The two headlight beams illuminated the dark wet road. Up ahead, FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner could see the lights of the fire trucks and police cars, laid out like a waiting carpet. He drove the dark blue Crown Victoria through the gauntlet of police cars and fire engines and brought it to a halt on a clear section of the unpaved shoulder of the two-lane highway. He stepped firmly on the parking brake pad and opened the heavy car door. He stepped onto the muddy gravel and his shoe sunk slightly as the soft mud gave way. With a quick movement of his wrist, he opened up the umbrella in his left hand. The rain was coming down hard. Though it was in the middle of the night, Skinner could hear the heavy raindrops softly pelting the fabric of the umbrella and see the actual raindrops themselves highlighted by the lights of the various emergency response vehicles that surrounded him. He blinked a couple of times to soothe his red and irritated eyes, the product of his unfinished sleep.
They had woken him up in the middle of the night, and he was tired. At first he thought that it was part of some elaborate dream that had reared its head out of his subconcious, but as his senses came to him, he realized it wasn't. He had gotten dressed quickly and was in his car within five minutes of receiving the call. The drive hadn't taken as long as he expected-- only about twenty minutes. On the way over, he had thought a lot about recent events and how they might be related to his being called out in the middle of the night. He prayed silently that his worst fears had not come true.
Beyond the red and white flashes of the fire engines was the bright halo from the inferno. From where Skinner was standing, he could see the yellow-orange flames rising from the twisted pieces of metal, silhouetted against the scorching glow, as if they were grabbing at the night sky. The flames rose at least twenty feet above the ground, voraciously devouring air and combustible materials despite the water raining down it, from both the firefighters and the thunderstorm. A flash of lightning brightened the sky, briefly revealing the fluffy outlines of the stormclouds overhead, as well as the thick clouds of black smoke rising from the fire.
Skinner scanned the confusing mass of people on the scene, looking for the central authority figure that would be able to give him some answers. Men and women in different uniforms went about their business, oblivious to the interloper standing amongst them. A huddle of umbrellas with police officers beneath them engaged in a conversation tipped Skinner off and he walked quickly towards them.
His approach was seen by one of the sheriff's deputies, a young man with dark black hair and penetrating blue eyes. "Hey, who are you?" he said to the tall bald man in the beige London Fog raincoat.
Skinner reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the black leather case that held his badge. He flipped it open, waving it in front of the deputy and the sheriff, whose interest had been taken away from the witness that he was questioning. "I'm with the FBI. Assistant Director Walter Skinner. One of you called me here," Skinner said tersely.
"That was me," the black man with the pot belly said as he approached Skinner, "I'm Sheriff Dixon. Thanks for coming here as quickly as possible."
The sheriff held out his hand and Skinner shook it. "Maybe you can tell me what's going on here that you had to call me at three in the morning," Skinner said.
"There's been an accident," Dixon started.
Skinner turned towards the fiery maelstrom and said, "I can see that."
"One of the cars involved was a beige Ford Taurus. When we ran the plates through our computer, it listed as property of the Bureau. And so we called you," Dixon said.
Oh my god.
"Are you sure? Of course... but did anyone see what happened?" Skinner said, his interest piqued.
"We have one witness, who saw the whole thing," Dixon said as he pointed to a thin oriental woman drinking from a Styrofoam cup filled with coffee.
"Do you mind if I talk to her?" Skinner asked.
"By all means," Dixon said as he led Skinner to the witness.
The oriental woman in her late twenties had shoulder-length black hair and big eyes. The humidity from the rain made her hair hang limply about her shoulders, and Skinner could see that she was shivering, despite the warm coffee in her hands and the thick coat draped over her shoulders. "Good evening, ma'am. I'm Walter Skinner with the FBI. I just have some questions that I would like to ask you, if you don't mind," Skinner said.
The woman took the cup away from her mouth and cupped it with both her hands. "Certainly... but I pretty well told everything I saw to Sheriff Dixon," the woman answered.
"I assure you that this won't take long and it would be of great assistance... maybe if you could start off by telling me your name and what you were doing at the time of the accident."
"Well, my name is Vivian Chow. I'm actually from Hong Kong, where I am a detective with the CID..."
Skinner raised his eye brows. He was impressed. Criminal Investigation Division-- the Hong Kong equivalent of the Bureau. A good witness.
"... I'm on vacation here, visiting my father, who immigrated here a couple of years ago. I was returning to my father's house in Washington D.C. after visiting a friend for the day. It was raining hard, much harder than it is now. I was following a beige Ford Taurus... it was the only way I could follow the road. I think I saw two passengers in the car. I remembered the license plate because it had the same digits as my husband's birthdate..."
"Is your husband here with you?"
"No... he couldn't get time off work to come with me... so he's in Hong Kong."
"It's not important... go on."
"So I was following them down the two-lane highway, keeping a safe distance when all of a sudden a bolt of lightning hit their car."
"A bolt of lightning?"
"Yes... I know it sounds strange, but that's what happened. As a reflex to the bright flash, I put on the brakes. The next thing I knew, the Taurus I had been following crossed over into the other lane, running straight into an oncoming truck. It must have been a gas tanker, since both vehicles burst into flame almost immediately. I remember feeling the ground shake."
"Did you see anyone jump out of the car between the time the lightning hit the car and the explosion? Or maybe any other cars or people in the immediate area."
Vivian seemed unsure, shaking her head, "I really don't know. I didn't see any other cars or any other people. The lightning bolt had surprised me and by the time I had my eyes back on the Taurus, it was merely a second before the explosion. As far as I could recall, I don't think anybody survived... if that's what you want to know."
Bitter realization swept across Skinner's face. Vivian saw the change. "Were the people in the Taurus friends of yours?"
Skinner looked at Vivian and answered slowly, "Yes... they were."
"I'm sorry. I wish I had something better to tell you."
"Thanks for your time Mrs. Chow. You have been very helpful," Skinner said,.
He quickly turned away, so that no one could see the grief pushing through his typically stone-faced expression. He walked away slowly from the woman, letting the information sink in. Mulder and Scully were dead. After everything they had been through together in the past few weeks, they were gone.
Skinner found Dixon in another conference with his officers. "Sheriff," Skinner said, "how much longer before the fire is under control?"
"I just spoke to the fire chief. It'll be at least a couple of hours. The tanker was filled with an industrial solvent that's a bitch to put out. To add to our fun, the fire is so hot that the firefighters can't even get close enough to it to do a half-decent job. Yup... we'll be here awhile... but stick around... as soon as the fire is under control, we'll sift through the pieces," Dixon answered.
Skinner looked at the bright glow of the fire and waited. He didn't even notice that the rain had stopped.
The firefighters had started getting the upper hand on the fire at about five in the morning and the fire was completely out by six. Skinner had managed to stay awake, subsisting on donuts and coffee that one of the sheriff's deputies had been passing around. The coffee wasn't that good-- it had left a bad taste in his mouth, and the donuts had a strange odour-- it must have been awhile since the donut shop had its oven scoured. But it didn't really bother him. He had more pressing concerns. "Mr. Skinner!" a voice called out.
Skinner heard the voice through the slightly ajar car window and turned towards the source of the sound. Sheriff Dixon was approaching him, beckoning Skinner to get out of the car. Skinner placed the empty coffee cup on the passenger seat next to him and stepped out of the car. The sun was poking out from behind the leftover storm clouds in the brilliant red morning sky. "The fire's out, you want to take a look?" Dixon said.
Skinner nodded, "Lead the way, Sheriff."
They came up on the smoking remains of what used to be a gas tanker and a passenger car. All that Skinner could see was a collection of barely recognizable metal parts, twisted at odd angles, a testament to the intense force of the collision and the resultant explosion. The fire had been so hot that even the rubber of the tires had been consumed, leaving only ponds of sticky shapeless residue that had baked onto the pavement. Dixon pointed to a large piece of crumpled metal. "That was the Taurus," he said.
Skinner examined it closely. The fire had gutted the remains of the car, leaving only a blackened shell. In his mind, he could almost imagine Mulder and Scully's final moments, as they were blasted by the expanding edge of the inferno. Perhaps they had perished in the initial collision, sparing them the agony as their bodies were fragmented. "Where are the bodies?" Skinner asked.
"It was a pretty hot fire... there's a pretty good chance that the bodies were completely consumed, leaving very little trace. Unfortunately, when there is a fire this bad, a lot of the evidence goes up in smoke."
"If you don't mind, I'd like to call in some of my people to go over this. We have some pretty sophisticated forensic techniques that might help."
Dixon hesitated for a brief moment and then said, "Sure... get on the phone to your people. This looks pretty open and shut to me."
Douglas Lee, the FBI's resident forensics expert, was the person that Skinner had in mind to analyze the debris. If there was anyone that could find a needle in a haystack, it would be Douglas. Skinner pulled the cellular phone out of his coat pocket and speed-dialed the number for the forensics lab in the J. Edgar Hoover Building in downtown Washington D.C. After a couple of rings, Skinner said, "Douglas. Skinner here. Can you get a team down here to look at the aftermath of an accident? Yes, there were two agents involved-- Mulder and Scully... No, it doesn't look like either survived... I know, it's pretty shocking. Get your gear together and meet me at the following location..."
The rest of the morning had been uneventful. Douglas and his team had arrived to pick over the remains of the two vehicles with a fine tooth comb. After that, they had everything moved to the giant forensics lab in the basement of the FBI headquarters in the middle of downtown Washington D.C. where it could be studied without subjecting it to the extremes of weather and temperature. Douglas had promised that they would give it their top priority, but it would be at least twenty-four hours before he could provide any definitive answers.
So Skinner returned to his office in the J. Edgar Hoover Building, where he was greeted by a stack of reports that required his approval. Despite the numerous cups of coffee that he had drank between three in the morning and lunchtime, he still found himself falling asleep as he read the reports. Not that they weren't interesting.
Agents Dillon and McGuire had just wrapped up tracking down a serial killer in Boston that had killed several students at Harvard University-- the killer had turned out to be a schizophrenic marketing professor who had murdered those students who had disagreed with his views in class. And Agents Lin and Rouhi were getting close to breaking a black-market book duplication ring a few blocks away in the nation's capital. Skinner tossed the manila file folder back onto the pile in his "IN" tray and leaned back against the leather chair. He took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes, which slightly reduced the stinging that he had felt all morning long. He stretched his legs and arms, letting out a yawn.
He heard the door to his office open, and he quickly snapped back into an upright position and put his glasses back on. "You wanted to see me?" the man in the doorway said.
He was middle-aged, with greying hair. In his left hand was a lit cigarette, the tendrils of grey smoke rising into the air. He approached and sat in one of the chairs placed in front of Skinner's desk. He looked at the sign on Skinner's desk that said "Thank you for not smoking" and smiled. The cigarette smoke diffused across the desk, and Skinner's nostrils flared in response to the odour. "Now what did you want to see me about?" Smoking Man asked.
"You know bloody well why," Skinner snapped back.
The hostile response didn't seem to faze Smoking Man, who calmly took another puff from his cigarette. He blew out the smoke in Skinner's direction and responded, "I have no idea what you are referring to."
"Isn't that just typical. Is that what they teach you up there?" Skinner said, sounding more agitated.
Smoking Man just sat there silently, puffing away. "There was a traffic accident last night," Skinner continued, "Mulder and Scully were involved."
That revelation seemed to cause a slight reaction in Smoking Man, though it was barely discernible from the typical bland expression on his face. "What happened?" Smoking Man said.
Skinner couldn't stand the way Smoking Man toyed with him. Did he really think that Walter Skinner, Assistant Director of the FBI for chrissake, had a chain long enough to yank? Sure, play dumb. But I know what you and your friends are up to. I beat you once, and I'll beat you again.
"I'll tell you... not because you don't already know... but because I want you to know that I know. Apparently, Mulder and Scully, on their way back from an investigation, crashed into a tanker loaded with industrial solvent on Kings Highway just outside of D.C. It took them nearly four hours to get the flames out. Regrettably, it looks like neither agent survived the crash."
"That is unfortunate."
Don't start jumping for joy just quite yet, old man. "Yes, that is unfortunate. I told you what would happen if anyone involved suffered an accident..." Skinner said, referring to the warning he had used to guarantee the safety off all those involved in the incident with the classified data tape.
Suddenly, Smoking Man became quite animated, leaning forward in the chair. "Now wait a minute here. I know what the deal was. To my knowledge, nothing has been done to either Agent Mulder or Scully. What happened last night was a freak occurrence. They just ran out of luck, that's all," he said, gesturing forcefully at the FBI man.
"I have a team going over the forensics of the crash at this moment. If they find any evidence that they 'ran out of luck' because of your doing, there'll be hell to pay. I promise you."
"Are you finished?" Smoking Man asked defiantly.
Skinner didn't dignify the question with an answer. He merely leaned back and stared at his adversary. Seeing that the meeting was over, Smoking Man got out of the chair and walked out of Skinner's office, silently. He would have to meet with the committee this afternoon and figure out what exactly was going on.