Strands Of Copper
It's not like I'm chicken, José assured himself. And he wasn't. He'd shown that scumbag Lenny who was boss a few months back, hadn't he? And when Trip had tried to take José's stash, he'd lost a couple of teeth. And when a rival gang had tried to muscle in on their territory, José had stood against them shoulder to shoulder with his cronies. Had taken a knife in the gut, in fact, not that it had cut too deep.
But what he'd seen the other night was different.
He crouched in the corner of his bunk, leaning against the wall, his knees drawn up to his chest and his arms wrapped around them. Funny, he'd always dreaded ending up in a room like this, concrete walls, small space, bars on the window, a big heavy lock on the door. Now he was glad to be here, in spite of the doctors. Fascist doctors might keep coming in and giving him shots and trying to talk to him like a bunch of idiots, but at least that monster couldn't get in here.
He jerked alert at the jangle of the keys in the lock to his door. The hell? There had already been a doctor in here today.
But the man and the woman who walked in now weren't wearing white lab coats, but dark suits. Ritzy suits. If José had seen them walking though his neighborhood, he'd have taken their wallets. But then, people with suits like those weren't generally stupid enough to walk through his neighborhood.
And besides, the way they looked at him as the guard closed the door behind them tipped him off. Cops.
Nice legs on the lady cop, though.
"Mr. Sanchez?" The man flashed his ID. "I'm Special Agent Fox Mulder, this is Special Agent Scully. We're with the FBI. We'd like to ask you a few questions."
FBI. Just as he'd thought. Cops. Fancy cops, but cops were cops. He kept quiet.
"We understand that you were interrupted two nights ago while you were in the process of mugging a middle-aged woman," the woman said crisply.
José said nothing. He knew better than to admit anything to a cop.
"Why don't you tell us about the interruption?" she continued.
He looked at them both suspiciously. They thought he was crazy, he understood that. It was why he was here instead of in jail. That was fine with him; nuthouses were more comfortable than jails. Not much, but enough.
"Your intended victim says that a man intervened," the man prompted.
Those bastards! They thought they could put one over on him!
"It wasn't a man!" he snarled. "I know what a man looks like, for chrissake! It was a freaking monster!"
"Could you describe the monster, please?" the man asked politely. The woman was watching José closely.
"She must've told you! It was like a goddamn werewolf, man!"
"'Like' a werewolf? In what way was it different?" The man was listening like José was the head man on the block or something.
When José did not immediately answer, the woman prompted, "Did your assailant walk on two legs or four?"
Assailant. What was with people like them and their big words? Did they think they were impressing him? "It was on two legs," he snarled. "And its face was like a lion, but it wasn't a lion. It was at least eight feet tall and had huge fangs, and it just busted through the wall, just knocked all the bricks out like they were made of paper, and tore my buddies up and ." He shut up, getting a grip on himself.
"Can you tell us anything else, Mr. Sanchez?" the man asked after waiting for a minute.
"I got nothing to say to you cops," José informed them with venom.
"What do you think, Scully?" Mulder asked as they strode down the institution's hall, away from José Sanchez's room.
"Some guy with a Batman complex is making sure he can't be identified and consequently arrested for vigilantism," Scully replied.
"Is that your only possibility?"
Keeping a firm rein on her impatience, Scully said, "Why, no. This could be a werewolf, or rather werelion, who's roaming the alleys of New York doing good deeds."
"I love it when you're sarcastic," he groaned.
"Mulder, this isn't an X-File. This is a clear-cut case of a guy in a mask."
"And what about the reports of sightings of the Lion Man from the last ten years? I showed you the file. I saw you read it on the plane."
"So he's had the mask for a long time. He's still just a human being. If the police take him into custody, he may have to face charges for assaulting criminals, but this isn't a Bureau matter."
Mulder frowned. "Let's check out the crime scene."
The crime scene was the mouth of an alley in a crime-ridden area. The displaced bricks had been taken away, probably thrown through the windows of nearby pawn shops, but the gaping hole in the wall was still there.
Mulder led the halting way through the hole. It was in the side of a low-income apartment building, dirty and run down. There were grease stains on the ancient carpet and chipped mint green paint on the walls.
The hole opened into what had apparently once been a laundry room. Further exploration showed that right outside the door to the former laundry room was the stairwell, and beyond that, the front door.
"He could have come in from anywhere," Scully pointed out.
Mulder nodded unwillingly. They returned to the hole and Mulder squatted to examine it for a few minutes.
"How strong would a man have to be to break through this wall, do you think, Scully?"
She thoughtfully pressed at the hole's ragged edges. "This is an old building, Mulder. The concrete's dry and crumbling. It might not have been too difficult. This man sounds like a driven vigilante; keeping himself in top physical shape would probably be part of his outlet for whatever's driving him."
"Even so, to crash through a brick wall with just brute strength ."
"We don't know that he didn't have tools of some kind," Scully pointed out. "He could have broken through with a sledgehammer and dropped it inside this room before jumping through. You saw how agitated the witnesses were by what they saw. None of them would have been observing calmly. He has to have counted on that. Remember Sanchez saying the 'monster' was eight feet tall? You're only about six feet, and this hole was just your size. An eight-foot being would have had to duck to go through this."
Mulder frowned again, unable to find an answer. But he leaned over to examine the jagged bricks again, and suddenly his eyes lit up.
"What?" Scully asked.
Mulder was digging in the pockets of his trench coat for a plastic evidence bag. "Hairs!" he said.
"Good," Scully said cheerfully. "We can find out where his mask was made."
Mulder raised his head to glare, and then they both found themselves grinning at each other. "Let's get this to the lab, Scully," he said, gesturing for her to precede him through the hole in the wall.
"I knew it!" Mulder declared at the police lab late that afternoon, grey-green eyes ablaze with excitement. He looked so delighted that Scully hated to rain on his parade, but hey, it was her job.
"Mulder, just because the hair is neither synthetic nor human doesn't mean we have a 'werelion' on our hands," she protested.
"The hair can't be identified, Scully!" he said, triumphant.
"Well, let's take some of it back to be looked at by the Bureau labs," she said.
"What, don't you have a mundane explanation, Scully?" he teased.
She couldn't help smiling, but she replied, "My guess is that the mask was made using hair from an unusual animal, maybe something not normally found on this continent. We might be able to identify the vigilante by investigating zoo employees, or owners of exotic pets."
Her partner chuckled ruefully, shaking his head. "You always have an answer, Scully."
"And you always have a wild theory."
Another voice interrupted. "You two are here about the Lion Man sightings?"
Scully turned and found herself looking up at a tall redhaired woman. She was wearing civilian clothing jeans and a sweatshirt but she held up a badge to show them, looking at them coolly.
"Detective Diana Bennett," she introduced herself, and shook both their hands as they gave their names. "What are you finding on the Lion Man?"
"We found a few hair samples and the same eyewitness accounts that the NYPD heard," Mulder answered. "You weren't on this case, were you? We already interviewed the officers in charge of it ."
"I'm in homicide," she said curtly. "Not Bigfoot sightings."
"I don't believe this was a Sasquatch," Mulder said earnestly. "Most reports of Bigfoot sightings describe the creatures as having very human faces. The people who've seen the Lion Man are very adamant that his face is not human."
Detective Bennett was staring at Mulder as if wondering where he'd escaped from. Scully wished for the thousandth time that her partner would at least show a little restraint in sharing his wild theories with everyone he spoke to. Didn't he realize that he was destroying his own credibility?
"Do you have any information on this case, Detective?" Mulder asked.
"The Lion Man case? No. I just couldn't believe it when I heard you two were here." She looked decidedly annoyed now. "Let me get this straight. New York City has one of the highest crime rates in the country, we have murder, rape, kidnapping, and drugs in spades, and the FBI sends someone to help us with the Lion Man?" Her voice turned scornful on the last words.
"I specialize in investigating paranormal phenomena," Mulder explained good-naturedly, "and my partner here specializes in finding mundane explanations for them."
Scully allowed herself a grim little smile.
Diana just looked at them. Before she could speak, someone down the hall caught Mulder's eye. "Excuse me," he said hurriedly, "I wanted to ask Sergeant Labinski a couple more questions he was one of the arresting officers, you know." With that, he sped off.
Diana looked at Scully. "Is he always like this?"
"No. Sometimes he's more so."
"So you were assigned to debunk his work?"
"Something like that." Scully glanced over, saw her partner deep in conversation with the policeman, and turned her attention back to Detective Bennett.
Who was regarding her with something more than curiosity now. Scully's eyes widened, then she smiled slightly and held the taller woman's gaze. Like herself, Diana had the fair skin and sky-colored eyes that went with red hair. Her hair was much longer than Scully's, pulled back into a thick braid. Like a lot of workaholics, she didn't take much trouble with her appearance, but that couldn't hide the attractive features, the well-shaped mouth and thick copper lashes.
They looked at each other intently for a long minute. There was no mistaking that kind of look.
At last Diana said, "Anyone who works with this guy deserves a beer. I'll buy you one."
Scully let her smile widen slightly. "Take you up on it."
Mulder returned to his partner's side, looking frustrated. "He didn't know anything else. I think that's all we can do for today. I think I can get us tickets to a Knicks game."
Scully glanced at Diana. "Not tonight, Mulder. You go. I'm not up to it."
His concern was prompt. "Are you all right? Are you coming down with a cold?"
"I'm fine, Mulder. You go to your ball game."
He looked at her for a moment before nodding. "Then I guess I'm on my own. Unless Detective Bennett?"
She smiled. "I have plans."
"Right. See you in the morning, Scully. Get some rest." He turned and disappeared down the hall.
Scully couldn't help grinning.
"So how about that beer?" she asked Diana.
Diana escorted Scully to a tavern she attended infrequently, a large, reasonably clean place with good hamburgers and lots of pool tables. They ate, swapping stories of their respective investigations, and then started playing. Scully knew she stood out in her business suit most of the other customers were dressed more like Diana, in jeans and sweatshirts but she was used to that. She draped her blazer over the back of a chair and rolled up her shirtsleeves and pretended she didn't notice the men watching as she bent over the pool table. Men.
But when she felt Diana's eyes on her as she pocketed her third ball in a row, she glanced up and smiled at her before straightening.
Diana's cheeks turned very faintly pink, but she only said, "Are you going to give me a turn?"
"Maybe later." Scully leaned over, adjusted the cue, and made another shot. But Diana had succeeded in distracting her, and this one missed.
"Thanks." Diana grinned.
"Had to give you a handicap," Scully said coolly, leaning against the edge of a table and propping her pool cue beside her so she could take a swallow of beer. She didn't drink beer often, but in the right company .
Diana moved her gaze from her companion to the table and paced around it slowly, evaluating possible shots. Before she had made up her mind, one of the waitresses came by with two fresh beers.
"From the two guys at the end of the bar," she informed them.
"Thanks," Diana said, taking a bottle without bothering to even glance at their benefactors. Amused, Scully did the same.
Diana took a swallow, set the bottle down, and leaned over the table, positioning the cue. Scully tilted her head, noticing that the detective's jeans actually fit quite well. Noticing her audience, Diana flushed. Her shot hit its mark, but just barely. Scully made herself more comfortable on her perch, enjoying herself.
A moment later, two men ambled over to them. Scully assumed they were the ones who had sent the beers. "No, thank you," she told them before either had a chance to say a word.
Taken aback, one of them stammered, "We were just we"
"Not tonight, boys," Diana said with a smile.
"But" the other protested.
"You heard the lady," Scully said. "Move along, folks. There's nothing to see here."
"Aw, c'mon, no need to talk like a cop just becau" He stopped mid-syllable as both women held up their badges. The men stared at them for a second, then retreated. Alone, Diana and Scully chuckled together.
Pocketing another ball, Diana asked, "So how'd you get this assignment? Did you ask for it?"
"No, they requested that I take it. I found it an intriguing opportunity."
"Intriguing? To discredit Bigfoot sightings?"
Scully drew herself up, defensive. "Agent Mulder's theories may be a little out there, but he is a great agent," she said firmly.
Diana straightened, taking her eyes off the table to look at Scully. "Sorry. I wasn't trying to insult your partner. Just wanted to know why you were working with him."
Scully chose her words carefully. "He's too quick to believe paranormal explanations," she said, "but the thing is that he really looks at it when odd things happen, instead of ignoring them or latching onto the first conventional explanation that suggests itself."
"So what do you think of this Lion Man thing?"
"I don't see any reason to think it's anything but a man wearing a mask. Sounds like it's a good mask, but it's still a mask. You?"
"I've been telling them it's a guy with a mask for years. Once I suggested checking out professional makeup artists, the kind who do special effects makeup for the movies, but I don't think the officers on the case did." She shrugged. "Every couple years there's another sighting, but it's hardly our top priority."
"I should think not." Scully took her turn and pocketed the eight-ball. The table was empty. She took another swallow of beer and regarded Diana consideringly. "Do you want another game, or are you ready to walk me back to my hotel?"
Diana smiled over her own beer. "Don't tell me an FBI agent is afraid to walk around New York alone."
Scully arched an eyebrow, looking at the policewoman levelly.
"I'm not," she murmured.
"Well, since you put it that way ."
The phone rang. Dana Scully was instantly awake. She sat up and rubbed her eyes to look at the clock. Seven a.m. Not unreasonable.
She had to lean over a homicide detective to reach the phone. Diana's eyes blinked open at the sound of Scully's voice. "Dana Scully here."
"Are you feeling better, Scully?"
"I'm fine, Mulder. I was just a little tired. What's going on? Has there been another sighting?" She tried to ignore Diana's hands lightly stroking up and down her back, her sides .
"No. A rash of UFO reports and a couple of strange disappearances in Texas. A.D. Skinner wants us out there today. You'd better get dressed; we can have breakfast at the airport."
"Right. See you in half an hour." She hung up.
"More Lion Man sightings?" Diana asked, an edge to her voice.
"No. Assignment in Texas. I have to catch a plane."
Scully leaned over for a kiss. "Yeah. Too bad," she agreed regretfully before getting out of bed to dress. Diana stretched and followed suit.
When they were both dressed and Scully was putting on her face, Diana interrupted her to take her hands. "I'll make myself scarce before your spooky friend comes around. Look me up if you're in New York again, hm?"
"Absolutely." Scully accepted another kiss. Then Diana glanced around to make sure she hadn't left anything behind, checked her reflection in the bathroom mirror for traces of lipstick, and left.
Scully scrutinized her makeup job, approved it, and gathered the cosmetics back into their little red bag. Her mind was already on the new assignment. There would be some mundane explanation for the UFOs, as always fighter planes or swarms of insects or just plain lies but the disappearances promised to be more challenging. Much more interesting than a Lion Man.
Still she hummed briefly to herself as she pulled the bedsheets into a semblance of order in case Mulder happened to come in the trip hadn't been a total loss.
Diana was at the entrance to the tunnels by nine o'clock that morning. Vincent was waiting for her, and folded her in a brief, brotherly embrace.
"Is something wrong?" he asked as she stepped back.
She smiled, relaxed. "Not at all."
Vincent's leonine face only showed expression subtly, but Diana caught the curiosity in it. She looked away, still smiling.
"It's unusual for you to come here so early." His voice, as always, was like velvet on gravel. Very beautiful.
"Oh, sorry. I just wanted to tell you not to worry about the FBI. They're leaving. They don't really know anything about you."
"You said they found some samples of my hair ."
She shrugged. "They can't classify them. They'll do some more tests and then put them in a box on a shelf and forget about it." She paused. "But I will tell you if on the outside chance they learn anything."
He nodded slowly. "I cannot help but wish they would," he said. "It would be a comfort to know what I am."
"I wish I could help you with that," Diana said softly. She let a minute pass before adding, "I also wish you'd be a little more careful who you allowed to see you."
"I am sorry to worry you, Diana," he said, but she noticed he didn't offer her any reassurance.
Not that she had expected any. "How's my godson?"
Vincent's eyes tilted slightly in his understated version of a smile. "It has been a few weeks since you have seen him, hasn't it? Come and see him now. He is growing so fast!"
He held out his large, furry hand. She clasped it and they strolled into the tunnels in companionable silence.
"Are you sure you're all right, Scully?" Mulder asked as they were finishing their breakfasts in the crowded airport restaurant.
"Why do you ask?"
He peered at her. "You just look like you didn't get your beauty sleep."
"That's not what I meant," he said, mildly embarrassed. "Just, your eyes look a little puffy. Did you sleep okay?"
"I slept fine." She swallowed the last of her coffee and pushed back her chair, standing up and straightening her jacket. "How was your basketball game?"
"Knicks lost." He stood as well, collecting his briefcase. She turned to lead the way out of the restaurant. "Hey, wait," he said.
She paused, turning her head to look up at him inquiringly.
Stepping closer, he plucked a long strand of copper hair from the back of her suit. "You're usually so impeccable. I knew something was wrong."
"For heaven's sake, Mulder," she said, striding away. He followed, still holding the strand.
"Seems kind of longer than your hair, Scully," he remarked, bemused.
"Have it tested with the Lion Man's hairs, Mulder," she suggested. "Maybe they can clear up this pressing mystery."
He chuckled and let the strand fall from his fingers as they hurried to their gate.