As Agent Roberts drove away from his cottage on the way to work, he reflected on the previous evening.
Although he had been ready to swear that he wasn't hungry after all the pie and ice cream that he had eaten, the enticing aroma of Nancy's casserole had eventually changed his mind.
The casserole was warm, flavorful and filling. It almost made him long for the childhood that he never had.
The childhood that he actually had was filled with a variety of activities, both school related and otherwise. Every minute of every day was scheduled for him. He was expected to be at full energy for every bit of it... and he was. But not without a price.
When he and his sister were at home, they were constantly being pushed and hounded to work harder, to learn more, to become their absolute best selves.
Although he couldn't be sure if his memory were playing tricks on him, Agent Roberts couldn't remember any point in his 'childhood' when he had been allowed to relax. He certainly couldn't remember being allowed to do anything so frivolous as to 'stop and enjoy' a meal, simply for the pleasure of it. Pleasure in any form was unfortunately off the menu. He and Michelle had never been encouraged to play. In fact, if they were ever caught playing, they would immediately be scolded and redirected to some other, more productive, activity.
Shawn looked upon his parents almost like prison guards. One of the guilt tactics his parents had used to motivate them was to go on and on about how much they had sacrificed and the misery they were enduring to provide Shawn and Michelle the most opportunities in life.
He had thought that when he joined the military that he would be out from under their control and his life could begin.
However, it turned out that his parents had done their jobs too well. Shawn carried their pushing and prodding with him and avoided forming any meaningful relationships. He worked himself to the point of exhaustion and then berated himself for not pushing further and being the absolute best at every single thing he attempted.
As a result, when Shawn was recruited to the FBI at the end of his tour of duty, he automatically took on the challenge, never even considering if it were something that he actually wanted to do.
He toughed it out through all the research and desk work. Not once did he ever consider if he should have joined up. It was just the next rung on the ladder, so he went for it with one hundred percent dedication and determination.
That was his life. It was history. No changing it. The canvas of his life thus far was a wash of one insipid color. There were no defining events. There were no notable achievements, because he always achieved everything that he had been set to do.
The only thing that kept all of it from being a complete waste was Michelle. He had no doubt that his care and concern for her were the only things that had kept him human. He had to survive. He had to excel. He had to forge a path... for her. If he were to give up, if he were to give in to his most secret thoughts and let the mad scramble to the top finally end, then she would be left alone with no one to depend on.
* * * * *
As Agent Roberts pulled into the parking area behind the FBI office, he saw that Agent Fastbeck's car was already there.
Although Agent Roberts was going through the motions of being the up-and-coming FBI agent, something within him had fundamentally changed. His brief encounter with the Shadeside had seeded ideas within him about humanity and morality that he'd never had to deal with before.
Finding that he had been assigned to work with Agent Fastbeck on the unofficially designated 'X-Files', had turned out to be less troubling for him than it might have been before. There was certainly a desire to investigate and understand what was really going on. But at the same time, Shawn had been deemed worthy of trust and allowed to remember secret things that very few other outsiders knew. With the forbidden knowledge that he carried, he had the opportunity to make a unique contribution. He could change lives. He could achieve something simply for the fact that he actually believed in it.
For the first time, the choices before him weren't black and white. In this endeavor, his beliefs and desires would have to be taken into account. Not only could he make a difference, but it was possible that the outcome could be determined by him. Due to his unique perspective, it was possible that he would be the only one with the objectivity to determine right from wrong in a given situation.
* * * * *
As he walked into the FBI office, he heard Agent Fastbeck call out, "I got you some coffee. It's on the desk."
Shawn was surprised by the friendly gesture.
When he had been shopping the previous evening, he hadn't thought about picking up coffee and felt the lack of it when he had been driving to work.
"Thank you." Shawn called back to him, then picked up the coffee, noticing that Agent Fastbeck had left him packets of creamer and sugar.
"How are you doing this morning?" Agent Fastbeck asked as he walked into the room. "I didn't know if you liked coffee or not, so I took a chance."
"This is great. I'm in the habit of driving through to get coffee on the way to work in the morning. If I'd thought of it, I would have picked some up yesterday when we were shopping." Agent Roberts said honestly before taking a sip.
"Just so you know, if you take your coffee cup by the Waxell Diner on the way into work, you can walk in and fill it up with no charge."
"How can they make any money if they keep giving things away like that?"
"That's just for us, law enforcement, I mean. Everyone else has to dig deep and come up with twenty-five cents a cup." Agent Fastbeck finished with a grin.
Agent Roberts couldn't think of a response to that and just shook his head slowly as he thought about the typical five dollar cup of coffee he would usually pick up on the way to work.
"Well, despite appearances, we actually do have things to do this morning, so we'd better get to it." Agent Fastbeck said seriously.
"Okay. I'm ready. Just tell me what we're doing."
"Well, what I'm doing is creating a timeline based on eyewitness testimony regarding an event out near Buckthorn last week. What I'd like for you to do is start working your way through the top drawer of the file cabinet. Those are the most recent and active investigations. I'd like for you to take some time to get familiar with them."
"Where do you want me to work?" Agent Roberts asked as he looked around, only spotting the one desk.
"Right here. This is technically the reception area. I'll be back in my office." Agent Fastbeck said as he indicated the door behind him.
"This cabinet?" Agent Roberts asked as he pointed beside his desk.
"That's the one. Feel free to ask any questions that you have. I wrote most of those reports, so if I didn't explain something clearly, I can probably fill in the blanks from memory.
* * * * *
As Agent Roberts made his way through the reports, he couldn't help but agree with Agent Fastbeck's assertion that the area seemed to get more than their fair share of 'X-Files' cases.
One particular case caught his attention and before he could think about what he was doing, he carried it with him as he knocked on Agent Fastbeck's door.
"What's up?" Agent Fastbeck asked as he looked up from his desk.
"As I was looking through the files, I came across this case from Grovers Station and had a few questions about it." Agent Roberts said seriously.
"I'm pretty sure everything I know is in the report. Three hikers went out into the mountains and two came back. Matthew Farmer is officially listed as missing, presumed dead."
"So his body was never recovered?"
"No. By all accounts the three of them were hiking and suddenly they noticed that Matt was missing. That's the whole story."
"Would you mind if I went there and poked around a little bit?"
"You want to drive out there right now?"
"Yes. If you wouldn't mind. This just bears some slight resemblance to another case that I've been on and I'd like to take what I learned on that one and apply it to this."
"Okay, but if you're going to do this, you'll need to take my car. There's a CB radio in there that you can use to stay in contact with the civilian authorities. Remember, we're all on the same side of things, don't be afraid to ask for their help."
"I'll do that." Agent Roberts assured him.
"You'll also need to take my sat phone with you so that you can contact me with any information requests that you might have. The office landline is programmed into the contacts."
"I don't want to leave you stranded here."
"Then leave me your car keys. I probably won't be called out, but that way if I am, I won't have to go knocking on doors for someone to drive me to the crime scene... things like that kind of chip away at our credibility."
Agent Roberts smiled as he fished his car keys out of his pocket.
"Are you okay with me going? I mean, is there something else that you'd rather I be doing right now?"
"I've done everything that I can think to do with the cases that you've been reviewing. If you have an idea of how to progress an investigation, then you have my full support."
"Thanks. I appreciate the amount of trust that you're placing in a person who's a virtual stranger to you."
"Don't forget that you've only officially been on the job for an hour and forty-five minutes." Agent Fastbeck said with a grin.
Agent Roberts collected the keys to Agent Fastbeck's car and the sat phone before leaving.
* * * * *
As Agent Roberts got onto the interstate, he decided that he'd try his cell phone.
He was happy to find that he was able to get a clear signal and immediately speed dialed.
"Shelly? Can you talk?"
"Shawn? Did you get there alright? Did you run into any trouble? Why didn't you call me when you arrived?"
"Hold on! Give me a chance to answer." Shawn chuckled, then continued, "It turns out that my assignment is in a dead zone. I can't get any cell phone signal at all. The only reason I'm able to call you now is because I'm on the road, going out to investigate a case."
"So you're alright?"
"Yes, Shell. I'm fine. You wouldn't believe the house that I've rented. It's like a dream."
"So everything's okay? All of a sudden you just seemed to drop out of sight."
"I'm an FBI agent, Shell, that's kinda what we do."
"I guess it's better than you being in some war-torn third world hellhole. But I still worry about you."
"How are things going with you? You've got to be close to graduating by now."
"I think I've got that in the bag. But just as soon as I've gotten my MD, I'm going to have to work on getting board certified. I'm a little more worried about that one."
"You'll do great. But if you need a break from the studying, think about coming to Waxell and spending a few weeks with me. It'll probably do you some good to get away from the pressure for a while."
"Ever since you started with the FBI, Mom and Dad have been focusing all their attention on me. If I even stop to take a breath, they're both right on top of me, forcing me back on task."
"Someday you're going to have to stand up to them and start living your own life."
"Both of them have devoted their lives to making sure that we're both successes. Since you've gone, I'm all that they've got left. What are they going to do If I bail out on them too?"
"You're letting their guilt trips get to you. This isn't healthy. They're adults. They need to develop their own interests and lives independent from us. You buying into their manipulation isn't helping them at all."
"That's easy for you to say. You just dropped out of their lives and abandoned them. You didn't even call them to wish them a happy anniversary."
"Shell, I'm sorry if you don't understand why I'm doing this. I promise that I'm not doing it to hurt you. But if I'm ever going to be my own person, I've got to break their stranglehold on me. If I stay in close contact with them, they'll suck me right back in and I might never escape."
After a few seconds of silence, Shelly quietly said, "The pressure is killing me."
"I know." Agent Roberts said sympathetically, then gently added, "Think about coming to visit me in Waxell. It will be a chance for you to get away from everything for a while."
"Okay. I'll think about it." Shelly finally responded.
"I've got to go. I have a few business calls to make."
"Thanks for calling me... and for not cutting me out of your life."
"I love you, Shell. Part of why I'm doing this is for you, to show you the way."
"I love you too. Bye."
* * * * *
"Yes. Who is this?"
"Agent Roberts from the FBI. I was wondering if you'd be available to talk with me for a few minutes?"
"Have you found Matt? Is he alright?"
"No. I'm sorry. There haven't been any new developments in the case, but in reading his case file I noticed a few similarities to another case, so I thought that I'd try to see if they might be related."
"I don't understand."
"If you're available to speak with me for a few minutes, I'd like to ask you some questions. I can't promise that this will do anything to find your friend, but at least you'll know that we haven't given up. We're still investigating."
"Yeah. Where and when do you want to meet?"
"I should be there in about ten minutes. If you can tell me where you'll be, I'll meet you there."
"I could meet you at the entrance to the library... do you want to talk to Doug, too?"
"Yes. I was going to call him next."
"He's here with me. We'll both meet you at the library when you arrive."
"I'll see you then."
* * * * *
"Theresa?" Agent Roberts asked as he approached.
"Call me Teri. This is Doug." She said anxiously as she indicated the young man next to her.
"Thank you for meeting with me. I'll try not to take up too much of your time."
"That's okay. If it'll help Matt, we'll do whatever we can." Teri assured him.
"Can you tell me about the area where you went hiking? Is it a popular hiking trail?"
"I wouldn't call it popular but most of the locals know about it. There isn't really a trail to speak of, but if you go due north, you'll end up at the lake. It's beautiful up there and it's not too bad of a hike." Teri explained.
"So the three of you decided to go up to the lake, just to enjoy the scenery and relax for a while?" Agent Roberts asked carefully.
"Yeah. It was a nice day and it was something to do." Teri said simply.
Agent Roberts looked at Teri for a long moment, then turned his gaze on Doug.
"Sometimes it's just nice to get away." Doug muttered somewhat defensively.
Agent Roberts slowly nodded as he kept his gaze fixed on the young man who was beginning to squirm under his scrutiny.
"It doesn't matter anyway. We never made it there." Teri suddenly interjected.
"What happened?" Agent Roberts asked in response, but kept his gaze steadfastly focused on Doug.
"I don't know. The three of us were hiking and then, all of a sudden, Matt just wasn't with us anymore. We called out to him, but he never answered." Teri said helplessly.
"Doug, would you mind stepping over here and talking with me privately for a moment?" Agent Roberts asked slowly.
"I just have something to ask you and I thought it might be more comfortable for you if I asked you about it privately."
Doug looked uncertain, but started to step away.
"This will just take a minute." Agent Roberts assured Teri, then guided Doug to walk down the sidewalk a little way, to stand with him under a tree.
* * * * *
"Before I ask you any questions, I just want for you to understand where I'm coming from. The only reason I'm here is to investigate the disappearance of your friend Matt. I'm not interested in whatever else you and your friends might have been up to, except for how it relates to my investigation. So if I were to discover that the three of you... let's say, had a grow hidden in the woods, I wouldn't care except inasmuch as it might give a motive for Matt's disappearance. Do you follow me?"
"What's a grow?"
"A secret pot growing operation."
"Oh. Um, okay." Doug said nervously.
"So, why don't you tell me the truth? What was really going on that day?"
"Matt wanted to try having sex with a girl." Doug said with a blush rising up his cheeks.
"Matt's gay and we were talking and... well, Teri likes him and... we were going up to the lake and the three of us..."
"The three of you?"
"Yeah. Matt said that he probably wouldn't be able to get it up if it was just him and a girl and since he and I had done some stuff..."
"Hold on. That's actually more than enough. So why don't you tell me what happened that day? Where did it all go wrong?"
"It's just like Teri was telling you. We were hiking up to the lake and somewhere along the way, Matt must have fallen behind or gone in a different direction. All of a sudden, he just wasn't with us anymore."
"So you weren't having a fight or anything like that?"
"He was a little bit nervous, but I'm pretty sure that he wanted to go through with it. I mean, I said that if he'd try it with Teri that I'd be willing to try letting him... you know... do me... since I'd never..."
"Again, more than enough." Agent Roberts interrupted, then asked, "Do you recall any unusual sounds, like movement in the underbrush or animal sounds?"
"No. I mean, there might have been, but if there was, it wasn't anything that you wouldn't expect on a hike."
Agent Roberts slowly nodded, then carefully asked, "Did Matt say anything about someone stalking him or following him around at all?"
"No. He never mentioned anything like that... and he would have. We were that kind of friends."
"Can you think of anything that might indicate that there was a 'person' behind his disappearance?" Agent Roberts asked seriously.
"No. Do you think that someone took Matt?" Doug asked anxiously.
"The main reason that I'm asking is because of what happened in another case that I worked on. So far there's nothing to imply that the two cases are in any way related, but I just thought I would pursue this line of questioning on the off chance that it might produce some satisfactory results."
"Everyone who knew Matt liked him, but Teri and I are just about the only people who were close to him."
"Forgive me for asking you this, but I'd like to get your point of view. What do you think Teri's motivation was for engaging in... your plan?" Agent Roberts asked cautiously.
"She liked Matt. I mean, she's been his friend for years, but she's always lusted after him. I knew that and when Matt said that he'd like to try it with a girl, I kind of arranged things."
"Would you mind staying right here for a few minutes while I talk to Teri privately?"
"You're going to tell her that I told you, aren't you?"
"I'm going to ask her to tell me the truth from her point of view. Since she's been watching us talk, that might be enough."
"Either way, she's probably going to be pissed off at me forever."
"Sorry about that. I'm not trying to make things difficult for you, I'm just trying to find your friend."
"Go ahead. Do anything you can think of to find him."
Agent Roberts nodded, then walked back to Teri, who had been watching their every move.
* * * * *
"Slow down." Doug said firmly.
Agent Roberts thought that he had been going slow, but applied the brake to bring his borrowed car to a crawl.
"It's up here on the right. It's really hard to see." Doug said as he pointed.
"Thanks for going up here with me. There's no way I would have found this on my own."
"That's probably why the locals are the only ones who go up to the lake. No one else can find it."
After following the dirt road a short way, Doug finally said, "That's about as far as you can go. From here we'll have to go on foot."
"How long of a walk is it?" Agent Roberts asked cautiously.
"It's just about an hour from here to the place where Matt disappeared."
"And you just travel due north?"
"Yes. There aren't really any landmarks along the way. It's a straight shot north from right here."
"Are you up to a hike?"
"Are you going to hike in that suit?" Doug asked dubiously.
"Yeah. Actually, I'm getting more and more used to it."
Doug shrugged, then flipped up the face of his wristwatch to reveal the compass beneath.
As they began to walk, Agent Roberts decided that he should get something like that for himself. Considering that both cases that he had worked on in the field so far had involved hiking through wooded areas, it would seem that a compass watch would receive much use.
* * * * *
"Can you tell me your first name?"
* * * * *
"Have you ever been with a guy?"
"No. And 'no', I'm not curious. And 'yes', I'm sure."
"Sorry if that disappoints you."
"That's okay. I'm supposed to be going steady with Teri right now... just every now and then I feel like doing something different."
"I'm not going to tell you how you should run your life, but if you're willing to have sex with some random guy that you just met, it's probably best that you're not telling Teri that you two have some type of commitment to each other."
"It's okay. She doesn't mind if I mess around with the guys sometimes. Just as long as she's the only woman in my life."
"You know what? If the two of you are happy, then who am I to judge?"
"What about you, Shawn? Are you sold on the whole 'monogamous, one man, one woman, forever and ever, amen' thing?"
"I'm not at a point in my life where there's any reason for me to even think about it."
"How does that work?"
"I just put it out of my mind and focus on more important things. When a time comes that I'm seeking companionship... or intimacy... then I'll take a good look at the situation that I'm in and the options available to me."
"That's just weird."
* * * * *
"It's around here somewhere." Doug said as he stopped.
"Is that where you noticed that Matt was missing or the last place that you remember seeing him?"
"This is where we noticed that he was missing. If you want to backtrack a little, I'll show you where we last saw him."
"Hold on. Be quiet for just a minute." Agent Roberts said as he closed his eyes.
As he slowly turned his head, he listened as carefully as he could.
"Do you hear that?" Agent Roberts quietly asked.
"Something moving, maybe... it could be water... whatever it is, it's over that way." Agent Roberts said as he pointed behind them.
"I don't hear anything."
"Stay on the path. I'm going to go down this hill to see if I can track down that sound."
"Don't you want me to go with you?"
"No. I'm counting on you to keep us oriented so that we can find our way back."
* * * * *
After scooting down the hillside and forcing his way through heavy underbrush, Agent Roberts finally made his way to the source of the sound.
His hopes fell as he walked up to the pool of water being fed by a natural spring.
"Doug?! Can you hear me?!" Agent Roberts called upward, but received no response.
"Help..." A voice whispered from nearby.
Agent Roberts jumped, as if jolted with electricity at the sound.
"Hello? Is someone there?"
"Help me..." The voice said weakly, but this time Shawn could determine where the voice had come from.
As he tore at the gathered roots and moss, they parted to reveal that the small spring that he had discovered was, in fact, the mouth of a cave.
"Hello? Are you in there?" Agent Roberts asked as he tore at the covering more frantically.
"Matt, is that you?"
"Yes. Do I know you?"
"No. Your friends Teri and Doug asked me to help look for you. Are you hurt?"
"I can't feel my legs anymore."
As Agent Roberts continued to dig and tear at the tenacious roots, he finally caught a glimpse of what they were hiding.
"Can you take my hand?" Agent Roberts asked as he stretched as far as he could.
"I don't know if I can hold on. My hands are kinda numb too... it's so cold."
"If you can just give me your hand, I'll do all the holding and pulling."
It took a moment, but finally a hand thrust out toward him.
"That's great. That's perfect. Just relax and let me do all the work. You're nearly out of there."
"Thank you..." Matt said quietly as Shawn continued to strain to pull the man out of his confinement.
* * * * *
"I don't see anything broken. I'm guessing that your legs just went numb from being submerged for so long." Shawn said as he carefully checked over the incoherent young man.
"Were you trapped? Just over a week. Although the hypothermia almost killed you, it also probably saved your life. Otherwise you would have starved to death by now."
"Thank you." Matt whispered as his eyes closed.
"Don't thank me yet. The only way I can think of to get you back to the car is a fireman's carry. That's probably not going to be too comfortable for you."
Matt slightly nodded with his eyes still closed.
Shawn took off his suit coat and did his best to wrap it around the chilled young man.
Suiting actions to words, Agent Roberts leaned down, then in one 'power move', hoisted Matt onto his shoulder.
It took a moment for him to get his balance, but he was soon underway, doing his best to force his way through the underbrush.
His next challenge was to try and climb the hillside wearing his black business shoes.
As soon as this mission was complete, he planned to discuss the dress code with Agent Fastbeck. He had an increasing conviction that his 'official uniform' should include hiking boots, if not a full outfit of hiking gear.
"Doug! Can you hear me?" Agent Roberts called out as he continued to climb.
"Agent Roberts? I was getting worried! Are you alright?"
"I'm fine. Just keep talking to me so that I can find you." Agent Roberts said with renewed determination.
"I found something while you were gone. There's a hole here, I think it's a cave. It's right here where we were walking, so Matt might have fallen into it. Do you think that there's some way we can get, like, a camera or something to lower down there to see if he fell in?"
"I have a feeling that won't be necessary." Agent Roberts called in return as he caught his first glimpse of Doug, standing amongst the trees.
"Why not..." Doug asked, then turned when he heard Shawn approaching.
"You found him! He's alive?" Doug asked in wonder.
"Yes. Very much so. He's kind of heavy. I'm going to need to rest for a minute before we hike back."
"Watch out! That's where the hole is." Doug said quickly.
"Would you take a minute to gather some rocks? Then form them into an arrow pointing at that hole. Once this is all done, I'll be sure that someone is sent out here to either cap it or put up a barrier so unsuspecting hikers won't fall into it again."
"That's a good idea. I'll take care of it." Doug said quickly.
"I'm alive?" Matt quietly asked.
"Who are you?"
"Agent Shawn Roberts from the FBI."
"FBI? And you rescued me?"
"Yeah. I guess I did."
"All my life I've been looking for my knight in shining armor... somehow, you're not what I expected." Matt said quietly, sounding to be half asleep or delirious.
"Are you disappointed?" Shawn asked with a smile, not at all offended by his words.
"No. The man of my dreams was a wimpy little fairy compared to you. You're better than my dreams."
"Let's see if you still feel the same way once you've recovered from the hypothermia and gotten a few good meals into you."
"How's that?" Doug asked as he indicated the stone arrow that he had put into place.
"Perfect. Anyone walking through here should at least have the presence of mind to investigate that rather than unknowingly falling in." Agent Roberts said as he worked the sat phone out of his pocket and turned it on.
"There aren't any cell phone towers out this far." Doug quietly informed him.
"This is a satellite phone, but I can't get a signal under this tree cover." Agent Roberts said seriously as he turned off the phone and got to his feet.
"Was that enough of a rest for you?" Doug asked with concern.
"Yeah. I just needed to catch my breath. I'll try the sat phone again when we're out in the open." Agent Roberts assured him, then added, "I'm going to be counting on you to lead the way. I'm going to have all my attention focused on caring for my passenger."
Doug flipped the face of his watch up, then pointed as he said, "This way."
* * * * *
"What the hell happened to you? Have you been digging in the dirt?" Agent Fastbeck asked in astonishment.
"Actually, yeah. I have." Agent Roberts said with a chuckle.
"I found Matthew Farmer... alive."
"Yeah. Apparently he fell into a cave when they were hiking and got wedged into place right before it let out into a natural spring. We had an ambulance meet us at the road. There's no doubt that he's going to need some time to recover, but he should come out of it with quite a story to tell."
"That's one hell of a first day on the job. I can't wait to see what you're going to do next."
"Right now, I'm going to get cleaned up. Do you know where there's a good dry cleaner?"
"Of course." Agent Roberts chuckled, then placed Agent Fastbeck's keys and sat phone on his desk as he said, "As soon as I'm cleaned up, I'll see what I can do about your upholstery."
"Yeah. Thanks. When you're done with that, you'll need to get to work on your report about the incident." Agent Fastbeck said frankly.
"Ungh! Reports!" Agent Roberts lamented, then quietly added, "I'm beginning to wonder if it's worth it."
"Just remember, that boy's alive right now thanks to you."
"Right." Agent Roberts said resignedly, then quietly added, "It's worth it."
To Be Continued...
Oh yeah, it's worth it. Interesting that there was not a bit of Xfile voodoo.
Shawn has very good hearing and he pays close attention to what his senses are telling him. All of those things are good things for an investigator to possess. I'm ready for more!
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher