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Heuvelmans' On the Track

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When they burst from the hedges and came out on a gravel sweep in front of the country house, Scully blinked in jet-lagged disbelief. She suspected that she'd been in the Smoking Man's thoughts, which was no comfort. The car described a circle, underlining the moment of terminus in her twelve-hour journey, and she disembarked without waiting for her door to be opened. She stared up at the place like a girl in a gothic, her carry-on clutched in her hands. Pretty swank, Scully, said the little Mulder-voice in her head. The house in Somerset was beyond immense; it stretched away from her, propped like a proscenium, windows lit here or there, verandahs and lawns sloping off into the dark.

A man hurried down the wide steps and whisked an umbrella over her head, although Scully hadn't felt any rain, only a bit of mist. A dog waited in the doorway, and she was shown into a small lighted hall. The man telescoped the umbrella shut. It was a lesser entrance, with saddles on the wall and a row of Wellington boots. The overweight labrador looked up, sitting sideways on its hip, abashed, eyes rolling. The man jabbed the umbrella in a stand full of walking sticks and riding crops. He was neatly dressed in a full suit and waistcoat, as if he'd been waiting up for her, and she had the impression that something about her surprised him. She must be different from the usual gun molls who appeared in the night. He was probably thinking: they get younger every day.

The dog's tail whapped uneasily on the stone floor, and the man took her bag from her hand, his eyelids flickering as if he found her unbearable to look at. 'I am Ruskin, Miss,' he said, and, without awaiting an answer, escorted her up the stairs.

'Tell them I'm ready to begin,' she said, as he opened the door to her suite. It seemed the sort of thing she should say. The sitting room they entered was beautiful, if a little gloomy, with a coal fire glowing in the marble fireplace, tall narrow shelves of leather-bound books, and a velvet chaise longue.

'Mr. Leonard has not yet arrived, Miss,' said the valet or butler or whatever he was, perhaps manservant was the term. She suspected that, to one versed in such things, his clothing signified his position. He inclined his head, listening for her answer, and she could see the neat wet teeth-marks a comb had left across his head.

'Mr.—' Then she remembered the name of the soldier she'd come all the way to England to autopsy. She was determined to stay crisply disapproving in manner toward the men of the conspiracy, the Majestic Twelve, the Unholy Thirteen, whatever they were, but it did not seem right to be rude to a servant. 'I see,' she said.

Left alone, she went to the bowl of fresh roses before the window and tucked her face into it, and breathed until she felt a little more real. In the bathroom, she found a marvelously deep iron bathtub painted black on the outside and standing on gryphon feet. The water gave the sense of being summoned from a great distance before it came out choking and spraying, hot and cold each from its separate tap, and Scully growled at the deliciousness of sliding into hot water after such a long trip, rubbing a big amber chunk of saddle soap up in her hands. The bath felt amazing, and when she walked back into the sitting room, drying the damp ends of her hair, she found a plate of scrambled eggs and a warm croissant beneath a silver dish-cover.

She did not know anything about places like this. She was born to drywall floor plans, base housing, half a lifetime in dorm rooms. She might as well have been in a rocketship, trying to run the controls. She strained to recall some of the Masterpiece Theatre she'd watched with her mom while going through med school. Why hadn’t she read The Remains of the Day when everyone was telling her to? Mulder knew how to fake his way through the social graces, despite a lone-wolf off-note that played sharp in his genotype. He would know how to tell a butler from a footman, how to properly mispronounce French or ride to hounds. And he would know how not to feel miles from everyone down these long shadowy halls.

She could not go to sleep; it was morning, not night. She tried to see out the tall, cold window. She was at the back of the house, she believed, but she wasn't even sure of that. There was only blackness beyond the windows, and she remembered the endlessness of the Mendip Hills. She thought, as she thought nearly every second: Where is he and what is he doing right now and does he know what this feels like, what this tastes like; has he read this? Has he experienced this? She sank onto a sofa, stroking the velvet, and pulled a National Geographic from a basket, opened it blindly and read the first paragraph her eyes hit. It was a very old magazine.

'At the Pole there is no north, no east, and no west. The north end of the magnetic needle points south; the gyroscopic compass would point straight down; the Pole Star is directly overhead; the stars are invisible because of the sun; there is no sunrise and no sunset; the sun is constantly on the meridian; it is always noon there when it is not night.'

Fitfully, she flipped the magazine closed. The damp towel was on her lap. She leapt to her feet and had a few bites of food as she moved around, and hung her clothes in a lacquered armoire. She combed her hair and then got her laptop and climbed into the huge bed with the embroidered and tasseled Chinese silk coverlet that was as heavy as a sack of feed. A neat pile of coal glowed on the swept grate in the bedroom fireplace. She lay looking up at the canopy, which was embroidered with peacocks. She had never slept in a four-poster, but had once doctored Mulder up in one. In those days he was a hot-wired youth, his hair resembling a hobgoblin with its finger in a light socket. He was as hell-bent and boyish as a horse turned out in a pasture. His eyes, like ‘30s automobile windscreens, were dark, divided, narrow as archery slits. Once in a lifetime, one was allowed illogic.

She closed her laptop and clasped it for warmth until the fan shut down. 'It is always noon when it is not night,' she whispered to herself, and fell asleep.


The otter hounds kenneled out beyond the stables awoke her at dawn.

Her midnight snack had been removed from the sitting room, but hadn't been replaced with breakfast. She put on a dark and sensible suit and went downstairs. She wondered if Dr. Charne-Sayre had been in this house, and had descended these stairs. Now she was dead. Scully found a selection of hot food on the sideboard in a dining room. She was alone at the long table eating kedgeree and tomatoes when Ruskin came in and reported that they were nearly ready to begin.

At ten-thirty, Ruskin and the labrador met her at the foot of the stairs. Falsely obsequious, Ruskin held her coat. The labrador's tail smacked the newel post, and Scully put her hand on his grey-speckled head for luck. The dog gave her a look of love that in her loneliness moved her. She thought that they must be going outside, but Ruskin took her through the kitchens where several women were peeling carrots and salsify at an enormous table. Conversation stopped and they looked Scully over from the corners of their eyes, without lifting their heads.

Ruskin sucked his moustache efficiently. He seemed to find the enterprise agreeable, as if now he would see her get her comeuppance. He handed her a metal army flashlight as heavy as a toolbox, and lifted the latch on a creaking door. The dog whined and balked, and they left him in the kitchen. They passed into a stone staircase, and Scully managed, in the sudden dark, to find the metal switch on the flashlight.

They descended past the level of servant's quarters and came out into a long chilly hallway that stretched on into the distance. A sequence of bare light bulbs pierced the fastness. The shadows swung a bit as Ruskin passed beneath the lights. Water glistened on the walls. There were stacks of wooden ammunition crates from one of the World Wars. Scully swept her flashlight back and forth, into a wine cellar, into a room full of potatoes in baskets; an alcove stacked with dusty chairs. The shining eyes of mice or rats glittered in the beam.

An ancient coroner waited for them in a cement room smelling like a dairy. He made a formal gesture of welcome, a brown cocker spaniel sagging against on his foot. The body bag lay on an antique porcelain autopsy table. There was a brass drain in the floor and a jug of Iodophor soap beside the sinks, and a garden hose coiled on the wall. The trembling coroner, Mr. Brown, examined Scully's passport, and insisted on showing her his diploma in medical jurisprudence from the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London, lest she judge him unqualified. He was shy, but kindly and thorough.

Scully was not pleased to discover that she'd been brought over from the States simply to observe an autopsy. She opened her laptop on the sideboard beneath a glass cabinet of old jars, watching in the glass the reflection of Ruskin drawing the zipper down the body bag.

She turned around. The deceased was a brutish British soldier with a dark crewcut, a thorny rose tattooed on his bicep, and the distorted feet of someone who'd always worn boots.

The coroner produced a large, sharp bread knife. He seemed to live through a twilight window, and spoke with extreme delicacy around the gross processes of dissection. The corpse exhibited contusions on his hands, and bruises all over, and a laceration across one shin, but nothing visibly life threatening. He seemed oddly relaxed, elastic, like he'd be warm to the touch. Scully turned to her laptop and made a few notes. The paperwork that had arrived with the body lay at hand and she glanced over it. The deceased had been pronounced at St. Bart's, in London.

The felty spaniel circled the autopsy table, snuffing the floor, her puppy-stretched underbelly drooping.

'How did he die?' Scully asked.

'Cause of death has yet to be determined,' Ruskin snapped out, and Mr. Brown made a vague and justifiably irritable gesture, in the middle of carving a precise V into the chest. He peeled up the resultant flap, and flipped it over the soldier's face. Ruskin shifted against the wall, and glared at Scully.

Scully rose. 'Yes, I know, but what did you hear about his death?'

'Howell Owen Leonard, awarded Military Medal for gallantry, 1991, Operation Granby, Kuwait,' Ruskin recited. 'In 1995 he sued the Ministry of Defense for compensation for the various ills comprising 'Desert Fever'.'

'Gulf War Syndrome,' Scully interrupted. 'Gulf War soldiers were injected with a cocktail of quasi-experimental drugs, and many endured chemical attacks, exposure to pesticides, insecticides, and burning oil wells. Did he win his case?'

'No, Miss. He lost his case, but married and was living quietly until several weeks ago when he apparently went berserk in London and attacked several people. A head injury placed him in a coma. He was pronounced yesterday, at St. Bartholomew's.'

Mr. Brown's hand moved slowly over the stolen body. She thought of the soldiers with chronic headaches, chest pains, birth defects in their kids; losing their court cases. What did the men she worked for expect to learn from this autopsy? Did Mr. Brown have any idea what was going on? Why had the Smoking Man sent her over?

She moved to the foot of the table, cupping the corpse's foot in her hand. Mr. Brown began the final incision. Ruskin frowned without looking at her, his eyes on the coroner's hand. In her fingers the bare foot was pliable, but chilly. 'Stop, please!' Scully said impulsively.

The coroner glanced sharply at her over the tops of his spectacles, and exchanged a look with Ruskin. 'I don't think this man is dead,' she said hesitantly, knowing how it sounded.

Ruskin stepped forward. 'He's been in cold storage for twenty-four hours!'

'He's not dead,' Scully said nervously, moving around the table. She couldn't find a pulse, but there was something oddly lifelike in the body's retention of muscle tone—no gaping of the jaws, and the curl of his fingers in her hand had a rubbery, live resistance. The skin was cold. Scully remembered the body in stasis at NASA-Goddard, still standing upright; Leonard Betts' head; Owen Jarvis; a dead marine who'd been voodooed back to life at the Haitian refugee camp. She knew more than she cared to about the Texas Funeral or the medieval system of ropes and bells rigged to buried coffins.

She opened a drawer in the sideboard and dug through the skull chisels and paraffin chunks and silver hammers, looking hopelessly for a stethoscope. When she turned around again, Ruskin had resettled the flap of chest skin and was holding a shaving mirror above the soldier's cold lips. 'If we are now quite certain,' he said, showing her the clear, unmisted glass.

Old Mr. Brown moved in again, leaning close to his work. Scully, her eyes on the abdomen, was certain she saw it move. 'Get back!' she cried, the coroner's narrow shoulder like a bone in her hand. He froze and trembled under her touch, his rib-cutters held in the air. 'It's dangerous,' she said breathlessly. In a flurry, she gloved up and pulled on a mask. Both men obviously thought she was out of her mind, and she made a point of looking each in the eye as she began to palpate the abdomen. Mulder had once told her that looking over a doctor's mask greatly enhanced her evil eye, not that it needed much enhancement, he had added, with open admiration.

The firemen exposed to the contagion had become edematous in a short time, but this body had smooth dryish skin. There was a sudden movement under her fingers and she jerked her hand away. Ruskin's shocked eyes met hers. He stepped closer and twisted the shade of the overhead light. The coroner pressed against her arm, trying to see. 'Oh my God,' Scully whispered.

'What is it?' Ruskin asked.

'Scalpel,' she snapped, and it was in her hand. She made a midline longitudinal incision, C-section the old-fashioned way. 'Oh my god, oh my god,' Scully whispered as it moved under her hands, deep in the man's belly. Quickly, she slashed at the membrane. It was curled in a sac in the stomach. It was a baby curled up. She'd never delivered a baby. Through the blood it was revealed, its pallid folded grasshopper limbs moving slightly. Scully dropped the scalpel on the floor and scooped it out of the cavity, tearing the sac.

The baby wasn't breathing, or rather, it gurgled, choking. It wasn't quite human, but its struggle for breath prodded something inside her. She swiped at its tiny triangular face, and rested it on the soldier's mangled chest. 'We need to aspirate,' she said. She leaned over it, wiping quickly. She jerked down her mask and picked the baby up. In neonatal emergencies, a midwife might suck the airways clear, but Scully hesitated. She'd always imagined herself capable of giving mouth-to-mouth to an animal—it couldn't be any worse than most humans. But the baby in her hands wasn't like anything she'd seen before. Its parchment skin glistened with mucus, and the organs were visible, like the inner workings of a tadpole.

She flicked the soles of its curled feet. Slime dripped from it, and Ruskin had moved a pace back, but Mr. Brown got a towel under the baby. It came alive with a squeal, unfolding short rubbery claws. It had a horrible lower jaw of piranha teeth, she saw. As she stood holding it, horror filled her, and then it twisted hard in her hands and reached to shred the coroner's sleeve, and she dropped it. It hit the floor wetly, scrabbling, with a horrible lamb's cry. Everyone in the room jumped away and someone stepped on the spaniel, who began to yipe. Scully’s ears rang among the yelps, her hand on the coroner's torn sleeve, watching with her mouth open as the glistening thing disappeared into the hall.

Then she leapt forward, seizing her flashlight from the sideboard. The spaniel's barking rang in the room behind her. Ruskin brushed past her; he stopped and opened fire with a clicky British service revolver. Scully clapped her hands over her ears and the light jigged about the arched ceiling, a ricochet fading down the poorly lit hall. The creature moved, far down the hall, crabbing quickly. Ruskin rested his gun hand on his opposite forearm, and she saw that his hand was shaking.

'May I?' she asked quickly, her hand on his arm. She was still wearing her sticky gloves. He looked more surprised than affronted, reluctantly trading the pistol for her flashlight. She snatched the gun from him and swept it up at arm’s length, closed one eye, and drew a bullseye just as the flashlight beam held steady on the slippery white creature. She fired twice, and it folded up like a dying snake, misting the wall in lime green fluid.

'Stay back; it's toxic,' Scully said.

The dog shot past, and Ruskin lunged to grab it, turning to look up at her with his finger hooked through the collar. 'Damned good shot, Miss,' he said faintly.

Scully half-cocked the old revolver and ejected the hot shell casings onto the flagstones. ‘It’s ‘Doctor’,’ she said.