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The Gamble - with Storm













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What do you do if you gamble a hand you can't afford to lose?
















A slightly overweight man stepped into the bright halo of light beneath the bank's overhanging roof. Reaching into the pocket of his jeans, he withdrew a worn leather wallet. He rifled through a thick packet of cards while the occasional car or truck rumbled along the street behind him. The correct plastic rectangle in hand, he thumbed it into the slot, his eyes following the display as the ATM dutifully asked for language and PIN. The machine flashed its display with a quick graphic of the bank's logo and then settled on a simple welcome: "Hello, Zachary Newton!"

Said customer was suitably unimpressed, allowing an escaping yawn to express his boredom. While waiting for the mechanism to dispense his cash, he took off his horn-rimmed glasses and cleaned them on the hem of his tie dyed tee shirt. Absently, he reached back to toy with the long, mousy brown braid that trailed down his back, its thick plait falling below a balding pate.

When the machine finally whirred to life, he collected the bills, but before he could tuck the money into his wallet, he convulsed, yelping in pain.

Newton whirled, clutching his shoulder. A long strip of twisted metal was embedded in his flesh, blood blossoming out from the wound. Newton yanked the crude knife free, muttering, "Shit!" as the blood flowed more freely. Newton's eyes darted around the dark perimeter of the porch, even glancing upward briefly. He frowned, unable to identify either a living assailant or any structural failure that could have launched – or dropped – the mangled steel into his upper back.

Something screamed behind him, a chilling distortion of a human voice. His peripheral vision caught just a glimpse of a horribly disfigured woman, her skin maligned by red and blistering burns, gray-white pustules, and dark scabs that marked deep wounds. Her lips were largely eaten away, exposing big segments of her teeth and gums, and her eyelids were missing. The macabre creature lunged at Newton, who backed away in horror.

He never stopped to look in the direction he stumbled. His eyes merely bugged when the awful, tragic figure opened her mouth, wailing, "Nooooo-o-o-o-o!!!" just before she winked out of existence.

But it was the trio of equally maimed companions who together besieged Newton, swarming around him, their makeshift weapons flashing anew with each deadly stroke. Leprous arms stabbed shards of metal and glass into their victim's torso. There was shimmer, and the two perversions of humanity became four, then seven. Two of the first group blinked away to be replaced by one, and the numbers continued to fluctuate, until the shifting mob was leaping and cackling with psychotic glee.

Finally the ghastly assailants melted away entirely, leaving the man to stare sightlessly up at the high stucco ceiling. The visciousness of the attack had splashed a gruesome pointillism over the pale finish, an abstract portrait of mindless violence. Newton's body was shredded from shoulders to hips, his tattered entrails strung over the sidewalk. The gory strings spelled, "We won't go to hell without taking hostages along for the ride!"

J E Hoover Building
1 p.m.

Scully sat staring at her banana and cup of yogurt, her thoughts occupied with the events of a week ago. The day she had felt the odd sensation of a man’s hand delving into her chest. Although she and Mulder had been covered in her blood, her body was left unmarked.

She shuddered and picked up her spoon. The Milagro charm had been found in the young writer’s apartment, and she had taken it, not really knowing why. Perhaps it served to remind her of a truth she had recalled that week.

That she was a woman, and there were a lot of men who saw her that way.

Mulder rushed into the office, breaking into her reverie like a wave crashing over her head, and she blinked, dipping her spoon into the yogurt and tasting it, the flavor never really registering as she watched Mulder greet her and flip open a case file. He had obviously found something that excited him. His passion for his work was a sight to behold, thrilling her anew each and every time it surfaced.

“Listen to this, Scully! A man was attacked while using his ATM last night. Several witnesses saw him being cut repeatedly and bludgeoned to the ground.”

Scully swallowed her yogurt. “And?” she asked, knowing that there had to be more.

Mulder smiled. “And, Agent Scully, they said they saw these monstrous apparitions, and they were visible and not visible, alternately.”

Scully pushed her cup away and leaned back in her seat, casually peeling her banana. “What do you mean, Mulder? Alternately?”

“What they saw was this Zachary Newton being cut with an object and beaten to the ground by apparition-like beings that kept fading in and out.”

Scully’s banana stuck in her throat, and she rose from the chair and walked to the water cooler, pouring a good amount of the refreshing liquid into her paper cup and drinking it before turning to her partner. He was loading the VCR.

“Watch this bank surveillance tape,” he said, turning it on and stepping back, the remote in his hand.

Scully stood beside him, watching in fascination as a middle-aged, balding man with a long braid down his back turned from the ATM machine as he was hit with a jagged piece of metal. He began screaming and trying to protect himself as other gashes and cuts began miraculously appearing all over his body. He staggered to his knees, trying in vain to cover his head as blood splattered everywhere, including onto the camera lens. It was a horrifying thing to watch, but what held Scully riveted was the odd ghost-like beings that multiplied and alternately disappeared on the screen. When the scene was over, Mulder turned to Scully, hands casually resting on his hips.

“What do you think of that? Amazing, huh?”

Scully pursed her lips. “Definitely strange.” She took the folder from him and looked it over, but found nothing from which she could draw a logical explanation. “Are we going to go look at the scene?”

“I thought we might,” he replied, grabbing his jacket. Scully drank the rest of her water and picked up her blazer off the back of her chair, following Mulder out of the office.

On the car ride there, Scully tried unsuccessfully to explain away the strange beings they had seen on the video tape. Mulder countered her every argument, so she finally fell silent and soon felt her thoughts wandering again to Philip Padgett and the interest he had shown in her. Scully knew full well that the strong draw she had felt for him sprung fully from the way he had looked at her. She was wary of him after finding out he had been watching her for so long, yet his unwavering gaze had told her that she was the most interesting and beautiful woman he had ever seen. It had been so long since she had felt that way, and she had to admit that she missed it. In his presence she had been a sexual creature again, rather than a genderless agent and doctor, trying to keep her footing in a man’s world.

She tried to shake herself out of her reverie, but instead recalled her breakdown in Mulder’s apartment when she had regained consciousness after being violently attacked. She felt annoyed with herself for being so weak, although she knew that Mulder would never hold it against her. She had been feeling so vulnerable of late, and Mulder’s insistent loyalty to Agent Fowley hadn’t helped matters. Scully felt certain that the woman wasn’t to be trusted, and was incredibly chagrined that he refused to consider it. Mulder. The man who looked behind every bush and with whom no one was above suspicion.

A warm anger simmered deep within her, and Scully tried to force it away. She didn’t want to think like this. She didn’t want to care so much.

Mulder pulled the car into a space about ten feet from the area that was ribboned off with police tape and the two agents stepped out of the car and into the warm afternoon sun.

The uniformed man who met them wasn't a police officer, and for a moment, Scully had a hard time breathing. The tall, slender stranger could have walked straight from the pages of her dreams. He smiled, and she decided it was official; nobody on earth had the right to look that good. A dozen or so medals adorned his navy jacket, and even after years of living in a civilian world, Scully recognized the signs of his rank. "Lieutenant Commander – ?" Had her mouth formed that word, and achieved it without squeaking? It sounded like her voice.

"Domingo," he replied easily. "Paul Domingo, Naval Intelligence. And no matter what you've heard, the two expressions aren't oxymorons. You the Siamese twins sent by the FBI?" He gave Mulder a courteous nod, but his rich brown eyes lingered on Scully.

Mulder was in turn staring at the dark stain that still marred the pavement underfoot. Even with all of the industrial cleaners available to the bank, nothing could hide the fact that a man had died on this spot. For a moment, a chill settled over Scully as the reality set in. She'd seen dozens, maybe hundreds of cadavers, and yet knowing she stood precisely where a man had drawn his last breath...

"Miss? Miss, are you all right?"

Scully jumped when Domingo's hand touched her shoulder. If someone had handed her a live electrical wire, she didn't think it would have carried the current of that simple gesture. She stammered, "I – I'm fine. Thank you." She felt her face flush under his unhurried scrutiny. Her eyes flicked briefly to Mulder, a second's guilt evaporating when she realized he was absorbed in the ATM's camera. Her partner was calculating the angle of the camera in relation to the fallen man and the attackers.

"This is a pretty gruesome murder, even for someone who's used to dealing with murders," Domingo replied gently. "There's no shame in being shocked. A man died here, right where we're standing. That's a pretty powerful situation, no matter how you slice it."

She snapped to attention, his reassurance reminding her of who she was. "Thank you, Sir. Murders are never a pretty business, no matter how many you see. I'm Special Agent Dana Scully, and this is my partner, Fox Mulder." She gestured in the general direction of Mulder, who was still focused exclusively on the elements of the crime. Her male counterpart waved vaguely back. "Has the victim been autopsied?"

"Nope. Newton was working with the Navy, but only in a civilian capacity. Our boys requested the slice and dice orders, but the local PD wanted an outside opinion. I think they're scared. This is the third mysterious, violent killing in less than a month, in a town of a little over thirty-five hundred. Even as close as they are to DC, they hardly ever see murder in this little corner of paradise."

The wind picked up, tugging at the woman's rich titian mane, tossing it into her face. She brushed it back absently, blushing again when she realized that Domingo was watching the movements of her hand as though it were performing some grand ballet. Scully drew a breath, willing her heart to slow. When, exactly, had it doubled its beat?

"You said Mr. Newton was working with the Navy. Do you believe his death was an attempt to sabotage whatever project he was working on?" Mulder's even baritone was almost like a physical blow, bringing her quickly back down to earth.

Domingo tilted his head. "I suppose it's possible. Pretty damned unlikely, though, since the project had already been scrapped. It had been tested once, was a dismal failure, and Newton and the rest of the team was thrown back to square one. The details are classified, of course." The lieutenant commander's jaw worked, his tension coming through loud and clear. Guilt or anger, Scully wondered. One way or the other, this gorgeous Latino man was extremely unhappy.

"Classified. Of course," Mulder echoed drily.

Scully and Mulder moved through the usual routine, getting all of the facts and rechecking each one as much as they could. Domingo stayed with them for half of the three hours they were there, shaking Mulder’s hand when he left and squeezing Scully’s warmly when she offered her own. Had that been her imagination? The way his eyes locked with hers and he said softly, "Our paths will surely cross again before this is all over."

She composed herself as his car drove away, forcing herself back to the task at hand. One thing she knew for certain; she had not felt this way in a long time. Kind of like she was in college again and had met someone who had really sparked something within her. It had happened a couple of times during her four years studying for medical school, and she had reigned herself in each time, her sights set firmly on her ambitions. She had also felt a very real spark of it when she had met Fox Mulder, but as time went on, she had effectively squelched that, too, knowing that an effective partnership held no room for sexual relations of any sort. Their relationship had sprung forward emotionally, but the physical had remained safely contained for these six years.

Even if she had felt free to explore a relationship with Mulder, he had been far too wrapped up in his quest to pay attention to things like that, or to be interested in them. At one point she had even allowed herself to wonder if he was gay, but a few unintended close brushes with his person had proved otherwise. Scully had been satisfied to know that at least she had the power to turn him on. Not long into their partnership, she had been irrevocably enveloped in the sinister plot of the consortium herself, turning her thoughts from the possibilities of love to deep fear and anger-charged bitterness.

Never had she blamed Mulder for what had happened to her, but Scully had felt herself harden inside, becoming someone she didn’t even know. If her partner wondered what had happened to the girl he’d met so long ago in his office who still had the ability to smile without thinking about it, he had never mentioned it to her. He was a man possessed with a goal, and she had been gradually swallowed by it, much as a branch thrown to quicksand. She found herself wondering if she would dry up and die now that she’d been consumed.

Glancing at her partner as he finished making his notes, she felt a pang of affection and regret. She knew how strongly she felt for him, but she also realized that he couldn’t let go of the thing that drove him. Not enough to love her as she needed to be loved.