Title: La Llorona (5/12)
Author: phantagrae
Rating: PG (mild language)
Category: Casefile
Spoilers: Not really, but assumes everything through at least Amor Fati.
Summary: Mulder and Scully investigate a series of deaths in Albuquerque, NM.
Feedback: Yes, please. phantagrae@earthlink.net

Archive: Not to Gossamer. I'll submit directly there. Yes to anywhere else. Just let me know, please.

Casa Cabeza de Baca
Wednesday, August 4, 1999

Scully fussed with her hair, frowning at the dark circles under her eyes. Mulder and his ghost stories. She figured she had gotten maybe 5 hours of sleep altogether. She made a face at her reflection and left the bathroom.

Mulder met her downstairs in the dining room, looking cheerful, if not exactly well rested.

"Mornin', Scully!" he said with a smile, pulling a chair out for her. "Did you sleep well?"

"Coffee," she replied, dropping into the chair and resting her head in her hands, elbows on either side of her place setting.

"Coming right up," he said. He poured a cup from the carafe on the table and set it before her. "Perk up, Scully. We've got a lot of work ahead of us today." He took a seat opposite her.

She looked at him skeptically.

"Chasing river spirits?"

He looked around at the other guests making their way toward the table. He leaned forward and spoke quietly.

"Examining crime scenes, going over autopsy reports."

"Oh, joy.

"Buenas días, ladies and gentlemen!" Mrs. C de Baca said, carrying a platter of eggs and bacon.

Two young ladies followed close behind, bringing a warming basket overflowing with fresh, hot tortillas, a small bowl of green chile, and a large bowl of chorizo sausage cooked with scrambled eggs and diced potatoes.

The serving dishes were arranged in the middle of the table and a murmur of content made its way among the diners.

Mulder helped himself to a generous serving of the chorizo, added a dollop of green chile on top, and grabbed a couple of tortillas.

Scully watched in amazement. She snagged a tortilla and took a nibble. Its warmth and comforting texture awakened her appetite and she served herself a plain egg and some bacon. She turned down the bowl of chile as it passed her, evoking a gasp of disbelief from Mulder.

"Ah, come on, Scully," he chided. "It'll put hair on your chest."

She smiled sarcastically and nodded her head. "That's exactly what I want—hair on my chest."

He chuckled at her and spread a blob of butter on one of his tortillas. "At least have some butter. Nothing tastes better than a hot tortilla with butter on it. And it's real butter, not that cholesterol-free, flavor-free artificial goo you usually use." He pushed the little plate of homemade butter at her.

"No, thank you," she mouthed at him. He was showing off, but she didn't really mind.

Paul came in from the living room and kissed his mother on the cheek.

"Buenas días, Mamá," he said cheerfully. He smiled at Scully and waggled his fingers at her as he passed behind the other guests. He came around to Mulder's shoulder and clapped him soundly. "Señor Mulder! Como estás, Zorro?"

"Muy bien, gracias." Mulder smiled at Paul, waiting for praise for his Spanish.

Scully rolled her eyes and took another bite of egg.

"Listen, buddy, you need to work on that East Coast accent!" Paul walked around the table and took a seat next to Scully.

She turned to him and smiled pleasantly. "Good morning, Paul."

"Good morning, Dana. How did you sleep?"

Thinking first of her dream and second of the nightmarish sounds outside, then the storm, then her fitful sleep, she could only reply, "Just fine, thanks. And you?"

"Well, the storm kept me up a bit," he said as he served himself.

Scully found herself touching a hand to the hairs at the back of her neck. She looked up in time to see that Mulder seemed about to say something.

"Tell me something, Paul," she began, determined to steer the conversation away from any hint of ghost stories and eerie sounds in the night. "What is this 'Zorro' thing?"

"Hasn't he explained it to you?" Paul asked, grinning at Mulder.

"It's because I'm a masked avenger," Mulder said seriously.

Scully chuckled in spite of herself.

Paul laughed and touched her arm. "Actually, it's just his name. 'Zorro' is Spanish for 'fox'."

"Aw, man, you're blowing my image," Mulder said, laughing around his cup of coffee.

Scully shook her head and smiled. "How did you two meet?" she asked.

"I found him wandering in the woods," Paul said cryptically.

"Like a masked avenger?" Scully teased.

"It was back when I was working with Reggie Purdue," Mulder offered. "We were out here tracking a guy."

"So you were out here lurking by this house?"

"No," Paul said. "It was out by my house, up in the canyon."

"You don't live here?"

"Oh, no. I have a house up in Cedar Crest, in the mountains just east of town. Right now I'm down here to help out for a bit and to make sure the building is in shape for the fall—you know, the Balloon Fiesta, the State Fair. It all brings in a lot of travelers and my mother needs help."

"A house in the mountains sounds nice."

"It's great. You and Fox will have to come visit sometime."

"You'll have to lend it to us for our honeymoon, Paul," Mulder broke in with a smile, leaning as far forward as he could without getting food on his shirt.

Scully almost choked on her coffee. She turned to stare incredulously at Mulder.

Paul gaped at Mulder. "You're kidding, right?"

Mulder's smile widened, but he said nothing, taking a bite of food and waggling his eyebrows at Scully.

She turned back to Paul. "Yes, he's kidding. Believe me."

Paul looked from partner to partner, amused and puzzled, but continued. "Well, when are you guys going to be out here again? It gets cold, but the winter up there is spectacular. Skiing nearby, plenty of snow to play in and quiet, quiet, quiet."

"Sign me up for that." Scully said as she grinned at Paul and his smooth skin. If Mulder wanted to play, she would play, too.

What she didn't see was the look on Mulder's face. He had a moment of insecurity as he watched her watching Paul. Surely she wasn't flirting with Paul; surely she was just teasing him. But he carried a little nugget of self-doubt that every now and then insisted on asserting itself where Scully was concerned, and often left him hanging by an adolescent thread.

He loved her. He'd tried to tell her at times, but he wasn't sure she had ever taken him seriously. He'd tried to show her and hoped she understood his intent, but somehow they'd never taken that crucial step forward.

He was always afraid that someone would come along who was more charming, more normal, with less emotional baggage than he—someone whom Scully would find easier to love than him. Maybe someone like his friend Paul.

In that moment, Mulder's phone began to ring. He winced, not wanting to leave the table just now, and pulled his phone from his pocket. He rose and walked down the steps into the living room to take the call and returned a few minutes later.

"Scully," he whispered, tilting his head toward the kitchen.

"Excuse us for a minute, Paul," Scully said, smiling apologetically as she rose from the table.

"There was another death last night," Mulder began abruptly as soon as they were beyond earshot of everyone.

One of the serving girls came back into the kitchen, so he took Scully by the elbow and moved her further back.

"Where did they find the body?" Scully asked, afraid of what he would say.

"Less than a mile from here." He looked at her solemnly. "I heard it last night."

"Heard what?" she asked sharply. "What could you have heard?"

"Didn't you hear it? You must have. The wailing and screaming?" He knew what he had heard, indeed felt, during the storm. He was starting to get angry.

"You heard the storm, Mulder," she said firmly. "All that talk last night about ghosts roaming the riverbank had your imagination working overtime. You heard the wind in the trees, just like I did."

"You did hear it." Mulder nodded smugly. "You won't admit it, but you heard it."

"I heard the wind. I heard the rain." Scully pressed her lips together. In the bright light of day she would not entertain the childishly frightening feelings of the night before. "The rest of the time I was asleep."

Mulder glared at her for a moment. There was always this grinding friction, this doubt and opposition. Maybe she thought she was helping him to not look foolish, but he knew that she was often trying to keep him from making her look foolish.

"Well," he said at last, "We have a body and a crime scene. Let's go."

He walked away without a backward glance, striding out the front door and rounding the corner of the house toward their rooms as she hurried to catch up. He knew she hated it when he did this, but he did it anyway.

She quickly collected the things she would need for the day, and made her way out to the car. She had heard his door close before she was quite ready and she had the real sensation that he just might leave without her.

Mulder was standing by the open driver's side of the car, pretending to study his hastily scribbled directions to the new crime scene, waiting for her. The bright morning sun was bouncing off the roof of the car, making him squint even through his sunglasses. It was still early but the temperature was already climbing into the 80's. He closed the file as Scully approached.

As she came around to the passenger side, Mulder popped the automatic lock for her door and got behind the wheel.

"Here," he said, trying to keep his voice gentle as he handed her the folder, regretting his behavior of a moment ago. He looked at her face from behind the protection of his sunglasses, but she had donned her own and he couldn't quite read her expression. He chewed his lower lip, wondering why he couldn't just come out and apologize.

"Umm," he began, "could you get the map from the glove box? I'm not quite sure how to get to where we're going."

Scully handed him the map, taking note of the change in his demeanor. She decided to dwell on the more pleasant breakfast conversation rather than their little spat in the kitchen.

He took the map from her and fussed with it, folding it and refolding it until he had the river valley more or less centered. Then he turned it and turned it again until he had his bearings.

"We...are...um...um...here," he said, finally poking his finger at a place on the map. He trailed his finger along, lips moving soundlessly as he thought his way through the streets. "And we need to go to the Paseo Del Norte Bridge, which is..." He took a pen from his pocket and made some markings.

"Scully..." His voice disappeared as his mouth suddenly went dry. He turned to look at her.

"What?" she asked, furrowing her brow at his expression. Was he frightened?

"Get out of the car," he said quietly, not breaking his gaze.

"Why?" she asked. Her voice was almost a whisper as she unbuckled her seatbelt. If he wasn't afraid himself, he was certainly frightening her.

"It's right over there," he said, turning to point toward the trees beyond the house.

"What are you talking about, Mulder?" she pressed. He had gotten out of the car and was walking across the gravel parking lot. When she caught up with him she stepped around in front of him, stopping him with a palm pressed against his chest. His expression was neutral, but his eyes were dark and distracted. "What is it?"

"The body." His eyes flickered up toward the trees again. "The crime scene, the body it's just down the street from here."

At Scully's astonished expression, he bent closer to her face.

"I told you you heard it," he whispered. He stepped around her and continued out toward the street, turning to the right to walk around the adobe wall surrounding the C de Baca property.

Scully followed him, replaying her memories of the sounds she had heard during the night. With a mental shrug, she found her way through it.

"You must have heard the victim screaming, Mulder," she said evenly. "If the victim was attacked so nearby, it's conceivable that the sound might have carried up the street."

"I don't think we heard a person, Scully." His voice was quiet but firm. He entered the bosque behind the house.

They made their way through the thickets of fragrant Russian olive trees and rough, fat cottonwoods.

"Are you sure we can get there from here, Mulder?" Scully asked as she held a thorny branch away from her face.

Mulder said nothing but reached back to take her by the elbow and help her over the gnarled roots of a large tree.

They finally came to the open riverbank and found a team of officers working the area about a hundred feet away. A bridge spanned the river further to the south and a few officers were searching for evidence in its shadow.

Mulder looked at Scully, challenging her to doubt him now. But she returned his gaze steadily, feeling the proximity of the body to the C de Baca property strengthening her theory rather than Mulder's.

Yellow crime scene tape was being strung between the trees just to the south, where the Albuquerque Police Department cars were parked.

Mulder and Scully picked their way down the bank. Crime Scene Unit officers were carefully going over the scene, collecting and cataloging debris that might relate to the victim's last moments.

The body lay a few feet from the water, curled in a fetal position. It was a young man, dressed in jeans and a tee shirt, his hair and clothes still damp from last night's rainstorm. CSU had already photographed the ground near the body and had found only the victim's footprints along the muddy bank.

Mulder crouched down near the man's head, looking back along the trail of footprints. He had been running, judging from the prints, up and down the bank.

Mulder turned to look along the bank, but there was no place of particular safety in sight. Why wouldn't he have run up toward the road? If someone were chasing him, he might have found help from a passing motorist, or at one of the houses along Rio Grande Boulevard just above the embankment. Just as Laura Mesker had ignored the possible safety of nearby houses, this young man had run blindly.

A member of the CSU team reached a gloved hand into the back pocket of the young man's jeans and removed his wallet, opening it to check the identification.

Mulder touched Scully's arm and waggled his fingers at her. She produced a pair of latex gloves from her pocket, handed them to Mulder, then found another pair for herself.

"Thanks," he whispered absently as he pulled the gloves on and reached for the wallet. "May I?" he asked the officer.

Mulder looked at the young face smiling confidently in the driver's license photo. "Nathaniel Kinsey," he read aloud. "Twenty-five years old." He closed the wallet and shifted his body to get a more direct look at the man's face.

Scully felt the cold skin of the victim's hands, gently turning them now that the photographer had finished documenting the scene. She examined his fingers and nails to see if there were signs of a struggle, to see if perhaps he had been able to scratch his attacker, or grab a piece of fabric or hair. His hands were clasped in fists, folded tight against his chest. She didn't want to force his hands open out here in case there was some trace evidence, but she could see no obvious indications. But by moving his hands a little, she could make out the scorched center of his shirt.

To her mind it looked a little like the burn marks left on victims of lightning strikes. An idea began to form in her mind.

Mulder rose and looked around at the other officers. "Who found the body?"

Mulder recognized Detective Sanchez as he stepped forward from the cluster of cops.

"Good morning, Agent Mulder," he said as he came nearer. His voice was a bit subdued and a frown creased his brow above his shiny sunglasses.

"Detective Sanchez," Mulder nodded his greeting. "When did you get the call?"

Sanchez glanced back toward the houses above the bank.

"A couple that lives up there just off of Rio Grande Boulevard called it in to 911 early this morning. They thought they heard someone screaming last night, but they weren't sure if it was really screaming or just the storm. The wife finally decided to make the call just in case." Sanchez looked at the young man on the ground at his feet. He shrugged helplessly and shook his head.

Mulder looked down at Scully. She locked eyes with him as they silently argued the significance of the detective's report.

Mulder returned to her side. "Scully, I'll drop you off at the morgue so you can get started on Kinsey's autopsy. I'm gonna go check out the other crime scenes and then meet you downtown."

Scully nodded. She was actually anxious to get a look at this young man's injuries and determine how he died, which might help further focus the investigation. She was sure he hadn't been killed by Mulder's ghost, which meant that there was a real killer at work.

Part Six