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III. Whose Woods These Are…

Acadia is God’s country. Not the mild God of the New Testament, but fierce Yahweh whose covenant was made with slaves and desert wanderers. Yahweh, who promised to save Sodom if five righteous men might be found there, but was not disappointed in his intentions.

Only Adonai, I Am Who I Am, could have carved these mountains and the fjord out of the coast with His mighty hands. He broke the earth and divided it, weighing one part down while lifting the other up. He blew and the rocks formed a wall against the ocean, smoothed and shaped by His breath. He turned His gaze on the soil and flowers bloomed; animals formed from dust and began their assigned duties in the life cycle He ordained. He crowned the mountains with bare rock, to signify the destructive power He had used to make the land below so fertile and to show that He stands alone at the top of all creation.

Yahweh did all this and then gave the land over to sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. From the mountaintops, the visitors can see how much He loved his creations, to allow them this beauty, green and blue and grey, life in every crevice and branch.

Many men (and a few women) have since claimed stewardship of Acadia. So it is written and so it shall be, until He again searches for the righteous few.

Until then, Acadia waits.

The body lay where it had been found, near the top of one of the hiking trails. The rangers had long ago run out of crime scene tape, so they’d simply stationed people below and above on the trail, just out of sight of the body. Scully thought about telling them to call Bangor for some tape, so that they wouldn’t run out of rangers, but considered that her advice would not inspire confidence in the crime-solving skills of the FBI and kept her mouth shut.

They’d driven to the top of the mountain and hiked about a quarter of a mile down. Scully had kept pace with Mulder fairly well when they were above the treeline, among the variegated brown rocks, but when they hit evergreens she went more slowly and he pounded ahead of her.

When she passed the ranger guarding the top of the trail, she saw Mulder examining the trees, reaching up to touch branches. He ran a finger over the grey lichen choking one evergreen, and shuddered.

She moved closer and her attention was drawn away from her partner, toward the figure on the ground.

If the woman had been upright, Scully would have said that she’d been crucified. But she’d been pinned to the ground.

She had been a woman in her early thirties. Her face had the blankness of the newly dead–Scully could see the face clearly, since the victim’s body had been positioned with her head pointing down the trail. Blood had swirled around her face and puddled into a depression in the rock a few feet beyond her body; her hair was plastered to the ground with dried blood, and only the hair closest to her temples revealed that the woman had been a brunette.

Scully put on her gloves and knelt to examine the body in situ. She crouched just outside the channels cut by the rivulets of blood in the light layer of dirt that covered the rocks.

The preliminary inspection indicated that the woman had probably died of blood loss and shock. She didn’t recognize the metal squares that had been driven into the victim’s wrists and ankles, hammered through flesh into the rock beneath.

Scully bent to get a closer look and silently commended herself for skipping the trenchcoat; it would have gotten soaked in blood-damp dirt, and probably destroyed any trace evidence.

“We’re going to need pliers or something to remove these metal disks from the rock, so that we can move the body,” she told the ranger who’d followed her down, probably against orders but as driven by morbid curiosity as anyone else. He was standing a discreet distance away from the corpse, looking at it only in his peripheral vision as if that would somehow make the victim less dead, the horror less intense. She thought–but wasn’t certain– that he was the same ranger who’d come to Thunder Hole with them on the first day.

“Yes ma’am,” he responded, and moved off to carry out her instruction.

Scully tapped the protruding edge of the metal that was sticking out of the victim’s right wrist with a finger. The edge was fairly dull, though not wide enough to take fingerprints. Underneath the blood spatter, she could see faded blue paint. What did that remind her of?

She raised her head and looked around for her partner. Mulder was circling the clearing, looking at all of the trail markers and conversing with the ranger who’d been first on the scene, summoned by a near-hysterical pair of hikers. All the hikers had wanted was an early-morning hike, free from distractions. They’d gotten a nightmare instead. A twinge of sympathy for them flared, then subsided. She and Mulder would have to interview the hikers, of course, but first she wanted to get the scene fixed in her head.

Scully fumbled for her voice-activated recorder and began describing the setting.

When she’d circled halfway around the victim, some Mulder- sense told her that her partner was doing something significant, and she turned from the corpse to see him point at a tree. The ranger nodded, and walked over to the tree to pull at a blue metal square. It was a trail marker, Scully realized, embedded in the bark by one corner so that most of it stuck out, to guide hikers down the park-serviced path.

She looked again at the body.

Trail markers, hammered into flesh instead of wood.

How appropriate.

The woman had probably been conscious through most of it, able to watch as her killer inexorably went about the business of her death. With her feet elevated above her head, she would not have lost consciousness as quickly as if she’d been pointed the other way. She could have felt her heart turn into her worst enemy, as it pumped ounce after ounce of blood to her limbs, never to return. Near the very end, she would have slipped into unawareness as shock granted her a mercy her killer would have denied her.

The arms had been first, Scully thought, judging from the blood splatter on the metal and the rock at the victim’s sides. The near-black lines indicated a velocity consistent with initial, fast-pumping wounds, whereas by the time the killer had reached the victim’s legs, she’d lost enough blood that the spatter was rounder, more sluggish.

Scully took the camera out of the large pocket in her pullover and took several pictures of each of the spatters. She could have an expert look at them if Mulder thought the order of insertion was relevant; blood wasn’t her area of expertise, and if the victim had been elevated in this position for a period of time before the killing, maybe the legs could have been first. If Scully had been doing the killing, she surely would have gotten the legs secured first. Especially with a woman, the legs were by far the most powerful limbs, and quite dangerous to a person standing above a downed victim.

It was a measure of the great variety of horror that Scully had seen that her other predominant thought about the crime itself was: Why not at the top of the trail? She heard the murmur of Mulder’s voice a few yards away, and rose to give him assistance if he needed it.

“Why didn’t he do it at the top of the trail?” Langbein, who at least had the integrity to show up and see what his inaction was doing to people, was asking Mulder as she joined them. “I mean, your profile said–”

“Because the top of the trail is above the treeline,” Mulder said impatiently, squinting into the rising sun as he looked up the hill. “See, just above us there are no more trees, it’s all rocks. All of the trail markers there are just piles of rocks, and sometimes streaks of paint on the trail itself. The paint’s bad, but it’s hard to kill someone by painting her to death, so he chose the treeline, where the metal trail markers begin.”

Scully followed Mulder’s gaze, and sure enough, about ten feet above them was the last tree.

Mulder’s words made her look more carefully at the landscape. Sand-colored rock, marked in places with the black of dead moss and the varied greens of living moss, was visible, first in great flat expanses and then farther above in increasingly varied and interesting formations shaped by centuries of wind. Scully could see the trail, twisting and turning above them, marked by the stone cairns Mulder had mentioned. In places, they were just four or five large stones piled on an even larger stone, but she could see a few that had to be at least two feet high, elaborately arranged.

“The stone markers are okay with him,” Mulder said, as if he were following her thoughts. “Not great, but not offensive. The paint marks are offensive, but he probably wouldn’t have killed anyone if that was all. It’s the poor trees that put him over the edge. The bleeding trees…”

Scully looked down the hill, mirroring Mulder’s stance. The harsh morning light made every leaf and twig stand out distinctly. She saw a clump of what should have been pine needles fused into a lump, like a deformed, fingerless hand. Young oak leaves sagged under the weight of dirty brown warts–more galls, she supposed. There were healthy trees, too–more healthy than sick, if she had to count. But the healthy ones were mere background.

There seemed to be no end to the variety of trees: pine, spruce, cedar, birch, oak, and many others. Lichen grew on the rocks, spotting them green as if a bucket of paint had been spattered over the mountain. There was black among the green; Scully thought and realized that it must be the mineral deposits from deceased lichen. If she tested the black stains, she knew, their content would reflect the various pollutants in the air. Ego in Acadia est.

The sun came slowly up through the sky. Its light seeped through the young pines growing around the trail, and the trees looked as if they were on fire from within, green fire. Where the needles converged on the branches, they were dark green, but they turned translucent as they spread out and received the light, so they glowed. Even their gentle motion as the wind swept down the mountain from above the treeline was reminiscent of a flickering fire.

It might have been beautiful, if she hadn’t seen all the imperfections up close. she realized.

“Let’s get the victim out of here,” Scully said. Her voice carried through the clearing, and several of the rangers turned in her direction.

Mulder looked over at her. “Are you worried that leaving her here desecrates this place?”

“I leave that fear to the killer. Leaving her here is disrespectful to her.” She looked at Langbein, who was hovering in between the two agents. “We’re going to need pliers to get the metal out of the rock. Can you get a pair?”

The man gulped and nodded, and Scully returned to the body, trying to get as many pictures as possible before moving the victim.

She heard Mulder walk down the hill behind her. “Why is he killing so many, so quickly?” she asked him, hoping to trigger a lecture that would make this gruesome task a little easier to do on autopilot.

“I suspect that he’s been working up to this for a while, maybe at other parks, certainly more slowly. He’s deteriorating and accelerating as his delusion gets more complex. He may think that he’s invincible, and that the time for humans to dominate the earth is ending, so he’s both free to kill more openly and commanded to do so. I’d like to look at all the deaths in the national parks over the past few years, but I don’t know if he’ll give us the time to do so.”

“We could ask someone in DC to gather the records, at least,” she suggested. Mulder didn’t respond. “This isn’t a conspiracy case.” More silence. “Is it?” She snapped a picture of the blood trails under the victim’s head.

That brought a chortle. “Not at the moment, Scully, unless you can think of a reason to kill people in national parks in order to further an agenda of influencing world events.”

“If it’s not a conspiracy case, there’s no reason not to let someone at the Bureau help us out with this.” It was time for a new roll. She stepped back and reloaded.

“I don’t think we’re supposed to get help on this one.”

Scully put the camera down and turned to look at him. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that the clock is ticking, and I think we’re supposed to flail around here, eventually catch this guy, and go back with another case solved and another week or two gone.” Mulder spun away from her, kicking fallen leaves away and grabbing onto the trunk of a tree. If he did not hang on with all his might, she thought, he’d run heedlessly down the mountain until he fell.

She nodded, finally understanding what he meant. They were supposed to bring the killer in, but only at the cost of a few more cubic millimeters of tumor. She didn’t know if she believed Mulder’s conspiracy theory in its entirety, but she did understand that the X Files had lost a substantial amount of credibility in the Bureau over the last year’s antics–her time in jail, Mulder’s little detour with the pedophile, and let’s not forget the most recent hole in the head –all that could isolate an already rennegade pair of agents, even if they’d also saved the nation from another Oklahoma City.

“If we’re on our own in this, I’d better finish the photos,” she said, more to reassure herself than because anyone was listening, and turned back to the less complicated corpse.

Half an hour later, Langbein returned, toolbox in hand. He looked excited.

“Well, we’ve got someone who identified the very first body,” the ranger said. “Only problem is, she’s deaf. She can speak, but not real well. We need to call for an interpreter. We have one during the summer season, but…” He shrugged.

Mulder’s head came up. He really didn’t want to look at this scene any more, and he’d just been given a way out.

“I can sign,” he told the world at large.

Scully stood up, abandoning the search for fibers or other clues around the site. The work was tiring her out, Mulder could tell; the sun was not yet overhead and she was ready for a break. She wouldn’t admit it, but she was moving more slowly than usual, taking extra time recording the appropriate information on all the evidence bags. “I didn’t know that,” she said. “When did you learn?”

He shrugged. “Martha’s Vineyard was settled by a group of people with a very high incidence of deafness, and for a while everyone on the island could sign. When I was growing up, that universal knowledge was dying out, but a woman who lived near us taught me Martha’s Vineyard Sign. It was one of the dialects that merged to form ASL when the first American college for the Deaf opened. She had to borrow a bunch of ASL vocabulary, but I’m told my accent is still very much Martha’s Vineyard. I guess it’s a little like having someone talk to you in Shakespearean English. I can talk to the witness, anyway.”

“Well, come on, then,” Langbein said impatiently. Scully took the toolbox from his unresisting fingers. Mulder glanced at her, and she nodded, giving him permission to go.

Mulder and Langbein drove down the mountain to the park ranger station. Langbein pulled into his reserved space, right by the back door to the tiny building, and they went in.

Johanna Hathaway had fiery red hair, almost the same shade as Scully’s, except for a two-inch strip from the center of her forehead all the way down the back that was pure white. It was quite striking; each color was well within the range of human variation on its own, but together they gave her the look of an exotic creature. She had a pleasant enough face, and light brown eyes, but the hair was the most memorable thing about her.

She was scribbling angrily on a pad when Mulder approached her. She looked up when his shadow fell across the paper, obviously prepared to put up with another clumsy attempt at communication.

“I’m with the FBI,” he signed, and her face brightened as the irritation left it. “Can I ask you a few questions?” His mind translated the questions into English as he went along; his memory was accurate for words, less so for gestures, and the internal translation allowed him to remember more details. He wasn’t exactly sure why, but probably Scully could explain that it all had to do with the hippocampus, or something.

“What do you want to know?”

“I haven’t talked to the others. Why don’t you tell me about your missing friend?”

“His name is Pierce Reddy.”

Mulder almost guffawed–he was pretty sure he’d seen a movie with a star who’d used that name. But he kept his face straight, and Johanna continued.

“I don’t really know him that well. He’s a friend of two friends of mine, from Gallaudet. Janet and Chris introduced me to him, they thought we’d like each other, but it just didn’t work out, so Pierce decided to go camp on his own, to do more hiking than the rest of us wanted to do. We were supposed to meet yesterday, but he didn’t show up at the cabin.”

“Why did you wait until today to ask around?”

Her upper lip curled and she tossed her striped hair back dismissively. “Because we didn’t want to be patronized by hearing people who think we’re dumb or that Pierce must have gotten into trouble because he’s Deaf.”

Mulder nodded. His situation was different, but he understood the desire to avoid scrutiny.

“Where are Janet and Chris?”

“They had to get back for exams. I just had papers, so I stayed to look for Pierce.”

“What did Pierce look like?” Damn, that telling mistake in tense was a problem. Johanna didn’t react, probably just assuming that his wording reflected insufficient knowledge of the language rather than a significant clue.

“Brown eyes, brown hair, shorter than you.” As she described the young man, Johanna’s eyes swept up and down Mulder’s body, comparing him with her erstwhile date and finding Mulder more to her taste.

“Did you meet anyone unusual when you were out hiking?”

She shrugged.

“I’m sorry to tell you this, but Pierce may have run into trouble. I need you to take a look at some pictures of a body, to see if you can identify him.”

The woman’s face tightened in surprise and distress.

“Was there an accident?” she signed.

Mulder shook his head. “Not an accident. A murder. That’s why I need to know if you met anyone unusual on the trail.”

He turned to the ranger who’d been trying to appease Johanna before Mulder arrived, and asked for the photos of the victim.

“Does she think she knows him?” Langbein asked.

“I don’t know yet, but I think so.”

Langbein rummaged in his desk for the photographs. Mulder turned back to Johanna, whose face was twisted with concentration.

“There was one strange man,” she signed, “all alone on the trail. He hadn’t shaved in a while. He was angry at us for dropping some candy wrappers on the trail, I think. I can lipread some, but he wouldn’t look at my face. He was staring at my breasts, so I just said that I couldn’t understand and we hurried on by. It was really awful. He followed us for about fifteen minutes, saying something, and finally I just shouted at him that we were Deaf. He looked horrified, not as embarrassed as people usually are, but upset, and then he turned and went the other way. Is he the killer you’re looking for?”

“We don’t know yet. What did he look like?”

A helpless look. Like many people, Johanna tried not to look too hard at someone who was ranting at her in an incomprehensible way. “He had a beard. Dark hair, I think.”

Mulder sighed in resignation. Langbein handed him the photos, and he flipped through, tilting the pile away from Johanna’s field of vision until he found a shot of the victim’s face, as calm as if he were simply asleep. He held the picture out to her, and she took it, staring at it with an odd fascination.

After some time, she put it down on the counter, next to her abandoned pad, and signed, “That’s him. He’s really dead?”

Mulder nodded.

“Someone killed him?”

He nodded again.

Johanna leaned against the counter, awestruck. She was young enough, and distant enough from any real friendship with the victim, to be excited by the thought of Murder in a National Park, though she seemed smart enough to try and conceal the part of her that enjoyed the excitement.

Mulder wished that he’d had more experience with conveying emotion in sign language–he was sure that there was some way to sign gently, but he didn’t know what it was. “I think you should call Janet and Chris and see if they know how to contact his family.”

The young woman nodded, eyes distant, planning how to explain this sudden tragedy.

“Can I go?” she asked. “Do I have to look at him?”

“You can go, if you leave us a way to contact you,” Mulder replied, and she scribbled an address onto a piece of paper. He gave her a card, in case she remembered anything else, and she mechanically collected her pad and pen, put them in her purse, and headed out the door, her path almost steady.

After the door slammed, a sudden thought struck Mulder, and he followed her out into the gravel-covered parking lot.

Mulder ran after her, and put a hand on her shoulder to get her attention.

She spun around, looking none too pleased at first, but her expression softened when she recognized him.

“I just thought of something else,” he signed. “You and Pierce, it didn’t work out between you–was he a native ASL speaker?”

She looked surprised. “How did you know he wasn’t?” she asked. “He worked hard at it, but his parents sent him to a hearing school until he was fifteen. They kept thinking he’d start to do better. They even tried to get him cochlear implants, but they didn’t work. They started too late. It was a crime, what they did. They made it so that he couldn’t communicate fully with his own people.”

“The rest of you were native speakers?”

“I’m Deaf of Deaf,” she signed proudly, “and so is Chris; Janet was diagnosed as a baby, and she grew up with ASL.”

“Was Pierce able to talk to him?”

She shrugged. “He said the guy was mad. I could tell that.”

Mulder thanked her and hurried back to into the building.

Langbein was flipping through the photos, as if the record of the killer’s work was easier to look at than the real thing–or maybe, to someone who did not work with death as a rule, the photos seemed more realistic.

“I think you should close the park until we catch this man. He’s escalating fast, and I don’t think anyone’s safe right now. In the off-season, too many people are isolated; if it were summer, I wouldn’t be as worried, because it would be hard for him to single someone out. But not now.”

“One man can’t shut down an entire park!” Langbein’s already ruddy face reddened further; Mulder could see a vein near his nose pulse, and his large pores looked even worse as the man became agitated. “Look, Agent Mulder, the last time Acadia closed was during the budget furlough, and what closing means is that the non- essential rangers go home. Six of my seventy-five employees are law enforcement. Here, that means giving tickets and telling people not to litter. Once in a while we confiscate beer and have a little party in the afternoon. We don’t keep people out. We can’t. Aside from the main access road, there are three or four roads near town that people use when they don’t want to pay the car access fee. And unless we build a really big fence, there’s nothing to stop anyone from hiking in.”

“Then we should at least announce that there’s a dangerous killer on the loose.”

The ranger manning the desk was listening to this exchange with intense interest, though he was studiously watching the door. Langbein grabbed Mulder’s arm and pulled the agent into his small office. “You’re joking, right? A few years ago, a man visiting with his family went on an evening jog. He fell off a hill and died; they found his body the next morning. It was in all the papers around here. The next month, what do you think happened? Three times as many hikers went on that trail as usual. Joe Citizen can be one dumb fuck when he tries to be.”

“Can’t you just tell people to turn around when they get to the gates?” Mulder could tell that it was futile, but he had to try. It was his lot to be a modern-day Cassandra, telling people what would happen if they ignored him–but of course if they didn’t ignore him, his predictions wouldn’t come true, so he was in a bit of a bind.

Langbein was breathing heavily, working on his answer. “We’re telling them to stick together, not to go anywhere alone, and avoid the smaller trails because there’s still ice on a lot of them– true, actually–because it’s dangerous, and that’s as much as I’m authorized to do.” Langbein produced a handkerchief and swiped at his face, trying to get the sweat out of his eyes.

“Authorized?” The word triggered a realization. “Who told you not to close the park?”

“Someone with more power than you, Agent Mulder.” The ranger’s full lips turned downwards in a scowl. He wasn’t thrilled with the order, but he’d obey it.

One last try. “More people will die. Or is your pension worth more than that to you? Guess you only have a few more years before the full benefits, right, and isn’t that worth a few fat tourists?” He could hear his voice rising, his tone turning shrill. If he were Langbein, he’d ignore Mulder. But he couldn’t help it.

The other man shook as if trying to throw a weight off. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of pictures. “This is my little girl Diane. See her?”

The shots were professional-quality black and white. Hopscotch on a playground, a walk through the forest, waiting at a bus stop. There were other children in the pictures, but the center of each one was the same blonde girl, probably nine years old. She was as fair as Langbein, but she looked lovely with it, not overstressed.

“Yeah, the victims were somebody’s kids too. So what?”

“I didn’t take these pictures, Agent Mulder. I got them with the same message telling me not to close the park. When this is over, I’ll probably lose my job. I deserve to lose my job. But that’s my baby girl there. I pray that God forgives me–” He broke off.

Langbein turned away, breathing deeply and struggling for control. “You’ll just have to catch this psycho before he kills again. Isn’t that what you do?”

Mulder’s superego, that lovable little voice with its mix of Bill Mulder and Patterson, chimed in. That’s right, Mulder. If you do your job, then no one has to die. And if you don’t–well, bug- hunting takes its toll on those real skills of yours, doesn’t it? So sad, that these people had to die for your obsessions.

He shook his head. He wanted to blame Langbein for his cowardice, but that smiling round face from the surveillance photos stopped him. She walked home through the forest every day, of course, like every other kid around here. The forest was her companion, even though it held killers. Langbein’s love controlled him–as it should; the world shouldn’t reward love with blackmail, and Langbein must have thought that it didn’t until he’d seen those photos. Langbein hadn’t thought that park rangers would get caught up in intrigue and danger, so he’d allowed himself to make promises and commitments. Mulder couldn’t fault him for the accident of becoming part of a useful diversion from real X Files.

Mulder left the office, stalking past the curious ranger at the front desk, and headed back to find Scully.

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