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Acadia Prologue

The trees were singing in Fox Mulder's dream.

Their voices were varied, alto and baritone and soprano all rising and falling in a chant like the ones he remembered from long-ago Saturdays, reciting prayers in a language he couldn't understand. Its incomprehensibility was beautiful.

The trees bent towards him, and suddenly he was in a small clearing, bald dirt surrounded by tall trees and underbrush. It was twilight, but he could still see the bark swirling, gently moving in harmony with the chanting. The sound was like the wash of the ocean. It made him dizzy.

Then he was standing on a rock, and the trees had receded away; the circle had grown larger. Over their heads he could see the mountains around him. He looked down and there was a section of a tree trunk at his feet, displayed on the rock like a sacrifice. Its bark was black and shining with wetness. Liquid had filled the ridges, so that the striations in the bark were traced in silver in the dying light.

Mulder knew with dream-certainty that the tree was soaked in blood. He tried to turn away, but some force drew him down, and he stretched out his hands. When they touched the bark, a great gout of blood rushed up into his face, covering him. He heard footsteps behind him, but could not rise to meet whatever it was that walked the bleeding forest.

And came awake, soaked in sweat and stuck to the couch in a most unpleasant fashion. He blinked at the VCR clock, which told him that it was well after three in the morning, and realized that he had forgotten to turn on the air conditioning even after seeing the report that the D.C. area was due for an unseasonable heat wave. Mulder peeled himself off the couch and staggered over to the thermostat, nearly kneecapping himself in the process, and managed to bludgeon it into producing cooler air.

He found a sheet from the hall closet to separate his skin from the sweaty leather of the couch, and went back to sleep.

I. A Tree Falls

There is the faint tinge of brine in the air, close to the sea. The sound of the waves, never once the same but always familiar. The gulls, whose wings flap and then still as they glide, flap and still until they are out of sight. The spruce, unrepentant and tall, whose new spring needles are as soft and welcoming as the eider duck's down.

And with everything, the rock. Underneath the trees, the rock. Above the trees, soaring free, rise the bare mountaintops that gave Mt. Desert Island its name. Little orangey rocks on big tan rocks on slabs of grey-pink rock that are mountainsides. The only true fjord on the continent, with its mountain dipping directly to the river.

The rock has been here for a long time. It was underneath the glaciers when they came and it stayed when they retreated. The rock will be Acadia when that name has been forgotten.

There is no Mt. Everest in Acadia; nothing that cannot be tamed by ordinary human perserverance and planning. Perhaps its human scale makes it accessible. Acadia makes itself easily understood.

But in the spring, before crowds choke every road and trail, before the pollution haze rises from the cars to obscure the mountaintop views, Acadia is itself.

Richard Hughes had thought that Thunder Hole would be more interesting.

After all, hadn't Dad read the description from the guidebook that said that air "exploded" out of the cave mouth when the water had compressed it enough? Hadn't he said that the seafoam would spray twenty feet into the air when the air roared?

Richard (or Rick, but never, please God, Dick) had run down the path just off the road, nearly flying over the spray-slick granite and ignoring the sturdy metal railings, which would simply have slowed him down. He plunged headlong down the rock stairs, to where the sea-spray could drench him as Thunder Hole earned its name.

But it was high tide. The water was too high to leave the cave thoroughly enough to create a really strong noise. Instead of thunder, what Richard heard was the ocean clearing its throat, sending water running out with a phlegmy cough.

Phlegm was usually satisfying, but this did not cut it. His parents were making the most of the poor show, nattering on about how lovely it was anyway and how it would have soaked them on the upper level of the observation deck if it had been any higher, but Richard was pacing back and forth, wondering how soon he could get back to the car and his Nintendo.

He was about to run back up the stone stairs to the car, but he gave Thunder Hole one last glare, as if it would suddenly turn cool.

That's why he was the first to point and shout at the arm that came gushing out of the cave when it hacked again.

"The first victim was a little past his freshness date when he was found. At first they thought he'd stayed up on the Bubble of his own volition and frozen to death–it's still pretty cold in Maine–but then they found the ligature marks."

Mulder passed Scully the picture from the file. The photo had been faxed, and it twisted in her fingers as she touched it. It showed a man curled up on top of a rock as big as a minivan. Judging by the bluish tint of his skin, he'd been dead overnight. His eyes had the filmy white of beginning decay.

"Where is this again?"

"Acadia National Park, up in Stephen King country–a few hours past Bangor. We're flying into Bar Harbor, and then driving to the park. This," he tapped the picture, "is known as the Bubble Rock; this big rock was deposited by a retreating glacier, so it sits on top of a mountain which is made out of completely different rock. It's supposed to be rather striking, actually."

"So why are we being called in? I understand it's a federal park, but where's the X File?"

"That's where the second victim comes in. Still unidentified, the second victim's arm was observed emerging by a young boy who got a little more excitement than he'd expected on his vacation."

Mulder handed over the next set of pictures, which displayed an arm, two legs, a male torso, and a battered head (missing the eyes).

"The cuts look jagged," she said. "Do they have any idea what was used to separate the parts?"

"According to the local funeral home–really big teeth."

They touched down in Bar Harbor midmorning of the next day and staggered off the tiny plane. The weather had been stormy on the way up, and the journey had been enough like a roller coaster ride to make the agents very unhappy indeed. Two people on the plane, thirty-three percent of the passengers, had thrown up, and one had very nearly done so in Scully's lap.

They picked up the standard rental car and drove straight to the park. It was an hour-long drive, mostly on two-lane state roads. On the straight-aways, cars were allowed to drive in the opposite lanes to pass, and Mulder took full advantage of the opportunity, nearly getting them into head-on collisions twice.

After the second time, Scully spoke up. She'd been trying to ignore him, but something about blaring horns and headlights being flashed in her eyes got to her. "What's the hurry, Mulder? I bet our victim will still be dead when we get there."

"This isn't a legitimate X File," he said, gripping the steering wheel more tightly and grinding down on the gas pedal. "It's an excuse to get us out of Washington, where we can't investigate anything really connected to larger mysteries, and also it's a feeble attempt to get me profiling again. There's clearly a killer here, escalating fast, but I'm uninterested in his delusions and I don't think we have time for this."

"The job's the same as it ever was," she said softly. Dangerous, decidedly unglamorous, and reasonably poorly paid.

"But we aren't, are we?" He glanced over, just for a second, and then had to turn his attention back to the road as the car rounded a curve at a worrisome speed.

She'd very much hoped that a completely unrelated case could get Mulder's mind off his past and her future, but that was beginning to seem unlikely. If he was right, at least they could probably finish the investigation quickly and return home.

Anyway, being in an isolated cabin in the wilds of Maine might be the best possible place to have a serious discussion with him. Somewhere he couldn't run away from her, or claim that a suggestive lead made listening to her at the moment impossible.

They checked in at the gate to the park, and the attendant didn't know what to do about them. Usually flashing FBI ID was the best way to get service, whether at the dry cleaners' or at the local library (the local police department being a different matter entirely), but the attendant didn't seem to grasp the concept that federal law enforcement officers might be interested in crimes on federal land. He thought that maybe Mulder was looking for a discount on the entrance fee, and he wasn't sure whether that was allowed. Mulder considered just pulling out his wallet and paying the regular car entrance fee, but that probably would just have confused the poor fellow more. A few cars full of kids and harassed-looking adults waited behind them as he called for instructions.

Finally, the park attendant directed them to a small building about three hundred yards down the road. It was a good spot for an administrative building, off to the side so that it wouldn't be in the way of tourists stampeding to the best spots but would still be locatable if someone's golden retriever ran away.

The building was the Hulls Cove Visitor Center. It was diamond-shaped, the better to fit into the curve of the hill it sat on. They went inside; there were tour schedules and pamphlets about lobster, ducks, and beaver scattered around the walls. Most of the building was taken up with a large, high-ceilinged room that Mulder inferred was usually used for lecturing to large parties of tourists. A few rangers milled around the space, making it look even emptier. Their mood, frightened and confused, made the room seem larger and more ominous. This was not a security force, he thought grimly; it was a bunch of tour guides in khaki. The head ranger in charge of park security was named Jack Langbein, and he was almost unbelievably grateful to see them.

"We haven't had a murder since I've been here," he said as he shook Mulder's hand, hard, then turned his attention to Scully. From her expression, Mulder thought that Langbein had been little gentler with her. "There was a suicide, a few years back, and then that guy who fell from one of the trails…but nothing like this," he hurried to finish as Scully glared at him.

Langbein seemed unsure what to do once the handshaking was over. Mulder used the uncomfortable silence to evaluate him. He was in his late fifties, one of those lucky people whose hair whitens rather than greys. He'd been unluckier in his haircut–it looked like someone had been at his head with a pair of garden shears, and tufts were sticking out of it at all angles and lengths. He was sweating profusely, and he had to keep wiping his face with a patchy cotton handkerchief as he talked. Scully would no doubt classify him as a huge heart attack risk. His eyes were shockingly blue, and overall he looked as if he should be one of the FBI's suspects rather than an ally.

Langbein coughed under Mulder's intense scrutiny. "You know, we don't even have tape to keep tourists away from the, uh, the crime scenes. We had about half a roll, and then we have another roll that says 'Construction,' but–well, Bubble Rock and Thunder Hole are some of our most popular attractions. We'd like to get them back up and running as soon as possible. I can show you how to get there right now."

Scully gave him a look which Mulder translated as "If you really said what I think you just said, I'd have a better chance of having an intelligent conversation with the thing I just scraped off my shoe." Scully had very little tolerance for tourist attractions when people were at stake.

Mulder suppressed the indulgent smirk he wanted to give her, so that she wouldn't get mad at him, and fleetingly wondered whether he really had any idea what went on in her head. His profiling skills worked extraordinarily badly on her; no wonder she didn't really believe in his skills, when her most direct experience of them was that he couldn't tell how she was feeling if she hired a skywriter to tell him.

Langbein's second nervous cough shocked Mulder out of his reverie. "Um, if that's all right with you. People–folks get mighty mad if they drive a day to get here and they can't see everything that's on the map."

"I get the same way with theme parks," Mulder replied, and then he did get Scully's nasty look, but Langbein hastily gave them directions–it wasn't too hard, inasmuch as there was only one way to go into the park–and all but begged them to give him the all- clear to reopen Thunder Hole.

"I'll send a ranger out to you, so you can tell us when you're through," was the last thing he said as he ushered them out the door.

"Does he even understand that this is a murder investigation?" Scully asked Mulder as they returned to the car.

He got in and shook his head. "Give the guy a break, Scully. Postal employees see more violence than park rangers, usually. It's not his fault some nutcase decided to play Operation near his most prized attraction."

They drove to Thunder Hole, a spot a few miles down the road. The park was set up so that cars could only drive one way around most of its perimeter; once you were in, you were in for the long haul. There were a few roads into the center of the park, for better access to the mountains, but to get in and out of the park there was no choice but the scenic route. They pulled over to a small parking lot just off of the road.

Scully followed Mulder to the railings that marked off the Hole.

The sea was calm and gray; the sun was bright, but not hot. The familiar yellow tape surrounding the crime scene looked particularly out of place among the rocks and weeds and white birds, a few of whom were pecking at the tape to see if it was edible. Only a few yards of tape blocked off the access to the ramp down to the throat of the cave; most of the barriers had been created using the orange construction cones that would normally be reserved for road repairs. Rangers were stationed at both sides of the approach to the Point, warning off tourists.

Mulder pried the tape off of one of the metal railings and held it aside so that Scully could pass. They walked down the gray stone steps.

Scully looked out at the ocean, paying no attention to the near-roar of the cave just below her. Far off in the distance, lobster buoys floated, green and white and yellow in distinctive patterns. She wouldn't be familiar with this shoreline, Mulder thought, but it was the same sea. Near the water, the wind was brisk, and she settled her jacket more firmly around her shoulders.

Mulder hurried ahead, taking the steps two at a time heedless of the fact that they were slick from sea-spray. He vaulted over the guardrails, ignoring Scully's disapproving noise, and looked into the cave mouth.

He could almost see the arm as it would have appeared to the little boy, something out of a video game or scary movie more than it was real. Moving on top of the water, not waving, but drowning. For a moment, until the jagged, grey edges at the shoulder were processed and understood, it would have looked like a mannequin's arm, just standard flotsam from a polluted sea. And then with one blink the world would have changed.

A Freudian would attribute the obvious meaning to the location, leaving only the question of whether the killer knew he wanted to fuck his mother or not (though, frankly, a Freudian would ask the same question regardless of the victim's location; they were nothing if not creative). He looked in and saw darkness, and jagged rocks, and the sea more powerful than any human agency.

A rush of water bursting from the hole filled his vision, foaming white and furious, and soaked him. The salt water made him blink and rub at his eyes, and he couldn't see clearly for nearly an entire cycle, so when he looked again it was only to see that he should close his eyes against the oncoming water.

The killer would have stood here, sopping wet and very cold, because it would have been nighttime, when there were no visitors, feeding pieces in–would he have known that high tide would create the right suction to take the remains out of the cave? Mulder made a mental note to check if the rangers had noticed any debris recently that would suggest someone testing the wave patterns. He would have held his breath against the shock of the water, and his hands would have slipped against the sharp rocks, acquiring a thousand cuts and bruises before the job was done.

He shuddered from the cold, made worse by the splashes of water that continued to wash over him, preventing him from becoming acclimated to the air. The killer would have had as little regard for his own body as for that of his victim, to come out here and stand until his aim was achieved.

Mulder turned back towards the guardrail and groped for it. Scully's hand found him and guided first one hand, then the other to the metal rail. It was smooth and strong under his fingers, but colder than her flesh.

"Nothing down there will take prints," she shouted over the noise of the surf as he pulled himself back to solid ground. "And I don't think there's anything left in the cave–the rangers tried to find more parts, but they couldn't." Meaning, Mulder, why did you go down there?

The air felt freezing, now that he was soaked.

He tried to explain as she guided him back up the stone stairs, still shivering and miserable, and she made him walk back to the car and take off his shirt and jacket, replacing them with a dry shirt and the sweater he'd remembered to pack. His pants were still wet, but at least he was partly dry, and he wouldn't leave to go find a bathroom until he'd gotten a better feel for the site.

The sun was white in the sky above. He could see for miles across the ocean; the view was spectacular, even without Thunder Hole roaring below.

Scully, somewhat at a loss without hard evidence to find, followed him as he paced by the railing at the top of the walk. He wanted to see the cave more closely again, to fix in his mind how it would have looked, and so he went down to the first landing, just above where the splash of the water hit. He could feel Scully behind him–when had he grown so comfortable with that? She'd prevent him from falling too far into this nut's mind. Hell, if she could keep him from falling too far into his own mind, as she'd done within the month, this tree-hugger would be no problem at all.

He frowned. Tree-hugger? Where'd that come from? Water, rock- -no trees, not yet.

Only in his dream had there been trees.

Mulder held onto the railing. It would have been so hard for the killer to touch, this man-made abomination–this intervention, designed to make the Hole accessible to just anyone, regardless of how lazy. Now, going into the mouth of the Hole itself, that was something special. It required skill, appreciation of the dangers, toleration of the extremes of wet and cold.

What did the killer want? Mulder could answer that question easily: He wanted to close down the attractions of Acadia, to defeat the purpose of coming here. He wanted people to recoil from the tourist spots instead of flocking to them like fat sheep. He wanted to show how ugly human intrusion into this pristine environment is–and there's no ugliness quite like death.

"Et ego in Acadia est," he said contemplatively, looking down.

"Isn't it Arcadia?" Scully asked.

"To Horace, maybe. Not to the little boy who's going to dream about that arm forever."

"Can you give me some idea what you're talking about?" a voice asked plaintively. Mulder stiffened and reached for his gun, wet in the sodden holster but still functional.

Scully put a hand on his arm and whispered, "The ranger Langbein was going to send."

She turned to confront the visitor. "It's one of Death's lines, 'even in this paradise I am here.'"

She walked back up the steps, brushing past the confused ranger and leaving Mulder to contemplate the ocean and the hiccuping surf rushing in and out of the cave. He shook his head and followed her, giving the ranger an apologetic grin as he passed.

At the top of the stairs, there was a footpath extending in both directions, caught between the road and the rocks of the coast. Every twenty feet or so, there was a tree; most bore marks of past pruning to keep them from eliminating the path. In between the trees there were bushes and long grass. Almost every plant sprouted some sign of spring: small green leaves, shoots, or buds, red-veined and furled, waiting for their moment to emerge.

Not really having any particular plan in mind, Scully started walking down the path, away from the parking lot. She heard Mulder peel off in the opposite direction, and then the ranger's hesitant footsteps behind her. Probably a law-enforcement wannabe.

Almost all of the trees had something wrong with them. Near the ground, or on their limbs, there were odd-shaped protuberances, woody grey goiters that made the trees look horribly pregnant. Most trees just had one, but some had three or four. When Scully looked across the road to the hillside, where the trees flourished in earnest, she saw that not as many were affected, though the deformities were still fairly common.

Maybe Joe Friday could at least assuage her curiosity. She turned and caught his eye. "What's wrong with these trees?"

He looked at her helplessly. He was tall and broad- shouldered, with dirty blond hair and dimples. His nametag said "Gephardt." "Nothing's wrong, ma'am."

"But what about those?" She pointed.

"Oh, the galls?" He sounded relieved. "Those are just natural. They're caused by bacteria from the soil that get into the trees through wounds, maybe, or sometimes there are mites or wasps that lay eggs in the bark, and the galls grow around them."

"Is it dangerous to the tree?"

"No ma'am. It's not pretty, but it's like a scar on a person- -just cosmetic."

She frowned and bent to examine the nearest gall. It was as long as her forearm, bulbous and grotesque. It loomed out onto the path, nearly blocking the trail. "And are there always this many, Ranger Gephardt?"

"I don't know. I don't know if anyone's really looked. Does this–is this part of the investigation?"

He said the last word as if it were an invocation. Scully suppressed a sigh–she'd been right in her initial evaluation. "No. I'm just curious. Can you take me to where the bodies are being kept?"

Gephardt gestured, and she followed.

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