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Skinner stretched his legs as much as possible, trying to get comfortable. A smile and a kind word plus the use of his FBI photo identification at the check-in desk had gotten him a complimentary upgrade to business class, but the window seat was still a little cramped for a man of his size. He was glad not to have had to spend a six hour plus flight sandwiched into an economy seat, which as far as he could tell was designed to fit a malnourished midget.
He'd managed a couple hours of sleep after the flight attendants darkened the cabin only to wake when they began to move about again, preparing to serve breakfast. He pulled the pillow away from the cabin wall and looked out the porthole. The sky was brightening, the dawn accelerated by their west-to-east journey. The light showed pure and clear, undimmed by clouds or the thicker atmosphere below. Up here he could almost believe in a world untroubled by betrayal, violence and perversion.
The man next to him in the aisle seat was awake; Skinner stood and moved by him with a murmured apology. In the restroom he relieved himself, washed his hands, rinsed out his mouth, grimacing at the heavy taste of chlorine, and splashed some cold water on his face. He groped for paper towels and, after drying himself, stared at his reflection in the mirror. What am I doing here? he asked himself, for the hundredth time. What do I want?
"You sorry son of a bitch," he growled softly at his mirror image, watching his jaw clench. "You know damn well what you want." But his mind skittered on the edge of his desire and refused to fully acknowledge it.
Upon landing at Heathrow he waited for most of the others to deplane, then pulled his small carry-on from the overhead bin, accepted his leather jacket from the flight attendant, and followed a throng of equally weary fellow travelers down the jetway and through the terminal to baggage claim. Despite his deliberate delay, there were no bags yet to be seen on the carousel. He leaned against a wall and waited, noticing the presence of well-armed security guards. Nothing unusual, he knew; the IRA had given the Brits years more experience in terrorism prevention than the Americans. He occupied himself while waiting for his bag by attempting to identify the plainclothes security supplementing their more obvious colleagues. Focused on the movements of those on the other side of the room, he was startled by the voice of a man who had ghosted up beside him.
"Good morning, sir. Please keep your hands where I can see them."
Skinner felt an eyebrow rise.
"Airport security. May I see your identification, please?"
He looked over to the tall, fair-haired man dressed much as he, in khakis, sport shirt and jacket. The man pulled open his jacket slightly, revealing a photo ID and badge clipped to his shirt pocket. "Certainly," Skinner said. "It's in my inside breast pocket. Maybe you'd like to remove it yourself."
"Thank you, sir. If you would just open your jacket and show me the pocket?"
Moving slowly, Skinner folded back his jacket. The man looked carefully. "Thank you," he said again. "Now please remove your identification, and hand it to me."
The man reviewed his passport and FBI ID and then visibly relaxed. "Sorry to have troubled you, Mr. Skinner," he said, passing the documents back.
Skinner's eyebrow lifted again, this time in amusement. "What triggered the alert?"
"Your surveillance of the area. Ordinary travelers don't look about in exactly that way. Terrorists do, though."
"And law enforcement personnel."
"Quite." The man extended his hand. "Andrew Davis," he said. "Working special airport security today, but also of the Metropolitan Police."
Skinner clasped Davis's hand. "Good to meet you, Andrew. Moonlighting?"
"I've got a wife, three kids, and a sick mum who needs private doctors. So I take four shifts a month here."
They looked out together over the area in mutual bonhomie. "Visiting England on holiday?" Davis asked.
"In a way." Skinner explained about Mulder's involvement with Scotland Yard.
Davis nodded. "The Battersea Killer case is what they're calling it in the papers. An ugly business, that."
"My friend is very good at what he does, but the work is hard on him. Since I was taking some vacation time anyway, I thought I'd spend it here, keep an eye on him."
"Take him away for a pint from time to time," Davis suggested.
"Yeah. Drag him into a museum, maybe." The conveyor belt began to move, adding its rumble to the rest of the background noise, and the first bags emerged. "Might I run into you again, at Scotland Yard?"
"Unlikely. I'm stationed at Ealing. A western suburb, not far from here," Davis added, seeing Skinner's incomprehension.
"Well, then." Skinner glanced once more to the baggage carousel. "I see that my bag's here."
"Enjoy your stay. And tell your friend--good luck."
Skinner collected his suitcase and cleared customs. After finding an automated teller machine and drawing some cash, he considered taking the Tube or the Airbus but finally opted for the comfort of a taxi. He gave the driver his hotel information and settled back into the capacious seat of a traditional black cab. The scenery between the airport and the central city was much as he remembered it from years before, on a whirlwind four-day vacation with Sharon: industrial ugliness and too much traffic.
It took nearly an hour to reach the hotel. Skinner paid the shockingly large taxi fare, waved off a bellman, and carried himself and his baggage to the desk. The clerk confirmed his reservation and accepted his credit card. "I see that you requested early check-in and your room is, indeed, ready for you."
Skinner was grateful that he would not be forced to spend the next six hours in yesterday's clothes, sleep-deprived, wandering around central London waiting for the usual two o'clock check-in time.
"Your colleague, Mr. Mulder, requested that you be assigned a room next to his."
Skinner looked up from his registration paperwork. He had been unsuccessful in reaching Mulder directly the day before, and finally he had faxed his itinerary to the hotel with a request to slip it under Mulder's door. This was the first indication he'd had that Mulder had received it. "Unfortunately, both of those rooms are occupied," the clerk continued. "Your room is across the hallway."
"That will be fine."
The clerk looked again at his computer screen. "A package has been left for you. One moment, please, sir." He disappeared through a door behind the desk and returned holding a large flat envelope. He handed it across the counter along with the envelope containing the room key card. "May I call a porter for you, Mr. Skinner?"
"No, that won't be necessary."
"Very well," the clerk said, glancing at the bell station and shaking his head slightly. He turned back to Skinner and delivered a well-practiced smile. "Enjoy your stay, sir."
In many years of mostly business travel, Skinner had developed a hotel room routine. Once inside his room dropped his bags at the foot of the bed, then returned to the door and confirmed that the security deadbolt was working. He stepped into the small bathroom and flushed the toilet. The tank refilled and the water shut off. He looked at the sink; the drain area was dry, which meant that the faucets didn't drip. He turned on the sink taps and confirmed the presence of hot and cold water. The shower worked and the pressure was adequate. Back in the bedroom, he turned on and off every lamp and the television. The phone had a dial tone. The bedside clock displayed the correct time. He stepped over to the under-window climate control unit. Both the air conditioning and the heat were working. He sat on the bed. Firm mattress, no lumps or sags.
The room having passed muster, Skinner unpacked his bags and stowed the empty cases on the closet floor. Then he sat back down on the bed and opened the envelope he'd been given at the front desk. He pulled out a misfolded London Transport map, a well-thumbed, yellowed copy of the A to Z street guide, the current issue of Time Out magazine, a key card, and a note from Mulder, written on hotel stationery:
Those overnight flights are killers. If your room's not ready, feel free to sack out in mine.
I've been spending a lot of time in Battersea, but I can't say I recommend it as a happenin' tourist spot. Plenty of ideas in the "Time Out" mag. Carry the "A to Z" with you at all times; trust me--you'll need it.
The hotel food's not bad and the coffee's drinkable, but just barely. There's a Starbucks nearby; ask the concierge for directions.
You can reach me at Scotland Yard. Ask for Detective Inspector Jenkins or Detective Sergeant Patel. They'll know where to find me.
The gritty feeling in his eyes reminded Skinner that his body thought it was the middle of the night. A nap sounded like a great idea. Maybe when he woke, he'd have a clue about what to do next. First, though, he wanted to wash away the grime of travel. He showered, brushed his teeth, threw on a pair of sweats and crawled into bed, and was asleep in minutes.
It was the telephone that woke Skinner. "Mulder?" he asked groggily.
"I did it again. Shit, I'm sorry."
"What time is it?"
"A.M. or P.M.?"
"One forty-five in the afternoon."
"Yes, Walt, it's Saturday." Mulder sounded amused. "Go back to sleep."
"It's okay. If I don't get up now I'll never sleep tonight." Skinner sat up, rubbed a hand over his face and reached for his glasses. "So what's going on with your Battersea Killer?"
"You read the papers already? Very impressive."
"No, someone at the airport told me. Never mind, it's a long story."
"These are odd killings, Walt. The kids aren't touched sexually. No penetration, no semen or saliva on or near the bodies. And although they're beaten before death, he's not aiming to torture them. The pattern of abuse isn't deliberate enough. Whatever he's wanting from these children, it's not to watch them suffer and it's not to have sex with them."
"Unless he can't get it up, and that makes him angry."
"I don't think so. This case doesn't fit any standard profile very neatly. Despite the mixed characteristics, I think he's likely to be a missionary type, like the case in Texas a few years ago, remember?"
"The Schultz case? He killed Mexican illegals working as nannies because they took jobs away from Americans."
"That's the one. I just can't figure out the mission this time. These kids are too different from one another. Two are black, one Asian. The rest are white. The age range is pretty wide. Most are boys, but two are girls. They didn't all live in the same neighborhood or attend the same school. And the thing with the puppies is totally out of left field. Kittens and puppies are often used as lures, especially with young children, but the perps don't usually leave them with the kids afterwards."
"If the kids don't have anything in common, maybe the puppies do."
"Maybe. We're working that angle now. The puppies were all about the same age. Barely weaned, about six weeks old."
"So maybe your guy is a dog breeder."
"Doubt it. All mutts. But I'll bet he's involved with dogs in some way. Veterinarian, maybe, or a groomer."
"So what's the plan?"
"We've been reinterviewing the parents and the neighbors, and looking again at the scenes where the bodies were found, and I'm working the files, trying to pick up on a link. Just the usual. So, tell me, Walt, did Scully send you to babysit me?"
"She was ready to put herself and the baby on a plane until I reminded her that he doesn't have a passport."
"How are they?"
"They're fine. Scully's worried about you, though."
"She didn't happen to send any of my clothes along with you, did she? I packed for a three-day trip and I've been here a week and a half."
"It never occurred to either of us," Skinner said. "You want me to pick you up some socks and underwear, a couple of shirts?"
"No, thanks, I already took care of that. What I really could use is another suit. Not something you can just pull off the rack for me, though."
There was the sound of voices in the background, and Mulder said, "I gotta go. I don't know what time we'll be through tonight, but you want to have breakfast tomorrow?"
"Sure. And hey, Mulder?"
"I know the nights are tough. The offer still stands. If you want to talk, call, or knock on my door. I'm across the hall."
"I will. Thanks."
For the rest of that weekend, and on into Monday, Skinner pretended to be a tourist. Late Saturday afternoon he walked over to the West End and went from box office to box office until he'd secured a ticket for a performance that evening. The play, a drama, would never be hailed as a triumph of modern theater and indeed was scheduled to close. Under normal circumstances Skinner would have enjoyed himself regardless, but this evening he found that he could barely keep his focus on the action on the stage. He walked back to the hotel and went to bed, expecting the phone to ring sometime in the middle of the night, but it remained silent.
On Sunday morning, as they had agreed, he met Mulder in the hotel dining room for breakfast. Over smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, they discussed the progress of the case. Skinner was interested only insofar as wrapping it up would mean that Mulder might have a chance to look a little less like a zombie from "Night of the Living Dead," and as soon as he could he diverted the conversation from the Battersea Killer to Mulder himself.
"Did you get any sleep last night?"
Mulder frowned, as if he were not pleased to be the focus of attention. "A couple of hours."
"Not enough, Mulder." He pulled out his special arsenal. "You know Scully'll have my hide if you get sick."
"Yeah, mine too. She's fierce, isn't she? Be afraid, be very afraid." He grinned, but the smile never reached his eyes. "I don't sleep well when I'm profiling, Walt. But I bet Scully already told you about that."
"Yes, she did. And so did you; you mentioned nightmares when you called the other night. Isn't there anything that helps?"
"Sure. Solving the case and getting the perp out of my head. Nothing else works, and believe me, I've tried it all. Warm milk, soothing music, whiskey, sleeping pills, background television, hot baths, none of it stops them. So anyway," Mulder said, obviously intent on changing the topic, "what are your plans for today?"
At Mulder's suggestion he traveled to Greenwich and visited the Cutty Sark and the Maritime Museum. As at the theater the previous evening, he was unable to fully appreciate the experience, for his thoughts kept turning to Mulder. When he found himself passing the same exhibit for the third time, he called it quits and headed back.
On his way to the bus stop he stopped at the craft market and wandered from stall to stall remembering, with a painful nostalgia, how much Sharon had enjoyed places like this. He bought a hand-carved wooden rattle for William and a box of handmade soaps for Scully, each little cake smelling pleasantly of a different herb or flower and each one wrapped in a different handmade paper and tied with a twist of straw. At a wood turner's stall a small cherry bowl with a beautiful luster and a natural bark edge caught his eye. The bowl's irregular shape and fine grain were aesthetically very pleasing, he decided. The artisan had brought out the hidden quality of the wood. Rough edged, quirky, and beautiful inside. Just like Mulder, he thought, and bought the expensive piece without hesitation.
Mulder was not in his room when Skinner returned to the hotel before dinner. At the suggestion of the concierge he dined at a local pub that featured its own brews and simple but good food. By eleven, Mulder still had not returned and Skinner, whose habits had always been of the "early-to-bed-and-early-to-rise" variety, went to bed.
Some time later, he awoke with a start. Something had disturbed him, but he wasn't sure what. He lay in the dark for a moment, listening, and then he heard it--a light tapping on the door. By the time he got out of bed and opened the door; Mulder had apparently given up and was halfway back through his own door.
"Mulder," he called softly.
Mulder, dressed as he was himself in a pair of sweat pants and a tee shirt, turned back to him. Even at the distance of six feet or more, and without his glasses, Skinner could see that he was sweaty and trembling.
"Hang on a minute, buddy," he said. "I'll be right there." He could see Mulder nod, and with that response Skinner felt free to retrieve his glasses, card key and, after a moment's thought, the extra blanket from his closet.
In Mulder's room he discovered the lights blazing and Mulder sitting on the edge of his bed, arms resting on his thighs and breathing as hard as he might after a fast run. "Nightmare?" he asked, crossing to the bed and draping the spare blanket around Mulder's shoulders. "Want to talk about it?" He sat down beside him and laid a hand tentatively on his arm.
Mulder shook his head. "It's already mostly gone. The details, anyway. Not the fear." He took a deep breath, and Skinner could see him try to will the trembling to stop. "It's always this way. It would be easier if I could remember the details once I woke up. They'd be more . . . rebuttable . . . that way."
Skinner said nothing, grounding Mulder to reality with his presence and light touch alone, and before long his breathing eased and his trembling stopped. Skinner stepped over to the small dresser and found another tee shirt in the top drawer. "Here," he said, handing it to Mulder. "This one's dry." While Mulder changed he turned off the overhead light and the one by the bed, leaving on the lamp by the small armchair in the corner of the room. "Why don't you lie down, try to go back to sleep," he suggested. "I'll stay for a while, if you want."
Mulder didn't say anything but laid down on his side, drawing Skinner's blanket more closely around him. Skinner pulled the bedclothes over him, resisting an urge to run his hand over the tousled head, and reluctantly removed himself to the armchair. A P.D. James novel on the floor nearby reminded him of Mulder's comment, a few nights earlier, about Adam Dalgliesh. Though he'd read this particular novel already, he opened it again, hoping to distract himself with the author's elegant prose.
"Thanks, Walt." Mulder's voice was quiet, and calm.
Skinner looked up. "Close your eyes, Mulder. Go to sleep." To his joy, he heard nothing of the commanding tone of the office in his voice; to his greater joy, Mulder visibly relaxed, sighed almost inaudibly and closed his eyes. He turned back to his reading and twenty minutes later, when Mulder's light snoring told him he was finally sleeping relatively soundly, he put the book aside, took up his card key and returned to his own room.
The next morning, at breakfast, they didn't speak of the incident. Mulder departed for Scotland Yard and Skinner for the British Museum, and they didn't connect again all day. That evening there was no answer to his knock on Mulder's door, and as he prepared for bed Skinner hoped that tonight Mulder would enjoy a relatively peaceful night's sleep.