my new cotton pajamas and marched into the bathroom with them, slamming the door behind me. I heard his chuckle from outside; his concern was touching, but I wasn't going to let him know that.
The washcloth he'd used on me was in the sink and I rinsed it out and washed my face with it, then changed into the pajamas and, folding my underclothes inside the slacks and shell top I'd taken off, carried them back into the main room. Mulder was gone and after I put them away I perched on the end of the bed and considered picking up the remote. I really did feel a lot better, but my midsection and throat were sore from the vomiting and I still felt tired. I wished I'd gotten myself something to drink before changing, and was just reaching for my cell phone to call him when the door opened and Mulder came in, accompanied by a cold breeze. “The temperature is really falling fast out there,” he said. “The wind coming off the lake is freezing. I think the thaw is over.”
He turned and I saw that he had two bottles of Evian and two cans of diet soda held against his midsection with one arm, the ice bucket in his other hand. Before I could say anything, his eyebrows went up and he remarked, “Did you borrow your brother's pajamas, Scully? Those aren't exactly your size.”
“Oh, shut up, Mulder, these were the only warm ones I could find,” I snapped, scooting back onto the bed. “I rushed to buy them before we left and got the wrong size. I knew it'd be cold up here and wanted something warm to sleep in.” They were large enough that I had to roll up the sleeves and legs at least twice, but they were warm and comfortable nonetheless. As for being either of my brother's, they were pale green with yellow flowers on them—I don't think so.
He set the bottles, cans, and ice bucket down on the end of dresser beside the door, then without hesitation came over to the bed, leaned over and kissed the tip of my nose. I was so surprised that I didn't do anything but stare at him dumbfounded. “You look adorable,” he said, then pointed to the green bottles of water. “Now drink those, get some rest, and I'll be back in a couple of hours to check on you.”
“Where in the hell are you going, Mulder?” I yelled after him as the door closed, but got no answer.