A Dark Smear Under the Sky

AUTHOR: Nina Smith
EMAIL: snsa@ix.netcom.com
DATE: November 29, 1995
CATEGORY: Crossover (X-Files/Due South/Chicago Hope)
RATING: R for language and violence
ARCHIVE: May be disseminated (assuming anyone wants to) if unchanged and full credit/blame given to author (me).
DISCLAIMER: All sympathetic characters (the bad guys are mine, which tells you something about me) are variously the property of Chris Carter, Paul Haggis, Michael Crichton, or David E. Kelley and their assorted production companies, studios, secret conspiracies, and what have you. Used without permission. No copyright infringement intended. Don't try to stop me - I sleep with a cougar, suckled two wolf cubs, and bear a commission from the Creator of the universe.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: This story, my first public attempt at fanfiction, is a four-way crossover involving The X-Files, Due South, ER, and Chicago Hope (in order of appearance). It's just for fun (mostly mine, hopefully yours too) and contains few allusions to occurrences on any of the shows, no sex tospeak of, and absolutely ZERO serious character development or thoughtful explorations of characters' relationships and psyches. (Also no extensive government conspiracies. I have a hard time believing such things can be pulled off effectively; after all, these ARE the people who run the GAO and the Department of Education.) It does, however, contain absurd premises, lurid villainy and gratuitous bloodshed, so I hope you like that sort of thing.
Any time I was unaware of relevant real-world law enforcement and/or medical procedures, I made them up. So there.
The title comes from H.G. Wells' description of Chicago, as quoted by native son George F. Will. (So it's not perfect, but you have to admit it beats the working title, "Health Care Personnel in Chains.")
Lyrics quoted in Part 6 are by Ira Gershwin. Used without permission (which he probably wouldn't have given in this context). No copyright infringement intended.
SUMMARY: An evil heart has its eye on Carter

So much for that. Cue theme music of your choice ...

The towers glittered ahead in the waning light like heaps of treasure, with the approaching weather line like a black dragon moving in on its hoard. The flight from National to O'Hare had been routine - dull, actually - and Special Agent Dana Scully of the Federal Bureau of Investigation was feeling even more dubious than she had when first assigned to the case. She looked towards her partner and said, "Would you mind telling me why here, of all places?"

Behind the wheel, Special Agent Fox Mulder didn't take his eyes off Interstate 90. "Christopher Ashton Locke and Alec Bragg are in Chicago."

"And how do you know?"

"Because if they've gone anywhere else, they made a big mistake."

Scully shook her head. "Mulder, that doesn't make any sense! The first body, two days dead, was found in Buffalo the day after Locke and Bragg disappeared. The next two turned up in Geneseo, New York a week later, and the last four in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania after another eight days."

"So what's your point?"

Her lips tightened; the man could be infuriating. "All signs are that the killer is targeting smaller cities and moving southeast!"

Mulder shrugged and shifted his hands on the steering wheel. "So let's go over the signs. A tenured professor of humanities at SUNY Buffalo - Locke - and a drifter with a long police record - Bragg - are seen together on several occasions before both vanishing. A day later, the body of one of Locke's students is found, burned almost beyond recognition and the heart cut out. Of the two burned bodies found in Geneseo, one, another student, is missing the heart; the other, a local auto mechanic, is exsanguinated. In Wilkes-Barre there are four burned bodies: a plumber's apprentice, heart cut out; a real estate agent, exsanguinated; and a local cardiologist and his office nurse, both apparently beaten to death with a heavy blunt instrument." He paused for a moment, the atrocities hanging in the air between them, and turned to look at his partner. "What's your theory?"

She met his eyes a moment before replying. "The killings meet the classic serial pattern in a lot of respects."

"And in others, they don't. Too many in too short a time; mutilations inconsistent; no evidence of sexual assault - "

"Mulder, what evidence of sexual assault survives burning?"

He didn't respond to that. "And serial murderers don't work in pairs."

"Spree killers do, though. And the number and timing of the killings fit that pattern."

"But then there are the mutilations. Not only that, but most sprees involve robbery - we have none here - and guns - again, none here."

Scully considered. "Behavioral Sciences recommended going with the serial-killer assumption for now, focusing on Bragg. Assuming that Professor Locke is either dead and his body simply hasn't been found, or that he's still alive and going along with Bragg out of fear for his life - "

Mulder cut her off. "Forgive me, Scully, but Behavioral Sciences, as much as we both love them, are floundering like shot ducks on this one. If Locke was kidnapped, how come he sold his entire stock portfolio and cleaned out all his bank accounts before disappearing?"

"Nobody said he was kidnapped _per se_. He could have gone along willingly at first before recognizing what he'd gotten himself into. Or they could have formed a delusive symbiosis, a _folie a deux_ ... "

"Ooh, I love it when you talk French to me." He smiled before she could get too annoyed, and went on, "Notice that no one is considering the possibility that Locke is in control, and Bragg is the one along for the ride."

"No one except you, Mulder. So maybe Locke wasn't so popular among his colleagues ... "

"I believe the description was, 'Never had an original thought in his life, but boy, could that bastard spot trends, kiss ass, manipulate students and spread the odd nasty rumor'."

Scully cracked a smile in spite of herself. "The Dean really didn't like him, did she? And this book of his seems to bear her out." She withdrew from her briefcase a copy of Locke's opus THE GRAMMAR OF THE STAKE: GENDER POLITICS AND SEXUAL ORIENTATION IN THE 'MALLEUS MALEFICARUM.' "This thing was unreadable," she declared. "Makes me wonder if there's some sort of academic prize given for the most times you can use the word 'hermeneutics' in a single paragraph." Then she paused. "But that doesn't make him a murderer."

"No," Mulder concurred. "I'm more interested in that paper we found on his desk at home."

As if to refresh her memory, Scully went back down into the briefcase to replace the book and bring out the photocopy of the note Mulder had mentioned. Studying the angular scrawl, she began, "This line's from Crowley, I know: 'Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law'." She noted her partner's nod, and read on. "The rest of this is new to me ... 'Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.' Charming."

"William Blake," said Mulder. "One of the 'Proverbs of Hell'."

"Appropriate. And this: 'God appears and God is Light/To those poor souls who dwell in night / But does a human form display / To those who dwell in realms of day'."

"Blake again. From 'Auguries of Innocence'."

"You really DO know your English literature. Test yourself on this one: 'I wad ta'en out thy heart o' flesh / And put in a heart o' stane'." She stumbled a little on the unfamiliar Scots dialect.

"I had to look that one up," Mulder admitted. "It's from the ballad 'Tam Lin.' Traditional; author unknown."

"Good, because I wouldn't want to meet him." Sliding the paper away, Scully again looked to him. "All right, so Locke scribbled a few weird quotes before going missing. It doesn't necessarily mean anything! Maybe he was just taking notes for another book with lots of uses of 'hermeneutics'."

"Maybe he was," said Mulder, with that smoothness of tone that suggested he had other ideas. "That's what we're here to find out." The city was swiftly rising toward them; he checked the clock on the dashboard. "Meanwhile, we've got just about enough time to check in at the field office. Our appointment at the hospital is at nine tomorrow morning."

"So what do we do until then?"

A half-smile played on his lips. "We listen for a heartbeat."

Detective Ray Vecchio, Chicago Police Department, sucked in a deep breath and tried again. "Listen, Doc, we were referred to you as the source of the first complaints about the missing supplies. So if you want us to find out who's taking them - "

"You're damn right I want you to find out," snarled Dr. Peter Benton. "The first thing you're going to find out is that it wasn't me or, to my knowledge, anyone I know! Is that clear?" God, it was hard to control his temper when this sort of thing happened. Just look at this obnoxious cop, with his rat face and oily hair - maybe this one didn't wear a uniform, but his type had been pulling Benton over since the surgical resident had learned to drive, had been telling him to move along almost since he'd learned to walk! Look for the nearest black face, and then they had their goddamned suspect ...

"No one is accusing you of anything, Dr. Benton." It was the other guy, the good-looking one in the maroon uniform with the stupid Smokey-the-Bear hat. A Mountie, for crying out loud. What was a Canadian Mountie doing partnering a cop in Chicago? Still, Benton said nothing, listened to the measured and reasonable voice. "Coincidentally, my name's Benton too, only it's my first name. Benton Fraser." He presented his hand; not quite grudgingly, Peter Benton took it.

"Pleased to meet you," the doctor replied, not as coldly as he'd planned. "Now what do you want?"

The local cop took over again. "Dr. Swift told us you were the first to report the shortages."

"Maybe I was the first to bring them to his attention, but when I first checked with Pharmacy, they told me that they'd had the problem for a few weeks now. Maybe they were keeping quiet about it so they wouldn't have the administration coming down on them. But then when the syringes and instruments started disappearing too ... well, Officers, if you'd bother to look around, you'd see an emergency room! And do I have to tell you what could happen if an emergency room lacked a vital drug or piece of equipment at the wrong moment?"

"No, you don't," Vecchio replied. The guy was right: They were indeed in an emergency room, the one at Cook County General Hospital, and talking to a resident with a chip on his shoulder the size of a Cadillac. Probably was a pretty good doctor, though - not that that mattered to Vecchio, not being here as a patient, thank God. Pity he had to deal with this Benton instead of, say, that cute brunette nurse over there in the peach scrubs. Maybe he'd find an excuse to talk to her later. Meanwhile - "You know where we can get a list of what's missing?"

"No, I don't!" What did they take him for, a clerk?!

"Can I help you?" A new voice, female. Both policemen turned, and Vecchio felt like skipping; it was the nurse in the peach scrubs, on her way over to him. Maybe today didn't belong in the toilet after all ... "I'm Nurse Hathaway."

Now Fraser stepped forward and addressed her first. Damn him. "Pleased to meet you, ma'am. Are you the charge nurse?"

"Yes, I am. This is about the missing supplies?"

"Yes, it is!" Hastily Vecchio maneuvered himself in front of his friend. "We want to catch these - these thieves before any more innocent lives are endangered ... "

Her indulgent smile plainly stated that she wasn't buying it. "I'm sure, Detective. No doubt you'll want to speak to our pharmacy director and our purchasing manager, for a start. If you'll come with me ... " Hathaway led the two from the ER, and Benton didn't bother watching them go.

"Hey, Peter, what was that all about?"

Benton turned to see Dr. Susan Lewis. As usual, with her shining white coat and even brighter golden hair, she single-handedly made the ER into an almost pleasant place. "Hello, Susan. Looks like we have an international law enforcement task force looking into what happened to our antibiotics, all those syringes, and half our Demerol supply, among other things."

Lewis watched them as they vanished around a corner. "Let's hope they find out fast; if this keeps up, we could be seriously compromised sooner than we think."

"Tell me about it," Benton grunted. "And let's hope the cops don't compromise us any further themselves."

Spring storms had passed in the night, leaving the city washed and refreshed in time for a rosy sunrise. Dana Scully, feeling confident, paused before the gleaming doors of Chicago Hope Hospital to cast a glance at her partner, but his expression was as cool and enigmatic as ever. In some previous life, Mulder must have been a cat ... or a catamount. "You know, Mulder," she began, "these guys will be an even harder sell than me."

"Are you planning not to back me up out of professional courtesy, Dr. Scully?" he teased back.

"Maybe. You shouldn't take me for granted."

They entered unobtrusively, just two more bees in the swarm humming through the hospital lobby, their coats flapping loosely like the wings of idle angels. Mulder didn't show his badge and ID until they were at the main desk, and was quiet about it; no reason to upset any overwrought patients or visitors. "Agents Mulder and Scully, FBI; we have an appointment with Dr. Watters." The receptionist, already bored at nine in the morning, quickly rattled off the room number and directions to the elevator.

Two men were awaiting them among black-and-chrome furniture in a quiet administrative office. The one behind the desk had to be Watters. No white lab coat over his suit; Scully liked that. Early fifties, she guessed from the bald head and softly graying beard. He rose smoothly, presented his hand and himself: "Good morning, I'm Dr. Phillip Watters. It's Special Agents Scully and Mulder, right?" They affirmed, showing ID; Scully accepted his hand first. Good solid shake, not like a lot of surgeons who made a big show of protecting their precious hands. A sort of spare, understated elegance about the man, and an air of command. Panther eyes. *Wonder what kind of a Bureau AD he'd make,* Scully found herself thinking.

Now he clasped her partner's hand. "Good morning, Doctor," Mulder said. "You're the chief of staff?"

"Yes. And this is Alan Birch, our legal counsel. I hope you don't mind that I asked him to join us."

"Not at all. A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Birch." As the man rose to shake her hand, Scully was mildly surprised to see how small he was. He stood no more than five feet six, maybe less, and was slender as a deer besides. But energetic, eyes lively, quick to smile. There were a lot of lawyers in the Bureau, and the good ones had the same spark; best not to write this man off.

Everyone got more or less comfortable in the black leather chairs. "To what do we owe the honor of another visit from the FBI?" Watters began.

"Chicago Hope is said to have the best department of cardiothoracic surgery in the country for an institution of its size," Mulder began. "Particularly in the field of transplantation."

Watters smiled proudly. "We and Stanford," he replied without false modesty, or any other kind. "Vanderbilt was up with us for a while, too, but their program hasn't been the same since Dr. Frist left for the Senate."

"Yes," said Mulder noncommitally. "You might have heard about the recent series of murders in western New York and Pennsylvania - "

Both Watters and Birch jerked up as if scorched. "With the MUTILATIONS? The bodies burned black?" The attorney's face was tinged green, and suddenly he wasn't so affable. "If you are implying some link to Chicago Hope - "

Mulder raised a reassuring hand. "No implication intended, Mr. Birch. Obviously you are familiar with the case."

"It's been in all the papers." Watters' voice was grim. "Informally dubbed the Butcher Burnings."

Scully nodded wearily. "Yes." How often she - and hundreds of colleagues - had wished the media would stop doing that sort of thing. The catchy titles did nothing but scare people, inspire copycats, and make the hunt more difficult ... oh, and sell papers and boost TV news ratings. It would never end.

"You'll recall," Mulder was saying, "that three of the victims had had their hearts cut out, and one of the remaining victims was a cardiologist."

"Yes," said Watters. "I knew Dr. Kalman briefly when we were both students." He lowered his eyes.

The agents respected the brief pause before Mulder got to his point. "We suspect that the perpetrator, in his shall we say unique way, may have an interest in heart transplantation. In that case, he might be drawn to your program."

"But to what end?" Watters asked, voice almost too soft.

"That we don't know," Scully answered. "But we're sure that, whatever his reason, if not stopped he WILL kill again."

Birch's head shook slowly, as if the joint were rusty. "This is not what I want to hear ... "

But the chief of staff leaned back in his seat, lips a thin line within his beard, the cool light of doubt in his eyes. "Agent Mulder, we may have the finest transplant program in the nation, but it's hardly the only one. How can you be sure that your killer hasn't stayed on the East Coast, targeting, say, Mass. General?"

"We can't." It was only honesty. Mulder knew better than even to attempt explaining the frequent, delicate accuracy of his hunches to this man. "But if he IS here, we'll see his tracks. Can you tell us, Doctor, if your cardiothoracic surgery department has been missing any supplies or equipment lately?"

Birch and Watters traded a wide-eyed glance. "Not precisely," the latter answered, returning attention to Mulder, "but our pharmacy has reported some unexplained shortages within the last three or four days. I do suspect theft - as a matter of fact, I was on the phone with the police just before you arrived."

The agent couldn't resist shooting a knowing look at his partner. "We'd appreciate it if you'd tell us when the police show up. In the meantime, we'd like to take a look at your transplantation facilities, and if you could introduce us to the doctor in charge ... "

"That would be Dr. Geiger. If we hurry we can catch him before he goes into surgery." Watters rose.

So did Birch. "And I have to depose an expert witness. It's been a pleasure, Agent Mulder, Agent Scully." They returned the sentiment as the office emptied out.

The four headed down the corridor, overtaking a tall, quiet man in doctor's white, with mild dark eyes and raven hair dusted with silver. Watters and the agents passed on, while Birch detached from the group to walk beside him. "Hi, Aaron. Just wanted you to know that Eldridge's deposition is in fifteen minutes. This one isn't even going to get to court; you can count on that."

"Thank you, Alan." Dr. Aaron Shutt, Chicago Hope's chief of neurosurgery, was only half listening as he watched the three receding figures. "Those two with Phillip aren't patients," he said with a kind of wary certainty.

"They're not," Birch replied. "FBI agents. They're looking for Jeffrey. They want to talk to him about that string of awful ritual killings back East. " He gave a tiny shudder. "I can't imagine what Jeffrey could have to do with that ... "

Suddenly the attorney winced as the much taller man patted him on the head. "Don't worry, Alan," Shutt said too sweetly, "if Jeffrey had slaughtered and burned seven people, I'm sure he'd have told me about it." With that, he ambled away through the double doors.

Birch shook his head, smoothed his violated brown hair. "This is not respect," he muttered, and stalked off.

"Jeffrey!" The white-coated figure striding towards the surgeons' locker room suddenly halted in his tracks and turned to Watters' voice. "Jeffrey, the FBI would like a moment of your time. Agents Mulder and Scully, this is Dr. Jeffrey Geiger, our chief of cardiothoracic surgery."

Geiger's dark eyes narrowed as the federal officers approached. "Phillip, if this is about another triple bypass on another three-hundred-pound killer, you can tell our tax-funded friends to take their canaries and stool pigeons to a veterinarian where they belong."

Scully's jaw dropped and dangled like a broken branch. "Don't take it personally," Watters assured her quietly, "he's like that to everyone. Except his patients. Some of them." Then louder, to the surgeon, "It's not that. This is a homicide investigation, and I have promised Chicago Hope's full cooperation." This last said with an iron look directly into Geiger's eyes. The soft voice returned as he said to Mulder and Scully, "I'll notify you directly once the police get here. In the meantime, I and my staff are at your disposal if there's anything we can do. If you'll please excuse me ... "

"Thank you, Dr. Watters." Now Mulder met Geiger's gaze. The heart surgeon was of only average height, but Mulder sensed his own stature wouldn't give him the customary psychological advantage here. Behind that proud aquiline face was probably an imperial ego - and an intellect to match. Mulder took out his badge, Scully following the lead. "Agent Mulder, FBI. This is Special Agent Dr. Dana Scully." That credential might help.

Geiger got a good look at the ID before the fed snapped it shut, reading the full name: Fox Mulder. A good name for this one. Lean build; angular, keen face; hooded eyes that missed nothing. Definitely in the right line of work. And with that partner, damn lucky; she was gorgeous. Lips fuller than rainclouds, sunset hair, eyes like the earth from space. Petite, but didn't seem so. Geiger smiled at her with only his lips. "Doctor of what?"

"Medicine," she replied. The ambient temperature could have dropped about five degrees.


"Forensic pathology." Instantly Scully kicked herself inwardly for not answering "We'll ask the questions, asshole."

"Then you're in the wrong place," Geiger said in a tiger's purr. "MY patients live. And one is waiting for me now."

"We won't keep you long, Dr. Geiger," Mulder replied, voice carefully neutral. "Just a few questions." Out of his pocket came likenesses of the vanished Christopher Ashton Locke and Alec Bragg. "Have you seen either of these men, here in the hospital or anywhere else?"

Geiger took a look. "No. Are you done?"

"Almost. Have you ever been approached to perform any surgical procedure outside the auspices of this hospital?"

"No. Are you done?"

"Not yet. Have you noticed any of your equipment missing - "

"No. And you ARE done. Mrs. Jenkins needs her collapsed lung repaired twenty minutes from now, and I refuse to rush my scrub for this." He turned and strode off, plunging through the locker-room door.

Mulder looked after the vanishing white-clad back, and quietly observed, "That man may be in danger."

"Really," muttered Scully. "I just might shoot him."

"Scully ... "

There was a chuckle behind them, and the words, "Can't blame you, miss." The young man they saw as they turned was as tall as Mulder and even leaner, white coat and blue scrubs flapping on his frame like the flag of some ex-Soviet Bloc nation. Tousled brown hair drifted almost into his tired but cheerful eyes, above a smile that any malice would have turned into a smirk.

Smiling a little herself, Scully showed him her badge. "Agent Dana Scully, FBI." She noticed with satisfaction how his eyes widened. "What can you tell us about your colleague, Dr. - ?"

"Kronk," he answered, "Billy Kronk. You want to know about Geiger?" He inflected the name like that of a disease. "He didn't do anything like ... " He looked doubtfully toward the door where Geiger had vanished.

"No, this is routine," Mulder assured him.

"Oh, okay. Well, Jeffrey Geiger is a surgical genius; he's done more for heart transplantation than any doctor since Norman Shumway. Outside of that, the man belongs in a cage." He yawned. "Can I help you with anything else?"

The two federal agents exchanged a glance, Mulder's eyebrows rising and Scully suppressing a grin, before Scully looked back to the doctor and replied, "Thank you, Dr. Kronk; you've been very helpful."

"Always glad to be." He tossed off another sardonic smile as they went their way. "So, the feds are dogging Geiger," he murmured to himself. "Life is sweet ... "

Vincent Persico stood before his new, unofficial bosses and tried not to squirm. He didn't want to look weak, he didn't want to look scared ... but most of all, he didn't want to look in the bowl. It seemed as if the old man (to be fair, he probably wasn't a day over fifty, but the dead-white hair made him seem old) never put the damn thing down. Now he sat square in front of Vinnie in the big, out-of- place black velvet armchair, the steel basin in his lap. Running his skinny hands over the sides constantly, lovingly; always glancing in as if making sure of the contents. He didn't even mind the pervasive, iron-tinged smell - Vinnie sure did.

And the other guy, the one with the shaved head and the biceps like bridge cables - hell, he even seemed to LIKE the smell. No surprise to Vinnie; he'd seen the bastard's nasty, tooth-edged Spyderco folding knife, and his blued 9-mm Smith and Wesson. Definitely not playing with a full deck ... probably missing the suit of hearts.

For about the seventeenth time that week, Persico wondered how he'd gotten himself in so deep. The old guy (there he went again) hadn't been carrying the bowl when he'd approached outside the hospital exit at quitting time last Thursday and whispered, "I know all about the drugs, Vincent Persico."

Again Persico winced at the memory. He should've had the brains to ignore the creep and go his way. Instead, he just HAD to stop dead in his tracks and gasp, "What the - how did you know my name?"

The weirdo'd gotten right up in his face then. "HE told me your name, Vincent Persico. And HE told me all about the drugs you've been stealing from the hospital pharmacy ... and all about your little ring of accomplices."

That sure had let out the rest of Vinnie's air. "You gonna turn me in?"

The other had laughed. Nasty sound, like something breaking. "Not at all. I can help you, Mr. Persico ... or Vincent, my friend Vincent. Help you expand your operation, diversify your merchandise, find new customers. Of course, if you're not interested ... "

THAT was when Vinnie'd done the stupidest thing of all. "I'm listening."

"Then come with me." And like the asshole he was, he had.

The memories nibbled at Persico, shredding his composure. The big bald bastard knew it and liked it. There he was, standing behind the big chair, tossing that awful knife from hand to hand, giggling - Christ, what a sound. Almost as bad as the other guy's laugh, but at least the other guy didn't laugh often.

He wasn't laughing now, just going on in that low, insinuating voice. "Initial preparations are complete, Vincent. This building is now ours, and has been modified and equipped as best as I could arrange."

*You did some job,* Persico thought queasily. When they'd first showed him their place last week, it had been just another old long-closed manufacturing concern, one of dozens exactly like it north of the Loop. Lots had been converted into art galleries. Not this one. Persico pictured the half-dozen little rooms, bare, windows boarded over, ring bolts set in the floors and deadbolts on the doors ... the big central chamber that the weirdo had had covered in tile, huge lights hanging from the ceiling above that big table with the black padding ... refrigeration units and portable generators brought in, deep steel sinks installed ... and off in the corner of this room here, left of the huge thronelike chair, the big wooden crate full of chains. Whatever these two were planning, it wasn't locking up a bicycle. Hell, Vinnie didn't WANT to know what they had in mind. Just so long as it didn't involve him.

But the old guy wouldn't stop, voice sliding on leaving words like a snail trail. "We have barely begun, my friend, barely begun. And now it is your turn ... time to repay your debt."

"What the - !" That snapped Vinnie out of his reverie fast. "Debt? What the hell are you blithering about - ?"

In a blur of speed, the bald one pounced around the black chair, fist swinging; the floor leaped up and smacked Vinnie hard in his thin, acne-scarred face. Choking down the urge to cry, rubbing his nose with one hand and his aching left temple with the other, he slowly sat up. His blurry gaze rose from the Doc Martens up the faded jeans and the Nine Inch Nails T-shirt, but stopped before meeting the barracuda grin and watery, gleeful blue eyes below the shaven skull. "Master doesn't like it when you dis him." The words were punctuated with sick giggles.

"Patience, Alec. I understand Vincent's confusion." The son of a bitch was smiling. Could've called off his dog before Vinnie got bit, if he was so goddamned understanding ... "Have I not fulfilled my promise, Vincent? Your operation is now generating twice as much money as before, you obtain merchandise from two hospitals instead of one, and you have six new collaborators."

"Yeah, those poor bastards." Persico painfully regained his feet; most, but not all, of the defiance had leached from his voice. "What'd you do to them - ALL of them, Madge, Jackie, Brian, and Rashid as well as the new bunch? Suck out their brains?" Ever since his pals from the hospital had seen, and been talked into touching, that - that THING ... he himself wouldn't touch it if it turned into Cindy Crawford!

"Don't trouble yourself with things you could not even begin to comprehend." Again that damn high-handed tone. "Now you are to fulfill your part of our bargain. I need - HE needs certain things. Obtain them." He drew a sheet of notebook paper from the pocket of his black jacket. "Here is the list. Alec will help you."

Swell. "And then we'll be quits?"

"When you are finished, I will need no more of you."

Hand quivering only slightly, Persico took the paper. "Okay, Mr. Locke." He ran his eyes over it, then felt them almost bug out of his head. "You want all THIS?! What the hell are you planning to do?"

The other smiled slowly, black eyes glittering in a dead-white face. "Seize the world."

It hadn't taken long to suture the scalp of that thirteen-year-old boy who'd wiped out on his new Rollerblades, and he was going to be fine. Now there seemed to be a gap in the tot parade that was always passing through the Cook County General ER, and Dr. Doug Ross saw his chance to take a break. Maybe Mark would join him for an early lunch, and be interested in hearing his theory.

There he was over by the desk, apparently trying to fill out two patient charts at once. Poor guy needed a little time off - a little time off from his whole life, for that matter. "Hey, Mark!"

The tall, stoop-shouldered young man in faded green scrubs turned up from his paperwork, regarding Ross through big round eyes that his glasses made bigger and rounder. He rubbed his thinning brownish hair with a large, gentle hand, half-smiled, and said, "Hi, Doug. You need me?"

"As a matter of fact, you look like YOU need ME. To take you away from all this." Ross leaned in close and affected a conspiratorial whisper. "Plus I can tell you who's been stealing the supplies."

"Oh, it's you?"

"Very funny, Mr. Chief Resident. Are you interested or aren't you?"

For a moment Dr. Mark Greene scrutinized his bearishly handsome colleague, then said, "Okay, I'm interested. What do you think?"

"Not here." Ross led the other away from the desk toward a vacant examination room before he began. "You know Vinnie Persico? He's a clerk in the pharmacy. Twentysomething, black hair, kind of skinny, spotty face?"

"I sort of know him. Nice kid."

"Not too nice anymore. I've seen him a couple of times in the last week, and he's gotten really jumpy, as if he's afraid of something." Ross thrust his hands into the pockets of his white coat. "Like getting caught."

Greene crossed his arms, leaned back against the examination table, and fixed a skeptical look on the pediatric resident. "Pretty slim evidence, Doug."

"I have more. He doesn't take the El anymore. Been seen driving up on a brand-new Harley."

"So maybe he's been saving his lunch money." Greene hadn't moved.

"Mark, will you let me finish? Someone else down in Pharmacy has been acting strange too: Jackie Hodges on the night shift. Used to be - well, not exactly bright, but perfectly normal. Last week she pretty much stopped talking except for answering questions in monosyllables - and monotone. And she moves around like she's sleepwalking."

Now the other's posture began to loosen. "I didn't know her name, but yes, I noticed how she's changed last time I went to Pharmacy. It's disturbing, but why's it relevant to the thefts - and your suspect?"

"Because I mentioned it to Persico last time I saw him. You know, just 'Hey Vinnie, what do you think's got into Jackie?' He went pale, and kind of stammered out, 'I don't know what you're talking about, Dr. Ross.' I thought that was weird, so I pressed him a bit, and then I said, 'You don't think Jackie knows anything about the stuff we've been missing, do you?' And wouldn't you know it: Vinnie turns even paler, says he's got to go, and scuttles out of the area like a bug."

Greene considered, hands on hips. "I still think there's not much to it; it wouldn't be fair to report him. Still, maybe I should talk to him."

"Maybe WE should talk to him." Ross checked his watch. "We've got a lunch break coming to us. Want to take a little stroll over to Pharmacy?"

Ray Vecchio entered the main doors of Chicago Hope Hospital - then suddenly stopped dead. Behind him, Fraser barely stopped himself in time to avoid running into his companion. "Ray? Is something wrong?"

"What the hell are THEY doing here?"

The RCMP constable followed the other's gaze, picking out an approaching couple. They wore long overcoats over conservative suits. The dark-haired man was tall, but seemed to be shortening his stride for the benefit of the petite redhead with him. A very attractive petite redhead ... but with an expression that was all business. "Do you know them, Ray?"

"Don't have to." Vecchio's lips twisted. "Feds."

Fraser glanced from the detective to the couple and back. "How do you know?"

"You learn to smell 'em. Say, you should be good at it yourself."

Accompanying the two Federal agents were a couple of men that Vecchio made as hospital administrators, or something like that. Now THAT was what he'd come to see. Taking out his shield, he moved to intercept the older one, the bald guy with the beard. "Vecchio, Chicago Police."

The other presented himself as Dr. Phillip Watters, chief of staff, and went on to introduce the hospital's lawyer - and the two damn feds. Scully and Mulder, Special Agents of the FBI. Well, whoop-de-doo. "We got a call about drug thefts," Vecchio began to Watters, pointedly not looking at the feds. "That been made a big bells-and- whistles federal crime yet?"

The guy fed, Mulder, didn't blink. "The drug thefts in question might be connected to a series of murders back East."

"You mind telling me how?" The fed only sort of smiled condescendingly; that REALLY pulled the detective's chain. "Well, let me inform you, Special Agent Mulder, that we are currently also investigating a series of drug and equipment thefts at Cook County General Hospital across town, which if you ask me indicates a pretty local origin for this particular crime ... so why don't you just shuffle off and look for some weird religious cult to persecute?"

The condescending smile stayed. "Been there, done that."

Off to the side Alan Birch sighed his exasperation, then stepped between the two. "Excuse me, but I was under the impression that we're all supposed to be on the same side. So if we could possibly coordinate this effort, maybe it can be wrapped up before anyone else gets hurt." Scully nodded, and caught Birch's eye to smile her gratitude. He pinked a little and stepped back to the safety of his boss' shadow.

Behind Vecchio, Fraser also nodded his agreement. "It really shouldn't be too hard figuring out who has jurisdiction in various aspects of the case."

All eyes were suddenly on him. "Speaking of which," Scully began, "aren't you a bit out of YOUR jurisdiction?"

"I certainly am, ma'am." Politely he touched his hat to her. "Constable Benton Fraser, Royal Canadian Mounted Police."

Scully and Mulder exchanged looks. Best to let it go; there were enough weird questions to answer on the most cut- and-dried X-Files investigation. Why worry about a Mountie with obvious time on his hands?

Vecchio looked around him, reminding an amused Watters of a park pigeon, and announced, "If nobody minds, I've got a crime to solve ... Dr. Watters, can you tell me what was taken?"

"Pharmacy's drawn up a list," Birch answered for the chief, producing and presenting a copy. "And one for you too." Another sheet was passed to Mulder.

Vecchio perused the list, lips pursed thoughtfully. "I know there's a street market in Valium, Demerol, other tranks," he said, "but why the hell would anyone steal antibiotics?"

"Overseas market," Scully replied unexpectedly. Vecchio's eyes shot up; she answered the question in them. "There's a substantial illegal trade with certain interdicted foreign nations. A good share of this missing medicine is probably making its way to North Korea, Libya, and Cuba." Her voice hardened a little. "FBI jurisdiction."

Vecchio didn't answer, just gave her a glare, then said to his unofficial partner, "C'mon, Fraser, let's go talk to the pharmacy people, and then I'd like to head back to Cook County General and see if they've got anything new for us."

"We'd like to come along," said Mulder innocently.

Watters had trouble suppressing a grin. "Good luck on both your investigations. Please let us know if you come up with something."

Tracking down Vinnie Persico took a few minutes. The pharmacist first answered Ross and Greene's query by offering her own help; then she called over another of the clerks. Finally she got the idea that it was Persico, and only Persico, the two residents wanted to see, and she referred them to the refrigerated storage unit, where she'd sent him to do the morning inventory check. "If our pal Vinnie is doing the inventories," Ross observed quietly to his friend as they headed over, "he's got the perfect cover."

Greene didn't comment until they arrived at the storage unit. The door stood about a foot ajar; inside they could see a skinny, pale figure in a loose-fitting service uniform, hands gripping clipboard and pen. "There's your boy, Doug. Maybe I should talk to him first; he deserves the benefit of the doubt."

"Yeah, of course. But don't go TOO easy on him." In single file they stepped into the high, chilly space. Carefully labeled shelves of carefully labeled bottles and IV bags rose to three sides, stark in the fiercely bright flourescent light. Persico himself, his back to the young doctors, could have been just another piece of hospital equipment, except for his trembling. Rubbing his own arms, Greene couldn't blame the guy; it was COLD in here. Well, maybe they could go someplace else to talk. "Hey, Vinnie - "

The thin clerk whirled as if stung; his eyes were wide with fear. "Jesus! Dr. Greene, Dr. Ross, what're you doing here?!"

Ross folded his arms and couldn't resist smirking a little in triumph; the astonished Greene fell back a step. "Lighten up, Vinnie! We just heard something's been bothering you lately, and thought you might welcome a chance to talk about it."

"No, no, everything's fine, guys ... shouldn't you be back in the ER? They'll miss you. I'm doing just fine down here ... "

Something was very, very wrong with him. Persico was backing up like he'd been threatened, and - this was really weird - Greene noticed that the scared eyes weren't looking at him, or at Ross. The rabbit-in-headlights gaze was fastened on something behind them, hidden from the outside by the door. Greene turned around.

His heart stopped. "Doug," he pleaded softly, "whatever you do, don't turn around. Back up out the door, slowly. Please."

Ross froze too, unsure of his next step: turn and look at whatever spellbound Mark, or do as he said ... but then the voice made up his mind for him. "Sorry, Doug, it's too late for that."

Now Ross turned too, turned to the voice that was breaking up into giggles behind them. The man shook with his giggles, his pale eyes burning like white phosphorus, his shaven head and the gun in his hand gleaming under the pitiless light. Behind him on the floor was a sack, half- filled, no doubt with more stolen drugs. Forcing a gap in the giggling, he hissed, "You guys doctors? Doctors' orders: Raise your hands real slow and don't make a sound." The residents exchanged a single glance, then obeyed.

Persico dropped his pen and board, softly moaning, "For God's sake, Alec, don't shoot - they didn't mean any harm - I know them, they're good guys - please!"

"Quit your whining," the other commanded. He came forward, his leather jacket creaking. "I'm not gonna kill them." The giggling started again, around the words, "Master needs some fresh lubricant ... for HIM."

"Oh Christ!" Persico covered his eyes with his hands. "I can get him as many bags as he wants!"

"Fresh is better. Come on, guys. Oh, you can put the hands down now. The gun's going in my pocket, but it's still gonna blow away the first one who makes a move." Pocketing the gun with his finger still caressing the trigger, he pointed to the floor with the free hand. "Drop the beepers." Again Ross and Greene silently obeyed. "Good boys. Okay, Vinnie, grab the bag."

"Alec, it's broad daylight! This hospital's crawling with people - there's no way to get them to the van without being seen! We'll never get away - " Pleading, Persico wrung his hands, seeming about to fall to his knees.

"Shut up and lead the way." Gun hidden, he circled the captives, positioning himself to bring up the rear. "It'll be no problem. Don't you remember what Master said? We're under HIS protection."


"Mmm?" Dr. Susan Lewis raised her eyes to those of Nurse Hathaway. "What is it, Carole?"

"Have you seen Doug or Mark?"

Lewis' brow furrowed. "Come to think of it, I haven't. Not since about eleven. Have you paged them?"

"I tried, but no response. Last I heard, they had gone down to Pharmacy. I'm going down there myself to check ... "

The resident glanced around the emergency room, observing, "It's pretty quiet; I guess we can spare you for a few minutes. Especially if you bring two doctors back. Go ahead." Hathaway hurried off toward the stairs, leaving Lewis to greet a new arrival, a solidly built man, white coat sweeping behind him like a cape. "Good afternoon, Dr. Swift."

Dr. William Swift smiled at her through his beard and said, "Did I just see you dismiss the charge nurse? If she's gone five minutes, the place will fall apart!"

"She won't be gone five minutes. She's just gone to fetch Dr. Greene and Dr. Ross; looks like they've gotten themselves lost in Pharmacy."

Swift looked dubious. "Greene's got a habit of sneaking off shift, as I recall."

"One incident does not a habit make, Dr. Swift."

Now the staff physician smiled inwardly. Lewis' refusal to be intimidated, by him or anyone else, would stand her well in her career. "That's good. Always stick up for a colleague, Susan. So, it seems slow today; can you update me?"

"Let's see." Lewis began going over the log. "GI bleeder admitted at twelve-twenty, stabilized and sent up to surgery - "

Suddenly the stairwell door banged open; Hathaway raced through, something clutched in each fist, her large dark eyes brimming with tears. "Carole?" Swift was at her side at once.

"I think we'd better call the police." The nurse's voice sounded calm, but her hastily gloved hands trembled as she opened them. On each palm rested the crushed remains of a paging device.

"Wish the damn feds would stop tailing us," Detective Vecchio muttered to no one in particular.

Constable Fraser was having trouble keeping up as his companion stormed into Cook County General. "Remember," the handsome Canadian advised, "the FBI does have some jurisdiction in this. They seem perfectly willing to cooperate - "

"Yeah, yeah, cooperate. DC's the murder capital of the USA; can't they find enough to keep them busy there?"

"Murder's usually not a federal crime, Ray."

"Too damn bad."

Right ahead of them at the emergency room desk was the cute charge nurse from their last visit, with an equally cute blonde doctor, and three men of varying ages - one of which, Vecchio wasn't happy to note, was the black guy he'd managed to tick off yesterday. They were talking among themselves very loudly and seemingly all at once ... but as the two police officers (and the Federal agents right behind them) approached and were noticed, the arguing suddenly stopped. The nurse broke off and came straight at them, dark curls flying, exclaiming, "We were just about to call you - I hope you've come in time!"

"Huh? In time for what?" Vecchio and Fraser looked at each other, puzzled; meanwhile the FBI agents noticed the commotion and hurried in behind them.

Now it seemed as if the whole ER staff swarmed around the four officers. Hathaway went on breathlessly, "Detective Vecchio, Constable Fraser, you must remember Dr. Swift, our chief of emergency medicine."

Fraser took the doctor's hand, while Vecchio tried to avoid making a face. *Jeez, another bald guy with a beard,* he observed; *when you get a big title in a hospital, they must send you for a makeover.*

Swift was confronting the other pair now. "Who are you?"

Out came the credentials. "Agent Scully, FBI, and this is Agent Mulder. What happened here, Dr. Swift?"

"FBI? We got lucky!" Lewis whispered to Peter Benton beside her.

"According to Nurse Hathaway here, two of my residents, Mark Greene and Douglas Ross, went down to our pharmacy department about an hour and a half ago. They haven't been seen since ... and she found these." Swift presented the ruined pagers.

Scully looked closely - then suddenly turned to the low, grim sound of her partner's voice, too soft for any ears but hers. "It's begun."

Mark Greene and Doug Ross knew better than to speak. The bony, white-haired man in the black suit leaned forward from the depths of his velvet armchair, peering at them, saying, "What have you brought for me, Alec? Or perhaps these are for HIM?"

"For both of you, Master," answered the bald thug. He had the gun out again; he seemed to enjoy showing it at every chance. It had been hidden in his pocket as he'd herded the two residents out of the hospital and into an unmarked commercial van - no one had even looked at the group twice along the way. But as soon as they were sealed up inside the vehicle, with Persico at the wheel, out came the gun. Once they'd arrived at this nondescript SuHu address and had to be conveyed from the van into the building, the weapon went out of sight again, only to reemerge once inside.

In all that time, neither doctor had spoken. Why risk setting off an obviously unstable, armed captor? They went upstairs quietly, the miserable Persico trailing behind, and were brought here: an old factory-loft room, bare except for a crate in one corner and the other man's overstuffed black throne.

Greene could tell that the man wasn't as old as he looked. His white hair and almost ghostly complexion made a stark contrast to his dark clothes and the soft, inky mass of the chair. On his lap he held a steel basin draped with a white cloth, stroking it as if it were a cat. The young doctor felt cold motion up his spine; Alec looming behind them just might be the picture of mental health compared to his "Master" ...

He rose slowly, placing the basin carefully in the chair exactly where he'd been sitting, and approached his prisoners. "Please allow me to introduce myself," he began, "Professor Christopher Ashton Locke, at your service." He made a mocking bow, then nodded at their guard. "I believe you already know my associate, Mr. Bragg."

But Ross couldn't hold it in anymore. "What do you want with us?" Pent-up defiance spilled out of his voice. "Don't expect ransom; neither of us has a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of."

Locke smiled; his teeth were small, even, and very white. "Rather small-minded of you, Dr. Ross. Money means nothing to me now."

"How do you know my name?"

"HE told me, Doctor. HE tells me all. HE is mine, and I am HIS." Ross swallowed hard and remained silent, and Locke switched his attention to the other. "Welcome, Dr. Greene. I see you don't share your colleague's audacity."

Greene's response was quiet, even resigned. "Whatever you plan to do with us, just get it over with quickly, okay?"

"That won't be possible. Look at me, Dr. Greene. Into my eyes. Look at me!" Greene obeyed, meeting the black orbs, and something deep within him trembled.

Locke broke his gaze from the silent, pale man and addressed Bragg. "He'll do." Next he turned his attention to Ross, who suddenly had the uncomfortable sensation of being stripped, layer by layer: lab coat, shirt, pants, underwear, skin, flesh.

Suddenly Locke's eyes narrowed; he released Ross' gaze and turned a smoldering look at Bragg. "What have you brought?"

"Something wrong, Master?" The big goon suddenly sounded terribly small and helpless; his gun wavered in his hand.

"Something definitely IS wrong, you dolt!" Locke waved a hand at the pediatrician. "HE needs innocent blood, and you bring me this - this drunken reprobate! The other one's acceptable, but THIS man ... " Again hot eyes pinned Ross, then turned away. "Useless. Kill him."

The pediatrician froze in astonishment and terror; Greene gasped and did the only thing he could think of - grabbing for the gun. Bragg easily flung him aside with one sweep of a muscular arm, and leveled the barrel at Ross' face ...

"NO!" It was Persico, scurrying over from the doorway he'd been hovering in. "Don't do it! He's NOT useless, Mr. Locke; you need him!"

Locke restrained his gunman with a lifted finger, switching his attention to the hospital clerk. "Really, Vincent?" he said mockingly. "And what use do I have for this handsome but utterly dissolute young satyr?"

"He's a doctor, sir."

"I know that. So is the other."

"You want the other to - to last, don't you? If Alec cuts him, he'll probably bleed to death inside of an hour. But if Dr. Ross here does it, he can make a slit in just the right place, no risk, and even sew it up afterwards! Much safer. You'll get a lot more ... blood out of him." As he ended his speech, Persico seemed about to vomit - or cry.

But Locke smiled. "You know, my young friend, I do believe you may be right! Very impressive; I didn't think you capable of such creative thinking. Hold your fire, Alec; he lives for now. Vincent, the chains."

Persico forced himself towards the crate in the corner, and came away from it dragging two sets of standard prison leg irons, two loose lengths of chain with small padlocks attached, and a couple of pairs of handcuffs. Locke carefully watched as he secured the prisoners, Bragg's gun assuring that no resistance was offered. "No cuffs for our Dr. Ross; he'll need his hands free to work. Very good. Now, gentlemen, your quarters await." Locke permitted himself a chuckle. "Take them away."

The captive doctors were led down a bare wooden corridor towards one of six plain painted-steel doors studded with heavy deadbolt locks. With Bragg, once again trembling with giggles, covering them, Persico pulled the bolt and swung open the door to what was obviously a makeshift prison cell. The only window was firmly boarded up; a bare ceiling fixture held a single forty-watt bulb; three ring bolts jutted up from the floor.

"Get in," giggled Bragg, poking Greene in the ribs with his gun by way of illustration. Once they did, Persico padlocked the two loose chains through the rings, then fastened one to each man's leg irons.

As he secured their fetters, Persico leaned over to Ross and whispered softly, "I did save your life, Doc."

"Yeah, I guess you did," Ross admitted coolly. "Vinnie, why are you doing this?"

The young clerk sniffled. "Mr. Locke knew I was ripping off the pharmacy ... told me he could build me a big operation if I helped him with a few things." Another sniffle. "I didn't know ... hell, anyone would have gone for it, not knowing!"

But Ross shook his head. "I'm not sure, Vin. Not everyone sells himself as cheaply as that."

"Are you finished, Vincent?" It was Locke, casually striding in to view his henchmen's work.

"Yessir." Persico came almost upright as he scuttled from the cell.

"Thank you; you may go. Hurry back before they miss you at the hospital; under present conditions HE can only cover your tracks for a limited time."

"But what if they question me?" Persico whimpered.

"Don't worry. HE will give you strength - enough to satisfy their hounds, at least." The triumphant black eyes swept the cell like searchlights. "And what have we here? Two of HIS slaves - among the first of billions."

"Slip 'em in here," said Vecchio, holding a plastic evidence bag open to Hathaway to receive the crushed pagers. "It was smart of you to glove up before you took them; now they can be dusted for prints."

"You won't find any but the owners'." It was Mulder, voice casual and utterly sure.

"Yeah? How do you know, Mr. Big Shot Special Agent?"

"Because we were meant to find those pagers. Whoever abducted your residents, Dr. Swift, wants us to know it."

"But why?" asked Swift, eyes troubled. "That's incredibly reckless!"

Mulder crossed over to Vecchio, took the evidence bag, gazed into it as if seeing a vision of the crime. "We're not dealing here with the typical garden-variety mudpuddle of the criminal mind. Our perpetrators obviously feel invulnerable; they're daring us to find them, and absolutely sure that we can't."

Now Benton uttered the question that had occurred to all: "What if they're right?"

There was a moment's uneasy silence before Vecchio shattered it, his voice perhaps a little shrill. "Enough of that FBI psychological-profile crap! What we got here is a drug-theft ring getting caught in the act and making off with the witnesses."

"Which means," Fraser observed, "that we'd better find them before they do away with the witnesses. Where did you find the pagers, Nurse Hathaway?"

"On the floor of the pharmacy's refrigerated storage unit."

"I see. Any more drugs or supplies missing?"

The question took her aback. "You know, I have no idea!"

"That's perfectly understandable, Nurse, given what you DID find missing. Thank you kindly ... Okay, Ray, we'd better get down to the pharmacy and find out if anyone saw anything." But first, the Mountie turned to the two federal agents and said politely, "I assume you will be joining us."

Scully nodded. "Of course, Constable."

Vecchio scowled at his companion all the way there.

Only minutes before, the cell door had slammed and locked; but now Greene and Ross heard the bolt drawn back, and the door yawned open again. Standing there were Bragg, with his handgun; Professor Locke, holding the discreetly draped metal bowl; and a third figure, only vaguely familiar - it took Greene a moment to place him as one of the hospital environmental service workers. He was holding a large glass beaker, a suture pack, some gauze and tape, and a wrapped sterile scalpel, and on his face there seemed to be no expression at all.

Ross looked at him with a sour smile. "Hey, Rashid, how'd you get roped into this? Nice carrot dangled in front of you, too?"

Not only was there no answer, but in the man's eyes was not even the faintest flicker of recognition. For all the reaction he'd given, he might as well have been carved of wood ... both prisoners heard a faint cold whisper of fear.

Locke seemed gratified. "I'm afraid you'll get no satisfaction from him, gentlemen. You see, that specimen is in thrall to HIM, and as such responds only according to my orders."

Suddenly Greene went ashen with a terrible thought. "My God, you called us slaves ... " he gasped.

"Do not be afraid, Dr. Greene - at least, not of THAT. Such a fate is reserved for others who lack a certain level of mental acuity. You and your friend are poor candidates for thralldom; I have other purposes for you." With that, he snapped his fingers. The "thrall" turned his head slowly; Locke pointed hard at Ross. Just as slowly the head turned back and the body moved robotically forward to place the medical tools at Ross' shackled feet. "Impressive, gentlemen, no?" Locke smirked. "Not ideal in terms of speed or versatility, but delivers perfect obedience. Now, Dr. Ross, time to prove I didn't make a mistake in sparing your life. Fill that vessel."

"With what?" Ross growled truculently.

"You don't pick up very quickly, do you? Perhaps I SHOULD make a thrall of you. With Dr. Greene's blood, you ass!"

Now it was Ross' turn to go gray. "What kind of a monster are you?"

"One whose patience is being tried sorely, Doctor!" The fierce black eyes were narrow. "I can always have Mr. Bragg dispose of you and draw the fluid himself, if you prefer." Hearing that, Bragg went into another fit of giggles, and fondled the barrel of his gun.

Greene closed his eyes for a moment, then held out his manacled hands. "It's all right, Doug. I'd rather you did it than he." There was silence as Ross looked at him, considering the bowed head and resigned face. Then, without a word, the pediatrician picked up the blade and brought it against the arm of his friend. Greene winced as the other carefully cut a vein, and made no sound as a crimson stream slowly filled the beaker. Their eyes did not meet, or he would have seen Ross' tears.

An aeon seemed to pass, the silent victim pale and growing paler, before Ross finally looked up at their captor. "This thing's just about full and I don't know how much more he can spare; I'm closing this wound!"

"Very well, Dr. Ross. I trust HE will be satisfied with this for now." Locke himself took the beaker as Ross turned away to clean, suture, and dress the wound he'd made. He did not watch, though Greene did, as the professor drew back the cloth on his ever-present basin and reverently decanted the blood into it. The physicians could only wonder *What in God's name does he have in there?* ... and realize that they didn't really want to know.

Locke nodded to his gunman. "Thanks, guys!" Bragg grunted, slamming and sealing the door of their cell.

Without enemy eyes upon them, Ross slumped forward, hiding his face for shame. "Dear God, Mark, I'm sorry!"

"You don't have to be," Greene whispered weakly. "I know it hurt you more than it did me. Let's listen to them."

Indeed, Locke was going on. " ... the major equipment we need. We'll be able to pick up the team there, too."

"So I don't have to go back to Cook County General anymore?" Bragg asked hopefully.

"I'm afraid you will," came the reply. "One more time ... to claim the subject."

"You found a good one, Master?"

The prisoners couldn't see Locke's icy smile, but heard it in his voice. "A perfect one. A boy, one of the medical students from the university, serving in their emergency room."

The fear puddled in Greene's guts; he glanced at his friend. Ross was listening intently now, head up, dread in his eyes as he heard Bragg ask, "What's he look like?"

"Like a pleasant dream, Alec. Slender and handsome, dark hair and eyes, open face, sunny disposition. Best of all ... " Locke paused, savoring the thought, "daisy-fresh, tender as a lamb and just as innocent - exactly what HE wants!"

"Oh, God." Greene again turned to Ross. "You know who he means, don't you, Doug?"

The reply came in a horrified whisper. "Carter."

"What on earth is the matter with these people?" Dana Scully muttered to her partner. "The whole shift seems to be walking in fog! No one remembers seeing the missing men down here, no one is sure whether or not they talked to them, no one knows if anyone was in the cold storage unit!"

"Yeah, really," Vecchio grunted in reluctant agreement. "No one except the spotty guy, what's his name - "

"Persico," Mulder said, ignoring the detective's glare. "And he claims that he just took the cold storage inventory and left for his break without seeing anyone."

The Mountie looked like he'd rather be pacing the hallway than standing in it, but was too disciplined to do so. "Even the head pharmacist herself seems completely confused about it. How can they do their jobs in such a state? What are the chances of the wrong drug or concentration getting to a patient?"

Mulder scanned all their faces before speaking in his usual calm tone. "Extremely high - IF this kind of confusion is the rule. Which is very unlikely."

"And how do YOU know?" Vecchio grumbled.

The federal agent forced the other to meet his eyes. "Do you really think a major hospital would put up with this sort of thing for more than about fifteen minutes? The whole pharmacy department would be sacked the moment any administrator suspected something was wrong."

"The drug thefts weren't reported for a couple of weeks!"

"That's easier to cover up than a whole shift acting like they're sampling the wares themselves."

"Which raises another question!" Fraser broke in suddenly. "What's causing it? Is mass intoxication even possible?"

"Theoretically it is," replied Scully. "Through a containment breach on a psychoactive substance that can be absorbed osmotically through the skin, that is then touched by the victims."

"Okay," said Mulder evenly. "Name such a drug, Dr. Scully. One with a powerful effect when absorbed in minute quantities - and that only on memory and awareness of a single event." They all stared at him; unruffled, he explained himself. "I quizzed the pharmacist and two clerks on a couple of questions unrelated to the disappearances."

Vecchio leaned heavily against the wall and rolled his eyes. "Yeah? Like what?"

"The anesthetics most frequently requested for gallbladder surgery and the Cubs' prospects for the pennant. Answers were focused, tight and aware."

"Yeah, well ANYONE could be on target about the Cubs' chances: exactly zip!"

"Fine. Got anything to say about gallbladder surgery anesthesia, Detective Vecchio?" No answer, and Mulder continued. "I'd like to question some of the other staff, especially the nurses, as to whether they've seen this behavior in the pharmacy staff at other times. The answer is likely to be 'No'."

"And if it is," said Scully skeptically, "then what's causing their confusion now?"

"I don't know, Scully."

"Yeah, go ahead, pester the nurses," Vecchio grunted. "Benny, how about you and me talking to that kid Persico again? He's the only one who seems to know anything; he could know more than he's letting on."

Fraser considered for a moment before replying. "If you don't mind, Ray, I'd like to try getting permission to bring Diefenbaker in here. Maybe he can pick up a scent."

Billy Kronk stretched his lean denim-clad limbs and shook dampened hair as he stepped from the men's locker room in Chicago Hope's surgical wing. The night shift had been hell on a plate, especially when the chopper dropped that accident victim at three AM. It had taken until after nine to save her ... time well spent. Kronk hadn't bothered to go home, and simply crashed in the on-call room for a few hours. Then he'd assisted Geiger with that triple bypass, and there had been complications adding yet more time to the surgery. At least he could leave now ... hockey practice this afternoon was out of the question. Better just to pick up his equipment and head out.

The scrubs and the white coat were away for now; the hockey uniform awaited ... Kronk sauntered down the hall to its hiding place. At first he'd left his equipment in the locker room on those days he expected to go straight from the hospital to the rink, but a few of the other surgeons had complained. (Bunch of damn overpaid prima donnas.) So today he'd tucked the stuff into the equipment storage space between ORs One and Two. No damage done, no one had bitched yet ... but give them time.

A couple of figures were visible in the darkened room as Kronk swung the door open. Techs, probably. Funny that they hadn't turned the lights on. Kronk did it for them.

Funnier that the two men didn't even look up as the lights flashed into life. One just kept moving along the shelves, tossing instruments into a bag; the other slowly, carefully wheeled a bypass unit towards the door, seemingly oblivious of the doctor. Mystified as he was by them, it took Kronk a moment to notice that they weren't technicians, but wore the uniform of Environmental Services. Janitors? "Hey, where are you going with the pump?" Kronk demanded.

No answer. Again, neither even looked at him. Weird. Kronk swung into the room and placed himself firmly in the path of the man pushing the heart-lung machine. "Hey, I'm talking to you! Where the hell do you think you're going with the pump?"

Something hard - human muscle - slammed across Kronk's throat. His cry choked off, the surgeon fell back against a rock-solid body. His hands rose, locked on the throttling arm across his windpipe, pushed with all he had; the arm gave a millimeter's way, and Kronk sucked air - suddenly something wet and cold pressed onto his face, and he sucked a familiar, terrifying stench: ether. Fear pulsed through him, fueled a massive, panicked thrust that broke the unseen enemy's grip ... Kronk stumbled forward, collapsed to one knee, his cry aborted to a groan. The sound was answered by a crackle of psychotic giggling, and then the ether-soaked cloth clutched his mouth and nose again to turn the world black.

Ray Vecchio walked swiftly through the alley towards an unmarked gray door set low in the shadowed side of the hospital. Used mostly for deliveries and the like, he'd been told. Opening to the lowest level. Easy to miss. Rarely guarded. Probably used by the supply thieves and the abductors - no doubt the same people.

There were Fraser and his pet, waiting for him as promised. The Mountie looked up as his friend approached, tried to smile and said, "Hi, Ray. Did you learn anything else from Mr. Persico?"

Vecchio grunted. "I learned that the little weasel's hiding something. Matter of fact, I'm sure he knows the whole story upwards, downwards and sideways ... but I've got no grounds for holding him!" Fraser nodded for him to go on. "I start with a few general questions about himself, just getting going, you know - and the kid is squirming like there's a big lizard stuck in his pants. Then I move on to specifics, start talking about the kidnapping. Wouldn't you know it, suddenly butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. Not nervous at all. Get off the subject, and he gets hit with another attack of stuttering copophobia!"

Fraser considered. "Just about the exact opposite of what you might expect. That's very strange."

"What it is, is creepy. I just wish I had an excuse to bring him in and give him a once-over down at the station house ... So, how's your furry friend doing?" Vecchio looked down at the animal. "Won't they let you bring him in?"

"Well, I DID get permission. But ... " the handsome face twitched with embarrassment, "he's got a problem of his own."

Now both officers regarded Diefenbaker, mystified. The great white wolf of the North, fearless by nature and devoted to Fraser by choice, was now crouched at their feet, tail tucked firmly between legs, trembling as if lying on ice. "What's with him?"

"I don't know, Ray. But he won't go in. I've never seen him so scared!"

"Did you try a different door?"

"We did, but as soon as we started getting close to the pharmacy area, he panicked and tore back out the way we came." Fraser shook his head. "Whatever he's afraid of, and I can't imagine what it is, he won't be tracking those men for us." He bent down to give his pet a comforting stroke, and was answered with a soft-eyed, apologetic look and a puppylike whine of fear.

"Back to square one," said the detective with a shrug. Hearing footsteps, he looked up. "Oh, jeez."

Fraser looked in the direction of Vecchio's glance to see Agents Mulder and Scully approaching. "Good afternoon," he said. "Were the nurses any help?"

"I'm not sure," said Scully, with a side look at her partner.

He took up the thread. "As I expected, they report no previous instances of confusion or memory lapse in the pharmacy staff," Mulder stated. "However, the head nurse volunteered the information that two pharmacy clerks and two members of the custodial staff seem to have undergone profound personality changes very recently - within the last week."

"What kind of changes?" the Mountie pressed.

Scully's turn. "Becoming unusually silent and uncommunicative, simultaneously oddly docile. And interestingly, all four of the people in question didn't show up for work today." She looked up at Mulder. "It's the best we can get. We have names and addresses - "

She cut herself off as Mulder's cellular phone squealed for attention. He pulled it out, snapped it open; "Agent Mulder." Silence as he listened. "We'll be right there, Dr. Watters!"

"Mulder? What is it?"

His face was grim. "Another abduction, same MO: smashed pager found on the floor of a storage area where the victim was going. Equipment also missing. At Chicago Hope. Let's go."

"Hey, not without us!" snapped Vecchio, and four law officers - and a much-relieved wolf - were on their way.

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