TV Series Placement: Summer 2001 – Post-Season 2
Now that their best chance for returning to the home planet has left without them, the "Czechoslovakian" residents of Roswell (code for aliens) must adjust to a more permanent existence on earth than they were expecting. Seeing a possible future for the two of them, Maria nags Michael about money, sending him packing on a salaried weekend trip to help a geologist study a proposed chemical company site. As the group camps out under the stars, a round of spooky ghost stories provides entertainment – until one of the guys sees a real ghost. The kicker? Michael can see it too.
River Dog has also been plagued by the shades of the past in recent days, and he brings Max out to the desert to bear witness as the apparition threatens him. He tells Max of an ancient Mesaliko prophecy that tells of vengeance being exacted by the tribe's ancestors if Visitors are allowed to remain among them – Visitors like Max, Michael, and Isabel. As the hauntings increase in both frequency and violence, the alien teens and their friends know they must uncover the true origin of the phantoms – whether physical, mystical, or alien – before the ghosts follow through on their deadly threats.
Pale lightning, the color of splintered bone, tore jagged streaks in the dark night sky. Thunder pealed, still a little distant, but definitely growing closer.
Lying on his back on top of his sleeping bag near the campfire, Michael Guerin stared up at the swirling storm clouds. Excitement coursed through him, and… surprisingly… the sensation felt good. Usually, given the secrets he held, excitement was a bad thing.
"What?" Michael asked, not bothering to look at the speaker and resenting the interruption.
"What are you grinning about?"
"Didn't know I was."
"Well you are, and I think it's about time you stopped. Getting caught by a storm out here isn't exactly something most folks want to do."
"Sure." Michael adjusted his laced fingers behind his head and tried not to look so cheerful. That morning he'd been glum and taciturn. Taciturn had been the word Junior
Doggett had used. The word wasn't one that Michael had ever used, or intended to use. Except maybe on a test in school now that he'd decided to carry on with getting an education.
The lightning sparked again, threading the sky with spidery shafts. The air mass over the desert floor shifted, dropping at least five degrees.
"Going to be cold tonight," Junior said.
"Maybe you shoulda brought your flannels," Flynn suggested. Where Junior was narrow-shouldered and short, Flynn Boyd was big and burly, outspoken and rude. Flynn was one of the reserve backs on the Roswell High football team.
Michael didn't hang with either one of the guys back in school, but the summer had conspired to bring them together. All of them had been hired by Kurt Bulmer, a local geologist, to help survey the tracts of land outside Roswell where they'd camped out less than an hour ago.
The loud detonation of thunder sounded almost overhead. The sudden gust of wind that followed the crash gave the impression a cannon had gone off nearby and dusted the campsite with blowback that carried a spray of sand. The dome tents quavered under the onslaught, then once more looked like gaily-colored toadstools bubbling up from the harsh, broken ground.
Michael couldn't help himself. He grinned. The others were freaking, and he felt more alive than ever.
I'm free, Michael thought contentedly. No arguments with Maria for the next couple of days. No questions about what I'm going to do with myself. No discussions of responsibility.
Of course that freedom couldn't last. There was still the schedule at the Crashdown Cafe to return to in a couple of days when the surveying gig petered out. School had ended for the summer only a few days ago, and so had his chance to return to his home world.
Tess had gone, though, and she'd taken Max's baby. But Michael supposed he was pretty okay with that even though Tess's betrayal and murder of Alex still caused his stomach to knot up every time he thought about it; Max wasn't ready to be a dad no matter what he thought, but Tess wasn't the answer to that problem, and Michael still wanted Tess to pay for what she had done to all of them. To Michael's way of thinking, there was always plenty of time for Max to play dad later. It would be tough dealing with Max till he accepted that, but hiding out in a small town while not being quite human was pretty tough, too. Michael was all about tough living.
Lightning flared again, followed immediately by the sudden crash of thunder.
"Tents can leak," Junior grumbled.
"Nah," Flynn replied.
"Moisture passes right through tent walls," Junior argued.
"Only if you touch the tent wall while it's raining, numbskull," Flynn retorted. "Just don't lean up against the tent wall after the rain starts."
"And if I roll over against the tent wall while I'm sleeping?"
"No prob," Flynn said. "I'll just zip you up in your sleeping bag nice and tight. Kurt's got plenty of duct tape in the gear we brought."
Two of the other guys at the camp started to laugh. Junior cursed them all. For a guy who knew big words, Michael decided, Junior pretty much knew how to talk trash with the best of them.
Gathering himself with a lithe move, Michael spun around and sat up on the sleeping bag, roping his arms around his knees while he stared at the two verbal combatants. "Hey, Bert and Ernie," he said.
Flynn glared at Michael while Junior joined in with a reproachful look. Hostility and guilt all mixed into one convenient little package, Michael thought. Could be daunting, guys, but Maria's got you both beat.
"What?" Flynn snarled.
"Bored?" Michael asked. He wore a dust-streaked T-shirt and jeans. Baths were a couple days off after they returned to civilization. Maria couldn't have handled the rough living, but the hardship was cake to Michael.
"What are you talking about?" Flynn asked suspiciously.
Michael stared out across the campsite, knowing he had the attention of the other four guys on the work crew. All of them had gathered around the bonfire in the middle of the campsite. Only a short distance away, Kurt Bulmer sat in his private dome tent and worked at his notebook computer by the light of an electric lantern.
Tiller and Perry rounded out the work crew. Tiller was just a guy Michael had passed in the halls, somebody spending time in the institution to get on to the next phase of his life. Last year Tiller had dropped out of school after his ex-navy father had committed suicide, deciding to work to help out his mom and three younger sisters.
Perry was a gamer who was so geeky, he didn't even fit in with the brainiacs like Junior and his friends. As usual, he wore sunglasses even at night and a black T-shirt with a nearly naked anime babe wielding a sword and pistol. Seated only a short distance away, cross-legged, Perry unconsciously shuffled cards from a collectible card game he and the other gamers played at school and at the Crash-down.
"We're all bored," Michael explained. He glanced up at the lightning-streaked heavens. So far they'd been lucky and the rain had held off. "It's night, but the time's what? Maybe nine o'clock? Way before our usual bedtimes, and we don't have anything to do."
"Probably not before Junior's bedtime," Flynn said, drawing a scathing retort from Junior.
Michael took a deep breath and reached for what little patience he had remaining. "1 was just thinking that maybe we could figure out something to do."
Perry shuffled his cards suggestively. No one took him up on the unspoken offer.
"I know," Junior said, scrambling for his backpack. He pulled out a couple library books. Further searching turned up a small flashlight. He shoved the flashlight under his chin and turned the beam on. The golden light played across the planes of his face, turning his eyes into cavernous hollows.
"You're a pumpkin?" Flynn asked. "You want to play Halloween?"
"No, you cretinous moron," Junior said in disgust.
Flynn stood up, rising to his full, impressive height. "Talking like that is gonna get you thumped."
Junior flicked the flashlight off as if trying to vanish into the night's shadows.
"Flynn crush," Perry said, laughing derisively. "Flynn destroy."
Flynn shot Perry a venomous glare. "I get done here, I got plenty left over for you, geek."
"Not Halloween," Michael said, trying to bring the conversation back to the subject of distraction rather than destruction. "Ghost stories."
Junior flicked the flashlight on again, highlighting his face once more. "Bwah-haaaa-haaaaa!" he bellowed.
Despite his rough-and-ready act, Flynn was startled and jumped back at the outburst. The instinctive retreat caused Perry and Tiller to laugh. Michael grinned wider, but really wasn't looking forward to ghost stories, which he considered almost as boring as the argument between Flynn and Junior. Still, he was glad someone had thought of something to do.
"Think you can handle it, Flynn?" Perry taunted. "How many times have you been out in this part of the desert? They got all kinds of spooky things supposed to be rambling around out here."
Tiller joined in, obviously enjoying the challenge of rattling Flynn. "The Mesaliko Indians believed in shape-changing monsters with a taste for human flesh. And there are all kinds of stories about murders on trail drives and wagon trains rolling into California during the gold rush." He nodded at the hills surrounding the campsite. "Maybe you don't know what's really out there."
"You guys are full of crap," Flynn said. "I haven't been scared since I was in diapers."
"Let's see," Junior mused. "That would make it… last week?"
Flynn doubled his fists and started toward Junior.
Normally Michael wouldn't have stepped in, because he liked to keep to himself. Instead he was up and between Flynn and Junior in a heartbeat. Tiller had gotten to his feet as well, but he would have been too late.
Flynn glared at Michael. "You want some of this, Guerin?"
Michael kept his own hands up, fingers outstretched in a nonthreatening way, but he knew he could use his forearms to block anything Flynn tried to throw. "Me?" He shook his head.
"Then get out of my way."
"Can't do that," Michael said.
Flynn set himself, ready to punch.
"Think about it," Michael said. "You guys fight, maybe we lose the job. I don't know about you, but I can use the money we're getting paid." He eyed Flynn levelly.
Flynn glanced at the tent where Kurt Bulmer still labored.
"What about it, Flynn?" Michael asked. "You think maybe a good payday means you can put up with Junior another couple days?"
Flynn shot a harsh glance over Michael's shoulder. "Still gonna kick your butt after we get back to town."
Junior laid back, his hands clasped behind his head like the threat was nothing.
"I'm thinking ghost story," Michael said, not taking his eyes from Flynn. "What about you, Tiller?"
"Sure. I got half a bag of marshmallows left."
"Perry," Michael said, "you want to tell the first one?"
"Sure," Perry said, rifling his deck of cards. "I got a good one. I call it 'The Head-Eater.'"
"Terrific. Sounds like a winner." Michael stared up at Flynn. "We okay here?"
"Sure," Flynn said grudgingly. After a final stare, he turned and lumbered back to his sleeping bag.
From the corner of his eye Michael caught Junior making a gesture that would have probably gotten him killed if Flynn had seen him do it. Michael retreated to his own sleeping bag as Perry began his story.
"This all happened a long time ago," Perry began in a properly creepy voice. "A hundred years ago. Maybe more. Back in the days before the West was settled. Only the Mesaliko bands roamed the mountains and alkaline valleys out here those days, and they weren't friendly."
Doubt stirred within Michael. During the encounters they'd had with River Dog, one of the medicine men of the Mesaliko Native-American reservation outside of Roswell, Max had done research on the tribe. The Native-American group hadn't been extreme or harsh unless persecuted or threatened in some way.
"There was this one guy," Perry continued, "the tribe kicked out. His true name was soon forgotten by the tribe, or never used again because they considered him less than human."
"Why'd this guy get kicked out of the tribe?" Flynn asked, glaring at Junior. "Being some kind of pain in the butt nobody could take anymore?"
"No," Perry said. "Head-Eater got kicked out of the tribe for the same thing that earned him his nickname."
"Eating heads?" Junior asked in obvious excitement. His eyes danced behind his glasses.
"Yeah," Perry replied, warming to the story.
"Cool," Junior said.
Even Flynn lost part of the effort he was putting into ignoring the others.
"Seems Head-Eater got stranded in the mountains during one winter," Perry said. "He was with a hunting party when a blizzard came."
Michael only vaguely paid attention to the story. The tale followed the familiar patter of every ghost story he'd ever heard. He wasn't surprised by a whole lot of things that were crafted from mechanical artifices. Stories followed certain routes, and he'd even figured out the trick ending of The Sixth Sense.
Figuring out the ending had been okay, but telling Maria had obviously been a bad move. Actually, he still didn't understand what had been so bad about telling her; after all, she'd been dying to know what was really going on. But that had only been until he'd told her the trick. Then she was mad at him… again.
Perry strung the story out, building up the suspense and the gruesome horror of the grizzly bear that had attacked the trapped Mesaliko Indians and killed them one by one. The story was perfect camp tale fare, and the approaching storm added to the overall effect. Junior and Flynn were bug-eyed as they listened to Perry detail the bloodthirsty attacks by the bear.
Tiller kept to himself.
Too late Michael realized that with Tiller's dad committing suicide, ghost stories might not have been the best choice for an evening's entertainment. But there was nothing to do about it now that wouldn't make the situation worse by calling attention to Tiller.
"So Head-Eater's been lying there for days," Perry went on, "and he's getting hungrier than he's ever been. He starts looking at the dead warriors lying around him, and he starts thinking maybe they wouldn't taste so bad. So he starts a fire… "
"In the middle of a blizzard?" Flynn challenged.
Perry looked irritated. "The blizzards been over for days."
"What did he burn?" Flynn went on. "If there were any sticks up in the mountains, they'd all be covered by the snow."
"He found some sticks, okay?"
"Not in no blizzard," Flynn said.
"Besides," Junior said, "it would be better if the heads were raw. Grosser."
Michael reached for a nearby bag of marshmallows, took a couple out, and pierced them with the wire cooking utensil he'd used to fix hot dogs earlier. As the marshmallows caught fire, he thought about the way they looked kind of skull-like. He considered telling the others, but decided against it.
"Okay," Perry said, sighing, "the guy ate the heads raw. There he was, his leg all busted up from fighting the grizzly bear… "
"I thought you said it was his arm," Flynn interrupted.
"Damn!" Perry exploded. "Will you just let me tell the frigging story?"
"It's more believable if you get the details right," Junior said.
"Fine," Perry growled. "This guy has a busted arm, and he's just discovered he's got a busted leg."
"A busted arm," Flynn said doubtfully, "and he's rubbing two sticks together that weren't somehow covered over during this blizzard."
"Hey, I'm just telling this how I heard it," Perry protested.
"Get back to the head-eating part," Junior said. "We're right there with you for that."
Michael pulled his marshmallows out of the fire and blew the flames from the toasted brown sides. He waited just a moment, then popped them into his mouth, tasting the almost too-hot gooey goodness.
Perry elaborated on the cannibalism aspects of the story, lingering over the details till Flynn and Junior started to look green in the sudden lightning flashes. The cracking of skulls and scooping out what was inside seemed to do the trick.
Across the campfire Tiller stood and walked off into the brush. Lightning flickered and lit him up in still shots out of the darkness three times, then he was gone from sight.
"In the spring when he returned to the tribe," Perry said, "other warriors traveled to the mountain pass to bury the dead guys. Sent them on to the happy hunting ground so their spirits wouldn't get trapped here in this world."
"So those guys found out what Head-Eater had been doing all winter?" Flynn said.
Perry nodded, but by now his heart clearly wasn't in the story. "There were cracked skulls lying around everywhere, looking like shelled pecans. Head-Eater tried to pass off what had happened as the work of the grizzly, but the other warriors knew. They kicked him out of the tribe."
Michael eyed the marshmallow bag, but knew he'd had enough sweets. He was either going to try to go to sleep and ignore the other guys or raid the cooler for more hot dogs.
"You know," Flynn said, looking at Junior, "I don't think grizzly bears were ever known to hang out in New Mexico."
"Nope," Junior agreed. "I watched a special on them on Discovery a couple nights ago. They always stayed up in the northern and coastal areas."
Perry sighed in exasperation. "Doesn't anyone want to know what happened to Head-Eater?"
"He got kicked out of the tribe," Flynn said, "then went on to wander around the neighborhood here. He ambushed and kidnapped people from wagon trains and in local settlements, then he killed them and ate them."
"Probably left a pile of skulls around," Junior agreed. "He died, but since the tribe refused to bury him, his spirit still walks the desert and he's still eating people."
Perry cursed and flopped back down on his sleeping bag. "You guys suck," he said, and before he finished the word, Tiller's panicked scream rang out through the nearby hills, washed away by the sudden peal of thunder.
"Hey!" Flynn said. "That was Tiller!"
Already galvanized into action, Michael, rising from the sleeping bag, peered into the darkness that had surrounded the desert campsite. Shadows stretched away and filled the night in all directions, hardly interrupted at all by the campfire.
“Where did Tiller go?” Junior asked anxiously.
Kurt Bulmer raced from the tent and stood in front of the open flap. "What's going on out there?"
As Junior tried to explain, Michael grabbed the backpack he'd been saddled with all day. He rummaged inside and came up with a flashlight. Grabbing the flashlight, he ran in the direction of the screams. The downpour that had finally begun stung his eyes and matted his hair, and had turned the dry desert floor into muddy slush.
Tiller screamed again, but this time the effort was hoarse and wracked with pain.
Michael played the flashlight beam over the hill in front of him. Scrub brush and cacti clung to the steep hillside. His right foot shot out from under him. He fell to one knee, but pushed himself forward again.
The hill was steeper on the other side. Michael's tennis shoes tore through the muddy crust and he slid down, brushing up against a hedgehog cactus that left fiery nettles in his forearm. He ignored the pain and played the flashlight beam over Tiller on the ground before him.
Tiller huddled on his knees in the mud. Rainwater ran in rivulets around him, threading through his hands pressed into the mud. He kept his head down and shuddered.
"Tiller," Michael called, playing the light over the ground and the area around them. "Hey, Tiller."
Tiller didn't respond except to bury his face in the mud between his hands.
"What's wrong?" Kurt Bulmer called from the top of the rise Michael had slid down.
Michael glanced back up the hill and spotted Bulmer, Junior, Flynn, and Perry standing there. The lightning
cored through the sky above their heads, and thunder blasted away Michael's first attempt at a reply.
"I don't know," Michael said.
Bulmer started down the hillside but lost his balance on the slick mud and fell. He tumbled to the bottom of the hill while the others remained along the ridgeline.
"Tiller," Michael said, trying to calm the guy with his voice. He released the rock and put his hand on Tiller's shoulder. "What is it? What's wrong?"
"It's my dad," Tiller whispered hoarsely, rocking, shuddering, and trying to hold back choked sobs.
"What about his dad?" Bulmer asked, standing nearby.
"His dad is dead," Michael said.
"I'm sorry to hear that," Bulmer said. "But we need to get him in out of the rain."
Hooking an arm under Tiller's, Michael tried to help the guy to his feet. Tiller fought him off, pushing Bulmer away as well. "No!" Tiller shouted. "I can't leave!"
"Why?" Bulmer asked. "You'll be more comfortable back in one of the tents."
"My dad," Tiller said.
Bulmer hesitated. "We'll talk about your dad."
"My dad," Tiller tried again, "my dad doesn't want me to leave!"
"Your dad wouldn't want you to stand around out here," Bulmer stated.
"Then tell him!" Tiller straightened and pointed into the darkness ahead of them. "Tell him!"
At first Michael didn't see anything. Then, gradually, an ethereal shape seemed to materialize from the darkness just beyond the touch of the flashlight beam.
The figure was vaguely man-shaped, then more details became clearer. The man looked like he'd been covered from head to toe in some kind of silver shimmer, like an image from a black-and-white film that had been computer-generated onto color film the way Michael had seen in some commercials. He was tall and broad, with a cruel face, tiny eyes, and a wide, hard mouth.
The only thing that didn't fit was the short length of rope dangling from the noose around the guy's neck.
"Do you see it?" Michael asked. He had to strain to speak.
"See what?" Junior called down.
Michael gestured with the flashlight, noticing how the beam shone through the garish figure and played over the rocks and cacti on the other side. "The ghost."
"Don't see nothing," Flynn said.
Michael wanted to turn to Flynn and demanded to know how he couldn't see the ghost. Instead Michael kept the flashlight beam focused on the sinister image. For the first time, he caught the silvery glints of rain passing through the ghost.
"I don't either," Bulmer commented. "Give me a hand, Guerin. I want to get Tiller out of the rain. Maybe back to Roswell tonight."
"No!" Tiller shouted, staring forward. "Don't you see? My dad wants me to stay here!"
The figure at the other end of Michael's flashlight beam waved as if to indicate that Tiller should stay.
Michael turned to Bulmer. "You don't see anything?"
"No." Bulmer struggled to hang on to Tiller, who fought to escape. "I don't see anything."
Tiller surged in the man's grasp, bellowing out curses, screaming out to his father. Michael helped hold Tiller back, having real difficulty in the muddy water swirling over his feet.
As Michael watched, the ghost… the image, he corrected himself… broke into a run. Surefooted as a mountain goat, the specter seemed to have no problem at all running across the muddy ground. The hanged man sprinted across the short distance. His feet didn't disturb the water, and whatever noise he made didn't sound over the pealing thunder crashing through the heavens.
"Noooooo!" Tiller yelled. Instead of fighting against Bulmer and Michael, he suddenly reversed his efforts and tried to flee. Bulmer barely kept his footing, and Michael dropped to one knee, feeling the mud close around him.
In the next instant the ghost slammed into Tiller and Michael at the same time a bolt of lightning smacked the ground near them. A blinding moment of pain passed through Michael. He felt Tiller ripped from his hands, but that wasn't his main concern, because he suddenly fell backward, blown by some arcane force, and landed in the cold mud.
Time returned to Michael in a rush. He actually felt his heart start again, feeling like the beat had been primed with a stick of dynamite or TNT.
"Just lie still," Bulmer was saying.
Michael pushed the man's hands away. "I'm okay." He glanced down at Tiller as he pushed himself to a seated position. "How's he?"
"Out," Bulmer said. He laid a hand at the side of Tiller's neck. "He's got a strong pulse."
Even as Bulmer spoke, Tiller groaned and his eyes flickered open. "Did you see it?" Tiller asked.
"The lightning that hit the ground?" Bulmer asked.
Michael gazed silently at the football-size crater that had opened in the ground. He tried not to think about what would have happened to them if the bolt had struck them with all the water around.
"Not that," Tiller said. "The ghost. My father's ghost."
Bulmer shook his head. "That wasn't a ghost, Tiller. That was just lightning that came way too close."
"No," Tiller argued. "I saw my father's ghost."
Michael found the flashlight he'd been holding till the incredible force slammed into him. He shone the beam in all directions, but there was no sign of the image.
"Give me a hand," Bulmer said. "Let's get Tiller to Roswell and let someone in the ER take a look at him."
"No," Tiller objected, shaking them off. "I'm not going to the ER. I'm fine. I saw what 1 saw." He started to say more, but he caught himself and stopped. "I saw what I saw." His voice was low and quavering. Emotion lighted his eyes. Without another word he turned and walked back through the rain and over the muddy ground toward the camp.
Bulmer pointed his heavy-duty lantern at the ground. He held the beam steady for a moment, studying the crater. The halogen light reflected from the gathering water. "Did you see anything?" Bulmer asked.
Michael stared into the emptiness where the lights stripped the shadows away. Only hard rock covered with running water met his gaze.
Whatever Michael had seen was gone, and whatever it had been had gone unseen by the others. He had to think about that. His alien nature gave him different senses and powers than humans, and he still didn't know their full extent. But what he did know was one of the first lessons he'd learned: He couldn't come across as different. Anonymity meant safety.
He snapped off the flashlight and looked at Bulmer. "No. I didn't see anything." As he turned and trudged up the hill, Michael also hoped he never saw the specter again.
Max Evans pulled the rented 71 Oldsmobile Cutlass to a stop outside the Mesaliko Native-American reservation. After the jeep had blown up, he had needed wheels again. For the moment, the rented Cutlass fit the bill. He watched the people moving through the village while the yellow dust cloud he'd brought in with him dissipated. The sun beat down on the land, already hot though it was only midmorning.
He couldn't believe he was just sitting behind the wheel. The Mesaliko people watching him probably thought he was bored or lost. And maybe he was lost. Ever since Tess had left with the baby… his son… there had been an emptiness inside him that he'd never before experienced.
Max peered at his reflection in the dust-streaked windshield. I sent my son away, and I didn't go with him. What kind of father would do that?
All his life in school he'd struggled not to get involved with others, to maintain his own personal bubble of individuality. Getting caught up in the lives of others put him at risk because he was different. He'd always known he was different; he just hadn't known how much.
Yet as distant and reserved as he tried to make himself be, he'd involved himself in the lives of others without hesitation at times. That reservation had broken when he'd saved Liz Parker's life at the Crashdown Cafe almost two years ago. The image of Liz falling back when the gunman's bullet struck her still sometimes haunted Max's dreams. He had made a choice that day to use his powers to heal her, and had thrown them together and apart ever since.
Opening the Cutlass's door, Max stepped out into the oven heat that settled over the harsh land. The slow ticking of the Cutlass's cooling engine sounded loud in the silence of the village. A child wrapped an arm around her mother's leg and retreated behind the woman.
Three Mesaliko men in jeans, T-shirts, and sweat-stained denim shirts with the sleeves hacked off were putting a new roof on a community building. Although none of them spoke, the three men rose as one and stepped over the edge of the single-story building. Their boots thumped against the alkaline ground when they landed, then they headed for Max.
Max held his ground and watched them approach even though he wanted to get back into the Cutlass and leave. He watched the men stop just out of arm's reach, forming a semicircle around him.
"What are you doing here?" one of the men demanded. He was Max's height and slim build, but his arms and shoulders showed musculature from long, hard hours of manual labor. He kept a roofing hammer in one scarred hand.
"I was invited," Max said. He had to push the words out. From past visits to the reservation, he knew that the Mesaliko tribe didn't much care for outsiders, and cared even less for anyone connected to the legends of the Visitor that had arrived in the fateful spaceship crash in Roswell in 1947.
"Who invited you?" the man demanded.
"River Dog," Max answered. The messenger had found him only a short time ago in Roswell.
"I don't know anything about this," the man said.
Max nodded. "I'm sorry."
"He shouldn't be here," one of the other men declared.
"We could make him leave," the third man suggested.
Anger surged through Max. The emotion was raw and vibrant, sometning new that had become part of him after losing his son and seeing Liz with Kyle.
"I'm not leaving," Max said in a low voice.
The man holding the hammer stared at him, his face as cold and still as marble. "Maybe you won't have a choice, boy."
One of the men standing to the side took a step, moving farther behind Max.
Max resisted the impulse to step back toward the Cutlass to prevent them from circling him. For a moment, he realized the rebelliousness that filled him was something he would have expected from Michael.
A dog started barking excitedly. Running footsteps echoed between the small dwellings. A moment later, a young girl with feathers and turquoise twisted into her braids ran toward them. She wore khaki hiking shorts and a lavender spaghetti-strap tank, and couldn't have been more than ten years old.
"George Grayhawk," the young girl called out. "River Dog is waiting for this man."
Grayhawk, the man with the hammer, gave ground reluctantly at the little girl's approach. The speckled hound kept pace with her, continuing to bay eagerly.
The little girl stopped in front of Max, looking him over from head to toe as if he were a lab specimen. "You are Max?" she asked.
"Yes," Max answered.
The little girl reached up tentatively and took Max by the hand when he didn't come immediately. "My name is Sarah Swiftfox. You don't have to be afraid."
"I'm not afraid," Max said, getting into motion and following Sarah past Grayhawk and the other two men.
"Yes you are," Sarah replied, glancing over her shoulder.
Do children always know the truth? Max wondered. The possibility was something to think about. When his son met him again… and Max was somehow certain that would happen… would he believe the story Max told him about why he'd stayed behind instead of leaving with his mother? He let out a breath, realizing that his son might believe him, but the real question was whether he would understand.
The dog trotted along beside Max and Sarah as the little girl led the way out of the village and up into the surrounding hills. The sun burned down against the scorched earth.
Here and there Max could spot runnels and washes left over from the heavy rains three days ago, but they were all dried out now, leftover scars that the dry wind would soon rake smooth again. The bright purple, white, red, and yellow blooms of the various cacti spread across the cracked earth were still open at the moment.
Sarah stopped and pointed. "There's River Dog."
Following the line of her finger, Max spotted the shaman seated cross-legged on a blanket facing the rising sun. The shaman wore traditional dress, complete with symbols painted on his chest, arms, and face.
Unease rattled through Max's mind. "Is something wrong with him?" he asked the girl.
Sarah wrinkled her face as she watched the shaman. "I don't know. He hasn't told me anything was wrong."
"Why did he send for me?" Max asked.
The speckled hound whined for the girl's attention.
"I don't know." Sarah knelt and took the hound's muzzle in her hands. The animal ceased whining and lapped at her face. "Our stories, the legends of the People, often say that two people who are incomplete, each with his or her own problems, often find ways to help each other." She stood. "I can see that you have problems of your own. Maybe that was what River Dog was thinking when he sent for you. I hope it's true."
Me too, Max said. One of the avenues he'd intended to explore to help him find his son had been the Mesaliko shaman. He just hadn't known how River Dog was going to do that, and he hadn't been ready to tell the shaman what was going on. River Dog had helped them discover the healing stones, and Nacedo after a fashion, but he hadn't been entirely supportive either. River Dog's comments to Liz had shown that. Still, the shaman had helped when Michael had gotten sick.
Max turned back to the girl, intending to thank her. Instead he saw Sarah halfway down the hillside with the speckled hound at her side.
Resolutely, Max turned back to the shaman and crossed the ridgeline. His shoes crunched through the baked surface of the hillside.
Only a few feet from the shaman quick movement darted through rocks and small, barrel-shaped pear cacti. Max tried to track the movement, catching a glimpse of a silvery blur that disappeared into the cracked earth.
In the next instant a wall of air slammed into Max hard enough to make him stumble. He straightened, turning into the wind and facing in the direction of the rising sun. Hooves drummed the ground with deafening loudness.
The wind had whipped up a yellow, alkaline dust cloud from the hillside, then swept the mass toward the ridge where River Dog sat. The sound of the hooves grew louder.
The dim outline of a horse and rider formed in the dust cloud, gaining speed till the animal and man burst free of the swirling haze. A Native-American warrior sat atop the charging horse. Both man and animal were marked with war paint. The warrior wore a breastplate made of bird bones and a rawhide loincloth. Eagle feathers stood up from his warbonnet. A leather shield covered his left arm, and he carried a feathered war spear in his right.
Without breaking stride, the mounted warrior screamed in angry defiance and rode straight for River Dog. He drew the war lance back smoothly, arm muscles rippling as he prepared to throw the lethal weapon.
Standing in front of the mirror in her room, Liz Parker took stock of her image. Okay, so do I look like someone barely holding it together here? Like somebody one short step from the edge?
The questions were fair ones. How many people could keep it together and face what she was facing? The whole your-boyfriend-is-an-alien thing had been a real stretch for the last year and a half, especially helping him seek out his home world. But coupled with the fact that Max had also fathered a child with someone he'd been married to in another life, someone who turned out to be the murderess of one of Liz's best friends, was more than anyone should have to handle.
And that's the real choice, isn't it? Liz asked her reflection. To deal or not to deal. Working out a relationship was hard enough between two normal people.
An image flashed into her mind, reminding her how she'd handled Max's decision to return to his home world in the Granilith only a few short days ago. They'd sat in the jeep in front of the Crashdown Cafe.
I wish, I wish this all could have been different, Max had told her. I wish that so much. Then he'd leaned in and kissed her, and the familiar weirdness of the kiss had slammed through her.
Then, when he'd pulled back, she'd looked at him, not knowing what to do, feeling Tess between them. I guess that this is our good-bye, she'd said. Then she'd asked one of the most frightening and difficult questions she'd ever asked. Just tell me one thing. Do you love her?
Max hadn't hesitated. Not like I love you.
Liz had almost stayed with him then. But she hadn't been able to. She'd been a mass of confused emotions barely contained. Leaving him there and walking into the Crashdown had taken all of her strength, all of her nerve, and she'd clung desperately to the hurt that his words had brought her.
Tears burned, brimming at the backs of Liz's eyes. She steeled herself, holding the helpless emotion back. She couldn't lose herself in Max Evans again. She wouldn't allow herself to be lost again.
She crossed the room, barely aware of the music streaming from the radio by her bed. She glanced at the clock and discovered she had only minutes to make it to work on time. The good thing was that she worked in the cafe downstairs, but the bad thing was that the cafe was downstairs all the time. She could be called in to work at a moment's notice. Her folks usually didn't do that, but the opportunity existed.
Trying to get focused again, Liz grabbed her apron and order book and left her room. Out in the hallway she
heard voices. At first she thought perhaps her mother and father were in the living room talking, then she realized her father wouldn't have been home unless something was wrong.
Only feeling a little guilty about eavesdropping because 'she was worried, Liz moved to the door of the small kitchen the Parker family maintained above the cafe. She hadn't heard anyone enter the family dwelling area, and despite the muffled noise from the business below, she usually could.
"I know something is going on," Nancy Parker was insisting. "Liz hasn't been herself for weeks."
Liz's heart leaped into her throat. She'd known her parents were aware that she was having a difficult time, but if they were going to talk about it that meant they weren't far from trying to do something about the situation.
What could they do about her problems?
My boyfriend is an alien. Not exactly typical Oprah stuff, Liz thought. Things are complicated enough. The last thing I need is for my parents to get involved.
"Of course I know I have to do something," Nancy Parker said.
Liz listened to the hard edge in her mother's voice. The tone was one she'd seldom heard over the years, and generally only when talking about her mother, Liz's grandmother. The relationship between the two women had been strained, and Liz had only learned a little of the history during brief conversations between her mom and dad.
"I will do something," Nancy replied in a strained voice. "You've always accused me of putting things off, and you've been wrong. Mother, I don't want to talk about that anymore."
A cold chill filled Liz. Her maternal grandmother had passed away years ago.
"No, Mother," Nancy said, "I'm not avoiding the issue."
Liz drew back from the door. How could her mother possibly be talking to her grandmother?
"Of course I love Liz, Mother," Nancy Parker responded angrily.
The fear inside Liz intensified. Chill out, she told herself. There has to be a reasonable explanation.
"I'll tell you what I'm doing for her," Nancy Parker snapped. "I'm giving her the space she needs to sort things out, Mother. That's something you never quite understood about me when I was growing up. I respect the space Liz needs."
Pots clanged on the stove inside the kitchen.
"No!" Nancy Parker roared over the clatter of pots and pans. "Don't you dare say that, Mother! Don't you… "
Unable to stay on the other side of the door while her mother went through whatever she was going through, Liz pushed through the door. j
Her mother stood by the stove. She looked over at Liz, then blinked as if dazed.
No one else was in the room.
"Hi, Liz," Nancy Parker said. She glanced down at the frying pan and saucepan she held as though surprised to see them.
Other pots and pans cluttered the stovetop and counter space. Evidently the conversation had been going on longer than Liz had heard, because her mom had taken a number of dishes, pots and pans, and other cooking utensils from the cabinets and strewn them about.
"Hey, Mom," Liz said. She wanted to say more, but she couldn't. How's your sanity today? was a question that she just couldn't ask. Just dropped in for a reality check. That wasn't any better.
Nancy Parker checked the clock on the stove as she carefully put the two pans down. "You're late."
"I'm headed down now," Liz said. An unaccustomed chill filled the room, but she figured that the window had been left open. Roswell was always hot by noon, but sometimes the coolness from the desert night took a while to burn away. Her mother must have left the window open.
"Did you need something?"
Liz froze for a moment. "Nope," she answered. "I heard you talking in here… "
"I wasn't talking."
Liz stared at her mom. "Okay, maybe I left the radio on in my room and I thought it was you."
Nancy Parker smiled. "Maybe we should have your hearing checked."
My hearing is fine, Liz thought, but she said, "Is there anything you need? Before I go downstairs, I mean?"
"I don't want to nag," Nancy Parker said, "but you're late. Maria and Michael are depending on you to get ready for the lunch crowd."
"I know. On my way." Liz walked to the door and glanced back at her mother.
Nancy Parker looked in perplexed confusion at the pile of pots and pans and dishware in front of her.
"Mom," Liz said.
"What?" Her mother seemed preoccupied.
"You'd talk to me if you needed to, wouldn't you?" Liz asked. "I mean, if anything was wrong."
Nancy Parker stared at her daughter quietly, then smiled. "Of course I would. Just like you'd talk to me if something was going on in your life that you needed help coping with."
Liz returned her mom's look for a moment and felt incredibly guilty. She had hardly told her mother anything about the last year and a half.
"Sure," Liz said, starting through the door. "If something comes up, just keep in mind that I'm around. Okay?"
"I will," her mother promised, then began putting the pots and pans away.
Uncertain and still feeling a little unsettled, Liz pushed through the door. One of us is losing it, she told herself. Part of her was afraid that person was her, not her mom.
As the door closed Liz thought she saw a silvery metallic flash in the kitchen. She stopped and opened the door again, looking around the room. Nothing silvery caught her eye, but she was certain she'd seen something.
"I'm going," Liz replied. As she pulled her head back she noticed the cold chill that filled the kitchen. Only then did she realize that the window wasn't open as she'd thought. That's weird.
Without another word, knowing that her mother was on the verge of getting irritated, Liz turned and headed down the hallway. The wrongness of the morning tugged at the back of her mind, the place where she filed all the strange things she'd encountered since getting to know Max Evans.
The mounted warrior bore down on River Dog. Sunlight sparked from the cruel metal blade of the spears tip as the horse and rider cleared the swirling, dusty fog.
Max threw himself into motion. "River Dog!" he yelled, afraid he wouldn't arrive in time.
The Mesaliko shaman lifted his head, turning to glance at Max. He didn't move from the horse's path.
The horse's hooves thundered against the ground, digging up clumps of sandy loam, slicing through cacti. Drawing up smoothly on the horse's back, keeping himself in place with his knees, the warrior issued a feral cry. The war paint marking his features made his threatening expression even harsher. His arm whipped forward as he hurled the spear.
In a low, flat dive, Max covered the ground separating him from the Mesaliko shaman. As he thudded into the other man, sending both of them sprawling across the ground, he glimpsed the spear embedding in the ground only inches away.
The warrior rode by. The horse's hooves hammered against the ground only inches from Max's head.
"What are you doing?" River Dog demanded.
Max scrambled frantically, pushing himself to his feet and trying to aid the shaman. "Saving you."
"There is no need."
The warrior reined in his mount, bringing the big animal around in a tight turn that churned up a spray of dust and sand. His angry eyes focused on River Dog.
Max glanced at the spear jutting up from the ridge only a few feet away. "He would have killed you."
"He can't kill me." River Dog spoke confidently.
Max looked around desperately, searching for some way to get them to safety until help could come. Surely the warrior's yells hadn't gone unnoticed by the people in the village below.
The painted warrior leveled an accusing finger. "River Dog!" he said in a gruff voice. "Betrayer of our people!"
Max glanced at River Dog. "You know him?"
"Bear-Killer," the shaman answered, nodding and locking eyes with the warrior. "He is my ancestor. He died nearly two hundred years ago."
Not comprehending, Max stared at the warrior. The painted face looked maybe twenty years old.
The warrior kept pointing at River Dog, standing up in the saddle stirrups. "You brought the Visitors among us. You are the reason our tribe will finally wither and die after all these years of pain and sorrow."
"No," River Dog answered, his voice strong and rolling over the hill.
"You should have killed the first Visitor," the warrior said.
Max guessed that the warrior was speaking about Nacedo. All those years ago River Dog had found Nacedo after the spaceship that had brought them had crashed in Roswell. River Dog had nursed him back to life, and kept the secret about the man's extraterrestrial origins. He'd even been entrusted with the healing stones that Max and the others had later recovered.
The painted brave pulled a long-bladed hunting knife from a sheath at his belt. He kicked his horse in the sides, urging the animal into motion, and gave a fierce war cry.
Max grabbed River Dog's arm and tried to pull him away.
"No," the shaman said, resisting Max's efforts.
"He'll kill you," Max said.
"No," River Dog insisted. "He can't kill me. There are things going on here that you don't understand."
Max accepted that. There were a lot of things about his life that he didn't understand.
"Release me and step away," River Dog commanded.
"Do it now," River Dog said.
Knowing that he could never budge the man in time if he resisted, Max released his hold on River Dog and moved away. Panic welled inside him as he watched the mounted warrior ride straight for the shaman.
River Dog never flinched. The shaman stood his ground. As the warrior and horse closed in on him, River Dog held his arms up at his side. In one fist he clutched a turquoise necklace. In the other he held eagle feathers painted red and white. He broke out in native song, the cadence rolling amid the noise of the thundering hooves.
In stunned fascination Max watched as the warrior and horse disappeared inside River Dog. Horse and rider vanished like a mirage, fading out of existence. The dust cloud that the horse's hooves had turned up rolled over River Dog. Then an electric pulse exploded in front of the shaman, strong enough to make Max's hair stand on end. River Dog left his feet and flew backward as if a bus had struck him.
River Dog stared up at the cerulean blue sky with unseeing eyes. His body lay relaxed. The sand around him was pristine, smooth as new-fallen snow. Max guessed that the force of the warrior and horse disappearing had blown the sand smooth.
Fearing the worst, Max put his fingers against the side of the shaman's neck. There were no wounds on the man's body. Not even a bruise.
But there was also no pulse.
I he electrical discharge must have stopped his heart, Max reasoned as he stared down at River Dog, struggling to control the panic that threatened to engulf him. His own body still tingled with the ionized force that continued to dissipate.
Frantic, knowing that he was working against the clock, that every second River Dog's heart refused to beat was causing the shaman's body to shut down, Max laid his hand on the man's chest. He felt for the warmth, for the connection that would bind him to River Dog. He shifted his hand, sliding his palm over the area where he thought the heart would be.
Feeling the power building within him, Max pushed the force through him, willing River Dog's heart to resume beating. At first he was afraid that his efforts weren't going to be enough, that he was going to be left there with River Dog's corpse.
Then, intermittent at first, like a worn starter dragging on a cold morning, River Dog's heart lurched into an irregular beat. Max felt the uneven thumping vibrate against his palm.
C'mon, Max thought fiercely. Breathe!
Suddenly River Dog's mouth opened and he took a ragged breath. Lifting an arm, he seized Max's wrist in his hand.
"Enough," River Dog gasped hoarsely.
Max allowed his hand to be taken away.
River Dog glanced around. "The rider?"
"He's gone," Max said. "We've got to go." He stood and offered his hand.
River Dog pushed himself into a sitting position but ignored Max's hand. "No."
Max looked around, listening to the lonely echo of the wind sailing across the harsh land. Tall chaparral stood in places, leaving only short, blunt shadows that looked gray against the sand instead of black. Vultures circled the sky.
"Are you sure the rider won't be coming back?" Max asked.
River Dog looked at him. "It doesn't matter where we go," he said softly. "Bear-Killer will come for me again when he wants to."
Turning, Max swept the land around them with his gaze. He could see for what looked like miles. How had the warrior ridden up on them on horseback without being seen?
"How can he be two hundred years old?" Max asked.
"He's not two hundred years old," River Dog said. "He hardly looks more than twenty. He died in battle with a tribe who was our enemy at the time."
"Two hundred years ago?"
Max grew irritated at the quiet calm the shaman exuded. The sun beat down on him. Off in the distance, tiny swirls of rising heat created near mirages. "How is he here now?"
"It's part of an ancient prophecy," River Dog answered. "That's why I asked you to come here."
The shaman waited a moment. "That one day the dead would rise and punish the living," River Dog answered.
Liz hurried among the tables as the lunch crowd continued descending on the Crashdown Cafe. With its out-of-this-world decor, the Crashdown Cafe was one of the local tourist attractions. Ideally located near the center of town, local businesspeople and employees ate there, sharing tables with the tourists who came in to gawk at the sights.
"Hey, waitress," a truck driver with an Atlanta Braves baseball cap called. "I'd like a refill on this tea sometime today."
Liz glanced at the man. Civil, she told herself. Just be civil. The clock is ticking, and the shift will be over. And being civil means bigger tips.
"Yes sir," she replied, putting on a smile that was just as plastic and phony as one of the art deco rocket ships hanging on the wall. She snagged a bottle of ketchup from the empty table she passed and dropped it off at a table of teenagers who had already gone through two bottles. They didn't even look up to acknowledge her.
Terrific. If I can't get to something someone needs, everybody sees me. But the minute I get something right, it's like I'm the Invisible Girl.
Liz took a deep breath and let it out. She was experienced enough not to take too much to heart. She managed to take another order, a family of five with something special on each entree, then swept back toward the servers table to grab a pitcher of tea.
Maria was already there, stuffing her apron pockets with sugar and sweetener packets.
"So," Maria said, "do you think your mom is going to become a basket case?"
"That's real tactful." Liz stuffed another handful of paper-wrapped straws into her apron.
Maria glanced knowingly at the nearly filled-to-capacity restaurant. "We don't exactly have time for tact." She took a pot of decaffeinated coffee from the wanning plate. "So… we can either talk about the situation, or we can ignore it." Without another word, she stepped back into the dining area amid an immediate flurry of calls for her attention.
Liz attached the latest order to the spinner bolted on the pass-through window. Michael, dressed in an apron over jeans and a T-shirt, wielded a spatula and tongs with grim efficiency. He flipped a half-dozen burgers, then lifted a basket of fries from the deep fryer and swatted the annoying beeping timer in one move.
"How about that order?" Liz asked, flicking one of the tickets with her forefinger.
Michael shook the basket of fries. "You know, I'd be a lot faster if we didn't have to involve this whole cooking thing."
"Good plan," Liz said. Then, off a second look, "No."
Michael shrugged and dealt cheese out onto burgers like playing cards. "Hey."
A look of concern lighted Michael's face. "Is your mom gonna cave?"
Choking back a harsh reply, Liz grabbed the order sitting in the pass-through window and went back out into the dining area. She passed the food out, then noticed the truck driver raising his arm again. Retreating back to the wait station, she retrieved a pitcher of tea and managed the refill.
Taking out her order book, she seated three regulars at a back table one step behind the young busboy her dad had hired for the summer. The tabletop still glistened from Ethan's towel. After getting the drink order, which she thankfully knew by heart, she got the beverages delivered.
Grabbing a bus tub from the end of the counter, Liz quickly went to one of the tables. As Liz scooped up three glasses in each hand and placed them within the tub, Maria joined her.
"Look, I can tell you're upset." Maria rounded up the silverware and shoved the utensils into one of the drink containers. "Maybe later will be better."
"You told Michael"
Liz finished the table and picked up the bus tub.
"My bad," Maria said, following Liz through the tables again. "It's just that it's easier to talk about somebody else's problems than ours."
"Glad to know I could help."
"Cmon, Liz. You want to talk about this," Maria said. "I know you do. It's eating you up."
The truth was, Liz's concern over her mother had gotten worse. Usually her mom came down to make sure the hectic lunches went well. Today there had been no sign of Nancy Parker. Liz couldn't help wondering if her mom was still upstairs talking to herself. The image hurt and confused her, and it made her angry.
"Maybe saying anything to you was a mistake," Liz said, turning from her friend. After all, Maria was still one of the friends of the happy little aliens living secretly in Roswell. Maybe she complained about relationship issues with Michael, whose very human faults seemed more to blame than any extraterrestrial ones, but she remained in the thick of them. Not like Liz.
"Talking to me is never a mistake," Maria said. "Look, maybe there's a reasonable answer for why your mom was having a conversation by herself this morning."
Maria sighed. "I don't know. Yet."
Liz went over to the serving window to check on her orders.
Maria followed, catching up with her at the window. "We'll figure this out. I promise."
Overhearing them, Michael turned from the flat grill. "Figure what out? What's up with Liz's mom?"
Maria frowned and shook her head. "I really shouldn't have told you."
Michael looked at Liz, then back at Maria. "You barely mentioned it," he said in a monotone.
Neither Maria nor Liz spoke.
"Doesn't that help?" Michael asked.
"No," Liz and Maria told him at the same time.
"I've got a right to know about your mom," Michael said defensively.
"How do you figure?" Liz demanded.
"I work here too." Michael shook his spatula at the frying burger patties. "I depend on this job. Without this job I have no house. Without a house I'm sleeping in a cardboard box." He shook his head defiantly. "And I'm not sleeping in a cardboard box. You don't have to worry about that if your mom is headed for the loony hotel and the Crashdown closes down."
Liz couldn't believe Michael could be so insensitive. Even after everything they'd been through together, after everything she'd already seen him do.
"Look," Michael said, "it's not like I'm going to run out on you. If you need help… you know, a place to crash for a couple days, somebody to help subdue your mom till the nuthouse people can get there… I'll be there for you."
"Gee," Liz said sarcastically, "that's awfully sweet of you."
Michael shook his head in disgust. "There's about a million guys out there who wouldn't offer to help you subdue your mom without hurting her."
The sad part was, Liz realized, Michael was right. She and Maria took their orders out to their respective tables.
Several minutes passed as she gathered new orders and refilled drinks. One of the things that bothered her most, Liz admitted, was that Max was out there somewhere and didn't even have a clue that she was having trouble with her mom.
Only a short while later, after a flurry of drink refills
and condiment requests, Maria and Liz stood at the pass-through window again. Liz wished the lunch business would hurry and die down so she could go check on her mom.
"I've got an idea," Maria said.
Liz didn't want to ask. "What?"
"How much do you know about the Crashdown Cafe?"
"A lot," Liz answered.
"Was this always a restaurant?"
"Maybe," Liz answered. "I think so. What difference does it make?"
"Maybe someone died here," Maria said. "Maybe the restaurant is haunted."
"Haunted?" Liz couldn't believe Maria was serious. "You think my mom was upstairs talking to a ghost?"
Maria took a step back and frowned. "It's better than you thinking she's gone totally whack."
"I don't think that," Liz objected, feeling guilty because those thoughts had been in her mind. "Thinking my mom is talking to a ghost isn't exactly a hundred and eighty degree turn on thinking she's wigging out."
Maria shrugged. "Depends on whether you believe in ghosts."
"I don't believe in ghosts," Liz said. "Anyway, my mom wasn't talking to the ghost of a previous occupant. She was talking to my grandmother."
"Maybe ghosts attract ghosts," Maria said. "Maybe there's a poltergeist loose in the Crashdown that has drawn your grandmother's ghost here."
"We've been here for years," Liz said. "Why would she suddenly start turning up now?"
Maria frowned, her brow furrowing. "I don't have all the answers. Some of this still needs to be worked out."
"Ghosts don't exist," Liz said.
"Actually," Michael said, bringing plates over to the pass-through window, "they do. I saw one."
"What?" Maria exploded. "You saw a ghost and you never told me?"
Michael looked at her. "Didn't know we were supposed to share otherworldly experiences. Anyway, you weren't really big on discussing anything I did last week. You were kind of mad at me for being gone."
"The geological survey," Liz said, remembering. She'd had to help cover Michael's shifts last week.
"Yeah," Michael replied.
"You were there with Tiller Osborn," Maria said.
"I heard somebody saying something about him seeing his father's ghost."
"He did," Michael said.
"And that was the ghost you saw?" Liz asked.
"Yeah." Michael turned back to the grill and started laying out the next orders. Meat sizzled on the grill. "Those orders are ready."
"Wait," Maria said. "You can't just say you saw a ghost and then walk away. Tell us the rest of it."
"That is the rest of it," Michael insisted. "The ghost was there, then it was gone."
"And it was Tiller's dad?" Liz asked.
Michael nodded. "Looked like him to me. Tiller thought so. The experience messed him up pretty bad. We brought him back into Roswell the next day and left him here."
"Has he seen the ghost since?" Liz asked. Somehow the whole story sounded just too bizarre to believe, but after everything she'd been living through the last year and a half, maybe the ghost tale didn't sound as far-fetched as it should have.
"I don't know," Michael answered. "We don't hang."
"And you don't think you should check on him?" Maria asked.
"No. I'm a guy he worked with for a day. Somebody he sees in the hall occasionally. I figure he wants his privacy about now."
"Does he know you saw his father's ghost?"
Michael laid hamburger buns down on the grill to toast. "No."
"He didn't ask." Michael used the toasted buns and assembled hamburgers with passionless expertise.
"You didn't tell him?"
Michael piled fries on the plates and pushed them through the pass-through window. "Nobody else saw the ghost. If 1 told Tiller that I'd seen the ghost, maybe he would have thought about it and decided I was lying. In which case he might want to punch me out. If he believed me, that I had seen the ghost and no one else had, then he might have started figuring something was different about me." He eyed Maria. "I'd kinda rather he didn't go there, you know."
Liz's mind spun and tumbled with the thoughts. Having to choose between two evils… Mom talking to herself
or Mom talking to a ghost… Liz really didn't know which she'd have preferred. "What did the ghost want?" she asked.
"I don't know," Michael admitted. "The ghost didn't talk or anything. It just rushed at Tiller and drew down a lightning bolt that scattered Tiller, Bulmer, and me."
"You were nearly hit by a lightning bolt?" Maria asked. Michael realized there was a near-death-by-lightning footnotes she hadn't been aware of as well.
"It was nothing," Michael said. "The bolt knocked the three of us off our feet. That's all." He nudged the plates forward. "Better get these out before we get mobbed."
Maria sighed in disgust as she gathered her orders. "We're not done here."
Michael nodded. "Kinda got that."
Liz lagged a half-step behind, waiting till Maria left. "Have you ever seen ghosts before?" Liz asked in a low voice.
"Maybe this is a new power manifesting," Liz suggested. During the time that she'd known Max, Michael, and Isabel, their powers had become stronger.
Michael shrugged and started cleaning the grill. "Maybe. Or maybe it was just something that happened because we'd been telling ghost stories and the storm settled in. Maybe I didn't see anything after all."
Balancing five plates on the round server tray, Liz turned toward the dining room again. When she finished delivering the order to the waiting table, Liz retreated to the wait station for the tea pitcher and coffeepot.
Maria joined her just a moment later. "Can you believe
Michael? Can you believe that he'd see a ghost and not tell me about it?"
"I don't think he's sure he saw a ghost," Liz said.
"What about the lightning bolt?"
"Around those three? No way."
"The ghost was Tiller's father," Liz pointed out. "Not anyone Michael knew."
"Look, after the shift finishes today," Maria said, then glanced out at the dining area. "Okay, if this shift ever ends, we'll check around with the realtor and some of the other businesspeople along the street who were here before you and your parents were. Maybe something happened here."
"What?" Liz asked.
"A murder." Maria looked at her. "You think I'm being overdramatic?"
"Then we can keep the operative theory that your mom is wigging out?"
Liz grimaced. "Okay. We'll ask around, but I think there has to be a more reasonable explanation for… "
Car horns blared outside the restaurant on the street.
Glancing up, Liz watched as a thin scarecrow of a man darted across the street out in front of the Crashdown Cafe. She recognized the man as one of the town regulars.
Leroy Wilkins seldom stopped in at the Crashdown Cafe to eat, but he dropped in often for a cup of coffee and to exchange gossip. Thin and wiry, on the edge of looking emaciated, Wilkins was supposed to have been some kind of prospector back in the sixties and seventies. His hair and long gray beard stuck out in several directions. He wore faded and patched jeans, a flannel shirt in the same dire degree of wear, and a battered cowboy hat that might have once been black but now carried an indelible patina of desert sand.
More honking shrilled in the wake of Wilkins's frantic run crossing the street. An SUV couldn't stop soon enough. Tires shredded the pavement. The SUV rocked forward, catching Wilkins before he was able to get clear. Wilkins sprawled across the front of the SUV for a moment, looking like the fresh kill proudly shown off by a mechanical predator.
Shoving from the SUV, Wilkins got up again and ran toward the Crashdown Cafe. He reached the door wheezing, his face mottled red from exertion.
Instinctively Liz looked behind the man. Anyone running like that was being chased by someone… or something.
Worry gnawed at the edges of Liz's mind as she watched Leroy Wilkins claw at the Crashdown Cafe's front door like a feral animal. His arthritic hands kept slipping on the handle. Wilkins managed to get the door open and slide inside. He turned to face the door and the plate-glass windows at the front of the cafe.
"No!" Wilkins bleated hoarsely, raising one hand as if to ward off a blow.
Liz stared out into the street. Besides the stalled traffic, she could see nothing else.
"Keep him back!" Wilkins cried out. He lifted both hands in front of his face and kept stepping back into the cafe. "Keep him back! Somebody help me!"
Several of the nearby patrons stood and abandoned their meals, not wanting to be anywhere near the old prospector.
"Do you see anybody?" Maria asked Liz.
Liz shook her head.
Wilkins turned and fled again. Before Liz could move, the old man was on her, grabbing her by the shoulders and staring into her eyes.
"Make him stop!" Wilkins begged. Saliva flecked his lips and shone in his beard. His breath was foul and harsh enough to peel paint.
"Who?" Liz asked. The old man's fingers dug into her shoulders painfully. She struggled to get away, but he only tightened his grip.
"Swanson!" Wilkins exploded. "Swansons out to get me!"
Liz didn't know who Swanson was, and she didn't see anyone over the old man's shoulder, either. She felt Wilkins trembling, though. "I don't see Swanson," she said.
Taking a step to the side, Wilkins kept Liz between himself and the front door. He peered out at the street. Then his grip tightened on her again, almost hard enough now to make her cry out.
"You're lying the old man shouted. "He's out there! I can see him! He's been followin' me for days!"
From the corner of her eye, Liz watched Michael slip from the kitchen through the door beside the pass-through window. Michael took his apron off, balled the garment up, and tossed it to the floor behind him as he started for Wilkins.
"Swanson!" Wilkins brayed in his hoarse voice. "You're not gonna get me! All that business that we done between us, all of that's over with! You're dead!"
Dead? Liz's mind flipped and spun. Wilkins is talking to a ghost?
Michael reached for Wilkins. The old man still wasn't aware of Michael standing there. Before Michael's hand fell on Wilkins's shoulder, a cloud of swirling debris… fast-food containers and cups, newspapers, and bits and pieces of unidentified matter… rose up from the street.
Liz didn't think the swirling wind was too strange. Dust devils were a common occurrence out in the desert. But she'd never seen one that grew the way the dust devil in front of the Crashdown Cafe grew. In the space of a few heartbeats the dust devil increased in size large enough to cover the cafe's front door and most of the glass window that looked out onto the street.
Liz glanced at Michael, wondering why he wasn't doing something about Wilkins. Instead, Michael had frozen in place, watching the front of the cafe.
What does he see? Liz asked herself. There was no doubt that Michael saw something. She stared hard through the glass, turning most of her attention from Wilkins, ignoring the pain in her shoulders.
All she saw were papers swirling in midair. Some of them slapped against the glass of the door and the window, creating eerie tapping noises, the kind she'd heard on sound tracks of cheesy horror movies. A silvery glimmer sparked out on the street, something that raced in between the traffic. But the glimmer was gone before Liz could be certain she'd even seen it.
In the next instant the dust devil slammed against the front of the cafe. Glass shattered as the windows gave way before the assault.
"NOOOO!" Wilkins shouted, yanking Liz backward. He stumbled and almost fell, only maintaining his balance because Liz kept hers.
Michael launched himself into action, stepping forward and grabbing one of Wilkins's arms. He tore the panicked old man's hand from Liz's shoulder, then spun her out of her captor's grip.
"Noooo!" Wilkins howled, raising both arms in front of him. The wind caught up to him, ripping his cowboy hat from his head. "Don't, Swanson! Don't do… " His frightened plea ended in a sudden detonation of thunder.
A white-hot spark filled the cafe for just a moment. Liz felt the heat of the lightning strike… if that was what it was… but only on her face and one arm because Michael turned her so that he could shield her with his body. Thunder rolled and echoed inside the cafe.
The explosion of light left dark shadows floating in Liz's vision. She barely made out the regular customers and tourists hiding at the rear of the cafe and under the tables.
"Are you all right?" Michael asked.
"Yeah," Liz said. "I think so." Her ears hurt, and a headache had formed behind her eyes. She extricated herself from Michaels protective grip.
Leroy Wilkins lay sprawled on the ground. A dark crimson blush stained his features, spreading out along on his hands and arms as well.
Michael retreated from Liz and knelt on the floor by the old prospector. Michael started to reach for Wilkins's wrist like he was going to check the man's pulse. While he was doing that, several of the cafe's patrons made a quick exit through the door.
Without warning, Wilkins reached up and grabbed Michael's shirt. Startled, obviously a little freaked out by the experience, Michael jerked back and slapped the old man's hands away.
Wilkins gasped and fell back. His mouth worked hard, opening and shutting like a fish out of water. Then he began to shake and shiver the whole length of his body.
"What's wrong with him?" Liz asked, standing behind Michael.
"It went into him," Michael answered.
"What went into him?"
Michael didn't answer.
"You saw it? Liz asked.
Michael hesitated, then he nodded.
For a moment Liz was halfway expecting something to burst out of Wilkins. If something had gone into the old man, maybe now it wanted out. Before she knew she was moving, she stepped back as Michael continued to watch the old man's body jerk and writhe.
"Somebody call nine-one-one!" a man yelled. "Can't you see he's having a heart attack?"
"You know, if I didn't know we were hiding out from your parents, I'd think you were ashamed to be seen in public with me."
A twinge of apprehension rocketed through Isabel Evans, but the feeling was anchored by guilt. She'd never hidden anything from her parents. Well, except for the development of the powers that came with her alien genetics. But now she was hiding possibly the biggest secret she'd had in her life. Not even Max knew. That was pretty bizarre, because she'd never hidden anything from Max, and he'd never been able to hide anything from her since they were kids. But since Tess had left with the baby, Max had had his hands full with his own problems.
And the guy sitting across from her had been totally unexpected, and had so totally knocked her off her feet. She glanced at Jesse Esteban Ramirez seated across the public picnic table. "I'm not ashamed."
Jesse was tall and dark, and extremely handsome. He wore slacks and a dress shirt. His tie was back in his car. Leaning back on the concrete bench, Jesse waved his half-eaten sub sandwich at the desolate surroundings. "The picnic was a good idea."
"I'm glad you think so," Isabel replied. "But?…"
Jesse took another bite of his sandwich. His white teeth flashed. "Why do you think there has to be a 'but? Suspicious mind?"
"On the contrary," Isabel said. "The question came from a trained and orderly mind."
Jesse blotted his mouth with a paper napkin. "There are no 'buts.'"
"I beg to differ. There was a telling absence."
One of Jesse's eyebrows rose in perplexion, arching over a dark, deep orb. Isabel had discovered his gaze to be magnetic, a well that she could gaze into and always find something new and different.
"An absence?" Jesse asked.
"And what would this alleged absence be?" Jesse plucked a grape from the bunch Isabel had packed in the picnic basket.
"A decent segue," Isabel told him.
Jesse munched on the grape and appeared to give her accusation his full attention. "Between you possibly being ashamed of me and the fact that the picnic was a good idea?"
"Between your halfhearted attempt to assign guilt for our circumstances and rudimentary effort at changing the subject."
Jesse waved at the empty space around them. When he spoke, his voice was serious. "The picnic is a great idea, Isabel… don't get me wrong. And the food is fantastic. I didn't know you could cook so well."
"It's just sandwiches, potato salad, fruit, and macaroni and cheese," Isabel protested. "Not exactly a true culinary feat. Or even a balanced meal." She felt bad about that, but she'd been in a rush and hadn't had time to run to the store for other items. Brown bagging for one didn't attract too much attention at home, but packing food for two in a rather nifty-looking picnic basket… if she had to say so herself… was a definite giveaway.
"I know, but with you making the meals for these lunches, I don't feel like I'm doing my part."
"What part would that be?"
"The taking-you-out-to-dinner-for-a-good-meal-in-Roswell part," Jesse said.
Smiling, Isabel touched the single red plastic rose in the glass vase between them on the table. The blossom clashed with the red-and-white checked tablecloth she'd brought, but she didn't mind too much. "You brought the flower."
Jesse nodded. "Yeah. But since it's made out of plastic, and this is broad daylight and not a romantic evening, it doesn't have quite the effect I'd hoped for."
"Oh," Isabel reassured him, "that rose had plenty of effect." For just an instant she couldn't believe she'd said that. It was out of character for the Isabel Evans she'd believed she'd grown up to be. But that was before she'd learned all the truths about her own parentage.
And it was before she'd lost Alex… before Tess had killed the guy who could have been her first true love.
"Being out here with you is great," Jesse went on.
"That's a decent save," Isabel said.
"But it's not the same as being able to take you around our city and let people know we're together."
"We can't do that," Isabel said, and the thought turned her cold inside. Her parents had been dealt enough mysteries and changes lately, and one more… especially this one… would have been too much.
"I know," Jesse said. "I'm just frustrated."
Jesse plucked another grape and rolled the fruit between his fingers. "Because I'm afraid we're going to get stuck here."
"What do you mean?"
For a moment Jesse didn't look like he was going to continue. He let out a long breath. "You and me. Stuck. As in, can't go any farther than this."
Isabel leaned back on the hard stone picnic bench. In truth, the rest stop off U.S. 285 between Roswell and Santa Fe wasn't very romantic. After seeing the area a number of times while growing up there, the area could hardly even be called picturesque anymore.
"What are you trying to say?" Isabel asked. She felt her heart thudding inside her chest. Jesse was nearly ten years older than she was. If she'd told her high school friends, they'd have been scandalized even though several of them had crushes on the young male teachers from time to time. In fact, she'd been content to leave the whole dating thing alone because she'd known she was different. Then Max had fallen head over heels for Liz, and Michael started crushing on Maria, and… and Alex had been there for her when everyone else seemed to be going away.
Unexpectedly, memory burned at the backs of Isabel's eyes. She put the remnant of her sandwich down and concentrated on keeping her emotions under control. She looked away from Jesse, trying to find something, anything, to focus on. A silver sparkle in the distance behind Jesse caught her attention for just an instant but disappeared just as quickly.
"I'm sorry," Jesse said in a softer voice.
Isabel, centered once more in what Michael sometimes called her Ice Princess mode, looked back at Jesse. "There's no need to be sorry."
"I hurt your feelings."
"That's my fault," Isabel said. "I shouldn't have left them out there to be hurt." She reached into the picnic basket for the small paper garbage bag she had brought and started cleaning the table.
"Isabel," Jesse said.
"What?" she asked, concentrating on cleaning the table.
"Talk to me."
"I said I was sorry."
Isabel nodded. "And I said there was no reason to be."
"This… this situation isn't easy on either of us."
"I know." Isabel put the silverware in an empty plastic container she'd brought for that purpose. Maybe they had to sneak around through Roswell and didn't dare eat in any of the restaurants because they might get caught, but she hadn't wanted to use plastic silverware. She'd bought a handful of her own and kept them separate from the rest in the Evanses' household, part of this other secret life she had from her parents.
Jesse fell silent.
Isabel stopped cleaning and looked at him. "What do you want?"
"For people to know we're together."
"Jesse," Isabel said, "we don't even know if we're together."
"I'm too old for a summer fling," Jesse said. "I gave those up before law school."
For a moment, Isabel felt angry. Then she squelched the emotion. Jesse was trying to be honest, just trying to let her know what was on his mind.
"I," Isabel said distinctly, "have never been interested in summer flings. I've never had one, and I never will."
Jesse spread his hands. "Then what is this?"
Isabel thought for a moment. "This, counselor," she said, "is what we call an exploratory discussion leading to discovery."
"Now you manifest a sense of humor," he grumbled.
A large RV whipped by out on U.S. 285. The sound faded in the distance. High overhead, three hawks floated lazily in the thermals, each of them forming a distinct tri-corner of personal hunting territory.
"I've always had a sense of humor," Isabel said.
Jesse started to say something, then obviously decided not to.
"Wise choice, counselor," Isabel said.
Jesse looked at her earnestly. "This is scary for me. I've never been in this deep before."
"You make it sound like you're drowning."
"No," Jesse said. He shook his head and captured her hands in his. "It's just that I didn't expect somebody like you. Not for a long time. Maybe not ever. While I was in law school, keeping the grades up while working was hard, maybe the hardest thing I'd ever done. I kept my feelings walled up, put out of reach of anyone who came along."
"There were others who came along?" Isabel asked.
"Plead the Fifth," Jesse said.
"Good," Isabel said, "because I don't want to know." She paused and took a breath. "I've never been this far before either. Never this far, and I've never gotten involved in anything so big so fast. Christmas is my favorite time of the year, and I always plan that out. I plan out everything that I do."
"But I wasn't in the plans," Jesse said.
"No," Isabel said.
"And your future plans?"
"I'm still working out Christmas."
Jesse laughed. "In June?"
"Christmas is huge. It's supposed to be wonderful and exciting. I do everything I can to make it that way, including a lot of volunteer work for the city. I've been doing that for years."
"But you haven't made any plans for us?"
Isabel gripped his hand with both of hers. "Plans like that are better planned by two people. Right now, I'm just working on still seeing you without my parents knowing. The possibility of getting caught also exists."
"What do you think your dad would do?" Jesse asked.
Isabel smiled. "Hmmm. I'm clerking in his office and secretly dating his newest young lawyer. I'm thinking a straight-out dismissal for you, and maybe ten years of hard grounding for me."
"Because of the age difference?"
"Because I didn't come forward and tell my parents," Isabel replied. Actually, it would have probably been better to leave the planet than to tell my parents. "And because I'm interfering with the performance of my dad's newest hotshot attorney."
"I haven't missed a day in court, though," Jesse said. He glanced at his watch. "And speaking of days in court, I'm due back for a deposition in a little while."
Isabel allowed Jesse to help finish cleaning up, but that help consisted mostly of him just jamming everything back into the picnic basket. She assigned him the duty of shaking out and folding the tablecloth. While he was occupied with that, she reorganized the contents of the picnic basket.
Jesse caught her at it and gave her another long look. He raised an eyebrow. "You know, I thought we were into that whole Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo thing. Didn't know neatness counted."
"Neatness," she said, lifting the picnic basket with a little embarrassment. "It's not an option. It's a way of life."
Jesse nodded. "I'll try to remember that." He walked around the table and took the picnic basket from her hand. "I'll carry this."
"It was heavier when it was full," Isabel pointed out. She'd gotten out of her father's offices before Jesse had. By the time Jesse had arrived at the rest stop, she'd already had the meal laid out.
Without a word Jesse leaned down and kissed Isabel. She felt his lips on hers, then the familiar excited tingle thrilled through her. Maybe the sensation wasn't like the near-hallucinogenic experiences Max talked about having with Liz, and there were no explosions of her past life revealed, but the kiss was nothing short of wonderful.
Slowly, tenderly, Jesse pulled back. "Am I going to be able to see you tonight?"
Isabel looked at him. How could she not see him? Lunch the next day was almost twenty-four hours away… an intolerable length of time. "I don't know," she answered. "Maybe. Thinking of things we're suddenly out of at home is getting almost impossible."
"I'll try to help you think of a good excuse," Jesse offered, taking her by the elbow and guiding her back to the parked cars. "If I do, I'll e-mail you."
Before Isabel could reply, tires suddenly squalled out on the highway. She looked up, watching as a black van suddenly veered from the highway and barreled into the rest stop. They were trapped out in the open, twenty feet from their cars or from anything they could take shelter behind.
The careening van came closer, bearing down on them like a blood-maddened predator.
"The legend was handed down to our people throughout the generations. None of the shamans who told the story knew for certain what the legend was about. But in the end, after the crash of the spaceship that brought you to our world, the shaman who trained me decided that the Visitors could cause the return of our ancestors from the ghostlands."
Max walked at River Dogs side as they approached the Mesaliko village. "Had the Mesaliko people seen"… even after everything he'd seen, Max still hesitated over the term… "had they ever seen ghosts of their ancestors before?"
River Dog had told him that several people in the tribe over the past few days had begun having visions of dead family members. At first, those visions had been elusory, vaguely glimpsed shadows that could have been a trick of the light. But none of them had manifested physically as River Dog's ancestor had.
"In those long-ago days," River Dog said, nodding, "they saw the ghosts."
"What did they do to make them go away?"
"At first," the shaman said, "they didn't. My people picked up and moved from these hills. After a time, when hunting grew scarce and life turned hard in the areas they'd traveled to, my people sent scouts back into the area. The ghosts were gone, and people moved back into the territory."
"Why were the ghosts gone?" Max asked.
River Dog lifted his shoulders and dropped them. "No one knew. One of the shamans tried to take credit for their absence. He had prayed and danced for such a thing to happen, and in the end he said it was his efforts to get the favors of the gods that took the ghosts away."
"How long was the tribe gone before they came back and found the ghosts had disappeared?"
River Dog shook his head. "My people have never measured time the way the Europeans did. They didn't care to mark the years, much less weeks, days, or hours. There was only before and after. I know considerable time had to have passed, because several scouts were sent to these lands again and again to learn if the ghosts still walked."
"Do you believe that my friends and I are responsible?" Max asked, watching River Dog carefully.
River Dog shook his head, then grimaced. "No. I don't think you and your friends are malicious or mean my people any harm."
"Then why did you send for me?"
A smile twisted River Dog's lips. "Just because I don't think you're responsible doesn't mean I don't think you can be of some help."
Max stared at the man. "I've never seen anything like this."
"Then we will learn together of the misfortune that has befallen my people." River Dog headed toward one of the small houses on the outside of the small village. A carefully tended herb garden grew beside the house. Two folding lawn chairs occupied a small wooden porch that stuck out from front of the house. Shelves bearing small ceramic pots that contained more herbs stood on the porch as well.
Max followed River Dog up onto the porch. The jutting roof blocked the heat of the sun.
"Sit," River Dog instructed, pointing to one of the lawn chairs.
His mind whirling, Max dropped into one of the chairs. He was worn out and hovering near exhaustion. Worrying about his son and his relationship with Liz had occupied his waking hours and his dreams. Nightmares plagued him constantly. Tess had killed Alex. She'd planned to take him, Isabel, and Michael back to become prisoners.
What would she do with his son?
River Dog disappeared into the house. The screen door slammed behind him.
Max sat in the lawn chair, feeling the straps give under his weight. As he looked out at the nearby houses, all of them pretty much replicas of River Dog's home, he saw that a number of people were watching him with suspicion.
River Dog returned only a short time later. He carried two Mason jars of dark tea and ice. "It's sweet and strong," the shaman warned. "I like it that way, but if you drink it too fast in the heat like we have today, it'll make you lightheaded, maybe even make you pass out."
Max sipped the tea, finding it almost too sweet for him to drink. He wished he had a bottle of Tabasco sauce to tone the flavor down. "What makes you think I can help with this?" he asked.
"I had a vision," River Dog answered. "You were part of it."
"In the vision?"
"Yes." River Dog settled into his chair. An old, arthritic hound came up from under the porch and settled at the shamans feet. River Dog kicked off his shoes and massaged the animals back with his callused toes.
"Tell me more about the prophecy," Max suggested.
"It has been with my people since the dawn of memory. One day, when they first settled into this area, Raven tried to eat the sun."
"Who is Raven?" Max asked.
"He is the Trickster," River Dog explained. "He was the person that could travel between the earth and the places of the gods. In other tribes of the People, Raven is sometimes known as Coyote. He's always portrayed as a man more than human but less than one of the gods. His agenda is always his own."
Max listened as politely as he could. He tried to concentrate on the sweat beading up on the glass of iced tea in his hands. He wished he could pull the numbing chill into himself so he couldn't feel the anxiety that rattled through him.
"On that day, so the story handed down through our tribe goes," River Dog said, "Raven went forth among men and watched them dying of old age. Raven never aged and he didn't understand how men could die, or why the gods would let them."
Max nodded, not knowing how what River Dog was telling him applied to him. There was also the whole unresolved issue of how he was supposed to help. But he waited.
"Raven thought for a long time," River Dog said, "and he decided that since the sun was necessary for all life, to make the plants grow and to warm the world, then it must also hold the secret to eternal life. So Raven flew from this world to the sun."
That caught Max's attention. Was the story about space flight? "How?"
"Raven, like Coyote, has magic powers that he can use," River Dog said. "He used his magic to fly to the sun. Once there, he scooped up some of the sun's flames in his beak and flew back into the world. However, the suns flames were too hot even for Raven. As he reentered this world, his beak began to burn, and that is how Raven's beak came to be black. Unable to withstand the pain of his burning beak, Raven spat the flames out. The ball of fire crashed into the world where the Mesaliko reservation and the desert are."
Max sipped the tea and waited.
"The Elders say that when Raven spat the ball of fire from the sun," River Dog continued, "that was what created the parched lands of the earth. A few of the Mesaliko people who had gone to meet and aid Raven in his quest to steal the sun's flames died when the flames scarred the earth. Days later, their spirits rose again and went and spoke to the Mesaliko people."
"Why would the spirits rise?" Max asked.
"Because the sun was angry with Raven," River Dog said. "The sun punished Raven by taking away his feathers and making him go naked through the world for a time. Raven was embarrassed and angry, blaming everyone but himself, as Raven always did, so he stayed hidden in the mountains for a long time."
"The Mesaliko tribe moved because they were hunted by the ghosts of the dead warriors?"
River Dog nodded. "Those warriors who perished with Raven returned first, but as the days continued, other ancestors returned as well. In the end, the People had no choice but to go."
Max turned the story over in his mind. Somehow it seemed important that the ghosts of the warriors who supposedly accompanied Raven had come back first, but he couldn't figure out why. "What about the prophecy?" he asked.
"When the Mesaliko returned to this land, first by choice and then because the United States government created the reservations here, the shamans protested, saying that the ghosts would rise again. You see, the gods never forget, and the sun would never forget how men tried to steal the immortality that could only belong to the gods."
"Do you know where the Mesaliko warriors perished?" Max asked.
River Dog waved to include all the hills that lay before his home and the village. "Out there somewhere."
Max stood, and leaned against the roof support poles on the porch. He gazed up into the tall ridges overlooking the small village tucked into the foothills. The blue sky looked innocent, streaked by wisps of clouds. Flurries of dust skated over the harsh, parched earth.
"There has to be a reason these"… Max hesitated… "A reason that the ghosts have returned."
"Perhaps," River Dog said, "it's only to punish the Mesa-liko people for moving back into this area. But the shaman before me believed that since I had helped Nacedo recover from wounds that would have killed a normal man that I had angered the gods. Proud Redbird told me that the prophecy would return because I helped the Visitor live, and that the act was like Raven's attempt to give immortality to the People."
Max turned, shifting so he could look at the shaman. "Is that what you believe?"
"I believe many things," River Dog said. "But I also know there are many things that I know nothing about. Until Nacedo came to me, I thought people from another world were only inventions created by writers of radio shows, comic books, television programs, and old movies my father would sometimes take me to when my grandfather did not know. Perhaps if my father had not done such a thing, I would not have been so helpful toward Nacedo when he came among us."
From the tone in the man's voice, Max knew that River Dog harbored some regrets about the aid he'd given.
"You had a vision with me in it?" Max asked.
"Yes," River Dog answered. "You and your friends." He sipped his tea and looked up into the hills that would shadow the village as the sun began its descent into the west. "Somehow, you and they have a part to play in this."
Part of Max doubted that. Probably River Dog's vision was based on wishful thinking. Still, that wishful thinking wouldn't have existed if the ghosts/spirits/phantoms had not started manifesting.
"I don't want any part of this," Max said.
"But it will want you," River Dog said softly. "Until you arrived this morning, I had watched my ancestor for hours. Bear-Killer flickered in and out of existence, into this world from the next, then back again, without touching me. His voice had been only a whisper, not the shouts that you'd heard."
"I didn't do anything," Max protested.
"You were there. Somehow your presence made the ghosts stronger."
Max lifted his hands and gazed at them. A tremor passed through his fingers and wouldn't stop. He knotted his fists and put them away in his jacket pockets. "It's not me."
"It isn't you alone. There is something more than you that brought these ghosts from their rests in the world beyond ours." River Dog pierced Max with his direct gaze. "But you are part of it."
Max looked away, trying to figure out what to do. "I'm not part of this." Don't make me be part of this. I've already got enough things in my life that are going wrong.
"The ghosts will continue to get stronger," River Dog said. "Back when they returned the last time, the ghosts only appeared to the People and spoke to the families. After a time, however, they became violent. They could ride the wind and bring storms from a clear sky. And the touch of a ghost could bruise and eventually maim and kill. Bear-Killer could never touch me till this morning."
Max remained silent. Somewhere only a short distance away in one of the houses a radio came on, bringing a semblance of normalcy. A woman's voice said something that sounded urgent, and the radio noise disappeared. That sounded more normal and relaxing than anything he'd heard all morning.
"Maybe your people should think about moving," Max suggested.
"To where?" The shaman spread his hands. "This is our home. It has been for hundreds of years. My people can't go anywhere else, and the United States government would have to be dealt with." He fell silent for a moment. "I don't think you would want the government agencies looking closely into this matter any more than I do."
"No," Max agreed. He'd had enough of government agencies, secret and otherwise. None of them had his or his friends' best interests at heart. By not departing on the Granilith, they'd given up any hope of returning to their original birth world. The government agencies would take them away from the world they'd chosen to remain in if their secret was revealed.
Running feet sounded out in the dust-covered dirt road that threaded between the homes. The hound at River Dog's feet raised his gray-streaked muzzle and barked at the two small children who raced around a fifty-year-old Ford pickup parked next to the porch.
"River Dog! River Dog!" the two young boys yelled. "You must come!"
River Dog put his drink down and stood. "What is wrong?"
"Our grandfather," the oldest boy said. He wore ragged cutoffs and was brown from the sun. Dust covered his bare feet and legs. He pointed back down the narrow alley between houses.
"What about your grandfather?" River Dog asked.
"He has come back," the oldest boy said. He wrapped his arms around the younger boy, who was crying and holding his head. "He's yelling at Mom, saying terrible things to her!"
River Dog turned to Max. "Come on."
The last thing Max wanted to do was go with the shaman, but he felt drawn into the events. If River Dog was right about the occurrences somehow being connected to Isabel, Michael, and him, he needed to know.
River Dog led the way out into the alley, pausing only long enough to take each boy by the hand.
As Max trotted after the shaman and the boys, he heard a woman screaming in terror and pain. Other men and women ran from their houses, joining in the rush to reach the house where the sounds came from.
For a moment Isabel believed that the van bearing down on Jesse and her was filled with government agents. In that moment, she was certain that their secret had somehow spilled out again. Then she spotted the terrified woman behind the steering wheel.
The driver had her mouth open, screaming in terror, but the roar of the racing engine drowned the sound. The woman was looking over shoulder, staring in wild-eyed horror at something in the back.
Even as Isabel finally freed herself from the frozen moment, Jesse gripped her in his arms and got her into motion, pushing her back toward the picnic area. Caught off-guard, Isabel dropped the picnic basket.
Jesse propelled her from the path of the speeding van, but tripped as he shoved her. Isabel saw in an instant that he'd lost his footing and was unable to move to save himself. She turned and caught his jacket in one of her hands, then pulled him backward, acting like she'd tripped as well.
They went sprawling as the van rushed by, then hit the paved area of the rest stop hard enough to drive the breath from Isabel's lungs. Remembering the driver's frightened face, Isabel rolled from Jesse's protective embrace and turned to watch the van.
Evidently the driver came to her senses. The van jerked away from its course toward the stone picnic tables and benches. But the effort came too late and resulted only in causing the vehicle's tires to lose their precarious traction on the pavement. Rubber shrilled as the van's speed and weight tore the vehicle into an uncontrolled skid.
The passenger-side tires slammed into the high curb at the edge of the picnic area. Off-balance and riding high center, the van flipped over on its side. The momentum continued to flip the van another 180 degrees as the vehicle crushed one of the picnic tables and benches. The engine continued racing, revving out of control till it sounded like an explosion was imminent. The horn blared, holding steady and true over the banshee wail of the racing engine.
"Oh my god," Jesse said.
Isabel struggled to her feet. The woman inside the van might be still alive.
"Come on, Jesse!" Isabel cried. "We need to check on her."
"Who?" Jesse asked, not letting go of her.
"The woman driving the car." Then Isabel turned and started for the van.
"You saw a woman?"
"Yes." Isabel had to speak loudly over the screaming engine. The odor of burning oil and gasoline tainted the hot, thin air. "She looked scared. She was screaming."
Familiar electronic beeps caught Isabel's attention as she closed on the rear of the van. She turned at once, watching as Jesse punched in the three numerals on his cell phone.
"What are you doing?" Isabel asked.
Isabel grew more afraid then; 911 meant law enforcement personnel and reports, maybe even reports with Jesses name and her name on them. Her father was an attorney in Roswell; he looked at legal documents all the time. It was a stretch to think her father would see the report on the accident on U.S. 285, but the instant those reports were filed, that possibility existed. And if her father found out they'd been together, what would he do? And what could Max do? Thinking about her brother made Isabel feel even more guilty. Max had been through enough. Knowing she might have found happiness would make his own loss seem even sharper.
She looked around, knowing one couldn't do anything except wait for what was going to happen. All she could do was wait for the inevitable.
Taking a deep breath, Isabel nodded to Jesse and tried to calm herself. The odds were astronomical of her father actually seeing the documents generated by the state police or other law enforcement bodies.
Jesse started talking to the 911-dispatch person at the other end of the cell-phone connection, giving the person the location and the details of the wreck.
Staying focused on the van, Isabel started moving forward again, walking along the top of the vehicle rather than the undercarriage. Her imagination filled her mind with the possible bloody carnage that might be waiting.
The van's windshield had shattered with the series of impacts. Small, cube-shaped pieces of safety glass glittered like diamonds in a spray across the paved parking area and the sandy picnic area. The pieces glistened among the shattered remains of the demolished picnic table, too.
Before Isabel reached the front of the van, Jesse caught her by the elbow and stopped her. She turned to face him.
"What are you doing?" Jesse asked.
"Checking on the driver," Isabel replied.
"Don't you smell the gasoline?" Jesse asked, pulling at her and trying to guide her away from the wrecked vehicle. "This van could explode."
"If this were a movie or a TV show, maybe," Isabel responded.
A tender look filled Jesse's face. "I'm serious, Isabel. I want you to back off. I don't want you to get hurt."
"I'm going to check on the driver," Isabel insisted.
"I can do that."
"You're suddenly invulnerable?"
Jesse stared to argue.
"We'll do this," Isabel said. "I've had first-aid courses."
Jesse looked like he wanted to offer a rebuttal to her decision, but before he got the chance, a woman's voice lifted in a terrified wail.
"My baby!" she screamed. "Someone help my baby!"
Isabel spun then, heading for the front of the van. A chill ran through her as she thought about a baby being aboard the wrecked van.
The gasoline smell became stronger. Heat baked into the ground, reminding Isabel that the danger of a fire was real, not something inspired by special effects in a show.
She reached the front of the van, dropped to her hands and knees, and peered inside the vehicle. After being out in the bright sun, adjusting to the darkness inside the van took a moment.
The driver fought against the seat belt restraints, trying desperately to reach into the backseat. She was in her middle or late twenties, with blond hair and pale features. Blood streaked her face, but more fright showed than pain. The air bag stood out from the steering wheel compartment.
Isabel couldn't see how bad the woman's head wound was, and she knew from first-aid classes that those kinds of wounds bled profusely. "Hey," she said as calmly as she could.
The woman still kept reaching into the rear of the van, but she looked at Isabel. "Help me!" she croaked.
"I will," Isabel said, then moved aside so Jesse could join her. "We will."
"My baby!" the woman said.
"We'll get your baby," Isabel promised. She peered into the back of the van.
Two more rows of seats were behind the captains' chairs. Boxes and bags from the cargo area littered the inside of the van. As she looked at all the destruction in the van, Isabel wondered how a small child could have survived the wreck. Don't think like that, she told herself. Everything is going to be fine. She's still alive. The child has got to be alive too. Just the same, Isabel wished Max were there.
Jesse reached into the van and pulled on the seat restraints holding the woman locked into position behind the collapsed steering wheel. "It's no use. The locking mechanism is jammed." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small Swiss Army knife. "I'm going to have to cut her loose."
"Not me!" the woman yelled. Tears filled her eyes. "Please! Check on my baby! They told me she was gone! They told me she was gone, but there she is!" She pointed. "I can see her! Please! She needs help!"
"I'll get her baby." Isabel slithered into the van.
"Don't," Jesse said, grabbing Isabel by the shoulder.
"I've got to," Isabel said. She stared into his eyes. "We need to get the mother out, Jesse. We're miles from Roswell. It'll be a long time before help arrives."
Indecision showed in Jesse's eyes.
"I'm not giving you a choice," Isabel said.
"Let me get the baby."
"You won't fit." Before Jesse could say another word, Isabel pulled herself into the van. With the vehicle overturned and lying on the driver's side, navigating through the interior was difficult.
"Isabel," Jesse called.
His body blocked most of the light coming through the shattered windshield. If the van had been a passenger model instead of designed for cargo transport there would have been windows all the way around. There would have been more light, and Isabel would have been able to peer in through the windows.
"The gasoline smell is getting stronger," Jesse warned.
Isabel knew that was true. She could smell the change herself. The van was quickly turning into a bomb, and the racing engine might be enough to detonate those destructive forces.
Placing her hand on the van's metal body, knowing Jesse couldn't see what she was doing from his position behind her, Isabel unleashed her power. Part of her alien heritage, part of all of their heritages, was the ability to affect electronic things. The van had electronic parts that controlled the engine and ignition.
Whatever special part of her brain or her senses that controlled her alien powers reached out for the pulse of
the van. She felt the electrical force, then created a surge of energy that raced throughout the van.
"Isabel," Jesse called. "I just felt an electrical surge. We can't stay…"
Then the van's engine hiccuped and died.
"Get her out, Jesse," Isabel said.
"My baby!" the woman moaned. "Give me my baby!"
"I'll get her," Isabel promised, but her heart sank when she saw the jumble of boxes and bags strewn across the backseats. She looked for a child seat but couldn't find one. Desperately, she moved boxes, not knowing if she was uncovering the child or burying her farther.
"There she is! There she is!"
Surprised by the woman's voice, Isabel glanced forward.
The woman's face was a mask of blood, and tears streaked her cheeks. But she was smiling. Jesse had almost succeeded in cutting the woman free, and she was able to turn in the seat.
"There's my little angel!" the woman cooed excitedly. "There's my little Abbie! Come on to Mother, Abbie! Come on!"
Confusion dawned on Jesse's face as he peered past the woman. He looked at Isabel and shook his head.
Isabel's heart nearly stopped. Her immediate thought was that something awful had happened to the baby. Overcoming a preternatural fear of seeing what was there, she turned and looked into the seat.
A child, surely no more than a year and a half old, sat curled up like a fetal ball at the bottom of the seat. Boxes framed her. She had blond wisps of hair and chubby cheeks. A pink bow sat atop her head, matching the frilly dress and
matching underpants. Pink tennis shoes with white laces covered her feet, looking impossibly wide and blunt.
"See?" the woman said. "That's my baby. That's my little Abbie." She smiled, then groaned as Jesse continued cutting her free of the seat restraints. "The doctors said she didn't make it, but 1 knew they were wrong. A mother always knows."
The oddity of the woman's words barely touched Isabel as she pushed her way into the backseat. "Hey," she said to the little girl. "Are you all right?"
The child glared at Isabel, folding her pudgy arms across her body.
Jesse helped the mother from the van, having to fight against her efforts to help Isabel get her little girl.
Shifting, Isabel reached for the child. Before she could reach her, though, the little girl cocked her head and snarled, baring her tiny white teeth in a feral grin. Surprised by the reaction, Isabel hesitated.
"Isabel," Jesse called.
Isabel tried twice to speak.
The child snarled and snapped. She looked at Isabel, then pointed a tiny, blunt forefinger. "You don't belong here."
Jesse peered into the shadows that filled the van. "What are you looking at?"
"The baby," Isabel whispered.
"I don't see a baby," Jesse said. "Where do you see her?" He reached forward and moved boxes, reaching through the child as if she wasn't there.
Before Isabel could reply, hesitating as she tried to frame an answer that would make sense, the little girl stood and bolted toward the front of the wrecked van. She scrambled over the boxes and seats on all fours, moving with the lithe leaps of a jackrabbit.
Drawn by the glint of malicious intent she'd seen in the child's face, Isabel followed. She scraped an elbow on a jagged piece of windshield safety glass as she clambered from the vehicle. Outside again, the glaring intensity of the sun hammered her.
"Isabel!" Jesse called frantically. He tried to get out of the van to follow her but struggled with the tight confines.
Dizzy and not comprehending the situation, Isabel watched as the little girl loped up to the stricken woman lying on the ground.
The woman reached up with her hands, unable to get to her feet because of her injuries.
"Mother!" the little girl called in sadistic delight. The child's face split into a gamine grin that looked years older and bloodthirsty.
"Abbie!" the woman whispered. Tears ran down her bloody face. "Oh god, Mommy didn't want to believe what the doctors told her. Mommy knew you were alive somewhere. I'm so sorry, my darling, that I wasn't there for you." She beckoned with her hands. "Come to Mommy, baby. Come to Mommy. Mommy swears we won't ever be apart again. Mommy will always be there for you."
The child-thing… Isabel could no longer think of the little girl in any other fashion… stood just out of the woman's reach and crossed her arms. "You killed me, Mommy."
Pain wracked the woman's features. "No, Abbie, that's not true! Oh god, that's not true!"
Jesse freed himself from the van and started for the woman. "She's hallucinating."
Isabel looked at him, knowing that for whatever reason, Jesse couldn't see or hear the child-thing. He started for the woman.
Afraid for Jesse, not knowing what the child-thing was capable of, Isabel stopped him. "Call nine-one-one again," she said. "Let them know what they're dealing with here."
"It would be the best," Isabel said. "I'll help her."
Grimly, Jesse nodded and took out his cell phone. He watched the woman as he spoke, concern tightening his face.
Isabel liked that about Jesse, liked the fact that he cared about someone he didn't even know. Still, she was worried what her dad was going to say when he found out both of them had been together.
"Abbie!" The woman sounded plaintive now, growing weaker from her injuries and shock.
"You killed me," the child-thing accused. "You didn't want me enough. You didn't try hard enough."
Disbelief swept through Isabel as she knelt beside the woman and tried to comfort her. "It's okay," Isabel whispered, but she never took her eyes from the belligerent child-thing. "Whatever you're seeing, whatever you're hearing, it's not real." Nothing could be that mean or spiteful.
The woman grabbed Isabel's arm in both her hands. "I didn't kill her! I swear!"
Isabel let the woman hold one of her hands while she smoothed her hair with the other.
"You killed me, Mommy," the child-thing accused. "You didn't want me. You wanted Daddy all to yourself. You were afraid you were going to lose him."
"No!" The woman sounded hysterical. "It was an accident, Abbie! The umbilical cord got wrapped around your neck! They told me it wasn't my fault! Not my fault!" She looked up at Isabel, holding on more tightly. "They told me it wasn't my fault!"
"I'm sure it wasn't," Isabel said.
The child-thing shrieked in rage. Without warning, the creature ran straight for the fallen woman.
Without thinking, intending only to deflect the child-thing so the creature couldn't harm the helpless woman, Isabel put her hand out. For a brief moment, she felt cold and hard flesh beneath her hand. Before she had time to take in anything else, the hum of a static electricity discharge crackled through the air.
A lightning bolt came from nowhere and struck the pavement nearby. The explosion rocked Isabel and knocked Jesse from his feet.
She glanced at Jesse, knowing he'd taken more of the brunt of the blast than she had. As she started to call out to him, a gray-green shape suddenly rose up from the woman.
Stunned, the lightning blast still ringing in her ears, Isabel watched as the gray-green shape grew to ten feet in height. The shape took on distinct features, becoming a stooped dragon… at least, that was as close as Isabel could come to describing the creature… with short wings, and a long snout filled with curved fangs. The scales held a shimmering silver coloration under the direct sun, but the mottled charcoal and emerald colors looked like gangrene.
The dragons eyes appeared multifaceted and actually moved back and forth in their orbits like camera lenses. A pair of antennae jutted up from the interior corner of the eyes, curving back over the dragon's head and twitching in perfect time. Unfolding forelegs that resembled those of a praying mantis and ended in serrated hooked claws, the creature swiped at her.
Isabel dodged back, unwilling to leave the unconscious woman's side. The hooked claws passed within inches of her face.
"Isabel." Jesse got to his feet again.
"Leave!" the dragon snarled at Isabel. "All of you need to leave this place or you will all die!"
Lightning flashed again, blinding in its intensity despite the brightness of day. This time, the lightning struck the van. Apparently enough gasoline had leaked from the vehicle to create a pool that ignited when the lightning seared into it. Isabel caught a brief glimmer of flames, then the van leaped into the air as the gas tank exploded.
The mass of flame-wrapped burning metal thudded back onto the ground hard enough to send a tremor through the earth. A blistering heat wave washed over Isabel, pulling at her hair and clothing. As she covered her face with her free hand, she watched the dragon dissipate, fragmenting like a computer-generated picture being torn away pixel by pixel.
In seconds only the unconscious woman and the burning van wreathed in flames and black smoke remained.
Isabel gazed down U.S. 285 and watched as the state police car roar toward them.
"I've got to call your father," Jesse said.
Isabel nodded. "Don't tell him I'm here."
A troubled look filled Jesses face. "I don't like lying to your dad."
"He's not ready for this," Isabel said.
"He may find out."
"And he may not," Isabel said. "If he doesn't have to know, I don't want him to know." She paused. "Not yet, Jesse. Not like this." And if there are any repercussions from that, III deal with them then, she thought.
Grudgingly Jesse nodded. He opened his cell phone and walked to meet the arriving state police car.
Gazing at the burning van, feeling the unconscious woman's hand in hers, Isabel suddenly remembered that Jesse hadn't seen the child-thing. The realization burned into Isabel's mind. The woman had seen the creature, and she'd seen the creature. The only thing different was her alienness. Even if she and Jesse got past the whole chemistry thing and discovered the attraction between them was real and not just a phase, they would still have to deal with her alien nature.
That had seemed to be a constant stumbling block for Max and Liz, no matter how much they seemed to genuinely care about each other. And Liz knows Max is an alien. Jesse doesn't have a clue about me. How am I… we… supposed to deal with that? Isabel felt all knotted up inside. She needed to do something, but she had no idea what.
The child-thing knew me, she reminded herself. Maybe the child-thing didn't know my name, but it knew that I was different. It hated me for that difference. She watched Jesse with the state policemen, knowing that one way or another her life was going to change again.
Heart pounding inside his chest, Max stopped when River Dog did. They stood in front of a small house with peeling paint and a collection of dreamcatchers and chimes hanging from the leaning front porch. The slight breeze made the chimes tinkle, and the sound was barely audible over the crash of destruction coming from inside the house.
River Dog turned to the two small boys holding his hands. "Stay here. I will care for your mother." He glanced up and caught the eye of an older woman, who immediately came forward and took the boys by the hands.
Something crashed inside the house.
A group of young men arrived and stood in the narrow street before the house. Max figured they'd been working on a construction project because they carried sledgehammers, crowbars, and hammers.
"This is Cathy Callingcrow's house," one of the men said. "What is going on here?"
River Dog held up a hand. "Let me handle this."
Another man elbowed his way through the gathering crowd. Max recognized George Grayhawk at once. The man didn't look any happier to see him there.
"What is goig on?" Grayhawk demanded.
"Grampa's spirit," one of the two small boys yelped. "He's inside the house."
Max caught the brief blur of motion from the corner of his eye. As he started to turn, a chair crashed through the
window, hurtling glass over the porch and the gathering crowd.
The woman drew back the two small boys as they started screaming in fear. Some of the men stepped back as well, herding the small children and other women back from the house.
"River Dog," Grayhawk spat. "This thing with our ancestors' spirits grows worse. They've returned to our homes, to the homes of their descendants, and given us warning to leave, but never before have they hurt anyone." He locked eyes with Max. "This is all happening because of the Visitors. Because of your involvement with the Visitors."
A low wail of pain and fear came from the house.
George Grayhawk led four men into the house.
"Come," River Dog told Max.
Knowing the Mesaliko tribe blamed him, Max figured the last place he belonged was inside someone's house. He wanted to leave, just get back into his car and get back to Roswell.
River Dog never even glanced back for him, only stepped up onto the swaying porch and charged into the house after the other men.
Making his decision, Max followed the shaman into the home. The woman's screams sounded louder inside.
small as the house had seemed on the outside, the structure seemed even smaller on the inside. Max felt awkward and embarrassed and scared all at the same time.
A woman… Max had to assume she was Cathy Callingcrow… cowered in a corner with her hands over her head. Blood wept from a long cut on her cheek. Sobs and violent trembling wracked her slight frame. She wore jeans and a mans T-shirt, and didn't look thirty yet.
The furniture in the room had been overturned. Ragged tears across the material testified to the use of knives or claws. Holes showed in the walls. A kitchen chair stuck out from one wall, two of its legs curled and bent underneath while the other two legs pierced the wall. The chair was a match to the one out on the porch. Pictures lay scattered across the carpeted floor.
"Where is he?" Grayhawk demanded.
"I'm here, George Grayhawk!" a harsh voice roared.
Looking to the center of the room, amazed at the destruction that had already taken place, Max saw a tall man dressed in jeans, a khaki shirt, and stained work boots standing in the doorway to the small kitchen on the other side of the room. He wore his gray hair braided on either side of his head. A beaded headband crossed his forehead, marked with a twist of eagle feathers that hung down behind his head. His face was lined and parched like leather that had been left out in the sun too long.
River Dog looked at Max. "Do you see the spirit?" the shaman asked.
Max nodded. "You don't see him?"
"Henry Callingcrow is not my ancestor," River Dog said. "He is of my family, but not of my fathers blood. Where is he?"
Max pointed toward the doorway to the kitchen. "There."
"What is he doing?" River Dog asked.
"He's here to punish me," Cathy Callingcrow croaked from the corner. "He says our people should not be here. He says we are all going to be punished by violating the treaty that the Mesaliko agreed to with the spirits."
"I don't see anyone here," Grayhawk challenged.
"He knows you," Max replied. "He called you by name."
Uneasy, Grayhawk turned to peer at the doorway
"He's there." Cathy Callingcrow wiped at her face with a shaking hand. "He said he was going to kill me."
River Dog moved, staying away from the doorway and walking to a position in front of the woman. "I won't allow him to hurt you now, child," the shaman promised.
Henry Callingcrow darted into movement without warning, stepping into the group of men. His fists flailed, knocking the men down like a WWE wrestler mowing down ninety-eight-pound weaklings. Thunder crackled in the room, and lightning blasted a jagged streak down one wall. The burn pattern smoked and stank.
George Grayhawk and the other men yelled and cursed in fear and rage as they tried to regroup. Grayhawk managed to swing his crowbar, evidently judging the ghost's location from another man who suddenly flew backward. If the crowbar touched the spirit… and Max wasn't sure that it did… the heavy tool did nothing to slow it.
Henry Callingcrow stepped toward River Dog and the cowering woman. She screamed in terror and buried her face behind her arms.
Another group of men reached the doorway of the house and started to come inside.
River Dog held up a hand to the men. "Stay. You can do no good here."
The new arrivals didn't like the idea, but they also saw how the spirit had left George Grayhawk and his construction team sprawled on the floor.
Knowing he couldn't stand by and do nothing, though unsure if there was anything he could do, Max moved to intercept the ghost. He stopped in front of River Dog with a hand outstretched. In the small confines of the room, there wasn't much room to maneuver.
Henry Callingcrow's face was livid with rage. "Go away, outsider," he ordered in a hoarse voice. "Go away and maybe you'll live."
Max wanted to speak, but if the ghost was really some ethereal remnant of the man who had once lived, he didn't know what to say to him.
River Dog began to chant behind Max. "Listen to me, Cathy Callingcrow," the shaman said, "listen to me and don't be afraid. Vengeful spirits are powered by our fears. Our ancestors learned this the first time they faced them. If you are not afraid, they can't hurt you."
Max didn't believe that. But as he watched, the manifestation standing before him seemed to waver, like a computer monitor scrolling to refresh an image.
River Dog continued chanting.
"No!" Henry Callingcrow barked. Then he threw himself forward.
Moving on instinct, Max intercepted the ghost, putting out both hands to stop the creature. There was a momentary resistance, as if he were pushing through heavy pudding or gelatin, a terrible cold feeling, then lightning blazed into the room again.
In the next heartbeat the ghost faded from sight.
Panicked, breathing hard, not daring to believe the thing was really gone, Max glanced desperately around the room. What had made it go? River Dog's ancestor had passed into his body before disappearing.
"Is it gone?" River Dog asked in a quiet voice.
Max stared at Grayhawk, who was urging his men to their feet.
"I think so," Max said. Then he noticed that the young woman was limp against River Dog. "Is she…is she…"
Understanding his concern, River Dog shook his head. "She's alive. She just passed out."
Drawn to the woman, Max leaned down. He studied the long tear on her face. Even with a good plastic surgeon, he knew the wound would leave a terrible scar, and she would be in horrible pain. He didn't want that for her. Mastering his energy, he placed his hand on her face.
"What are you doing?" Grayhawk challenged behind him.
"Silence," River Dog ordered.
Max healed the woman, watching how the flesh knitted back together. In seconds, her breathing deepened and evened out, then there was not even a scratch to mark where the wound had been.
Feeling drained, Max took his hand away. He glanced up at River Dog. "In a few days," he said, "she'll have a mark on her face. A silver imprint of my hand." He remembered the imprint Liz had shown him on her stomach. "It'll fade. It's nothing to worry about."
"I understand," River Dog replied.
Max nodded. "You'll probably have one on your chest from this morning."
"Thank you," River Dog said.
Slowly, afraid to make any sudden moves with Gray-hawk and his men standing so close behind him, Max stood. His knees trembled. He looked at River Dog. "I don't understand any of this."
The shaman nodded. "We will. In time, we will. Help me with her."
Before Max could step forward and help with the unconscious woman, Grayhawk shoved him aside and gathered Cathy Callingcrow into his arms. "I've got her," Grayhawk said to River Dog. "Get the Visitor out of our town. His presence here is making things worse."
Stung, Max felt his face burn. All he wanted was to be out of the village and back in Roswell.
"What happened here?"
Michael looked up from the broom and dustpan he was using to sweep broken glass from the floor of the Crash-down Cafe. After the incident with Leroy Wilkins, Liz's parents had closed the cafe and assigned the crew to clean up. Michael wasn't particularly happy with the continued work, because he'd been looking forward to getting home and taking a nap. He still hadn't gotten quite caught up on sleep after working in the desert last week.
Isabel stood only a few feet away looking around. She looked freshly dressed and smelled like soap and shampoo, like she'd just stepped out of a shower.
"I thought you were working today," Michael said.
"I was. I am." Isabel fixed him with one of those imperious looks he knew so well. "I'm kind of in a hurry here."
"Me too," Michael said. "I was hoping to get off some time today." He waved the dustpan at the windows where shards of glass still clung to the frames. "The cafe's closed, but I'm going to be working harder than ever cleaning the place up."
Isabel crossed her arms. "I heard some kind of freak dust devil trashed the cafe. I also heard that a poltergeist destroyed everything. I wanted to know which it was."
"And if I told you it was a ghost?" Michael asked.
"What kind of ghost?" Isabel asked.
Looking over the destruction of the cafe, Michael said, "Well, it definitely wasn't the Casper the Friendly Ghost type. He was more like the Ghostly Trio, by way of Steven Spielberg."
"I need more than that."
Shrugging, Michael said, "It was the ghost of some old prospector named Swanson. Kind of a goofy-looking guy."
"The ghost wasn't a little kid?"
Michael stared at her, seeing that the veneer of calm and control was wearing thin. "You've seen a ghost."
"I've seen something," Isabel agreed. "Although what we need to call it remains to be seen."
"Where did you see your ghost?" Michael wasn't terribly interested, but at least now Maria would have to listen to Isabel talk about ghosts too.
"Later," Isabel replied. "Look, we need to get together and talk. Do you know where Max is?"
"No," Michael replied. "He hasn't been around."
"Maybe we haven't been around for him." Isabel frowned and gave Michael a reproachful look.
Michael didn't say anything. He didn't feel guilty. Max was a big boy. Max didn't have trouble seeking Michael out when he wanted something, and Max had developed a habit of doing his own thing whether Isabel or Michael approved. That tendency was one of the things Michael respected about Max.
Isabel looked around. "Where's Liz?"
Concern lit Isabel's features. "Was she hurt?"
"No. Liz's dad had her go to the hospital and make sure everything is taken care of. She's a witness for the police reports on behalf of the cafe. Insurance and stuff like that in case the guy sues."
"Good," Isabel said. "I want to go there myself. If you need me, that's where I'll be."
Irritated, knowing Isabel had seen a ghost and hating the way she left him hanging even though she'd demanded answers to all her questions, Michael watched her go. If Isabel was interested in the ghosts, if she'd seen one as well, things were about to take another turn into the strange and unpredictable in Roswell.
Across the street, a number of teenagers and townsfolk had gathered to gawk at the damage. Dozens of rumors were already making the rounds about the damage. There was even a suggestion that the Crashdown Cafe had been built over an old Indian burial ground.
"Does that broom still fit your hands?"
Turning at the sound of Maria's voice, Michael found her standing a few feet behind him. "I was talking to Isabel."
Maria made a point of looking around. "She's gone now, so unless you're using telepathy, you're done."
Recognizing the tone of disapproval in Maria's voice, Michael asked, "Are you mad about something?"
"No," Maria answered flatly. "Should I be?"
"No," Michael said. He gestured at the ruined state of the cafe. "I didn't do this."
"There are a lot of things you don't do, Michael. There are a lot of thing you evidently don't even think about doing." Without another word, Maria turned and walked back into the kitchen area.
Michael tried to get back to work, but he knew he couldn't. When he totally had no clue about what was upsetting Maria, Michael knew there was only one course of action. Sighing, he put his broom and dustpan down, then unknotted the strings of his apron and left it on a table.
He walked through the door into the kitchen and found Maria scrubbing pots and pans in a sink full of soapy water. Soap and water splattered the floor around her work area, mute testimony to the fact that she'd gotten herself worked up before she'd come looking for him.
Michael leaned a hip against the grill, crossed his arms over his chest, and prepared for the worst. Anytime Maria got this way, he knew she blamed him for something. The ghost wreaking havoc in the Crashdown Cafe was the biggest thing he could think of. And he wasn't responsible for that. "I didn't bring the ghost here," he said.
Maria kept washing dishes.
Michael prepared a mental list of things that had gone badly. "I didn't volunteer us for the cleanup detail."
"No," Maria said in a cold, distant voice. "I did that. I knew we could both use the money, and Liz's parents could use the help."
"You didn't ask me," Michael pointed out. "I could be mad about that."
Maria looked at him. She'd been washing dishes with enough effort that small puffs of soap had splashed up into her hair. "Are you mad about that?"
Wisely, based on considerable experience with that tone of voice and that look, Michael chose discretion as the better part of valor. "No. Extra money is good. Even though I've still got quite a bit put back from the work out in the desert."
"So you didn't need this?"
Michael sighed. This is going to be bad. As much as he racked his brain, though, he couldn't think of one thing he'd done wrong. There hadn't even been time, really.
"Um, about not telling you about the ghost," Michael tried. "I was wrong about that. I should have told you."
"I wouldn't have believed you," Maria said.
Michael blinked in confusion. Had he missed something? "I don't understand why you're mad, then," he admitted.
Maria blew out her breath in obvious frustration.
Michael cringed and took a step back. He hadn't backed away from the ghost of the old prospector even when lightning started striking inside the Crashdown Cafe, but he backed away from the wrath Maria exhibited.
"Did you even think about what you did?" Maria asked.
"I didn't do anything," Michael protested.
"Yes, you did."
"You saved Liz from the ghost," Maria said, "and I was standing right there\ You didn't think about saving me!"
Liz sat in the waiting area outside the hospital emergency room wing. She wanted out of the hospital, or at least to get out of the waiting room and outside for a couple minutes. But she had the feeling that wasn't going to happen anytime soon.
The waiting room was bright with early afternoon sunlight that poured in through the slatted blinds. People sat and talked, some of them acting like they'd had quite a bit of experience sitting in the hard, uncomfortable chairs. Others fidgeted or flipped through magazines without any real comprehension. A handful looked sick and nauseated, only inches away from being truly desperate.
All things considered, Liz thought the hospital waiting room wasn't an ideal place to spend time worrying about someone. Even though she didn't know Wilkins, she thought enough of him that she felt guilty. Mostly, her thoughts were on Max, wondering where he was and why he hadn't come when he'd found out what had happened at the Crashdown.
Unless he doesn't know, she told herself. Quickly she tried to cut down on that line of thinking because those thoughts got intense with a scary suddenness.
Liz glanced at her father at the other end of the room. Jeff Parker was trim and driven. He cradled his cell phone to his ear, listening for a while, then talking rapidly, working out details with the insurance people. He often referred to the yellow legal pad and file he carried, making notes as he went along.
Unable to sit any longer, Liz got up and walked over to her dad. When he looked up, she said, "I'll be right back. I'm going to get something to drink. Do you want anything?"
"Coffee," her dad said. "Thanks." Then he turned his attention back to the phone conversation.
Liz left the waiting room and walked to the small alcove filled with vending machines. She pushed a dollar in, then made her selection.
A shadow slid across the vending machine's surface as Liz straightened with the soda can in hand. Startled, remembering how she hadn't seen the ghost back in the cafe and suddenly wondering if they left shadows or reflections, Liz spun around.
"Are you all right?" Isabel asked.
"I'm fine," Liz responded. "You startled me."
"Sorry," Isabel apologized.
"No harm done. What brings you here?"
"I talked to Michael," Isabel explained. "I heard what happened at the Crashdown." She paused, looking around. "Isn't Max here?"
Liz folded her arms self-consciously. "No."
"Do you know where he is?" Isabel asked.
"No," Liz answered.
Irritation showed in Isabel’s eyes and face. "If you see him, tell him I need to talk to him."
"Sure," Liz agreed, refraining from telling Isabel the same thing. She didn't want Max to think she was looking for him. If he came to her, she wanted him to come on his own, not because he thought she needed him. Then she realized that was exactly why she was faulting him for not being there at the hospital, for not coming when he knew she might need him. "Is something wrong?"
Isabel hesitated, then said, "The ghost at the Crash-down Cafe hasn't been the only ghost sighting lately."
"I know," Liz replied. "Michael said he saw one a few days ago when he was working in the desert." Understanding dawned in her as she watched Isabel. "You've seen a ghost too?"
"I saw something," Isabel agreed. "That's why I need to talk to Max." She paused. "I need you to do another favor for me."
Liz was instantly attentive. Isabel never asked for favors. "Sure," Liz said.
"I don't think it will ever come up, but if it does, would you tell my dad that I came over to see how you were as soon as I heard about what happened at the Crashdown?"
Liz blinked, waiting for an explanation. It didn't come. "Okay," she said, but she wondered what Isabel was hiding. Liz felt paranoid all of a sudden that all of them were keeping secrets from her.
Isabel checked her watch. "When did you get here?"
"I don't know. Maybe forty-five minutes ago."
Isabel gave a short nod. "If my dad happens to ask you when I got here, can you tell him that I got here five minutes after you did?"
"Sure," Liz replied. Straight-arrow Isabel? Wanting to lie to her parents? The world might be ending after all.
"Thanks," Isabel said. "I've got to check on something. I'll be back in just a few minutes."
"Okay." Liz stood there dumbfounded, feeling the cold soda can turning her hand numb. Isabel turned and walked down one of the hospital corridors like she knew where she was going.
Terrific, Liz thought with a scowl. Now I'm Messenger Girl. She located the coffee machine and pushed in another dollar. She slipped the coffee cup from behind the protective plastic door and turned around to find Jim Valenti standing behind her. She was so startled, she almost dropped the coffee.
"Something the matter?" Valenti asked. He was raw-boned and rangy, a product of the rawhide cowboy influence that lingered in New Mexico. He wore jeans and a white Western shirt, and a pair of hand-tooled cowboy boots. He carried a white hat in one hand that marked him as one of the good guys in an old TV Land Gunsmoke episode.
"No," Liz replied, keeping control of the drinks she was carrying.
"You look like you've seen a ghost," Valenti said.
Liz shot him a wry look.
"Sorry," Valenti apologized, with a small grin. "After I heard the story, I thought I'd drop by and see if it was true."
"I didn't see a ghost," Liz said.
Valenti nodded and twirled his hat on his finger. "I thought it was a bunch of hogwash, but I'm having trouble filling hours these days."
A short time back, Valenti had been let go from his duties as sheriff. He'd been holding back information that would have exposed Max, Isabel, and Michael.
"It's not all hogwash," Liz said. "There was"… she hesitated… "something. Michael saw it."
Valenti's eyes narrowed, and his forehead wrinkled in thought. "The way I heard it, you and Maria were standing beside Wilkins when he went down."
"We were," Liz agreed.
"But you didn't see anything?"
Valenti sighed. "And Maria?"
"Didn't see anything," Liz said.
"What did Michael say he saw?"
"A man." Liz tried to remember everything Michael had told her during the frantic and whispered conversation they'd managed to have before the ambulance arrived.
"Someone Michael knew?"
"No. Michael said this guy was tall and stooped, like he'd spent a lot of time hunched over so he wouldn't bump his head on things."
"What about his eyes?" Valenti asked.
The interest the ex-sheriff had in the matter was immediately apparent to Liz. "Michael said the ghost only had one eye. The other was covered by a patch."
Valenti scratched his beard-stubbled chin with a thumbnail, sounding like sandpaper. "A one-eyed ghost, eh?"
"Does that mean something to you?" Liz asked.
"Maybe," Valenti admitted. "Thirty years ago, my dad started looking for Leroy Wilkins's partner. A one-eyed man named Terrell Swanson."
A chill flashed through Liz. "Wilkins mentioned that name in the cafe. He said that was Swanson chasing him."
Valenti twirled his hat again, his preoccupation evident. "My dad never found Terrell Swanson. He believed that Wilkins killed Swanson in a fight over a uranium strike back in the sixties, then hid the body."
Liz stared into Valenti's blue eyes. "You think the ghost is real?" she asked.
"I think," Valenti said, "that I want to talk to Michael. He's still at the Crashdown?"
"Yeah," Liz said.
"How is Wilkins doing?"
"I don't know. The EMTs who arrived at the cafe thought he was having a heart attack. I don't think they know if he's going to make it." Will that mean there’ll be one more ghost to haunt Roswell? The thought sent tiny goose bumps up the back of Liz's neck.
"You going to be around for a while?"
Glancing back toward the ER proper, Valenti said, "Let me know if anything happens here that I need to know about."
"Sure," Liz said.
Valenti placed his cowboy hat back on, smoothing the brim with a forefinger. He gave Liz a solemn look. "I'll be in touch if this looks like something that might spill over on you and your friends." Then he was gone, striding back through the waiting room and hitting the crash bars on the doors to the main parking area.
Mind racing, facing unwelcome thoughts and feeling the absence of Max, Liz returned to the waiting room and gave her father his coffee. He was so mired in his conversation with the insurance people that he barely acknowledged the coffee's delivery or her departure.
Liz returned to her chair and held the soda can in her hands. She gazed out through the slatted windows.
Oh Max, where are you?
Max trudged back to his car with River Dog at his side. The hot sun beat down on him, sapping his reserves. He looked forward to the Cutlass's air-conditioning.
"You should forgive George Grayhawk and the men with him," River Dog was saying. "Fear makes men do many strange things."
Max stopped by his car and gazed back down at the Mesaliko city. During the walk back through the houses, he had seen a number of people staring at him. The weird thing was, he couldn't be certain how many of them were really alive and how many of them… weren't. "Something's wrong," Max said.
"What do you mean?" River Dog asked.
"If the ghosts really wanted you out of the area, why doesn't an army of them appear and chase your people out?"
"There have been several appearances of the spirits, and this has been going on for days. They are gathering."
"You saw what Henry Callingcrow did to everybody back there. If a group of them got together like that, they could level your village."
River Dog nodded, taking time before he spoke. "Until today, until your arrival, the ghosts have been unable to make physical contact with anyone."
"But Callingcrow wrecked that house before we arrived there."
"True, but you were in the village."
Max looked at the sprawl of houses scattered across the hills. "It can't be," he said. "You told me this first happened hundreds of years ago. The spaceship that stranded us here didn't arrive until 1947. No one like me was around hundreds of years ago."
"I do not know all the answers, but I know that your presence here has had an effect on things. I think it would be better now if you left."
Pain stung Max, and part of the emotion turned into anger. He didn't belong anywhere. Tess had betrayed him, betrayed them all, and Liz wasn't exactly glad he'd stayed around these days.
Max opened the Cutlass's door. "After the reception I got here, I don't want to come back." He stepped into the car and slid behind the wheel. The seat cover was hot.
"You came here for reasons of your own today," River Dog said.
Max's throat felt thick, and he couldn't swallow the painful knot that had formed there. "I have a son."
"Blessings be upon you," River Dog said. "A son is a powerful thing to have, as well as a great responsibility."
"He was taken from me," Max said.
Sorrow showed in River Dog's eyes. "I'm sorry."
"I was hoping that you knew something more of the Granilith. Or a way I might go after my son."
River Dog shook his head. "I told you all I know of the things that Nacedo told me of the place where you came from."
"Then maybe there's something else out here," Max said. "Something Nacedo didn't give you. Something that might help me track the Granilith."
"Once I get this thing done," River Dog said, "and I get my people settled in and protected again, I'll be glad to help you look."
"Thank you," Max said.
"When you get back to Roswell," the shaman said, "see if you and the others can find out more about the spirits that are haunting Roswell."
Max narrowed his eyes, reducing his field of vision. "What do you mean?"
"The spirits are also invading Roswell."
"How do you know?"
"People from the village have returned from shopping there today. While I was caring for Cathy Callingcrow at her home, several of them talked to me. There was an attack at the Crashdown Cafe."
Oh my god, Max thought. Liz! "Was anyone hurt?"
"Only a man," River Dog answered. "His name is Leroy Wilkins."
The name meant nothing to Max.
"Wilkins is known to us," River Dog went on. "Nearly thirty years ago, Wilkins was almost put in jail for mining on reservation land."
"I've got to go," Max said. He twisted the key in the ignition, listening to the engine rumble to life.
River Dog leaned back from the car's window and stood. "A piece of this journey yet remains to you."
Max waved the man's words off as he jammed the transmission into reverse. The Cutlass's tires spun against the sand-covered ground, stirring up a cloud of dust. Screeching to a halt, Max put the car in a forward gear and peeled out, getting back onto the road that would take him to the highway back to Roswell.
As he followed the crooked trail back up the hillside that led to the highway, movement on Max's right caught his attention. Amid the waves of shimmering heat coasting above the sandy terrain, a dozen riders gathered on horseback.
All of the riders were Indian braves. Although the images didn't come across as sharply and distinctly as had the images of Bear-Killer and Henry Callingcrow, Max had no problem recognizing the war paint that turned their faces into angry, otherworldly masks. The ponies pranced and shifted, tails flicking as the riders talked to one anther and stared at the Cutlass.
Then, with voices yelling loud enough to be heard over the Cutlass's engine and air conditioner, the warriors kicked their mounts into full gallop. They lifted their spears and bows high as they took up pursuit of Max's car.
Watching the rearview mirror, staying in the middle of the dirt road to avoid the bar ditches and ruts on either side, Max saw the war party disappear in the fog of swirling dust that the Cutlass stirred up. He could no longer see River Dog, either.
At the top of the rise, Max kept the accelerator pressed down hard and ignored the stop sign at the end of the road. He yanked the wheel to the left, throwing the Cutlass into a controlled skid across both lanes of the highway. Rubber shrilled, and for a moment he fought the car for control. Then he had the Cutlass aimed for Roswell, hoping that he didn't trip a state policeman's radar.
Did it ever even cross your mind to try to save me while you were saving Liz?"
Pinned by the question, knowing that never in a million years would he have figured on being asked that, Michael stared at Maria.
Only silence, interrupted by the hissing pop of expiring soap bubbles in the three-compartment kitchen sink, stretched between them.
"I was standing between you and the ghost," Michael pointed out. "You were protected. Even when I knocked Liz to the floor."
Angrily, Maria put one soapy fist on her hip. "Since I couldn't see the ghost, I guess I'm supposed to take your word for that."
Michael thought about her statement. Like the previous question, whatever answer he gave was a minefield that could be turned against him. "You weren't hurt," he pointed out.
"I could have been."
"I could have been too," Michael said. "I wasn't. You weren't. We got off lucky."
Maria shook her head. "I can't believe you. That's the best response you have?"
"Maria, I thought about saving you."
"You thought about saving me?" Maria asked. "Knowing you deliberately chose not to save me makes this even worse, Michael."
Actually, Michael was of the opinion that things couldn't get any worse. Or that the change was so infinitesimal, he couldn't tell the difference. "I didn't choose not to save you," he argued.
"You chose to save Liz."
"She was nearest the ghost," Michael explained.
"And how do I know that?"
"Because I'm telling you."
Maria glared at him doubtfully. "You were the only one who saw the ghost. I have to take your word for it."
"When the old guy gets out of the hospital," Michael said, "ask him."
"So you chose who you would save."
"I prioritized," Michael replied. "Figured out who was in the greatest danger."
Maria's eyes flashed. "You sorted us out."
Michael knew better than to say anything at that point. The conversation was going south with the speed of an avalanche.
"Michael," Maria said, "you don't even sort your laundry."
"Yes I do." Michael remembered long, boring arguments on that subject. Something about brightness of colors and fabric density and textures. Those lectures had been about as exciting as taking history class from a football coach. So now, sometimes… especially whenever Maria was around… he remembered to sort out the colors and fabrics.
"Fine," Maria said. "People aren't laundry."
Michael was stunned for a moment. "People aren't laundry? That's an argument?"
"That's an observation," Maria told him. "Evidently a distinction that you aren't able to make."
Realizing that he wasn't going to be able to talk to her until she'd gotten over being mad, Michael retreated. "I'm going to take the trash out."
"Fine," Maria said, diving back into the dishes.
"Fine," Michael echoed. He spun around and marched back into the dining area. A half-dozen large garbage bags sat there waiting to be taken out. Still angry, he grabbed two of them up.
Unable to take the strain of the sudden yank, the bottoms ripped out of the garbage bags. Unfinished meals and drinks tumbled to the floor, making a bigger mess than had been there before.
"I told you that you should have filled up the garbage cans instead of just using bags," Maria called from the kitchen. "Then you could have taken them outside without worrying about them breaking open like that. Guess you didn't prioritize that, huh?"
A heavy sigh escaped Michael. The cleanup suddenly felt hours longer with all the work he was going to have to do again and the crappy mood Maria was in.
Just as he was going for his broom and dustpan, an SUV with a local news channel insignia stopped in front of the cafe. A man in a suit got out on the passenger side, reached back for a jacket, and shrugged into the garment.
A man in blue jeans and a University of New Mexico tank stepped out of the back of the SUV Gazing at the street and the Crashdown Cafe, he took a Spider-Man baseball cap from his back pants pocket and pulled it on. He reached back into the vehicle and took out a Minicam.
"Shoot some exteriors first, Bob," the news anchor said as he buttoned his jacket. He took a microphone out of a special case on the SUV's dash. "And check the audio levels on this mike before we film this spot."
The bored look on the cameraman's face broadcast his irritation at the other man. "I've been doing my job longer than you've been at this station, Marty. I know my stuff."
"You'll take direction," Marty ordered crisply, "or I'll have the station send out another cameraman in time for the five o'clock show."
Bob reversed his hat and shouldered the Minicam. "You do that, Marty. Every cam operator at the station will screw you over. You'll be doing every spot missing half your head or with a zit the size of Mount Rainier occupying center focus. A lot of people can talk in front of a camera. Not everybody can shoot with one."
The warning didn't go over well with Marty, and Bob obviously didn't care.
"Tommy," Marty said.
"Yo," the driver responded.
"See if you can round up some of the locals for interviews. There's always somebody who wants to be on
television. And get me somebody who saw the ghost that did this."
Okay, Michael told himself, struggling to think calmly and clearly, this is really not good.
"When you walk into one of these decrepit places, what's the first thing you wonder about?"
Kyle Valenti reached for the rag tied at his waist and mopped the perspiration from his face. He lifted the protective mask filter over his mouth and nose and wiped his chin, too. The air inside the condemned building was stale, turgid, and thick with: dust. He felt the grit clinging to his exposed skin. He wore a T-shirt with the sleeves cut off, jeans, and a tool belt that still made him walk off-balance because he wasn't used to the weight.
"The first thing I think about," Kyle replied as he settled the mask back over his face, "is how soon I can get out of here."
"Not me." Doyle Quinlann was a local building contractor. He was a short fireplug of a man who shaved his head. He wore a mask, gloves, a sweat-soaked chambray work shirt, and work slacks. He shone a flashlight around the debris-filled room.
Kyle waited, grateful to take a breath. Quinlann was self-employed and had five kids. The man worked like a machine and seemed invulnerable. He was in his forties and could work most guys in their twenties into the ground.
"Nope," Quinlann said, sweeping the flashlight over heaps of broken furniture, boxes of old clothes, books, and a lot of other things that people no longer had a use for. "What I wonder about is if anybody ever died in one of these places."
"Now there's a pleasant thought," Kyle commented. He slapped at his mask, knocking collected dust free.
"It's something to think about." Quinlann turned the flashlight's beam to the walls. "Real estate companies don't have to tell you that somebody croaked in the house you're hoping to buy. The house you and your father live in? Someone could have died there."
As if I don't have enough worries, Kyle thought, now I have to worry that ghosts walk through my house.
"Of course," Quinlann said, "I'm not the superstitious type. But I've got a healthy respect for ghosts." He directed the beam at a window covered over with a sheet of plywood. "Rip that plywood out of the way and let's get some more light in here."
Kyle hoisted the heavy crowbar from the floor. When he'd first started working for Quinlann a week ago, he hadn't thought much of the crowbar's weight. The tool had been a little heavier than a baseball bat. Now the thing felt like a blacksmith's anvil at the end of a twelve- or four-teen-hour day.
"My mother passed away a few years ago," Quinlann went on.
"Sorry to hear that." Kyle shoved the straightest end of the crowbar under the plywood and started pulling.
"Yeah," Quinlann said. "She was always onto me about losing things. You know: keys, my wallet, my wedding ring since I don't wear that to work."
Nails screeched as they pulled free of the wall. Gradually the plywood section came loose. Sunlight split the darkness of the room, playing on the dust motes eddying in the air.
"Anyway," Quinlann said, "my mom always had this special place she put my things when she found them and knew that I wouldn't remember where I'd left them. About two years ago, I lost my wedding ring for a couple weeks. I looked everywhere. My wife looked everywhere. My kids even looked everywhere because I offered a reward. Nothing. No doing. Couldn't find the ring anywhere."
Kyle grabbed the plywood and hauled the section to the floor. The plywood landed with a thump that raised a dust cloud that reminded him of a nuclear bomb blast.
"Then one night," Quinlann said, "I have this dream about my mom telling me to look in that little place she had. She'd come to live with us the last four years of her life. Anyway, I get up the next morning, remember the dream, and go to the hiding place. Guess what I found."
"The ring," Kyle said.
"Yeah." Quinlann flicked off the flashlight beam. With the plywood off the dirt-streaked window, more light invaded the room, battling the darkness back and illuminating the surroundings enough to get around without falling. "What I'm saying is that maybe you should keep an open mind about ghosts."
"I'll do that."
Quinlann pointed to the other covered windows. "Let's tear those down for starters, then get the cleanup crews in here and start gutting these rooms."
Grateful for the change in topic, Kyle threw himself into the work.
Fifty-plus years ago, the three-story building near Roswell 's downtown area had been a cheap hotel that rented by the day, by the week, and by the month. For the last twenty years the building had been primarily derelict, rented by a few businesses to store stuff that was basically a collection of junk that no one had bothered to officially throw out. Now someone had bought the building and hired Quinlann Construction to revamp and remodel the structure into a telecommunications marketing center to take advantage of the changing labor force in the city.
As Kyle attacked the covered windows, yanking down the plywood and letting more light into the room, Quinlann busied himself marking the permanent walls that couldn't come down in the deconstruction phase. Only a few of the walls had to remain to provide support for the offices.
"There should be a bathroom back there," Quinlann said after Kyle had finished with the windows. "Crack it open and let's have a look. According to the blueprints, we should be able to tear that out of there."
Kyle crossed to the door and halted when an offensive stench reached his nostrils even through the mud-caked mask filter. "Smells like something died in there."
"Sewer gas," Quinlann replied. "Once the water to the building was shut off, the pipes all went dry. With no water in the S-traps to seal off the gas coming back from the sewer, the gas flows back up the pipe."
"Oh," Kyle replied. During the construction gigs, he'd also learned a lot more about plumbing than he'd ever wanted to know.
The bathroom was a small full-size with a tub-shower ensemble, a toilet, and a sink. Broken Sheetrock littered the floor.
Kyle opened his mouth and breathed. Not breathing through his nose helped mute the stench, but the experience was still pretty harsh.
"How bad is it?" Quinlann asked.
"Bad," Kyle assured him.
"I'm talking about the construction work. We're going to have to tear out all the pipes and fixtures, right?"
"Yeah." A silver glint on the floor caught Kyle's attention. He peered more closely, then figured that the glint had been a trick of the light. Nothing was there now.
The thin whisper permeated the room and made the hair on the back of Kyle's neck stand to attention. Primitive instinct, a concrete fear of the unknown, froze Kyle in place.
"Kyle." The soft, sibilant sound repeated.
Mouth suddenly dry, Kyle had trouble swallowing. "Do you have someone else up here with us?"
"I thought I heard somebody in here," Kyle said.
"Better have a look," Quinlann said. "There may be transients or kids prowling around in here. They look for places like this to flop or party occasionally. I've had it happen before."
Kyle stared at the dust-streaked translucent glass that encased the shower. No other place in the room was large enough for someone to hide in.
"You got that window open in there yet?" Quinlann asked.
"Getting to it," Kyle responded. "Where is it?"
"According to the blueprints, the only window in that room is on the east wall."
Kyle looked to his left, then spotted the covered window. He'd missed the window because it was smaller than the windows in the outer rooms, and because the cabinets around the window helped camouflage it. The window was also close to the enclosed shower.
"1 found it," Kyle said. He moved to the wall and lifted the crowbar. Before he could slide the crowbar into position, movement to his right, made murky by the pebbled design of the shower stall glass, drew his attention.
The figure on the other side of the shower glass looked vague and indistinct. But the shape was definitely moving.
"Kyle. You are a friend to Max, Isabel, and Michael. They must go."
Fear hammered through Kyle. Ever since he'd gotten involved with Liz and her alien friends, his life had never been the same. The weird things that had gone on had activated his dad's obsession with an old unsolved case of his grandfather's. Then they'd learned the truth about Max, Isabel, and Michael, about their alien heritage.
Despite his fear, Kyle peered through the shower glass, trying to get a better look at the figure on the other side. There was something vaguely familiar about the shape. He reached out with a shaking hand and slid the shower door open.
A dead man stood in the shower cubicle. He was thin and young, his dead flesh ground into bloody hamburger by the road that had killed him. His face was black with bruising where it wasn't red, gooey, and dripping.
"Stay away from them, Kyle," the dead man said. "Their time is coming. They will be hunted and sought after. Everyone with them will suffer the same fate."
Fear gripped Kyle, holding his feet as tightly as cured concrete. The dripping horror in the shower suddenly grabbed the glass edges of the shower and stepped toward Kyle. Panicking, Kyle tried to dive backward. His foot slipped on loose debris. He twisted as he fell, flailing his arms as the dead man hovered over him.
The crowbar crashed through the glass surrounding the shower, shattering the glass into huge shards. One of the shards slid against Kyle's left arm, slicing neatly through the flesh. The cut instantly filled with blood, then overflowed and ran down his arm. A steady stream dripped to the floor as he landed on his butt beside the enclosed shower.
The dead man leaned down toward Kyle, revealing the hideous gashes left from rough contact with street pavement. Kyle now remembered who the dead man was, though he hadn't thought about him in years.
"Stay away," Kyle gasped. The burning pain of the cut reached him, as well as the initial fear of the amount of blood he was losing. "Stay away!"
The dead man leaned in more closely. His hands left bloody smears on the bathtubs edge. "They are going to die, Kyle. We are going to kill them. Just as we will kill anyone who stands with them against us."
"Kyle!" Quinlann yelled from the other room. Footsteps drummed against the floor.
"Stay away," Kyle told the dead man.
Quinlann burst into the room, taking in Kyle at a glance. "Hold on, Kyle," the man said. "Just hang on. You're going to be all right." He took his shirt off and wrapped the garment around Kyle's injured arm.
"Do you see him?" Kyle demanded, pushing back from the dead man leaning out of the shower.
"See who?" Quinlann asked. He struggled to take up slack in the shirt and tie the cloth off tightly.
"The man," Kyle said. He suddenly felt like he couldn't get air to breathe.
"Calm down," Quinlann said. "You're going to hyperventilate in that mask. Everything's going to be all right."
"No," Kyle said, fighting to back away as the gory dead man leaned in. He tried to lift his arms to protect himself. How could Quinlann not see the dead man?
"Kyle!" Quinlann said. "Kyle!"
The dead man reached for Kyle, his bloody palm turned outward to cover Kyle's face.
Isabel found Jesse sitting in the emergency room admittance area. He still wore his suit, but had the jacket draped over the chair beside him. Every line in his body was tense. He stared out the windows into the parking lot.
The two nurses at the admittance desk stayed busy handling the phones and processing patients.
Isabel crossed the room. Jesse must have spotted her reflection in the glass, because he turned around to look at her. His clothing and his hair still held a fine layer of desert dust. Isabel resisted taking his hand or standing too close to him. Roswell was simply too small to take such risks. Someone would see them, jump to the obvious… and right… conclusion, and word would get back to her dad.
"You doing okay?" Jesse asked.
"I'm fine," Isabel said. Not sitting beside him, not touching him, was hard, and it got more difficult every time she saw him in her dad's offices.
"How's your friend?" Jesse asked.
"She's okay," Isabel said. "Maybe a little stressed. But nobody got hurt."
Jesse pointed at the television hanging from the ceiling in the corner by the admittance desk. "Local news station is covering the story."
Isabel stared at the television screen. She watched in disbelief as footage of the front of the Crashdown played on the set.
"They're suggesting that the damage was done by a poltergeist," Jesse said. "Totally weird, don't you think?"
Isabel tried not to hesitate. "Yes," she replied. To cover her momentary lapse, she asked a tension-filled question of her own. "Did you let my dad know you were here?"
Jesse nodded. "I told him I witnessed the accident and that I felt I needed to stay here to make sure the woman was okay. He understood. Then he told me you were here. Told me to help you if you needed it. He's got a conference call that he couldn't put off."
The whispering tone reminded Isabel of how much they were hiding, of how much they had at risk. Or, at least, how much she felt they had at risk. She gazed into his dark eyes. Why hadn't she ever felt like this about someone from Roswell High? Then guilt filled her. She hadn't felt that way about anyone in high school because none of the guys she'd been around there had been Jesse Ramirez.
"How is the woman doing?" Isabel asked.
"She's going to be okay. The police contacted her husband. He's here now." Jesse paused. "Do you remember how she was crying out for her baby?"
Isabel suppressed a shiver as she remembered the child-thing that had threatened her. She folded her arms across her chest. "Yes."
"She had a baby," Jesse said. "A little girl. But she died in childbirth."
"That's horrible," Isabel said. And she thought it was even more horrible because the thing in the vehicle had known of the woman's loss and had used that pain against the woman. But that didn't explain why Jesse hadn't been able to see the child-thing.
"Yeah," Jesse said. "It is. I heard the state police interviewing her husband when he got here. They wanted to make sure there hadn't been a baby, or that nothing had happened to the child."
"Is the woman going to be okay?"
"The cut on her head isn't serious. The seat belt held her in place and the air bag protected her from most of the crash. But that doesn't explain why she freaked out and lost control of her vehicle."
Isabel was silent for a moment, knowing that she knew exactly what had caused the woman to lose control, although she didn't know where the child-thing had come from. But she couldn't tell that to Jesse. The fact was a reminder of how much distance actually separated them, and she didn't know how… or if… they could bridge the gap.
"Hey," Jesse said softly.
She looked at him.
"It's going to be okay," he said.
"I know," she said, and she wanted to believe him but she knew he didn't know everything he needed to in order to make that prediction. There were still too many things about her that he didn't know.
"… here at the scene of what is believed by some to be the result of a poltergeist manifestation."
Michael leaned against the pass-through window at the back of the Crashdown and watched the news anchor, Marty Lackley, roll through his spiel. They were on the third take, and Marty wasn't happy with the job Bob the cameraman was doing.
Marty was also not happy that Nancy Parker had forbidden the news crew to step into the cafe. The part where the news reporter had gotten indignant and insisted on the public's right to know if the Crashdown was haunted had been hilarious.
The scene had taken some of the edge off the argument that Michael and Maria seemed to be locked into. However, when Maria had seen Michael smiling at the reporter's discomfort, she'd gotten mad all over again. Apparently, they were in another one of those arguments where everything was supposed to be unhappy for everybody until they somehow fixed what was wrong.
Since Michael didn't feel that he'd done anything wrong, he didn't have a clue how to fix the situation. The only good thing was that the construction crew Nancy Parker had called in had arrived and was in the process of taking over the cleanup. They didn't want anyone else in the cafe while they repaired the broken glass and electrical damage.
Michael gazed at the crowd still gathered on the other side of the street. The numbers had dwindled, but newcomers wanting to gawk or get a chance to be interviewed for television had arrived to replace the people who had to move on or had gotten bored.
One of the construction men stepped through the broken front window and out onto the sidewalk. Once there, the guy was fair game for the news team.
Marty hurried forward, gesturing to Bob the cameraman to keep up. Marty intercepted the construction guy and shoved a microphone in the guy's face, announcing his name and giving the station's call letters.
"Can you tell us if there's any truth to the rumor that the cafe owners have hired your company to excavate the graves covered by the foundation here?" Marty asked.
With increased interest, Michael watched the construction guy struggle to deal with the reporter's question.
"It's not my company," the construction guy replied. "And there's no…"
"Did you see the ghost?" the reporter asked.
The construction worker hesitated, glaring a little at the camera that was thrust into his face. "I didn't see the ghost. I…"
"How bad is the damage?" the reporter pressed.
"Not too bad. I've seen a lot worse, I suppose."
The construction owner stepped forward in the middle of the dining area. "Kenny."
The construction guy turned around.
"I need those tools," the owner said. "Let's get to it."
Marty the anchorman decided to try to use that as an opening to get inside the cafe. He started for the empty window. "Are you the construction foreman? I'm…"
"You'll be arrested for trespassing if you take one step in this building," Nancy Parker warned as she came from the kitchen area.
Uncertain, Marty froze where he was, then took a step back. He scowled. "You can't keep us from the truth, Mrs. Parker. We're the news."
"Oh really, Mr. Lackley?" Nancy Parker challenged. "Is that what you want to do? Advertise that the Crashdown Cafe is haunted?" She stepped on out into the dining room. "Because I think that's libel. I'll have to speak with my husband's attorney to confirm that."
"I didn't say that," Marty said. "You did." He lowered his voice and spoke over his shoulder. "You getting this, Bob?"
"Sure," the cameraman replied. "You talking about ghosts is something I want to see the station run. We'll get you up and running on one of the syndicated stations in no time. Before you know it, you'll be heading up Survivor: Haunted House."
Jim Valenti stepped into Marty Lackley's view. Despite the unkempt three-day growth of beard, Valenti still broadcast waves of authority. Maybe he no longer wore the sheriff's star or carried a weapon, but he carried a presence with him.
"If I were you," Valenti said in a low voice, "I'd step back like the lady asked."
"You don't have any official presence here, Valenti," the reporter said. "You were terminated in your capacity as sheriff."
"No sir," Valenti agreed. "I don't have any official presence, and that's a fact. But what I'm doing is offering you a piece of advice I hope a bright guy like you is smart enough to take." His voice got harder. "Because if you don't and you continue to harass this place and these workers, I'm going to perform a citizen's arrest for trespassing and throw your butt in jail." He paused, smiling a little, but the mirth didn't touch his eyes. "And that's a promise."
Veins stood out in Marty's temples and neck.
For a moment Michael thought the reporter was going to make the mistake of calling Valenti's bluff. After dealing with the sheriff for the last two years and knowing him from a distance before that, Michael knew Valenti wasn't bluffing.
"Hey, Marty," Bob the cameraman called out in a voice marked with a little amusement, "I'm rolling feed on this, too. Want me to keep it up? I mean, if you get yourself plotzed on the news and thrown in jail, the producer should be able to guarantee some faces in front of the tube tonight if they show teasers."
The anchorman acted like he was going to push the wireless microphone in Valenti's direction. Then Marty wisely turned and walked away without another word.
"Thank you, Jim," Nancy Parker called from inside the cafe.
Valenti turned and put his fingers to his hat brim. "My pleasure, ma'am. May I come inside for a minute?"
"And could I take a minute of your time?"
Nancy Parker nodded. Valenti stepped through the door and quietly conferred with her.
"Hey," Maria called from the pass-through window behind Michael.
Michael turned to face her.
"You need to get busy," Maria admonished him.
"Why?" Michael asked. "I get to do the big meeting scene with Isabel and Max later. I don't mind putting that off."
Maria glared at him. "Because we might be able to have some time to ourselves before the others arrive."
"Are you through being mad?" If she was, Michael knew that the incident would be some kind of world record.
Not entirely, Michael translated to himself, meaning we're still gonna have to talk the whole thing to death.
"Hey, Michael," Valenti called.
Turning around, surprised, Michael glanced at Valenti and waited.
"Mrs. Parker says she can spare you," Valenti said. "Since you have the time, I'd like you to come with me."
"Why?" Michael asked.
"Because you've got a good memory for faces," Valenti answered, "and you were in here during the incident. Maybe we can find the accessory."
Michael considered. Go with Valenti on some wild goose chase for an accessory who doesn't exist? Or stay here and let Maria keep busting my chops?
"Sure," Michael responded. He took his apron off and tossed it onto the stainless steel surface of the pass-through window.
"Michael," Maria called in exasperation.
Michael turned to face her.
"What about tonight?" Maria asked.
Michael shrugged. "I guess it'll still be there." He paused. "Oh, and if you or the others get there before me, go ahead and let yourselves in." He went to join Valenti, feeling Maria staring daggers into his back. Bugging out now wasn't going to make things any more difficult between them, and he needed out of the cafe and away from the tension. Besides that, he didn't figure Valenti had dropped in for a social call.
Valenti didn't say anything enlightening as he led the way out of the Crashdown and by the news reporters gathered like a murder of crows around fresh roadkill. Michael kept up with Valenti, then got in on the passenger side of the truck.
Valenti fired up the engine and pulled out into the street.
Michael looked at him, noticing the thick file folder lying on the seat between them. "Accessory?"
Valenti returned his gaze full measure. "Yeah. You saw somebody besides Wilkins at the Crashdown today, right?"
Michael stayed quiet, paying attention as Valenti wound through the streets of downtown Roswell and headed east. Valenti also checked the mirrors frequently.
"Are you expecting company?" Michael asked.
Valenti smiled sourly. "Anything that ties into the three of you carries the possibility of government involvement. I don't expect it, but I don't want to be surprised, either."
Michael accepted that without comment.
"I saw Liz at the hospital," Valenti explained. "She told me this is the second ghost you've seen."
"If they're ghosts," Michael said.
"You don't think they are?"
"I don't believe in ghosts."
"Did you get a good look at the thing that was chasing Leroy Wilkins?" Valenti asked.
"I saw him," Michael agreed.
With his free hand Valenti reached for the file folder on the seat between them. He opened the folder and took out an eight-by-ten black-and-white photograph. He slid the photograph across to Michael, then tapped the image with a forefinger. "Is that the guy?"
Michael stared at the image. The man looked like he was in his forties. His face was seamed and tight, the features of a man who had been out often in the elements. The most memorable aspect of the man's face was the eye patch.
"That the guy you saw?" Valenti asked.
"Yeah," Michael replied, "this is him. Who is he?"
"His name is Terrell Swanson," Valenti said. "He turned up missing thirty years ago. My dad investigated Swan-son's disappearance. His feeling was that Swanson was dead. What about the other ghost you saw?"
"Tiller Osborn's dad."
Valenti nodded. "I heard something about that. Bulmer had to bring Tiller back and admit him to the hospital. The doctor had to sedate him to get him to calm down. Was it Tiller's dad?"
"I don't know. I never really paid attention to Tiller's dad. He was never around much. Tiller seemed to think it was."
"He'd probably know," Valenti agreed. "What happened?"
Michael recounted the events of that night, drawing the comparisons between the two ghostly apparitions.
"A static electricity buildup?" Valenti asked when he'd finished.
"Any reason why?"
"And no one but you and the victims saw the ghost today or that night?"
"Any ideas why not?"
Michael shot Valenti a look.
"Right," Valenti said with a sigh. "At least a static electricity buildup is something I can sense even if I can't see the ghosts." He flipped the file open again for an instant, then put Swanson's picture back in the folder.
They drove in silence for a time. Only the hum of the tires filled the truck cab.
"So don't you want to know where I'm taking you?" Valenti asked.
"I know where you're taking us," Michael said.
"You think so?"
"Wilkins's house," Michael said. "That's why you checked the address again."
Valenti grinned mirthlessly. When the mile marker on the highway came up, he turned right and followed a dirt road section line that had a clutch of chaparral and a truck full of kids selling farm produce with their grandparents at the corner. Valenti honked and waved.
"Know why I'm bringing you with me?" Valenti asked.
Michael glanced at the mirror mounted on the passenger side of the truck. A dust cloud whipped along in their wake, eerily remindful of the ghosts he'd seen. "Because I see dead people," Michael answered.
When he reached Roswell, Max stopped at a convenience store a couple blocks down from the Crashdown Cafe. Leaving the car, he crossed to the pay phone mounted on the front of the liquor store. The sun beat down into the town, baking the pavement of the streets and parking areas and heating the air into a convection oven.
He swiped his prepaid phone card through the phones reader and punched in Isabel's cell phone number. Anxiously he peered at the SUV with the news markings and the group of people standing in front of the Crashdown.
Isabel answered on the fourth ring.
"What took you so long to answer the phone?" Max asked.
"Max?" Isabel responded.
"Yeah. I heard about the Crashdown. About the ghost."
"How did you know?" Isabel asked.
"I've seen a few ghosts myself." Max didn't want to go into the whole story over the phone. "Is Liz okay? I heard she was at the hospital." A hurried conversation on the street at a stoplight with a guy he knew from school had netted him that information.
"Liz is fine," Isabel answered. "We need to talk."
"I know," Max agreed. "I don't know for sure what happened at the Crashdown, but these ghosts are real. Maybe they're not ghosts, but they're something."
"I know. I've seen one myself."
"Where?" Max demanded. "Were you at the Crash-down?"
"No. Somewhere else." Isabel paused. "We need to meet somewhere tonight, Max."
"We will. Where are you?"
"Are you all right?"
But she didn't sound fine, Max knew. He could hear the anxiety and uncertainty in his sister's voice. Those weren't qualities he usually attributed to Isabel Evans.
"Is Michael there?" Max asked.
"No. He had been at the Crashdown, but Maria called a few minutes ago to say that he'd gone off with Valenti."
"Where did Michael and Valenti go?"
"Maria didn't know."
Frustration chafed at Max. He knew he needed to be doing something, but he didn't know what he was supposed to do. He told Isabel that he was on his way, then hung up and climbed back into the Chevelle.
"So this guy was a uranium miner?" Michael asked as Valenti pulled the truck to a stop in front of Leroy Wilkins's house.
Valenti looked up at the three-story home. "Yeah. One of the more successful desert rats who ever lived that kind of life. His dad was a miner before him. Taught Leroy everything he knew about mining. The elder Wilkins did a lot of mining for uranium used by the United States government during their nuclear weapons testing back in the forties and fifties. There's an underground uranium mining museum over in Grants, New Mexico, that has some exhibits Leroy's father was responsible for."
Michael studied the house. Trees had grown up around the house, closing in on the structure. Peeling paint looked like diseased areas. Shingles lay in the overgrown weeds in the yard and left bare spots on the roof. If the roof weren't leaking now, it soon would be. The railing around the porch had come loose in some areas and was rotting in others. Maintenance obviously wasn't part of the house's routine.
"This doesn't look like success," Michael commented.
Valenti opened the truck door and got out. "This is past success. Leroy Wilkins was one of the last wildcat miners. Guys who bought up land rights and went hell-for-leather against the bedrock hoping they found enough to earn out the investment."
Michael watched a pair of hawks floating in lazy circles in the sky.
"Wilkins was successful enough to buy this property here and have this house built," Valenti continued. "He threw a lot of parties back in his day. He was also a high stakes gambler who spent a lot of time out in Vegas. He spent every dime he made. Barely had enough to keep from losing this house to back taxes."
Michael followed Valenti toward the front door.
"As you can tell," Valenti said as he stepped up onto the porch, "Wilkins didn't make a lot of lasting friends in spite of the way he spent his money."
Valentis boots thudded across the uneven surface of the warped porch.
"You said he killed his partner," Michael pointed out. "Maybe that had something to do with his lack of friends."
Valenti tried the front door, but it was locked. "I never said Wilkins killed his partner. I said Terrell Swanson disappeared."
"But he never managed the reappearance, did he?" Michael asked sourly.
"Why would Wilkins kill his partner?"
Valenti peered through the windows. "Because they found the strike that was as close to the mother lode as they'd ever found. Both of them had wills that gave their half of any mine to the surviving partner. Most of the business in those days done between partners instead of corporations operated like that. Strictly Old West rules."
Boredom settled in over Michael. He leaned back against a section of the porch railing that looked like it would support his weight.
Valenti glanced at him. "Don't get too relaxed. You're supposed to be the lookout."
"If I see a ghost," Michael said, "I'll scream."
"Yeah," Valenti said sarcastically, "that works for me." He walked from the porch down to the two-car garage around the side of the house.
The garage had been built into the hillside that provided the elevated foundation for the rest of the house. With the construction the way it was, the garage was on a split-level beneath the house.
Reluctantly, Michael followed Valenti. "What are we doing here?"
"Following up a lead."
"We have a lead?" Michael asked. "I must have missed the lead part."
"Swanson's ghost," Valenti said.
"That's a lead?"
Valenti halted in front of the garage door and looked at Michael. "How did you see Swanson's ghost?"
Michael blinked, not fully comprehending.
Valenti sighed. "Okay, listen. Wilkins came into the Crashdown claiming a ghost no one else can see is chasing him. But you can see the ghost. And you can see the ghost of Tiller Osborn's dad. Why?"
Michael didn't say anything. They both knew what the only reason could be.
"So I'm wondering why Osborn's ghost came to the campsite, and how much of a coincidence it is that Wilkins wandered into the Crashdown today."
"Liz said her mother was talking to her dead grandmother this morning."
Valenti narrowed his eyes. "Liz didn't mention that when I talked to her at the hospital."
Michael shrugged. "It's not something she wants to talk about."
"Yeah, well that still puts you at the eye of the storm," Valenti observed.
"Isabel saw a ghost too."
"I don't know."
"What about Max?"
Michael shook his head. "Haven't seen him since yesterday."
Valenti blew out his breath. "Three ghosts that we know of, then."
Michael didn't say anything. The math was obvious.
"But out of those three ghosts," Valenti said, "Wilkins's ghost is the only one we can investigate."
Michael looked at the house. "And the investigation is here?"
"It starts here." Valenti pulled at the Master lock on the garage door, then retreated to his truck and came back with a crowbar.
"Why here?" Michael asked.
Valenti set himself with the crowbar. "Because Leroy Wilkins hardly ever leaves his house. He has his food delivered. He has his booze delivered. I'm curious about what drove him out of his house and into the Crashdown." He swung the crowbar, connecting with the Master lock and tearing the mechanism from the garage door and frame.
"I think that's called forcible entry," Michael said. "Not exactly the letter of the law."
"I'm not exactly the law these days," Valenti said.
Michael couldn't miss the trace of bitterness in the man's voice.
"Give me a hand," Valenti said, squatting to shove the end of the crowbar under the garage door. He got into position and heaved up. The heavy wooden door rose a little with a prolonged creak.
Michael knelt down and slid his fingers under the garage door. For just a moment the image of something strange and horrifying waiting in the darkness on the other side of the door flooded his mind. Then he leaned his shoulder into the garage door and lifted.
The garage door rose, creaking and shrieking along the rusty tracks. An explosion of musty air twisted around Michael, clogging his nostrils with the stink and freezing his breath in his lungs for a moment. It was hard not to think of raising the garage door as opening a crypt.
The garage housed an ancient Willis jeep that had originally started out olive-drab green but had been painted orange at some point. The change in color hadn't taken well, because huge patches of green showed where the orange paint had peeled away. Shelves lined the wall opposite the basement door and at the back of the garage, filled with prospecting equipment and ore samples.
Valenti started to step into the garage, but the harsh blatting noise of a two-cycle motorcycle engine blared to life, approaching quickly.
Certain that the garage door was firmly lodged into place, Michael turned loose the hold he had and looked back out into the yard.
A dust-spattered yellow dirt bike roared into the yard and halted thirty feet away. The rider was thin and looked too small to handle the motorcycle. The helmet masked the features, gloves covered the hands, and a black riding suit clothed the rider.
"You see it too?" Valenti asked.
"Yeah," Michael said. "It's not a ghost."
"How sure are you?"
"Really sure," Michael replied. "When one of the ghosts arrives, there's the static electricity buildup I told you about."
"Not a ghost," Valenti repeated. "That's good." "It also means," Michael said, "that we've been caught trespassing." He glanced at the raised garage door and the crowbar in Valenti's hands. "And breaking and entering."
Max stopped at the doorway to the hospital emergency room waiting area and stared at Liz. She was so near physically, but as he watched her looking out the window, he realized that she seemed almost a million miles away.
Then, as if sensing him there, Liz turned and looked at him.
Max met her gaze and felt the same electricity that he'd always felt when she looked at him. Tess had never taken those feelings away; only muted them and confused him for a time, blinding him through his weakness of needing to know more about his true home. Max crossed to Liz, barely cognizant of the other people in the room.
Stopping in front of Liz, Max said, "I came as soon as I heard. Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," she answered.
Max nodded, searching desperately for something else to say. "Is your dad okay? I heard he was here too."
Liz nodded toward the other end of the room. Mr. Parker stood with a cell phone clutched to his ear.
"Nothing happened to anybody at the cafe," Liz said. Then she explained about Wilkins and the ghost that Michael had seen.
"I heard Michael was with Valenti," Michael said, trying to head off the uncomfortable silence he was certain was going to occur. "Do you know why?"
Liz shook her head. "I think he wanted to check on the ghost Michael and Wilkins saw. His name was Terrell Swanson, and he disappeared thirty years ago. Valenti's dad was trying to find him because he believed Wilkins killed him."
"So the ghost is real?" Max thought back to the phantom warrior he had seen with River Dog. River Dog had never met his ancestor, but Henry Callingcrow had been known to several of the Mesaliko tribe.
"Max," Liz said softly, "ghosts aren't real. They can't be real."
"I know," Max said, but he remembered the ghost he'd seen two Christmases ago. He'd let the man die after giving his life to save his daughter. For days afterward, the man had haunted Max, until Max and Michael had broken into the hospital so Max could heal all the children there.
"That was different," Liz said softly. She touched his cheek with her hand.
Max looked at her, amazed at how well she could sometimes just know what he was thinking. If they could communicate on things so disjointed as this, why couldn't she know how much he loved her?
She does know how much I low her, Max realized. She just can't trust that love. Not after Tess.
"You don't even know if he was a ghost," Liz said.
Max knew that was true. He'd never truly discovered if the ghost then was supernatural or inspired by his own feelings of guilt at watching the man die. "These things are real," Max stated.
Liz's eyes widened. "You've seen one too."
Max told her about the ghosts on the Mesaliko reservation.
"What were you doing out there?" Liz asked.
Max knew that she already guessed. She drew back from him, taking her hand away from the side of his face and moving back in her chair. Although they were only a few inches farther apart, the distance felt like a huge gulf.
"Looking for a way to find my son," Max answered. She knew, and she'd know if he tried to lie about it. Even though he was only trying to spare her feelings, she'd know that, too, and she wouldn't like it.
Pain flared through Liz's eyes. "Did you?"
Max nodded. "That doesn't mean I'm going to give up trying."
Liz remained silent.
"I just wanted you to know that," Max said. Just so we can keep being honest.
Her voice was softer when she spoke. "I already knew that, Max. I wouldn't expect any less of you. But that doesn't make things any easier between us."
"I know," Max whispered, and that knowledge felt like it was going to kill him.
Isabel stood at the front of the hospital and watched Jesse drive away. He waved, and as he pulled out onto the street, it felt like a piece of her was leaving too. She'd had that feeling every time she'd had to step away from him, and the desolation of being left alone got harder and harder to face. She was afraid that facing the emptiness after Jesse left would one day be too much for her and she wouldn't be able to let go.
And what would she do then?
Isabel had no idea, and that both frustrated and scared her. She had always kept her life and her relationships neatly organized. School and home lives had been kept in neat little packages. She even had a special box for Christmas that only came out during those holidays. The secret to her life had been in keeping those boxes separate within herself. That way there had been no internal conflicts.
On most days Max seemed like he'd been born with internal conflicts. Getting involved with Liz Parker had only put an edge on those conflicts, and given them a central point to revolve around. Love was hard on him.
On the other hand, Michael had a nature destined for hardship and confrontation. Looking at him, Isabel thought, most people would think love wouldn't be a problem for Michael because he'd beat that emotion into whatever shape he wanted. Only his relationship with Maria wasn't working out that way either.
Max was one of the most caring and understanding guys Isabel had ever seen, though she probably wouldn't tell him that. And Michael was one of the most thoughtless and self-absorbed people she knew, and she had told him that… more or less… upon occasion.
To a degree, Max and Michael were extremes when it came to relationship issues. Yet, neither one of them could maintain relationships with people they truly cared about without a lot of heartache involved.
Isabel walked back into the hospital and made her way to the ER waiting area. She halted at the door when she saw Max and Liz sitting together. She didn't want to intrude.
Max and Liz sat only inches apart, but they didn't touch. The silence and stillness that kept them apart might as well have been a steel barricade, Isabel thought. For the first time she understood the pain that her brother was going through. To be so dose… and yet… so apart.
Kyle sat on the side of the hospital bed in the hospital emergency room. His arm throbbed with pain as the doctor examined the long laceration on his forearm.
"We got really lucky here," Dr. Bohr said, gently prying at the flesh around the cut.
"How do you figure?" Kyle asked. He didn't feel especially lucky. He also didn't look at the wound, because the bloody mess reminded him too much of the ghost or hallucination he'd seen back at the work site.
"It's a big wound," Dr. Bohr said, "and deep, but you didn't nick any tendons. A few stitches… "
"Stitches?" Kyle asked, looking at the doctor.
The doctor was young, not yet thirty, and he wore a Remy Zero concert T-shirt under the pale blue scrubs. He peered at Kyle through rimless glasses and smiled a little. "Stitches," he repeated. "We can call them sutures, if you'd like."
"How about we call them Band-Aids?"
"I can't just tape this together/' the doctor said. "I'll have a nurse prep you, and we'll get that arm numbed.
Then I'll put in about… eight stitches will do it, I think."
"Sure," Kyle grumbled, taking his arm back from the doctor. Gently, he folded his arm across his chest, trapping the limb with his other arm across his wrist. He tried to remember the last time he'd gotten stitches.
"Want me to let your dad know you're okay?" Dr. Bohr asked.
"My dad?" Kyle asked. "Is he here?"
A confused expression settled on Dr. Bohr's face. "I thought that the gentleman who brought you in… "
"He's not my dad," Kyle said, surprised at the resentment that filled him. "He's my boss."
"Oh," Dr. Bohr said. "My mistake. I'll see you in a little while."
"Sure," Kyle said.
As Dr. Bohr passed through the curtained section that marked the entrance to the emergency room area, Quin-lann stuck his head inside. "Could you use some company, kid?"
"After as long as I've been here," Kyle said, "I'm surprised that you're still here."
Quinlann walked over to the bed and shrugged. "I brought you here. I wanted to make sure you made it home okay."
Kyle looked at his employer, getting a sinking feeling in his stomach. "You haven't been able to reach my dad, have you?"
Quinlann shook his head. "I left a message on the answering machine at your house."
Moving gingerly, still aware of the pain throbbing in his injured arm, Kyle lay back on the bed, settling in for the long haul. He tried not to let any of the unhappiness he felt at his dad's absence show.
Figures, Kyle thought sourly. Any other day of the week, Dad would be home with a can of beer in one hand and watching ESPN. Some of the resentment he was starting to feel about the elder Valenti's lack of interest in finding a job made his stomach roll. He felt his increased heartbeat thump at his temples.
"You okay?" Quinlann asked.
"Yeah," Kyle said. "Just the arm."
"Doc says it's not as bad as it looks."
Quinlann nodded. "That's good. I don't want your dad upset with me."
"This isn't your fault."
"Did the doc say how long you're going to be dealing with a busted wing?" Quinlann asked.
"When I get out of here," Kyle said, "I'll be ready to get back to work."
Quinlann laughed and scratched his head. "You got sand, kid, I'll sure give you that. But once they get through working on that arm, you may be surprised at how much it hurts. I'll get someone to cover you for the next couple days."
"I don't want to take any days off," Kyle said. I can't afford to. The bills are piling up at the house and Dad isn't even looking at them anymore.
Kyle knew he shouldn't be mad at his dad. His dad had been through hell lately because of Max, Michael, Isabel, and Tess. The sheriff's job had disappeared because of his involvement with the Roswell aliens, and maybe his dad had lost some of his spirit when he'd discovered how evil Tess had been. Alex's parents still didn't know what had happened to him, and Kyle knew his dad had to sit on that knowledge too.
"You'll take a couple days off," Quinlann said. "At least. Then we'll see how it goes."
Kyle knew he should be thankful that he had such an understanding boss, but all he could think of was getting a short check. "If I can, I need to make up the time."
"What time?" Quinlann asked. "You were hurt on the job, kid. Me and the insurance will take care of you."
The information made Kyle feel a little better. He lay back on the pillows and tried to relax. He also tried not to think about where his dad was.
Just as the pain in his arm seemed to die down, he heard someone screaming from the area behind the curtain on his left.
Michael stared at the helmeted motorcycle rider. Judging from the riders size against the machine, the rider was a kid.
Valenti stepped forward and dropped the crowbar down against his leg so the tool wasn't so prominent. "Hey," he called, waving a hand. "This isn't what it looks like."
The motorcycle helmet shifted, going back and forth between Michael and Valenti a few times. Then the rider reached down and switched off the two-cycle engine. Reaching up, the rider took off the helmet and shook out her ponytail.
She gazed at Michael. Sunlight gave her chestnut hair a reddish gleam and made the spray of freckles across her nose and cheeks stand out. Her braces gleamed silver.
"If I didn't know you, Sheriff Valenti," the girl said, "I'd hightail it back home and call nine-one-one."
Valenti showed her an easy smile. "I'm glad that you didn't, Kelli."
"However," Kelli said, "I also know that you're not the sheriff of Roswell anymore. And I'm guessing that you used the crowbar to break into Mr. Wilkins's garage. So I want an explanation of what you and the hunk are doing here."
Valenti looked at Michael.
Hunk? Michael thought, feeling more than a little embarrassed. The girl was maybe twelve years old and acting way beyond her years.
"There's been an accident in town," Valenti said, looking back at the girl.
"Mr. Wilkins had a heart attack," Kelli said. "I saw it on the news just after lunch. The local news team interrupted the baseball game. Then they kept interrupting so much, I figured I'd go for a ride and catch the box scores later. The game was a blowout anyway." She paused. "That doesn't explain what you're doing down here."
Sharp kid, Michael couldn't help thinking. And obnoxious.
"I came down to check on Wilkins's house," Valenti said. "I know he used to keep cockatiels. It looks like Wilkins's stay in the hospital is going to be a while. I know that he doesn't have any family that he can call to take care of the birds."
Kelli pushed the motorcycle's kickstand down, then leaned the dirt bike over while she hopped off. "I can help," she offered, trudging toward them.
"Help?" Valenti repeated, and Michael could tell from Valenti's tone that that was the last thing he wanted.
"Sure," Kelli said. "Mr. Wilkins sometimes hires me to do housecleaning and take care of the birds."
"I didn't know that," Valenti admitted.
"Helping Mr. Wilkins is how I earned the money for the motorcycle," Kelli said. "I'm surprised that you remembered the birds. I was on my way down here to take care of them."
"You've got a key to the house?" Michael asked.
Kelli rolled her eyes at him. "There's other ways to get into places than with keys." She glanced at the crowbar along Valenti's leg. "Or crowbars."
"I'm not used to breaking into places," Valenti said. "Usually I've been around to prevent that."
"Well," the girl said, "you stink at it. But you did get the job done."
"Thanks," Valenti said. "I think."
Kelli stopped just inside the garage where the darkness started. "Did you or the hunk think to bring a flashlight?"
"I've got one in the truck."
"It's okay," Kelli said. "We can use mine." She reached into her jacket and brought out a small halogen flash.
Michael was impressed, but didn't let it show on his face.
"Do you see Wilkins on a daily basis?" Valenti asked as they filed by the orange and green spotted Willis jeep.
"More like three times a week," Kelli answered. "Mr. Wilkins doesn't have as much money as a lot of people around here think."
"Yeah," Valenti said. "I knew that."
The girl shone the flashlight over the boxes of ore sample and tools at the back of the garage. "Mr. Wilkins still went prospecting from time to time. I guess you knew that."
"Yeah," Valenti said. "Sometimes I'd catch him out in the desert on that three-wheeler he used to ride, and
sometimes in the jeep, and I'd check on him. Make sure he had enough water and wasn't getting overheated."
"Mr. Wilkins could always take care of himself in the desert," Kelli said. "It was people he didn't trust himself around. He didn't like going into town."
"He came into town today," Michael said. He glanced through the boxes and boxes of rock chunks and soil samples, not seeing at all why someone would be interested in them. They looked all the same to him.
"Wilkins went into Roswell occasionally," Valenti said.
"Yeah." Kelli turned toward the house side of the garage. The flashlight beam tracked across the wall, revealing two doors next to each other.
"Was today one of the scheduled days?"
"No," Kelli replied.
"Are you sure?" Valenti asked.
"Yeah. Mr. Wilkins always had me watch his house while he was gone. I was one of the few people he trusted. During school session, he'd wait till I was home before he'd go into Roswell."
"Then Wilkins either went to Roswell to see someone," Michael said, "or something chased him out of here."
Kelli swung on him, shining the light in his eyes and causing him to raise a hand in defense. "Sorry," she said. "Don't you work at the Crashdown?"
"Yeah," Michael answered. "I do that when I'm not helping Valenti burgle the houses of old rich people."
Kelli grinned and laughed. "I knew you weren't here about the birds."
Valenti looked uncomfortable. "No. That was our cover story."
"So what's the real reason?" Kelli asked.
"Wilkins told people at the Crashdown that he was being chased by a ghost," Valenti said.
"Is that what he told you, brown eyes?" Kelli asked Michael.
"He didn't tell me," Michael replied. "He told a friend of mine. I was standing there when he did."
Kelli's face wrinkled. "Did he say who the ghost belonged to?"
"No," Valenti said.
"Swanson," Michael said, ignoring the glare he got from Valenti.
"The news didn't say anything about that," Kelli said.
"It's protected information," Valenti said.
Kelli's eyebrows raised in understanding. "You mean, in case it turns out someone was trying to scare Mr. Wilkins out of his house and steal his stuff."
Actually Michael hadn't been thinking that far ahead, but the conclusion sounded logical to him and would give them the leverage they needed to keep asking questions. "Yeah," Michael said.
"That still doesn't explain what an ex-sheriff and a short-order cook from the Crashdown is doing here investigating," Kelli observed.
"The new sheriff isn't interested in chasing down ghost stories," Valenti said.
"And you are?" Kelli shot him a doubtful look.
"He's tired of Oprah and Montel," Michael said.
"What about you?" Kelli asked.
"Do you think I want to be a short-order cook all my life?"
"And you're not going to be a short-order cook how?"
Michael smiled at her. "Professional ghostbuster."
Kelli smiled. "Cool."
Valenti grimaced, and Michael figured Valenti wasn't totally enthusiastic about the new cover story.
"Has Wilkins acted any differently lately?" Valenti asked.
"Mr. Wilkins has always acted different," Kelli said. She gestured with the flashlight beam toward the ore samples. "I mean, how many people keep boxes of rocks like this?"
Michael figured the girl had a point.
Nodding to the two doors, Valenti asked, "Where do these doors go?"
Turning her light to the doors, Kelli said, "The door on the left goes upstairs to the house, but the door on the right goes to the workroom."
"What's in the workroom?" Valenti asked.
"I don't know. Mr. Wilkins never let me in there."
"You never let yourself in there?" Michael asked. "I mean, you said you don't need a key to get into places."
Kelli rolled her eyes at Michael in pure disgust. The effort was worthy of something Maria could deliver. Michael figured the ability must be a gender thing.
"No," Kelli said. "1 respected his privacy."
Valenti stepped toward the door. "Somebody didn't. The lock's off the door." He knelt and picked up a padlock from the garage floor. "Let me see that light."
Kelli stepped closer and handed the flashlight over.
Lifting the padlock, Valenti shone the flashlight beam over the mechanism. "Doesn't appear to have been forced."
"Maybe Wilkins forgot to lock it behind him," Michael suggested.
"Mr. Wilkins never forgot something like that," Kelli said. "Whatever was in the workroom was important."
"Was?" Michael asked.
"If the door is open," Kelli said with major exasperation, "you can bet that whatever was in there is gone now."
"We'll see," Valenti said. He kept the flashlight and took a fresh grip on the crowbar. Then he glanced at Michael. "Keep her safe."
Michael nodded, catching the young girl by the elbow and pulling her back. She fought against him, but he kept her moving toward the garage opening, not stopping till she was behind the Willis jeep.
"What do you think you're doing?" Kelli protested. She balled up her fists and shoved them into Michael's chest.
"Calm down," Michael told her, grabbing her wrists so she couldn't hurt him.
"You can't just take my flashlight!" Kelli yelled.
Terrific, Michael thought. I could have stayed at the Crashdown for this. He glanced over his shoulder and watched as Valenti entered the workroom. The flashlight cut through the darkness.
"Hey," Michael called, "you want to go ahead and blow the all-clear before I get my brains beaten in?"
The light stayed in one spot for a time, then Valenti turned back toward the open doorway. "You gotta see this to believe it."
Before Michael could respond, he sensed the buildup of static electricity charging the air. A savage wind whipped out of nowhere, amping up the atmospheric disturbance.
Dust and grit whirled up from the garage's paved floor and stung his eyes.
Kelli screamed. No longer intent on freeing herself, she reached for Michael, grabbing his shirt and pulling herself into him.
Through the blinding haze, Michael saw the monstrous shape rise in the basement space behind Valenti.
Drawn from the confused tangle of dreams and pain that her thoughts seemed to consist primarily of these days, Liz looked up and saw her dad standing before her. "Yeah, Dad."
Jeff Parker looked worn out. Tourist season was always hard, and demanded a lot of the whole family. "Why don't you go on back to the Crashdown. The sheriff tells me he's not going to need to do any more questioning."
"Is there anything Mom needs?" Liz pushed up from the chair.
Her dad sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "If there is, I didn't even think to ask."
"It's okay," Liz said. "I'll ask, then tell her you told me to."
Her dad smiled. "I appreciate that, Liz."
"No prob," Liz said. She was looking forward to being out of the hospital. "Are you going to be okay?"
" Ill be fine," her father assured her. "Tell your mom I'll be home soon."
Liz nodded, glancing across the waiting area, and saw Isabel and Max locked in a heavy conversation on the other side of the doorway that led to the vending machines. After Isabel had arrived a few minutes ago, she'd taken Max away to talk privately. Maybe some of the reason was because Max and Isabel didn't want to risk being overheard by Jeff Parker, but Liz was certain that part of the reason for the relocation was because Isabel and Max were trying to cut her out of their affairs.
Okay, Liz thought, maybe I'm being a little paranoid here. And didn't I just give Max the cold shoulder to a degree? I wasn't overly responsive to his attempts at conversation. She'd tried; she really had. But she just kept seeing Tess in her mind, kept hearing Tess's voice. And there were the images of Tess and Max together. She'd seen them together around school, but she'd never seen them intimate together. That didn't stop her mind from creating the images, though.
Jeff Parker's cell phone rang. He waved a final goodbye, and scooped the phone from his pocket.
A moment of indecision froze Liz. Wave good-bye? Or just go? She didn't know what was more acceptable with whatever relationship was left between them.
Then Max turned and glanced at her as if sensing she was about to leave. She gazed into his dark eyes, feeling herself drawn to him. Resisting the impulse to walk over to him, she waved and pointed toward the main entrance that led outside to the parking area.
Max checked his conversation with Isabel and came back to Liz. "What's going on?" he asked.
"All done here," Liz replied. "Dad says I can go back to the Crashdown and see what needs doing there."
Max hesitated a moment, and his discomfort was plain.
"I've got my car outside. I could give you a lift."
"It's only a few blocks," Liz replied, not wanting to interrupt the conversation between siblings that obviously wasn't meant for her. She felt a little guilt over the anger that beat through her.
"I don't mind," Max said. "I like the company."
Uncertainty threaded through Liz. God, why does this have to be so hard? Either I want to be with him or I don't. But it wasn't that simple even though she wanted it to be. And worse, she knew the decision to be around Max in whatever capacity was never going to be simple or easy again.
Liz wanted to say no. She didn't need any more complications in her life. But then she realized that maybe her mom was talking to the ghost of her dead grandmother and the pod squad were the only ones who could see the "ghosts."
Instead she said, "Okay," and the answer wasn't as solid or convincing as either of them would have wanted.
Max opened the front doors, and the blast of furnace heat of Roswell on a June afternoon rolled into the emergency room waiting area. Before they could go outside, a hoarse scream ripped through the waiting area.
"That came from the back," Liz said.
The scream was repeated, drawing the attention of everyone in the building. The nurses at the front desk abandoned their post and rushed to the back.
"Keep him away from me!" a man's hoarse voice screamed. "Oh god, keep him away from me! He's dead! He's dead!
Max started back into the hospital. Liz followed at his heels.
"Somebody help me!" a different male voice roared.
Liz recognized the voice at once. She never broke stride, running a step behind Max. "That's Kyle," she said.
"I know," Max replied. He rushed through the swinging doors that led to the care center.
Liz had been to the emergency room center before and recognized the room instantly. Beds lined both sides of the large, long room, and were given the illusion of isolation by the pale blue curtains hanging from tracked runners on the ceiling.
Kyle, one arm bare and bloody where his shirtsleeve had been cut away, held an old man in the bed next to his. The man looked like he was at least seventy, pale and wizened. Plastic tubing ran from IVs in both arms to bags hanging on either side of the bed.
"Get him away from me!" the old man roared. "He's dead! He's come after me!" He screamed in fear.
Kyle's wounded arm bled over the old man's sheets as he struggled to keep the guy down on the bed. "Somebody help me!"
Nurses and two doctors in scrubs ran over to the old man's bed. Then an electrical strike strobed the floor and the lights in the emergency room went out.
Michael stared at the specter that hung in the air behind Jim Valenti. The "ghost" stood almost ten feet tall, looking even taller because the creature had to bend and stoop to fit under the basement ceiling. Loose cloth clung to the specter, folds that barely covered the emaciated figure and flapped in the wind. Dark circles surrounded the black eyes, and the creature was bald.
Staring at the creature, Michael felt certain the thing had stepped out of some horror movie, not a grave. The static-charged air whipped through the garage, and sparks leaped across some of the boxes of ore samples.
"Michael!" Valenti yelled across the roaring winds. "Get the girl out of here!" He tried to step forward, but the winds sucked him back into the basement room. The door slammed shut with a sudden fierceness that swallowed the beam from the flashlight Valenti carried.
Suddenly aware that Kelli was screaming, fighting, and clinging to him all at the same time, Michael guided her out of the garage. The garage door slipped free of the jammed position it had been in and dropped back down with a heavy clank behind them.
Spotting Valenti's truck parked in front of the house, Michael sprinted for the vehicle, half carrying Kelli as she struggled to keep up. When he reached the truck, he shoved the girl inside. "You'll be safe here," Michael said.
"Where are you going?" Kelli demanded.
"To help Valenti."
"You can't leave me here!"
Michael closed the door and said, "Keep your head down," and ran back to Wilkins's garage. He narrowed his eyes against the spinning grit and dust that rose from the garage floor. The wind slashed him with icy talons.
Summoning the energy that was part of his alien heritage, Michael threw out a hand. The energy struck the garage door and forced it back up into the tracks. However, the garage door only traveled something less than three feet.
Michael threw himself under the garage door's edge, sliding and rolling like a base runner stealing second. He pushed himself up on the other side, summoning more energy and creating a ball of light in his left palm. The light illuminated the garage.
Lightning struck the Willis jeep, causing the vehicle to rock violently for a moment. A black singe marked the place where the lightning had struck.
The static electricity discharge still raced through Michael, but somehow seemed dimmer. Either whatever was causing the buildup was dying down, or using his powers was negating the effects. He increased the size of the ball of light in his hand, amazed at how the electrical disturbance retreated before him.
"Valenti!" Michael yelled.
"Here!" Valenti yelled back. "Door's stuck. I can't get it open."
"Step back from the door," Michael ordered, then focused his energy on the door. When the force he generated smashed into the door, the basement door blew open.
Valenti lay inside, covering his head with one arm and holding the flashlight he'd taken from Kelli. He glanced up at Michael.
Without hesitation but with an acquired knowledge of what one of the creatures was capable of, Michael crossed the room, watching as the elongated and emaciated form of the poorly robed man turned toward him.
"Do you see it?" Valenti asked.
"Yeah," Michael replied, watching the creature floating through the air. The wraps that covered the ghost flapped in the wind. The dead face remained emotionless, the mouth and eyes all open in perfect black circles. "Don't you?"
"No," Valenti answered.
Even as Michael wondered about that, and wondered what he was going to do, the thing changed shape, mor-phing into a young woman with a broken face.
Valenti cursed and backed away from the creature.
"Do you see it now?" Michael asked.
"Yeah," Valenti answered hoarsely. "That's the first woman I ever saw murdered after I became a deputy."
Feeling braver and more certain of himself, Michael shook his head. Sand and grit still whirled in the room, stinging his eyes and scratching at his face and arms. He had to speak loudly to be heard over the wind. "That's not a ghost. That's something else. Something that can change forms. That isn't what it was a moment ago. I never heard of a ghost that could do that."
"Jim Valenti," the ghostly woman said. She stood straight and still despite the winds cycling within the darkened basement. "You could have saved me. You could have prevented my death. I died because you didn't take me out of that house and away from my husband."
Valenti stared at the ghost. Panic darted through his eyes, but he stood his ground.
"It's not real," Michael said, sensing that the ghost was somehow touching Valenti's fear, making it stronger. "It's not a ghost; it's something else."
"It looks pretty real to me," Valenti said. His eyes never left the ghost walking toward him. "I tried to save her. I got her to leave her husband once, but she went back. And when she did, he killed her."
The ghost continued walking toward Valenti. It flickered like an image on an old black-and-white movie. A hand lifted, pointing, then a huge spark of electricity flashed from the fingertips.
The electricity caught Valenti in the chest and knocked him back against the wall. A cry of pain tore from his lips.
A silver shine tracked across the basement floor, drawing Michael's eye. He missed whatever caused the shine, and thought maybe it was an ore sample that might have been in the basement, but he noticed the crowbar that Valenti had dropped.
"You killed me," the ghost-thing told Valenti, closing in on him. Electricity sparked at her fingertips as she moved toward him relentlessly.
A desperate idea formed in Michael's head as he stared at the crowbar. He picked the curved piece of metal from the basement floor and turned to the ghost. Grabbing the crowbar like a baseball bat, he swung at the ghost's back. The crowbar passed through the ghost's body.
Okay, Michael thought, the Neanderthal approach is definitely out. He fell to his knees and stabbed the straightest end of the crowbar into the basement's stone floor.
"You are responsible for my death, Jim Valenti," the ghost said, reaching for him. "And you harbor the Outsiders. They don't belong here. They've already brought death to this community. More will follow. They are not like your people. The Outsiders will never care about your people."
Valenti stood his ground and tried to shove against the ghost. His hands passed through the thing, then a massive surge of electricity dropped him to the floor.
On his knees, both fists around the crowbar, Michael poured his energy into the metal length. The crowbar started glowing red. He pictured the energy pulling at the ghost, and willed the power to suck the thing into the ground, whatever it was.
Abruptly the ghost jerked back from Valenti, feet skidding against the stone floor.
"Nooooo!" the ghost howled as it continued sliding toward the crowbar. The creature whirled around.
Michael kept pouring his energy into the crowbar.
The ghost levered an accusing arm toward him. "You will die, Outsider! You will die! You can't remain here!"
Michael didn't bother to reply. The ghost was scared of him. That had to be a good thing.
The ghost came closer, sparks playing between its fingers. The eyes changed, becoming dark, bottomless pits. "You're going to die, Outsider! This is not your place! You can't stay here!"
Michael poured more power into the crowbar, trying to draw the creature into the bar and ground it. Whatever else the creature might be, it consisted of electrical fields.
A huge static energy charge exploded in front of Michael's face, blinding him for an instant and covering his face in a sudden wash of heat. Then he watched as the ghost stretched and became disproportional, like a strip of taffy being pulled. In the next instant, the ghost was sucked into the crowbar, yanked along the lines of electromagnetic force Michael had channeled the creature into.
The ghost disappeared, and the wind disturbance died away. An eerie silence descended over the basement area.
Valenti pushed himself to his feet cautiously. "Is it gone?"
Michael held the crowbar fast in both hands. The power he contained still throbbed within the length of metal. "I don't know. I've got it contained for now."
"What is it?"
Michael shook his head, trying to keep concentrating on holding the force within the crowbar. He imagined the energy striking the stone floor and burning itself out of existence.
A silver surface glinted to Michael's right, drawing his attention to a pile of rags and bones lying against the wall to the right. The thing, whatever it was, moved arthritically, rocking back and forth. It was about the size of a quarter, barely seen in the beam of the flashlight Valenti held.
An explosion of light filled the basement again. Through slitted lids, Michael saw lightning shoot from the crowbar and strike the bobbing silver object trundling through the pile of rags and bones. The crowbar was suddenly dead weight in his hands.
Sparks smoldered in the pile of old clothing, like coals in a campfire.
Valenti joined Michael, walking a little unsteadily. He aimed the beam at the pile of clothes. "You saw it, didn't you?" Valenti asked.
"Yeah," Michael croaked.
The pile of rags turned out to be the remnants of clothing that had rotted away. Inside the rags was a skeleton. The eye patch had fallen as the flesh had melted away over the years, but still hung around the dead man's neck. A leather pouch on a rawhide thong around his neck had a hole torn through the side. The whole left side of the skull was crushed; bone fragments barely clung to the damaged area and the empty cavity where the brain had been.
"Terrell Swanson?" Michael asked, struggling a little to keep from backing away from the skeleton. Standing up to a ghost that he didn't believe was a ghost was one thing, but this was definitely a dead guy.
"Probably take the forensics people a little while to agree to that," Valenti said in a tired voice, "but I'm betting they do."
"Wilkins killed him," Michael said.
"That would be my guess too. When that old man gets out of the hospital, he's going to be up on murder charges." Valenti shifted the light to the gaping hole in the back wall of the basement.
The edges of the hole were jagged concrete. A pick and a sledgehammer lay on the floor nearby.
"Wilkins killed Swanson and buried him in here," Michael said. "Then he dug him up. Why?"
"We don't know Wilkins dug up the body," Valenti pointed out. "That's just guesswork."
"Want to bet against me?"
"No." Valenti probed the cavity in the wall with the flashlight. Spiderwebs filled the space, but they were old and covered with dust. "Spiders lived in here for a while." He played the beam over the dead spider bodies cluttering the floor space at the bottom of the cavity.
"Something killed them?" Michael asked. "Maybe the ghost-thing that was trapped in here with the dead guy?"
Valenti knelt. "No. This wasn't sudden, like through an electrical surge. They starved to death."
Michael stared at the hundreds of bodies inside the makeshift crypt. "Why would Wilkins wall up so many spiders with the corpse?"
"There probably weren't many spiders at first," Valenti said. "The few that got locked up inside the wall had babies." He shone the light on the desiccated corpse at their feet. "They had food. At first."
"Okay," Michael said, edging toward a gross-out meltdown. "That's plenty of bug food chain stuff for me. If somebody like you were teaching biology at the high school, more people would stay awake and lunch wouldn't be such a big draw."
A piece of silver glinted on the dead man's clothes. The material still sustained glowing embers from the lightning strike.
Valenti knelt and took a folding pocketknife from his jeans. Carefully, he speared a delicate network of wires that looked like a bit of shredded aluminum foil. Black stains showed on it, offering mute testimony to the fact that the lightning had hit it.
Michael looked at the metal piece. "What's that?"
"That," Valenti said, "is what I'd call a clue." Then he directed the flashlight beam over stacks of plates containing half-eaten food, beer bottles with cigarette butts floating in them, and a thick book. "So are those."
Michael took in all the dishes and abandoned food, the beer bottles holding cigarette butts. "Somebody put in a lot of time down here."
Valenti studied the food. "None of the food looks more than four or five days old."
"So what?" Michael asked. "Wilkins sat down here spending time with his old, murdered buddy?"
Valenti reached in among the plates and took out the book. He showed the thick tome to Michael.
"The Bible?" Michael asked.
Valenti opened the book at the marked sections. "Yeah. And judging from the areas Wilkins was reading, he was studying how to perform an exorcism."
Staring at the pile of bones lying in the basement floor and remembering the ghost he saw at the Crashdown, Michael said, "Yeah, well, I guess he didn't learn enough."
"It's okay," someone shouted in Kyle's ear. "We've got him. Back off."
Feeling the throbbing pain in his injured arm, Kyle remembered how the room on the remodel job crackled with static electricity before the dead man showed up. He gratefully moved back from the old man lying in the bed.
"He's coming for me!" the old man yelled, fighting against the team of nurses and two doctors that piled on him in an effort to keep him in the bed. "He's dead! Do you hear me? He's standing there with half his head missing! God, it was an accident! It was an accident!"
Kyle walked backward, bumping into Quinlann, who took charge of his injured arm and applied one of the antiseptic compresses the nurses had given him to slow the bleeding.
"What's going on?" Quinlann asked.
Kyle watched the old man struggling against the doctors and nurses. The old guy had surprising strength.
"He thinks he sees a ghost," Kyle said.
"Where?" Quinlann asked.
"In here," Kyle whispered, gazing around the darkened room, looking for the dead man he'd seen earlier. "Somewhere in here with us."
The explosive lightning bolt had taken out the primary power inside the emergency room, but the battery-operated auxiliary lights came on. Some of the darkness went away. There was no sign of the ghost.
"Trank him," one of the doctors told the other. "Get him sedated before we have a riot on our hands."
The doctor rushed past Kyle, heading for the medicinal supplies.
The old man continued to yell fearfully and fight against the hospital staff in an effort to get out of the bed. A moment later, the doctor returned with the hypodermic and injected the sedative into the IV shunt in the back of the patient's hand. Another moment of hoarse yelling ensued, then the old man went limp.
Quinlann guided Kyle back to the bed. "You moved really fast when that old guy started screaming," the construction foreman said.
"Yeah," Kyle said, taking a seat on the bed. He scanned the emergency room, noticing Liz and Max for the first time. Figures. Any weirdness that goes on around here, they gotta be somewhere close by. He wondered where Isabel and Michael were.
Kyle balanced his throbbing arm across his chest, supporting his wrist with his other hand. He glanced at the old man, seeing him sleeping now. A nurse hovered nearby, checking the machines hooked up to the patient.
Liz and Max approached Kyle.
"What are you doing here?" Liz asked, staring at Kyle's arm.
"Accident," Kyle said. "They tell me it looks worse than it is."
"Are you okay?"
"I will be. What are you doing here?"
"Checking on another patient," Liz said. "Did you hear about what happened at the Crashdown?"
Kyle nodded. "The guy who had the heart attack in the Crashdown is here?"
"Somewhere," Liz acknowledged. "Have you talked to your dad?"
"Not since last night," Kyle said. "I was up and gone this morning before he made it out of bed." That was happening more and more lately, and the whole pattern was really beginning to get aggravating.
"He went somewhere with Michael," Max said. "We were wondering where."
Kyle shook his head. "Couldn't tell you."
Quinlann glanced at his watch, then said, "I got a couple phone calls to make, kid. You'll be in good hands with your friends till I get back?"
"Sure," Kyle said. "Why don't you go ahead back to work? I'm going to be fine."
Quinlann shook his head. "I'm old-fashioned. I always go home with the ones I brought to the dance. I brought you in here, I'll see you out and home."
Kyle waited till Quinlann was out of earshot. He lowered his voice. "So what's going on?"
Liz shook her head.
"We don't know," Max said. "Whatever it is, it's going on out at the Mesaliko reservation even worse than here."
Kyle couldn't believe that. "The ghosts are real. I saw one."
"Did you see this one?" Max asked.
"No," Kyle said. "But I have seen them. They're really out there."
"I know," Max said. "I've seen them."
"More than one?"
Kyle thought about it. "Did you see this one?"
"How?" Kyle asked. "I didn't see it."
"I don't know. But they want us out of Roswell."
"What makes you think that?" Kyle asked.
"They've told me. And they told Isabel as well."
The statement, delivered so matter-of-factly by Max, chilled Kyle. If something was there in Roswell and was after the alien trio again, then the chance existed that he and his dad would get sucked up into the situation again.
The lights came back on inside the emergency room.
"So what are you guys doing about it?" Kyle asked.
Max shrugged. "We don't know what to do. We're getting together later at Michael's to sort things out."
"What about my dad?"
Max shrugged. "All we know is that Maria said he was with Michael. Michael knows about the meeting at his house. Maybe your dad will be there."
"Neither one of them is particularly notorious for checking in." Feeling the pain burn along his injured arm, Kyle leaned back against the bed and elevated the limb.
Max looked around, then back at Kyle. "If we weren't here, I could fix your arm."
"I'm going to have to get stitches," Kyle admitted. "I'm not happy. Believe me when I say that if you could heal me without my having to answer a bunch of questions, I'd be all for it."
"I don't mean to cut this short," Liz said, "but I've got to get back to the Crashdown."
Max looked uncomfortably at Kyle. "I'm her ride. After I drop her off, I can come back."
Kyle shook his head and waved the offer away. "It's cool. My boss is going to stick around and get me home."
After brief hesitation, Max said, "If your dad knew you were here, he'd be here."
"I know," Kyle said, but the answer was automatic, not even close to the confusion that he truly felt. His relationship with his dad had always been hard because his dad
had held such high expectations for him. Now with his professional life in chaos around him, his dad didn't seem able to fight back, or to demand the same high standards he'd exacted.
After Liz and Max said their good-byes, Kyle blew his breath out and tried to block the pain from his arm. He closed his eyes, blowing his breath out again, then breathing in through his nose the way his football coach had taught him to control pain and regain his focus. The exercise had worked in the past, but the results at the moment weren't worth mentioning.
Suddenly the firm surface of the hospital bed seemed far away, like the bed was supporting someone else's body. Disorientation made his head swim, almost triggering a bout of nausea.
You know the Outsiders, a clear, cold voice accused. They are your friends, Kyle Valenti. Don't you know that you should fear that which is different?
That would be the whole high school, Kyle thought.
Don't trust the Outsiders, the voice went on. They are not like you. They don't have the same agenda that your people do. You can't trust anyone outside your own species.
Kyle struggled to wake but couldn't. Then pain flamed along his injured arm. He groaned, and found he was suddenly able to move again. Blinking his eyes open, he spotted the silver thing on the wall behind the bed. He had a brief impression of wire-thin tentacles and an oblong body the size of a quarter. Soundlessly, the insect-thing spread diaphanous wings that resembled see-through aluminum foil. The thing hurled itself into the air and sped away, glinting occasionally under the lights of the emergency room.
Pain flared in Kyle's arm again, drawing his attention down in time to watch Dr. Bohr shove a hypodermic into his forearm again. The impersonal pressure of the anesthetic filled his arm, turning the limb numb. At the same time, his mind seemed to clear as if a cloud had lifted.
"This is going to sting a bit," Dr. Bohr said. "Sorry. 1 thought you were asleep."
"Not asleep now." Kyle looked up at the wall over his bed. The silver thing with wire-thin limbs seemed to have disappeared. Hallucination, he told himself. That's all it is.
But he was scared that it hadn't been.
Winded and tired, mind racing with the knowledge of all the things that were taking place back in the Mesaliko town, River Dog halted his journey up the side of the tall hill. From where he stood, he could see the lights of the houses back in his village. Darkness had fallen only moments ago, scattering shadows across the desert that would only turn gray when the moon burned in full.
The wind had started to change as he neared his destination, blowing out the last of the diurnal heat and bringing in the first of the nocturnal chill that filled the desert at night. River Dog pulled the ceremonial robe he wore more tightly about his body.
The lights in the town were dim, only a mere handful compared with what was usually there. Many of the Mesaliko people had left, gone to stay with relatives and friends in other cities and reservations. After Max Evans had left, the power of the spirits had seemed to dwindle. No longer could the spirits make physical contact with the Mesaliko, but they appeared and disappeared with unnerving timing. They also shouted and raved, talking against the Visitors, ordering the Mesaliko to drive the Visitors from their midst, and from Roswell.
Resolutely, River Dog turned and continued his journey back up the hill. His eyes followed the whip-crack trail barely noticeable against the rugged rocks and scrubby cacti. The knoll and the cave it hid were less than fifty yards away.
River Dog leaned into the climb, putting more weight on the walking stick he used. The backs of his legs burned with fatigue, but he never hesitated in his assault upon the hill.
He had told Max Evans the truth when he'd said he hadn't known the location of the place where the Sun God had punished his ancestors and Raven. Rather than stay within the village for the spirits of his ancestors to haunt, he'd chosen to journey to one of his places of power. The cave was one of those places.
Sometime in the middle of his next step, a spirit materialized beside him, matching the step with ease, as if it had been there all along. The spirit was a wizened old man.
"River Dog," the spirit said, and his voice sounded frail and weak.
"I do not know you," River Dog said. He never broke his stride, putting one foot in front of the other as he continued the climb to the cave.
"I am called Hunts with Owls," the ancient one said. "I was once medicine man to our people."
River Dog looked at the spirit's leathery face, taking in the intricate woven beads of his leathers and the tiny bone carvings of owls that held back his hair braids. The eyes
gaped like black holes in the shadows, but River Dog felt the heat of the spirit's gaze.
"I have heard of you," River Dog acknowledged. "You were very powerful in our tribe, and you helped many people with sickness brought by the Europeans."
"I also fought and warred against those who took our lands," the spirit said.
River Dog planted his walking stick and continued up the steep hillside. "What do you want with me, Hunts with Owls?"
"What do you seek here?" the spirit asked.
"A better understanding of what is happening to my people."
"We have tried to explain what is happening to your people."
The one word, your instead of our, grated on River Dog's mind. How could the spirits feel that way? He turned his attention to the thing at his side. With the moonlight coming out now, the spirit turned pale gray and translucent.
"You are not of my people," River Dog stated. "You set yourself apart from us."
"Your ways have changed," the spirit snarled. "You know they have changed, River Dog. You have fought those changes. These people now, they are not what my people were. Not what our people were."
River Dog turned from the ghost and fixed his attention on the cave at the top of the knoll. "I will hear no more. I do not know what manner of creature you are, but you are not Hunts with Owls."
"Fool!" the thing snapped. In the next breath, the spirit was gone.
River Dog continued the walk up the hill. When he reached the cave, he went inside. The familiar dry and musty scent of the cave made him feel at home.
The cave was small, scarcely having enough room for River Dog to sit cross-legged under the low ceiling. He spread out his robes and sat, then began chanting, willing himself into a state that would be more receptive to the things that were going on in the world around him.
The spirits were not ancestors who had returned. All the violence he had seen until now had led him to think that way. And the fact that the spirits only became physical when Max Evans was around let River Dog know they were not what they claimed to be.
River Dog continued chanting, feeling himself slip into that halfway state that took him away from himself. Some days, when he cast his spirit out as he was doing now, he flew above the desert with Hawk and could feel the wind beneath his wings. At other times, he padded on tough leather paws with Coyote through the desert night. Not all of the young men he trained could still do such a thing. It was a way of life, a way of becoming one with nature that was disappearing.
Suddenly River Dog felt that he was no longer alone inside the cave. He opened his eyes, surprised at the mist that coiled at the mouth of the cave.
Four figures strode into the cave. They were manlike in shape, but much too tall and disproportionate. They wore silver and red skintight uniforms and red boots. Pale blue skin made their opalescent green eyes stand out in triangular faces ridged with heavy bone over the eyes and along the jaw. Their noses were almost flat. Mobile antennae, segmented like earthworms but chitinous as horn growth, twisted atop their heads.
River Dog tried to stand, but found his body unresponsive. He was trapped in his own flesh, unable even to cry out as the four figures closed in on him.
"You were warned," one of the figures said. "You should have listened."
Helpless, River Dog watched as the lead figure reached for him, covering his eyes with a four-fingered hand. River Dog felt the hard chitin of the figure's hand close over his eyes, then his mind seemed to implode, flooding his senses with black pain that took him far away.
Max sat on the floor in front of the television in Michael's house. He watched the news programs and special reports in disbelief, flipping through the channels by using his powers. Story after story showed witnesses testifying about close encounters of the ghostly kind that had taken place during the day and were still going on in the evening.
"It's everywhere," Liz commented quietly. She stood in the cramped kitchen by the table, a piece of pizza forgotten in one hand. They'd pooled their money together, even raiding some of the stash Michael had put back from the job out in the desert, and bought a modest dinner.
"It's not everywhere," Isabel replied calmly. She sat on Michael's couch and watched the television. "Only a few dozen people have claimed to have seen ghosts."
Only a few dozen. Max repeated the words in his mind. Only a few dozen. But those numbers are growing. Less than three hours ago, they'd all rendezvoused at Michael's house, including Valenti and Kyle, fresh from the hospital with his arm tightly bandaged.
"However many ghosts there actually are," Michael put in, "those things are after us. Let's keep that in perspective too."
"The question is," Valenti said, "why are they after you?"
Nobody had an answer.
Finally Maria said, "Look, I didn't want to be the one to point out the obvious, but we have to consider that maybe these ghosts are things that Tess might have sent after you guys."
"Why would she do that?" Michael asked.
"Because she didn't quite get her way when she left," Maria said.
"She got to escape," Michael said. "She got Max to father her child, a child she might be able to get elected the new king."
"Kings aren't elected," Maria said.
Michael frowned. "Whatever. The point is, maybe Momma Queen is going to have a lot of power too."
The pang of loss vibrated through Max again. He could still feel the weight of his son in his arms, and he guessed that the feeling was probably a lot like the phantom pangs of an amputation victim.
"Tess didn't get everything she wanted," Maria said. "She wanted all of you to go back with her. That's why she killed Alex, remember? Because he found out she was here to set you guys up and turn you over to the enemies you had in your past lives."
"This isn't Tess," Valenti said in a quiet, calm voice. "She'd claim credit if she was behind this."
Max heard the pain in Valenti's voice. Tess had lived with Valenti and Kyle, becoming a sister and a daughter for a time.
"This is something outside everything you guys have been through so far," Valenti went on.
"Then how do they know about us?" Michael challenged.
"Because maybe they can sense you the same way you can sense them."
"We don't sense them," Michael said.
"You see them," Valenti pointed out. "Every time there's been a ghost, you've seen them when no one else could."
"You've seen ghosts too," Maria said. "Liz and I are the only ones who haven't."
"I didn't see the ghost until it wanted me to," Valenti reminded. "When Kelli was with us, she and Michael saw the ghost first. Later, after Michael took her away, the ghost changed shape, became someone I knew."
"So how does that work?" Michael asked. "The ghosts only appear to certain people."
"In Roswell," Max said, "that appears to be the case. No one except Wilkins and Michael saw the ghost of Terrell Swanson even though the Crashdown was full of people."
"And I was standing there with him," Liz said. "Not to mention, my mother was speaking with my dead grandmother this morning, and I never saw her. I'm sure that was part of this."
"Whatever is empowering the ghosts has the ability to be selective," Valenti said. "They appear to whomever they want, as whoever they want."
"Or maybe whatever is causing the ghosts is limited," Isabel said.
"Limited?" Michael snorted, and helped himself to another pizza slice. The problem hadn't affected his appetite. "Those things are throwing lightning bolts around like it was nothing."
"There are things you can do that no one human can do," Maria pointed out.
"How do they know who to appear as?" Valenti asked. "Isabel, you said the woman who nearly ran you down saw her daughter."
"A daughter who died in childbirth." Isabel nodded.
"Where did the ghost get its information?" Valenti asked. "How did it know who to appear as?"
"An unborn child wouldn't be so hard," Michael said. "Especially when the ghost appeared as a little girl instead of a baby. The mother had never seen the baby as anything other than that."
"What about Swanson?" Valenti persisted.
"Wilkins killed him and buried him in his basement almost forty years ago," Michael said. "The eye patch may have been enough to freak Wilkins out."
Valenti turned on him. "You looked at Swanson's pictures. You said it was he. Was it?"
A troubled look crossed Michael's face. "Yeah, it was Swanson."
"So how did the ghosts know who to look like?" Valenti asked.
"The ghost could have known about Swanson from old newspapers," Max said.
"Maybe," Valenti conceded. "But in order to know about Wilkins and Swanson, they'd have known where to look and what they were looking for."
"Everybody in Roswell knows the story about Wilkins and Swanson," Liz said. "After I figured out who he was, I remembered the story."
"Okay," Valenti said, folding his arms across his chest, "I'm going to play the devil's advocate here. Why would the ghosts wait so long to make their move?"
"He's right," Isabel said. "We've lived here all our lives. Excepting the fact that the ghosts want us out of here, they've had almost twenty years to do it."
"They're not just after us," Max said. "They want the Mesaliko gone too."
"Why?" Liz asked.
"River Dog tied the manifestation of the ghosts to the old legend," Max said.
"That's a bunch of bull, Maxwell," Michael said. "We all know that some old Indian legend isn't going to make ghosts suddenly start appearing."
Max stared at Michael, and he noticed the rest of them did the same.
"I don't think we can rule the legend out," Maria said.
Michael turned stone-faced and shook his head in disbelief. "You're grasping at straws, people."
"Give us something else," Maria challenged.
Michael crossed his hands over his chest. "This is stupid."
"Wait," Isabel said. "I think we're on to something here." She nodded to Valenti. "Keep going."
Valenti held his hat in his hands, tracing the brim with one forefinger as he thought. "Boil it all down to what we know. The ghosts appear to certain people, and somehow know who to appear as."
"They read minds," Kyle said.
Everyone turned to look at him.
Suddenly looking uncomfortable, Kyle shrugged. "How else can you explain it? I mean, the ghost I saw was the first dead man I ever saw. I don't know the guy's name, don't know if I ever knew it, but I remembered him because Dad and I were on our way home from a ballgame one night when Dad got a call in about a traffic fatality. Dad had to cover the accident till the EMTs arrived. The guy lost control of his motorcycle on 285 and got shredded."
Max saw Liz's eyes narrow as the gruesome image popped into her mind. Valenti had a pained look on his face, as if suddenly realizing some of the things he'd exposed Kyle to while growing up. But Max knew there was new guilt mixed into the feeling as well for not being there at the hospital today with Kyle.
"Ghosts that read minds," Michael snorted.
"Yes," Max said calmly. "That could explain how the ghosts knew who to appear as and how they were only visible to the people they chose to haunt."
"We could see them," Michael said.
"We're not exactly normal," Isabel put in.
"And some of you," Maria said pointedly, looking at Michael, "are less normal than others."
Before Michael could pick up his end of the argument, Max said, "Some form of telepathy, then."
"Let's start with that," Valenti said.
"With telepathic ghosts," Michael said derisively.
"That's where we're starting," Valenti said. "That's not where we're going to end up."
"Max said the Mesaliko were experiencing more manifestations," Michael said.
"Maybe it has to do with their spirituality," Kyle suggested. "Maybe the Mesaliko are closer to nature than our culture is. They believe in vision quests, and some of what River Dog has shown you guys has bordered on spirituality."
"Not exactly looking for New Age answers here, Buddha Boy," Michael said.
"That could have something to do with it," Max said. "But maybe it's something simpler."
"Like proximity," Liz said.
Max nodded. "Like proximity."
"The legend may have been based on something that actually happened in the past," Isabel said.
"Legends usually are," Valenti said.
"But what event?" Maria asked. "Spirits returning to haunt the Mesaliko? If we go that route, we're right back where we started."
"River Dog said Raven stole flames from the Sun God," Max said, his mind suddenly churning. "Raven brought the flames back to the Mesaliko, only he couldn't hold them in his beak. He spat the flames out, and they crashed to the earth, creating the desert."
"Let's keep the proximity thing going," Valenti said. "Looking back over Max's story, River Dog said that the ghosts had only haunted the Mesaliko people; they hadn't attacked them until today."
"Until I was there," Max said.
Valenti nodded toward the television. "All those other people who have seen ghosts, they aren't saying anything about lightning strikes or strange winds. They're just seeing ghosts."
"The ghosts reacted more strongly to us," Isabel said.
"Yeah," Valenti said. "Know when the last lightning phenomenon occurred?"
"At the hospital," Liz said. "While Max was there."
"Bingo," Valenti said.
"Maybe," Michael growled, "but what does it mean?"
"Don't know," Valenti said. "It's another correlation we need to factor in."
"Telepathic ghosts that react like a minefield to us?" Michael asked.
"That's a good way to put it," Valenti agreed.
"Why would they do that?"
"Because they recognize you as a greater threat than anyone else they've met," Valenti said.
"I heard River Dog's ancestor… or whatever it was… telling him that the Visitors had to be made to leave," Max said.
"I got the same treatment in the hospital," Kyle said. "Only it wasn't from a ghost." He quickly related the story of the strange insect creature he'd seen on the wall. "At first I thought I was just freaking because of the injury and all the weirdness going on."
Valenti grimaced. "Might have helped if you'd mentioned that story earlier, son."
"Why?" Michael demanded. "It wasn't enough that we have telepathic ghosts; now we have to add in the cyborg afterlife of Jiminy Cricket?"
"Why haven't any of you guys seen ghosts?" Valenti asked. "If the ghosts wanted to chase you out of Roswell, why didn't they start haunting you?"
"We saw ghosts," Isabel said.
"Not ghosts of people you know," Valenti corrected. "You saw other people's ghosts."
"Maybe that's worse," Maria said.
"Was it?" Valenti responded. "How about if you'd seen the ghost of someone you knew? Someone you loved and lost?"
Silence weighed into the room. Max watched Isabel, knowing they were all remembering Alex.
Valenti rubbed his face tiredly. "Sorry. I should have thought before I spoke."
"No," Max said. "It's all right. There's no explanation why we haven't seen our own ghosts."
"Because these telepathic ghosts can't read us," Michael said. "We're too strong, or we're the wrong wavelength. Something like that. Maybe the same thing that makes the ghosts fear us also protects us."
"Except our presence makes the ghosts react more violently," Isabel said.
"Because the ghosts are afraid of us," Max said.
Valenti strode into the midst of the room. "Let's check that line of inquiry where it is for the moment. We've done enough there to identify what we might be up against. We need to do some more work."
"What?" Max asked.
"The tie is missing," Valenti said.
"What tie?" Isabel asked.
"Max said that River Dog told him the spirit manifestations began a few days ago," Valenti said. "Why are the ghosts only now turning up in Roswell?"
"Because the ghosts are migrating," Max said, following the logic.
Valenti smiled mirthlessly. "I prefer the term contamination. Roswell is starting to show signs of contamination from whatever has summoned whatever the ghosts really turn out to be."
Max nodded. Scary as it was, the idea of looking for a physical culprit in the middle of all the confusion was also reassuring.
"But," Valenti said, "there's someone who got contaminated early."
"Who?" Max asked.
"Leroy Wilkins," Valenti answered.
"The guy in the Crashdown?" Kyle asked.
"He was just the first one anyone knew about in Roswell," Kyle said.
"No," Liz put in. "My mom was talking to my deceased grandmother this morning."
"And you can't really say Wilkins was contaminated early," Maria said. "Wilkins came into the Crashdown today spazzing out. Today's when all the ghosts seemed to have showed up."
"Before he showed up in Roswell," Valenti said, "Wilkins took a pickax and a sledgehammer and tore down the basement wall where he'd hidden his partner after murdering him. At his age that would have taken some time. Wilkins had poured that wall to stay. When Michael and I searched the room, we found beer bottles and plates with unfinished meals."
"And a Bible," Michael added, evidently growing more interested in Valenti's story. He reached for another pizza slice.
"Why would Wilkins have a Bible there?" Max asked.
"Do the math on this one, Maxwell," Michael said. "A Bible at the hidden grave of the man Wilkins murdered."
"Wilkins was trying to perform an exorcism," Maria said.
"Yeah," Michael said. "The food that was down there? Been down there for days. Wilkins was haunted long before the rest of Roswell started feeling the affects."
"Where does Wilkins live?" Max asked.
"On the other side of the city from the Mesaliko reservation," Valenti said. "The ghost invasion would have had to skip over Roswell to get to him, then double back. There are other people living out there." He nodded toward the television. "So far, there aren't any reports of anyone else out there being affected."
"Why was Wilkins so special?" Maria asked.
"Exactly," Valenti replied.
Liz looked troubled. "Why didn't the ghost that was haunting Wilkins's basement haunt someone else after you left?"
"Because I grounded it out with the crowbar," Michael reminded her. "The lightning blast destroyed it."
"It's a ghost," Maria said. "How can you kill it again?"
"I don't make up the rules," Michael said. "I just play the game."
"This is so not a game."
Michael shrugged. "Whatever."
"After the lightning blasted the ghost away," Valenti said, reaching into his pocket, "I found this." Light splintered from the small piece of metal he held.
"What is it?" Max asked.
"I don't know," Valenti answered. "Something that didn't belong. That's what most investigations are all about: finding the things that aren't supposed to be there."
Kyle moved forward. "Can I see that?"
Valenti handed the metal piece to his son.
Turning the metal over in his palm, Kyle looked puzzled. "This metal looks a lot like the insect thing I saw in the hospital."
"Cyborg Jiminy Cricket," Michael said.
Kyle took no offense. "Yes."
"That's the thing the lightning blast destroyed," Michael said.
"Maybe it was a button," Isabel suggested.
"Swanson had one metal button," Valenti said. "It was on his jeans. I know because I checked."
"There's no way this could be a coincidence," Maria said. "Is there?"
"If you can put together odds like that," Valenti said, "we're going to Vegas."
"Already been," Michael said. "Didn't even bother to pick up the T-shirt."
"The tie to the Mesaliko reservation is Wilkins," Liz said. "The Mesaliko chased him off tribal lands a few times."
"Right," Valenti said. "I had to escort Wilkins off private property a few times myself." He shook his head. "But I keep thinking about how Wilkins must have been these past few days. With all the food and beer in that basement room, Wilkins sat there for a long time trying to get the nerve up to break into that basement wall. Why?"
"Because he was haunted," Liz said.
"Yeah, but the ghost didn't follow Wilkins into Roswell," Valenti said. "That thing… whatever it was… waited for Michael and me today."
Liz rubbed her upper arms as if suddenly chilled. "That's totally creepy."
Valenti nodded in agreement. "So the ghost didn't follow Wilkins into town."
"Something did," Michael said. "I saw Swanson."
"Another ghost picked Wilkins up when he entered town," Valenti said. "That can be the only answer."
"You think these things communicate?" Kyle asked.
"They have to," Max said. "They carry the same message, and they operate in the same fashion." He paused, realizing where Valenti was headed. "What we need to know is how Wilkins came to get his own ghost ahead of the people of Roswell."
"Exactly," Valenti said.
"The bit of metal you recovered could be some kind of transceiver," Isabel suggested.
"Figured that too," Valenti said. "But it crawled… moved under its own steam… out of Swanson's clothes. And he's been dead more than thirty years."
"You think whatever that was," Max said, "was locked up behind the stone wall."
Valenti nodded. "That's exactly what I think." He reached into his pocket and took out a leather pouch. Shoving a finger inside the pouch, he showed the ripped side. "I found this around the neck of Swanson's corpse."
"What was inside it?" Maria asked.
"I don't know," Valenti said. "A small keepsake, maybe. Whatever it was, it escaped."
"What do you mean, it escaped?" Max asked.
Valenti wiggled his finger, showing the ragged edges of the hole. "Whatever was in here," he said, "cut its way out."
"This is not a good idea."
Isabel studied Max's face as he spoke to her. Apprehension showed in his eyes and the set of his mouth. He's always been too serious, she decided. Taking Max's hand, Isabel said, "You know I have to do this. There is no other way."
"It's too dangerous." Max looked over his shoulder, obviously hoping someone else would back his argument. "We know that Wilkins is a murderer. You don't know what he'll do when he sees her in his dreams."
Valenti met Max's gaze, then looked at Isabel. "If you can do it," Valenti said, "it will help to know."
Isabel nodded. "I can do this."
"Isabel," Max said, "you've never dreamwalked anyone like this. Wilkins is still in the hospital ICU, still on the critical list."
"I'll be all right."
Max fell silent, and with that silence came the full bore of his reproach at her chosen course of action.
"We need to know what Wilkins knows," Isabel said.
"There's another way," Max insisted. "We'll find another way."
"No," Isabel said with the finality she knew her brother would recognize. "Max, I'm going to do this. Because I can, and because it's the only way I can see for us to learn enough to figure out what we're supposed to do." If anything. There still remained the chance that they'd be just as helpless as anyone else.
"Come back," Max said. "Just make sure you come back."
"I will," Isabel promised. Sliding back on Michael's couch, she laid her head back and closed her eyes. In seconds, she was asleep, and in her dreams she reached for Leroy Wilkins, prospector and murderer.
When Isabel opened her eyes again, she found herself in a small, dark room with stone walls. A dank, earthy smell filled her nose and almost made her sneeze. The soft glow of a battery-powered camp lantern barely fought back the shadows that cloistered the room.
"What are you doing here?"
Turning toward the man's angry voice, Isabel saw Leroy Wilkins standing against the wall near the basement door. He was tense and frightened, his eyes sunken so deeply into his head that they were dark pools.
"It's okay," Isabel said in a soft voice.
Wilkins looked around the small room. "I ain't here. I got no business bein' here."
"Do you know where you are?" Isabel asked.
Madness lingered in Wilkins's gaze. "This is the basement in my house."
Isabel waited, noting that the old prospector's eyes settled on the wall opposite him. The wall was complete now, not the broken mass of rock Valenti and Michael described. Terrell Swanson's corpse still remained on the other side.
"I ain't in the basement in my house," Wilkins said. "I'm in the hospital. They took me to the hospital. Told me I was havin' a heart attack. I remember that."
"You are in the hospital," Isabel said. "This is just a dream."
Wilkins's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "I don't know you, girl. You don't dream about people you don't know, an' I don't know you."
"They're giving you medication in the hospital," Isabel said. "Medication causes hallucinations and dreams."
Wilkins shook his head. "You ain't no hallucination or dream, girl."
Isabel felt the strain of keeping the psychic contact. Wilkins wanted her out of his head and was trying to shove her out.
"I need to know what happened down here," Isabel said.
Wilkins grew more agitated. "Ain't nothin' happened down here."
"Terrell Swanson's ghost chased you into town," Isabel said.
"Don't know what you're talking about." Wilkins turned from her and started for the door.
"You killed Swanson," Isabel accused. "You killed him and you buried him behind that wall."
Wilkins wheeled on her. Rage and madness made a harsh mask of his face. "You'd best be watchin' what you're sayin', girl." He took a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from his pocket, stuck a cigarette between his lips, and lit up. The lighter's flame burnished his hard, wrinkled leather features and danced in his crazed gaze.
"Why did you dig Swanson out of the wall?" Isabel asked.
"Don't know what you're talkin' about," Wilkins said sullenly. He put the lighter away, inhaled on the cigarette, and made the coal glow orange, then exhaled a cloud of smoke into the basement that hung in the still air.
"Something happened," Isabel said. "What made things change? Swanson had been walled up for almost thirty years."
Wilkins turned to the basement door. "I 'spect the next person you're going to be talkin' to is my attorney."
Isabel stood helplessly watching, not knowing what to do as Wilkins's hand closed on the doorknob. Then a thunderous, sonorous boom echoed throughout the basement.
Wilkins cursed and yanked on the doorknob, but the door wouldn't open. The thunderclaps continued in regular syncopation. Wilkins continued fighting the door and cursing loudly.
Isabel gazed around the room, trying to find the source of the sound and couldn't.
Giving up on the door, Wilkins turned around, the cigarette tumbling from his lips as he stared in wide-eyed fear. He gazed around the basement and pressed his back against the door. "Can't get out. Can't get out this time. Just like the last time."
"What is that noise?" Isabel asked.
Wilkins glared at her, but the effort came off weak because there was so much fear in his eyes. "Don't you know what that is?"
The rhythmic booms continued, and now Isabel could tell there was a before and after sound, like a double-pump blast. She could hear the constriction, the boom, and the letting go.
"It's a heartbeat," she whispered, and the realization left. her dry-mouthed with anxiety even though she knew she was only dreamwalking and the events weren't actually going on.
"It's a heartbeat," Wilkins agreed. "It's Swanson's heartbeat."
The pulse beat more loudly. Isabel would have sworn the walls pushed in and out with the sound of it.
"He's alive, you see." Wilkins sounded stunned. He stared at the opposite basement wall. "Walled up almost thirty years over there, and somehow he's alive."
Isabel remembered Valenti's story about the skeleton lying in torn and tattered clothing on the basement floor.
"But he can't be alive." Wilkins shot Isabel a desperate look. "I caved his head in. Took a short-hafted hammer an' done the job myself. The strike was rich, you see. A uranium strike. An' it was bigger than anythin' we'd ever found. I knew it could make a man rich, but I knew it could only make one man rich. I wanted that man to be me." He shifted his gaze back to the wall. "So I killed him, an' he didn't die. Thirty years, he's been waitin' to get back at me."
Isabel wanted to speak but was afraid to interrupt
Wilkins's dream sequence. The answers were here; she just had to wait for them.
"Swanson's heartbeats got louder," Wilkins said, walking as if in a daze across the basement. "I heard 'em for days. Just listened to 'em. Couldn't turn the TV or radio up loud enough to get rid of them. Couldn't get drunk enough to forget them. They just stayed right there, an' wasn't nobody could hear them but me."
"I hear them," Isabel stated quietly.
"Swanson ain't comin' after you, girl," Wilkins said. "It's me he wants. He wants to drag me into that grave with him. But I ain't gonna let him." His face turned hard, but the fear remained intact. "I'm gonna take him outta that wall, show him I ain't afraid of him. Then I'm gonna bust him up into kindlin'."
Isabel stared at the wall. Despite the fact that she knew this was only Wilkins's memory, anxiety still tingled within her. She couldn't be hurt here, but that knowledge didn't seem as convincing as she'd hoped.
Wilkins took up a pickax from the basement floor and attacked the wall with a vengeance. Concrete chips spun free of the wall and shot in all directions.
Pain fired through Isabel as one of the chips slammed into her left cheek. When she touched her face, her fingers came away wet with blood. Nothing like that had ever happened. Suddenly the journey back to Michael's house seemed like an impossible distance. She turned and walked to the door. Her hand slid around the doorknob, and she twisted. The knob turned, but the lock didn't disengage.
She was trapped.
Max sat by Michael's couch and watched Isabel sleeping. His stomach knotted into a ball.
Looking up, Max saw Liz standing beside him. She'd come over to him and he hadn't even noticed.
"She'll be fine," Liz said. "Isabel knows what she's doing."
Max looked at Liz. "Do you really think so?"
Hesitation showed on Liz's face. "I don't know what to think anymore. All of this, Max"… she took a deep breath and let it out… "all of this is so far over our heads, I don't even know when the last time was that I felt like we could deal."
Glancing around the room, Max saw Michael and Maria talking quietly in the kitchen, picking pepperoni slices from the leftover pizza. Valenti stood by the door, like he was just about to go out and do something, but his attention was riveted on the television. News stories of people who had seen ghosts in Roswell continued to interrupt television programming. Kyle sat nearby on the floor, his injured arm elevated as he dozed.
"I know," Max said. "It's always been kind of complicated." He shook his head. "I had no right bringing you into this."
"You didn't bring me into this," Liz said. "You saved me that day in the Crashdown."
"I should have stopped there," Max said. "When you came back around asking questions, I should have just walked away."
"You couldn't do that," Liz told him.
Max looked into her eyes and felt as if he were standing on the edge of a cliff. "No. I tried."
"Life's complicated," Liz said. "Maybe yours is a little more complicated than others', but I'm sure it could be worse."
"I don't know. Roswell seems to be full of ghosts because of us."
"No. The ghosts were coming. You… we… may be able to help." Liz nodded toward the television. "Those people out there don't have a clue, Max. River Dog doesn't know what to do. He told you that. But you and Michael and Isabel, maybe you three can do something about this. Maybe you were meant to."
"I hope so," Max said. There was a lot more that he hoped for, but he didn't dare put those thoughts into words.
"No matter how complicated your life gets," Liz said, putting her hand inside his, "I'll be there for you."
Max looked at her, elation pushing up through him and overpowering the hopelessness and fatigue that had been dogging him. "You will?"
"Yes," Liz said. "That's what friends do."
Friends. The word dropped like an anvil through Max's stomach. Sour bile rose to the back of his throat, but he managed to swallow it back down. Friends. Could he just be friends when he wanted so much more? Then he felt guilty. After the way he had treated Liz, he had no reason to expect anything more. In fact, he should be grateful that she was still willing to be his friend.
Max tried to speak but couldn't. The effort hurt, and he knew his words would come out strained. Instead he squeezed her hand reassuringly.
"Max," Liz said, her voice soft and low.
Max turned his attention to her, but before she could continue, Isabel jerked violently on the couch. A low moan escaped her lips.
Releasing Liz's hand, Max leaned up on his knees and searched Isabel's face. Her features contorted in fear or pain, Max wasn't sure.
"Isabel," Max called softly, not wanting to wake her too abruptly. "Isabel."
Isabel moaned again, then jerked and tried to roll. Max caught his sister before she tumbled from the couch.
"What's wrong?" Valenti asked, suddenly at Max's side.
"I don't know," Max said.
Isabel jerked and convulsed, moaning again.
"Isabel," Max said. "Come on. Come on back. Isabel!"
Isabel stood with her back to the locked basement door. She wanted to go back to Michael's house, but she knew she might not get another chance to dreamwalk Leroy Wilkins. The answer to some of what faced them lay in this room. She was certain of that.
Wilkins hauled back the pickax again, then threw the gleaming point forward, digging the pick into the wall. Concrete shattered and broke. Sparks leaped from the contact, buzzing out like burning embers. The old man gasped for breath, sounding like a bellows in the enclosed space.
But the maddening thump of the heartbeat continued.
Isabel forced herself to stay when everything in her wanted to go.
The pick passed through the concrete wall with a metallic crunch. Wilkins gave an insane whoop of glee. "I got you now, Swanson. I got you now. You ain't gonna crawl out of that grave an' come for me some night. I'm gonna finish the job I started all those years ago. Gonna put you back in the ground, an' you're gonna stay there."
Fractures spread across the concrete surface, marking out the roughly rectangular shape the body had been hidden behind. Chunks of rock fell onto the basement floor at Wilkins's feet. Once the hole was made, Wilkins dropped the pickax and seized the sledgehammer. He beat at the opening in the wall, smashing it wider and taller.
The battery-powered camp lantern threw a golden glow over the skeleton dressed in rags within the makeshift tomb. The thumping of the monstrous heartbeat reached a crescendo, and the deafening noise vibrated inside Isabel.
"It wasn't him!" Wilkins cried. Dropping the sledgehammer, the old man reached into the hole and hauled the corpse out. The weight was too much for Wilkins, though, and the dead man slipped free of his grip. The corpse clattered to the basement floor, raising a small gust of dust that eddied in the illumination given off by the camp lantern.
Isabel watched as Wilkins backed away from the dead man.
"That heartbeat wasn't him," Wilkins shouted over the thundering thump. "Heartbeat wasn't him at all. I thought it was, but you can see for yourself: He ain't got no heart."
Through the ragged shirt that was stained with old blood, Isabel looked at Swanson's empty rib cage. It was true: The man had no heart. Where was the heartbeat coming from? Was the noise just Wilkins's guilt finally catching up to him?
"It wasn't Swanson," Wilkins said. "It was that bug. That bug that he kept at his throat."
"What bug?" Isabel asked. She had to work hard not to get grossed out. The bones were filled with old spider-webs, and the husks of dead spiders knotted up inside the silken strands.
"Me an' him," Wilkins said, "we found this bug. A little metal bug. We found it at a dig site. Wasn't nothin' there. No gold, no uranium, no copper. Wasn't nothin' there but dirt. An' that bug he kept in that leather pouch at his throat. He thought the bug was somethin' the Mesaliko made. The bug was dead. As dead as Swanson." His eyes dropped to the corpse. "Only now the bug ain't dead, is it? And Swanson ain't dead either."
Spotting the leather pouch at the dead man's neck, Isabel recognized the article as the one Valenti had shown them back in Michael's house. Valenti had said something had torn through the leather.
As she watched, a gleaming silver thread poked through the side of the leather bag. Involuntarily Isabel took a step back. The silver thread worked quickly, joined by other silver threads, all of them clenching and unclenching furiously, like the segmented legs of a wasp. In seconds the side of the leather bag ripped out, leaving a ragged edge.
A silver shape emerged. Balanced on thread-thin legs, the improbable insect creature had the characteristics of a spider and a wasp. It spread two of the threadlike appendages, and a diaphanous foil wing pulled taut between them. The creature leaped and hopped as if trying to launch itself into the air, but never succeeded.
"I tried to kill it." Wilkins crept forward from the shadows, clinging to the wall. He took a fresh grip on the sledgehammer and raised the heavy head high. "I tried to kill it an' that's when Swanson come to life again."
Before he could bring the sledgehammer down, a ghostly form drew up from the tangled scatter of bones and rotting clothing. The man was taller than Wilkins, and thin as a rail. He wore an eye patch and a hard expression.
"You killed me, Leroy Wilkins," the ghost accused, leveling an accusatory finger. "You killed me, an' I come to kill you back." Moving with unnatural speed, the ghost closed on Wilkins with fists upraised and ready to strike.
Wilkins cowered against the back wall.
Using her power Isabel tried to erase memory of the ghost from the dreamwalk connection. Instead the ghost froze in midrun. The ghost probably wasn't, Isabel decided, much less scary frozen than it was while in motion.
Offering mute testimony to that fact, Wilkins cringed against the wall. He mewled plaintively, hiding behind his raised hands and arms.
"Mr. Wilkins," Isabel called softly. She approached the man cautiously, knowing he might attack her because he was so afraid.
"It's not Swanson," the old man whispered hoarsely. "But it is. He wants to kill me."
"This isn't real, Mr. Wilkins," Isabel said. "This is just a memory. A dream. This isn't happening. You don't have to be afraid."
Wilkins peered at her angrily. "You'd be afraid too if you had one of those things huntin' you. They're devils, come from Hell itself to bring Swanson back to get me. You seen it."
"It's not real."
"It was." Wilkins stared at the frozen ghost. "It was real enough then, an' it will be real again. You can't stop them."
Isabel glanced at the ghost. Did it just move? She wasn't certain. But she believed Kyle had been right when he'd suggested that the creatures were able to read minds, or at least were able to access a person's subconscious and find an image that would terrify him or her.
She turned her attention back to Wilkins. "Where exactly was the site where you found the bug?"
"Didn't turn out to be nothin' but a placer mine." Wilkins said. "Only had a spot of color, nothin' a man could make any money at."
"Where, Mr. Wilkins?" Isabel persisted.
Without warning, the ghost surged free of its frozen state. Even though Isabel knew the ghost hadn't broken free of her control on its own and that actually Wilkins had taken back control of the dreamwalk, a surge of fear still slammed through her at the sight of it. She knew the ghost couldn't hurt her, and still she was scared.
Wilkins screamed as the ghost grabbed him. The sound of a beating heart filled the basement again, but the beats were somehow different this time.
Isabel grabbed at the ghost's shoulder, intending to pull the thing off the old man. Instead her hands passed through the ghost. She tried again, reaching for Wilkins this time, but only met with the same result. Ghost and man were both intangible to her.
"Mr. Wilkins." Isabel stepped within arm's reach of the old man. "Mr. Wilkins, I need to know where you and Swanson found the bug."
Without warning, the battery-powered camp lantern dimmed so much that the basement walls could no longer be seen. In the next instant, Isabel was standing in deep black space with no way to orient herself. For all she knew, the world had ceased to exist.
The ghost slowly faded away, like smoke lifting from a field when the wind changed.
Wilkins remained against the wall, screaming and crying out for help. Then the heartbeat ceased thundering.
Voices tumbled out of the darkness, frantic and practiced all at the same time. "Code Blue! I've got a Code Blue!"
"His heart's stopped. Start CPR."
Wilkins crumpled to a fetal position. Tears glistened on his face as his rheumy eyes sought Isabel's out. "I'm scared," he whispered. "I don't want to go."
Isabel didn't know what to say.
"He's in full arrest," a far-off voice said.
"Guy's old," someone else said. "Even if we save him, we could do a lot of damage here."
"We're breaking ribs."
"Give me the paddles."
Isabel listened to the voices, thinking it had to be a television episode playing in the background. She wanted to leave.
"Don't go," Wilkins begged. "I don't want to be alone."
Isabel shook her head. "I can't help you," she whispered. "There are people in the hospital. They can help you. They're helping you now."
"It's too late," Wilkins said. "They can't help me."
"Clear!" someone shouted from what sounded like a thousand miles away.
"I don't know what to do," Isabel said.
"Stay with me," Wilkins asked desperately.
The darkness shuddered around Isabel.
"Nothing," someone said.
"We're going again. Clear!"
Another shudder passed through the darkness, and this time it claimed Leroy Wilkins, blotting him from Isabel's view in a heartbeat. She stood alone in the darkness and felt it pull at her. Then she tried to slip out of the dreamwalk and return to her body in Michael's house, tried to feel Michael's battered sofa against her body.
She couldn't. She was still stuck in the dreamwalk.
Suddenly a pool of blackness darker than anything Isabel had ever seen opened up near her. Irresistibly, like a moth drawn to a flame, she was pulled to it.
The voice sounded familiar, but Isabel couldn't place it. She tried to turn around, but the dark pool floating before her kept drawing her in.
A hand caught hers, pulling her back and around. As she turned, she saw River Dog standing before her.
"Come," River Dog said. "There is not much time."
Isabel found she was freed from the pull of the pool. "What about Leroy Wilkins?"
"His time in this place is done," River Dog said. "You can do nothing for him. He must make his peace in the next world, and we can only mourn him and pray for him."
Isabel fell into step with River Dog, amazed at the way the black shadows suddenly gave way to a moonlight-kissed desert landscape. Another step and she was running, feeling the sand crunch under her feet.
"Where are we going?" Isabel asked.
"I have found the spirits," River Dog answered. "And they have found me."
"How did you find me?" Isabel said. Getting into the dreamwalk she'd had with Wilkins wasn't possible. At least, she hadn't thought it was possible from everything she knew about her power. Then again she didn't totally understand everything she did. She just accepted that she could do it.
"I am on a vision quest, Isabel Evans," River Dog responded. Despite his age, he loped easily through the desert. A nocturnal desert cottontail exploded from the shadow of a cactus and hopped furiously along the moonlit landscape, escaping back into the night.
Isabel watched the small creature for a moment, feeling disoriented and no longer in control. However, from the time that she had joined River Dog, she could also feel the connection to her body in Michael's house again. She could be back there in a split second and she knew it.
"The animals can sense us," River Dog said. "It's not unheard of. In a vision quest a traveler of the People is closest to nature."
"The spirits aren't ghosts," Isabel said.
"No," River Dog agreed. "They are travelers not unlike you and your brother and your friend."
"From another place?"
"Yes." River Dog ran harder. "We must hurry. If they find that I am talking to you, they may prevent it."
"Why are they haunting your people?" Isabel asked. "Why are they haunting Roswell?"
"Now that they have awakened from their long sleep, they feel they must protect themselves. Come. We must hurry." River Dog picked up the pace, still holding on to her hand.
Only a few steps later, Isabel saw they were running for the edge of a cliff high above the desert floor. River Dog showed no intention of stopping.
"Cliff," Isabel warned.
"It doesn't matter," River Dog said, pulling her toward the edge.
Resisting the impulse to dig in her heels and stop, Isabel ran with River Dog. If worse came to worse, she could always end the dreamwalk and be safe back in Michael's house. Two more steps and she was suddenly out over a fifty-foot drop.
But even as she tumbled earthward, a change came over her. She stared at her arms as feathers suddenly jutted out, and in the next instant her arms became wings.
"Come," River Dog said from beside her.
Isabel looked at him, finding that he had become an owl. She saw her own reflection in his great moons of eyes. She was an owl as well, and her fear was mixed with apprehension and childish glee that she would have never owned in front of Max or Michael.
Instinctively she stretched out her wings and caught the air. A couple of wing strokes and she climbed into the night sky, following River Dog.
"Come," River Dog cried, putting on speed in a burst of flapping wings.
Isabel followed as smoothly as though she'd been shifting shapes all her life.
"And you changed into a bird?"
Isabel stared at Michael. "An owl," she corrected him. She sat on his couch in his house, feeling a little lightheaded from all the exertion of doing the dreamwalking.
"Same difference," Michael said with a shrug.
"When you put it like that," Maria said, "the whole dreamwalk loses some of the coolness effect."
Michael looked at Maria. "Turning into a bird is cool?"
"Not just any bird," Isabel said again. "An owl. And yes, it was cool."
"Good for you," Michael said. "How does that help us?"
Isabel stood with Max's help. "River Dog showed me his cave. And where the… travelers… took him."
"They captured him?" Valenti asked.
"In a way," Isabel said. Her legs grew more steady. "His body is where he left it, but they have his mind. Actually they only think they have River Dog's mind. They don't know he was talking to me. Come on. I'll explain on the way."
Max rode shotgun in Valenti's SUV, staring into the lights of oncoming cars and feeling his eyes burn as if they were being microwaved. Anxiety thrummed within him.
Valenti drove a sedate five miles over the speed limit, handling the vehicle effortlessly. So far they'd passed two state police cars, a truck from the sheriff's department, and five Hummers filled with National Guardsmen. The radio and the scanner mounted under the dash continued to report poltergeist activity in and around Roswell. Law enforcement and military teams were responding.
"The area of effect is getting larger," Valenti commented.
Max nodded. Reports were coming in from the other side of Roswell now. At the rate of progression, the ghosts would be haunting other cities besides Roswell by morning.
"Is Isabel back with us yet?"
Turning, Max gazed into the backseat. Maria, Isabel, and Liz were sandwiched into the rear seat. Michael and Kyle sat hunkered on the rear deck.
Isabel sat between the two other girls. She was asleep, dreamwalking again, getting more information from River Dog that they would need to confront the travelers.
"No," Max answered. Before he could stop himself, he gazed out the window, looking for owls flying through the dark night sky. It was silly, he supposed. Maybe Isabel dreamed that she was an owl when she was with River Dog in the dreamwalk, but she didn't actually turn into one.
The car's greenish instrument lights painted Valenti's face in hard lines. "Do you believe she's really talking to River Dog? Or do you think those… things… the travelers are setting us up? Passing themselves off as River Dog to her?"
Max only thought about the question for a moment. "She's talking to River Dog. Isabel would know if she wasn't."
"I'm not so sure," Valenti said. "Today I saw the ghost of a woman I never thought I'd see again. Most people around here don't even remember her murder. If the travelers can find that out, maybe they do a pretty good River Dog imitation, too."
"No," Max said. "Isabel would know."
"We could be headed into a trap."
Max nodded. "We're headed into their stronghold. Trap or no trap, I don't think it gets any worse than that."
Valenti was silent for a moment. "The scary part is, you're probably right."
"But we don't have a choice," Max said. "If we don't try to stop this, events in the Mesaliko village and Roswell are going to get worse." He paused. "This situation has already attracted the attention of the government agencies. They may get interested in setting up an operation in Roswell again." The last one had almost caught them all, and would have if Nacedo hadn't stepped in.
"Max," Valenti said softly, "I don't think the government agencies ever got uninterested."
Max looked at him.
"It's nothing I've heard or seen," Valenti said. "But I've been around government agencies a lot lately. Got a really close look only a few months ago. Maybe not as close a look as you did."
Max silently agreed with that. He would never forget the things he had been subjected to in the white room where he'd been held.
"Government people like that," Valenti said, "never really give up. They just go away for a while. Till they find a new angle to use. Then they start all over again, digging and prying and pulling till something busts free."
"That's kind of downbeat, don't you think?" Maria commented from the backseat.
Valenti sighed. "Maybe it's the way things have been going on, or maybe it's just me. Kyle's been trying to tell me that I'm carrying around too much negative energy these days."
Max gazed at the front windshield. The instrument illumination created a reflection in the glass. He stared at Liz's image as she looked through one of the side windows.
"Maybe it would be better if a government agency or the military handled this," Maria suggested. "We could tip them off."
"No," Valenti said. "You've seen the government at work. Whatever these… travelers… are, a federal agency's first impulse is going to be to learn how to control them. To see if they can use the travelers. I don't know whether to be more concerned about them being able to control these things or not being able to control them."
"He's right," Max said. "We'll do this ourselves." If we can. If Isabel and River Dog can come up with enough information for us to act on.
Just knowing the location of the travelers wasn't going to be enough. That might only be enough to get them killed.
On owl's wings again, Isabel glided over the desert landscape. She had an owl's eyesight as well, and her vision turned the night into a confluence of light and dark that she could see through as easily as if it were bright as day.
She rode the dying thermals instinctively now, surprised at how quickly she learned the basics of winged flight. Of course, this was a dreamwalk. Pretty much anything she imagined in a dreamwalk was possible. Kyle had found that out when they'd experimented with a Playboy Playmate from an issue of the magazine. However Kyle hadn't found out as much as he'd wanted to about wish fulfillment.
Isabel's keen eyesight picked out River Dog sitting atop a ridge near where his physical body lay in a coma. Yet, he was miles away from the place where the travelers thought they had him trapped. If she had time to think too much about the situation, Isabel knew she could get confused.
On the ridge below, River Dog raised his hand in salutation.
Dropping a wing, Isabel lost altitude, stopping short of an actual plummet. The approach she had to take to reach River Dog was different from the one she'd used in the other dreamwalks she'd undertaken. Usually in those, all she'd had to do was link her mind with the person's she sought. But to get to River Dog, she'd had to journey.
Almost on top of River Dog, Isabel stretched out a wing to his outstretched right hand. Her feathers brushed his hand, but by the time her feet touched the ground, her feathers were fingers. He helped her step down from the air.
"Thank you," Isabel said.
River Dog inclined his head. "You have returned."
"The way was not difficult?"
"No. I had to look for you, though. That's not something I usually have to do."
River Dog let out a long breath, and the chill filling the desert night turned his breath misty gray. "You have brought the others?"
"They're on their way," Isabel assured him. "We're on our way."
"You told them the danger was grave?"
"Many would not take on such a dangerous undertaking."
"We didn't feel we had a choice," Isabel said. "I think you felt the same way. That was why you came up into the mountains looking for the travelers."
"Perhaps," River Dog agreed.
"We don't have much time," Isabel said. "What have you found out?" During their last conversation, River Dog had let her know that the part of him held by the travelers was learning things from the travelers that they weren't aware of. And, in turn, when his other self knew about the travelers, the part of him that he kept involved in the vision quest knew about them as well. However his conversation with Isabel was kept separate from the part of him that the travelers kept captive.
"The travelers came here a long time ago," River Dog. "In the before time, when even the Chinese had not begun marking the days. The travelers were on their way back from a battle that spanned incredible distances across space when their ship failed. Until that failure, the travelers were able to jump from star to star."
Isabel committed the story to memory, knowing she would have to tell Max and the others.
"The travelers were supposed to hold their position," River Dog went on, "until help arrived and the ship could be repaired or abandoned. Whichever became necessary. They were not allowed to remain there because their enemy, a ferocious band of warriors, didn't allow them to. They fled, making a final jump with their faulty star engine. When they reappeared in what they considered normal space, their ship was crippled worse than before. First they were trapped by the pull of the moon, then as they came around the moon, the earth caught them and pulled them in. They slammed into the desert here, arriving as a flaming comet. Gradually the sands of the desert pulled the wreckage down into the earth where I showed you."
"How are you talking to them?" Isabel asked, amazed at the wealth of information that the old man had accumulated.
"By the same means they are talking to me," River Dog answered. "It is all part of the vision quest. Perhaps the Mesaliko who first encountered the travelers learned it from them. Or perhaps the Mesaliko taught the vision quest to the travelers."
"How many travelers are there?" Isabel asked.
River Dog shook his head. "I don't know. I have asked them about this, but the answer is confusing. I know there are many, but they say there is only one. The drones are questioning me at the moment."
"The drones?" Isabel asked. "The little metal bugs? Like the one the corpse in Leroy Wilkins's basement had in the bag around his neck?"
"Yes," River Dog replied. "There are thousands of them. Like ants in an anthill. I've seen them. But since the four travelers came for me in the cave, I haven't seen any more of them. They are content to let the drones deal with me and the problems I present."
"You never said how they found you."
River Dog hesitated for a moment. "I think it was the vision quest. And once they found me, they didn't want to let me go. They still don't."
Without warning River Dog's image flickered into and out of existence in rapid syncopation. Concern darkened his features as he turned away from Isabel. "You need to go," he whispered hoarsely, and his voice carried scratchy white noise. "They have found you, Isabel. The drones have found you. If they are able, they will destroy you and your friends."
"I'll be back," Isabel promised. "We're on our way." Then she let herself be pulled from the dreamwalk and back into her body.
In the dark reflection against the windshield, Max saw Isabel stir and come awake. She pushed herself forward, staring down the highway.
"They're coming," she said.
"Who?" Valenti snapped.
"The drones," Isabel answered.
"What drones?" Valenti asked.
"The insect-things," Isabel said.
"Like the spider-thing I saw in the hospital," Kyle said.
"And like I saw when I dreamwalked Leroy Wilkins," Isabel said.
Max peered at the road, wondering if he'd even be able to see the small creatures. "What are the drones?"
"Tiny robots," Isabel replied. "The travelers have been using them to spy on the Mesaliko and Roswell."
"Spy gear," Michael said.
"And weapons," Isabel said. "River Dog says the ship is filled with drones. They were responsible for repairing the ship."
"So have you seen the travelers?" Maria asked.
Isabel shook her head. "River Dog said four of them entered the cave and captured him."
"I thought you said River Dog was in a prayer cave or something," Liz said.
Max saw his sisters brow furrow in frustration.
"River Dog is in the cave," Isabel said. "He thought they took him too. But it was all an illusion. They became forceful with him, trying to find more weaknesses and superstitions to use against the Mesaliko and the people in Roswell, and he found he was still in the vision quest." She pointed. "There's a road up there. Off to the right. It's a dirt road. You'll need to take it."
"They captured River Dog in his vision quest?" Maria asked.
"Yes," Isabel said.
"A psychic captive," Kyle said.
"More or less," Isabel agreed.
"Then River Dog hasn't even been to this downed alien ship," Valenti said.
"I've seen it," Isabel said.
Valenti glanced at her in the rearview mirror. "I don't mean to insult you, Isabel, but you've only seen what you thought was an alien spacecraft… the travelers' spacecraft… while you were dreamwalking River Dog."
"It's the only plan we have," Max stated quietly.
"If the travelers have River Dog captive, how did he get away?" Valenti asked. He pulled onto the dirt road when Isabel pointed again. At the speed he was traveling, the tires slid through the dirt for just a moment, then grabbed traction again and hurtled them down the road.
"When I dreamwalk, the things I see are real. You know that. That's how we found Laurie Dupree in Frazier Woods."
Nobody, Max noticed, said anything about that. Laurie Dupree's salvation had come at a cost to all of them in the long run.
"How can River Dog be in three different places at the same time?" Maria asked.
"When I leave my body on a dreamwalk," Isabel said, "part of my mind stays with my body, keeps the autonomous system going."
Maria looked over the seat at Michael. "The autonomous system keeps the heart and lungs functioning while you're sleeping," she said. "And other things."
Michael gave her a sour look. "I knew that."
"Maybe," Isabel said, "in time I could learn to do what River Dog has done and split off another part of my conscious mind so I can be in two places at one time."
"A doppelganger," Kyle said. "Another self. Some of the out-of-body-experience people talk about that."
"A psychic clone," Michael suggested.
"A master-slave system the way computers are set up," Maria said.
"Doesn't matter," Valenti said. "We'll have to accept that River Dog is in more than two places. However he's doing it."
Max stared into the darkness ahead. Off-road now, Valenti's SUV sped across the dirt road, raising a giant fog of dust that trailed after them like a predatory beast. Metal glimmered in the night, turning dusky gold from the SUV's headlights and occasional silver from the moon.
"There," he said, pointing.
Valenti looked at the tiny shimmering bits of silver and gold. "Could be dust picked up by the headlights."
Then the cloud of spots shifted directions, whipping around and heading on an interception course with the SUV
"Or not," Michael said.
The eeriness of the attack, Max decided, was the absolute quiet. The shimmering things closed rapidly, changing direction as if gravity had no effect on them. Hugging the terrain, they sped for the SUV without hesitation.
"How did they find us?" Valenti asked.
"I don't know," Isabel answered.
"How did River Dog know?"
"There wasn't time to ask."
"Doesn't matter," Michael said. "Just keep the speed up. What are those tiny things going to do? Shatter against the truck? They're stupid."
"They don't think," Isabel said. "They were designed to react."
Tensely, Max watched as the drones unerringly closed in on the SUV The cloud of attackers was broken up into patches, like formations. In the next instant the lead formation smashed into the truck.
The drones sounded like grit in a sandstorm peppering the SUV's body. Metallic pings echoed hollowly inside the truck, sounding virtually inoffensive. Then Max spotted the tears in the sheet metal of the hood just before the first of the drones smacked into the windshield.
More drones struck the windshield, penetrating into the glass. Spiderwebbed fractures ran across the glass instantly. As the safety glass broke into cubes the way it was designed to do, some of them blasted over Max and Valenti. The glass cubes weren't harmful, but they served to let Max know that the windshield wasn't going to stand up to the battering. If the attack kept up, the drones were going to tear through the glass and rip like arrows into the flesh-and-blood targets on the other side.
"Max," Isabel called, maintaining control with effort.
Understanding, Max threw up his hand. Energy and blue-white light pulsed from his hand, creating the force field he'd used before. He started with a surface on the other side of the windshield, watching as the drones struck the shield and burst into brief, sparking wisps that died almost at once and sounded like popcorn popping.
Valenti cursed, not at all happy with how close the attack had come. One of the SUV's headlights burst in a muffled explosion.
Max kept the shield in place, straining himself and making the protective surface bigger, bending it until it became a bubble that protected them all the way around.
Keeping the shield intact while aboard a moving vehicle made it even harder.
The SUV slowed slightly.
"Drive," Max said.
"People," Valenti groaned. "There are people ahead."
Gazing ahead, trying to keep focused enough to maintain the force field, Max saw figures suddenly lurch and stumble from the shadows. The single cone of light that remained from the SUV's headlights played over the swaying figures of men and women. Blood covered their faces. Some of them were missing arms and legs, and others dragged their broken bodies with their hands.
Freakin' zombies," Michael griped from the back of the SUV
Looking at the sprawling group of undoubtedly dead people who filled the dirt road ahead, Max silently agreed. The zombies turned like a pack of predators and started toward the SUV even though it was racing toward them. Max kept the energy shield in place, aware that more drones smashed to pieces against the glowing barrier.
Valenti pulled his foot from the accelerator and shoved down on the brake. The SUV stuttered across the uneven surface of the dirt road, scratching up bigger clouds of dust. Realizing that the vehicle wasn't going to stop in time, Valenti started cutting the wheel, slewing the SUV sideways.
"Max!" Liz called. "I don't see anything. I don't see any zombies."
Shuddering across the rough dirt road, the SUV rocked to a stop. The motor growled. The cloud of dust caught up in their backdraft suddenly blew by them, playing out like a wave washing up onto the beach.
Max kept the force field in place with effort. The number of drones shattering against the energy barrier were almost nonexistent, but some still came, leaving miniature fireworks to mark their destruction.
Beyond the energy barrier, though, the zombies lurched toward the SUV
"You see them, don't you, Max?" Valenti asked. He stared at the crowd of dead people. "You see them."
"Yeah," Max said, "but… "
"We've got to get out of here." Valenti threw the transmission in reverse, looked over his shoulder, and floored the accelerator.
The SUV bucked in protest, but the tires slashed through the desert dust and caught hold of the road.
"No," Max said. "They're not real." He put his hand on Valenti's shoulder.
Valenti hesitated, braking again. He stared at the approaching figures. "They're real, Max."
"No. It's an illusion."
Valenti shook his head weakly.
"Think about it," Max said. "You have to know those people. Who are they?"
Valenti wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Accident victims. People I've seen die or already dead along the highways. Automobile accidents. Fires. Murders and suicides. All those people died hard."
"They can't all be here," Max said. "This isn't real."
"It looks real."
"This isn't real," Max repeated calmly.
"Dad," Kyle spoke from the back, "I can't see anything. Nothing's there but empty road."
"The drones are trying to scare us off," Max stated, staring Valenti in the eye. "Just like they're trying to scare off the Mesaliko and the people in Roswell." He reached out and slipped the transmission into drive. "We go through them. We're not stopping. We're too close to quit, and we may be the only chance there is to shut this down."
Valenti wiped his mouth again. His eyes looked fever bright. He nodded. "Okay. Okay, let's get this done." He put his foot on the accelerator and roared forward again.
Straining, brain hurting from the effort required to maintain the energy shield, Max watched as the SUV barreled down on the lurching zombies reaching toward them with outstretched arms.
"Not real," Valenti said under his breath, barely audible over the roaring engine. "Damn it, they're not real!"
Max halfway expected the zombies to disappear when his force field touched them. Instead the zombies passed through the energy barrier and hurled themselves at the SUV
Valenti started to take his foot from the accelerator. Max grabbed the steering wheel with his left hand and jammed his left foot on top of Valenti's foot, keeping the accelerator pinned to the floorboard. "No," Max said. "We're going through."
Incredibly the zombies caught hold of the SUV They clung to the vehicle and peered in with dead eyes through the shattered glass as they writhed and tried to crawl through. A woman with half her face missing stared at Max.
Almost unnerved himself despite knowing the drones were creating the illusion, Max stopped projecting the force field and reached for Valenti. He pressed his palm against Valenti's temple, thinking that if the drones were using whatever powers they had against Valenti that the force had to somehow be neural, biological, or chemical in nature. As such, he hoped the effect was compatible with his healing powers.
He poured energy into Valenti's mind, feeling the wrongness there, like a thorn embedded in tender flesh. The thorn held only a moment before his healing touch, then it crumbled. As soon as the thorn vanished and Max couldn't feel it anymore, the zombies disappeared as well. He took his hand away from Valenti's temple.
Glancing around, Valenti said, "Not real. They weren't real after all."
"No," Max said, slumping tiredly back into the seat. He scanned the night for more of the drones but didn't see any.
"Not much farther," Isabel said. "One more turn and we're going to be on foot."
Max got out of the SUV at the base of the tall hill Isabel's directions had brought them to. The encounter with Valenti's zombies was five miles back, and now they were at the end of even the dirt trail they'd been able to use.
The forlorn promontory was all windswept rock, a place apart even in the isolated desert. The moonlight silvered the sand, but the ridge left a lake of shadows where it blocked the moon's glow. The wind moaned in the distance, racing across the broken terrain as dark clouds scudded and obscured the starlight.
"Creepy, huh?" Liz asked. She stood on the other side of the SUV.
"Not as creepy as it was the night the storm hit," Michael said as he vaulted from the rear of the SUV He landed on the sand and was actually smiling a little, like he was enjoying the thought of the coming confrontation. "Compared with that, this is practically a walk in the park."
But it's not a walk in the park, Max thought. The travelers and the drones were somewhere up ahead.
Doors slammed behind them as Valenti and Kyle got out of the SUV Valenti carried a shotgun.
"Not exactly the 'I come in peace' look," Michael commented.
Valenti looked a little self-conscious about the shotgun. "Those things aren't exactly the type to go in peace. Figured I'd share a little old-fashioned destruction with them."
"Fine by me," Michael said.
Max looked at them. "I don't want anyone hurt."
Valenti and Michael stared back at him.
"Those things weren't exactly rolling out the red carpet back there, Maxwell," Michael growled. "And I don't think you'd find that the Mesaliko or the general population of Roswell are any too protective of them."
"The travelers are stranded here," Max pointed out. "Like we were. Like we are. Maybe they had no choice about mixing into the local population and hiding out."
"Yeah, well they could have summoned up friendly illusions," Michael said. "They're getting back what they've been giving."
Max started to argue, feeling tired and frustrated. No matter which way he turned lately, it seemed like he could do nothing right. Everything that he'd seen that was good in his life had slipped through his fingers. He'd never felt more alone in his life.
"Michael's right, Max," Liz said. "However we do it, the travelers have to be stopped."
Valenti stepped forward, snapping on a flashlight. "All this talk is putting us behind. And it could just be water under the bridge. If we get up there and have a look at that ship, it's real possible that we're not going to be able to handle it. We may be sending for the military ourselves." He paused, looking around the group. "Let's start with a look, then see where that takes us."
No one argued with the logic Valenti presented. Max nodded.
"I've got extra flashlights in the back of the SUV," Valenti said. "Let's break them out and get to it."
Valenti led the way through the craggy ravines that wind and water had cut through the hills in years past. Isabel walked at his side, giving directions as they were needed.
Max brought up the rear of the line, watching as Liz and Maria trailed Michael. Kyle followed them, gazing nervously all around.
"Why aren't they attacking?" Kyle asked.
Before the words finished echoing slightly through the ravine, a flitting hum filled the chill night air. The sound approached quickly, coming in from ahead of them.
"Maxwell!" Michael called.
Only a split second behind in reacting, Max shoved his hands out and poured energy into the force field. Before the drones reached their position, lightning blasted the rocks in front of the group and thunder exploded from the hillside.
Max held the barrier in place, not knowing what would happen if the lightning struck the force field, but knowing only bad things could come of the lightning hitting humans or alien hybrids. Moonlight glinted against the metallic edges of the flying drones. The leading edge of the attack struck the energy barrier and burst into bright sparks.
Then a lightning bolt zigzagged into the barrier. Max flew backward, feeling as though he'd been hit in the chest with a sledgehammer. He crashed against the rock wall behind him and felt the wind driven from his lungs. His vision blurred, but he clearly saw that the barrier was no longer there to protect them.
Valenti shouldered his shotgun and fired into the mass of drones again and again. The explosions of gunfire echoed throughout the hillside. The buckshot blew holes through the drones, creating sprays of electrical discharges. Still, dozens of the drones vectored in on the group.
Max struggled to project the shield again and couldn't. He couldn't breathe, and he couldn't use his power.
Unfazed by the lightning touching down around him and blasting fist-size craters from the rocky walls of the raving, Michael stepped forward and raised his hands. His hands pulsed with energy for a heartbeat, then he unleashed the force.
Twin funnels of pale blue-white energy sizzled through the air. When the energy bolts touched the drones, they sparked and burst, unleashing still more energy that took out the drones behind them. In seconds the chain reaction created by Michael's attack left the air clear and an absence of lightning bolts.
"Wow," Michael said in low voice.
Max wasn't too surprised. He'd seen Michael take out a car with his power before, and the drones were a lot smaller and more fragile.
"It was the connection between the drones," Isabel said. "However they're tied to one another so that they operate with one mind, that connection pulls Michael's power through them. There must be some kind of electrical bonding. That's how they're able to generate the lightning strikes."
"Makes them go up like a string of firecrackers," Michael said.
Valenti reloaded the shotgun with shells from his pocket. He glanced at Isabel. "How much farther?"
"Not much." Isabel set off quickly, forcing Valenti to hurry to run at her side.
Max pushed himself off the rock wall. His breath still rasped into his lungs, and he felt light-headed.
Liz looked back at him. "Are you all right?" she asked.
Max nodded, knowing if she were really concerned she would be back checking on him. The distance between them in that moment felt absolute.
"I'm fine," he said, and tried not to let the weakness in his legs and knees show as he lurched into motion after them. He maintained a steady jog, alert to any movement around them that might indicate another group of drones had located them. River Dog had told Isabel that what one of the drones knew, they all knew.
Only a few moments later, they reached a jagged tear in the hillside. The opening looked more like a wound than the mouth to a cave. Below, following the line of the grade, a mass of stones and dirt stood out against the desert sand. Some of the dirt still looked damp and dark, like it had been only just dug out.
"They've been working to free the ship." Isabel played her light over the cave mouth. "No one comes out here often, so they haven't been discovered."
"How long have they been working?" Max asked.
"Since the attack," Isabel answered.
Max shone his flashlight into the gullet of the cave. "According to River Dog, that attack took place thousands of years ago."
"The information River Dog has gotten from the travelers is confusing," Isabel said. "The drones and travelers have no concept of how much time has passed. Only that the world around them has been changed. River Dog thinks they were in some kind of hibernation."
"Were they waiting to be rescued?" Kyle asked.
Isabel hesitated. "Maybe."
"Guess they didn't know that once you're abandoned here you pretty much stay lost," Michael said.
"News flash," Maria said. "Does anybody know why they haven't attacked us again? I mean, if we're getting close to their nest or whatever, shouldn't they be all over us?"
"Maybe they're scared," Liz suggested. "Evidently they're not prepared for Michael's powers."
Max took a tighter grip on the flashlight he carried. "There's only one way to find out." He stepped forward, easing into the cave opening and fully expecting the drones to attack at any moment.
Valenti matched him stride for stride, staying on Max's right and keeping the shotgun at the ready. The beam of their flashlights barely pushed back the black shadows that swelled within the throat of the cavern.
"How did the spaceship get so buried?" Kyle whispered.
"River Dog thinks the ship was mostly buried during the initial impact," Isabel replied. "After that the shifting desert buried the ship the rest of the way."
Max's flashlight picked up patches of rusty steel tracks between the dirt, rock, and debris. A small mine car was only a little farther up ahead, overturned near one side of the tunnel.
"This is one of the dig sites Leroy Wilkins worked," Valenti said. "It's on Mesaliko lands, so when the tribal police found him here, they bounced him."
"Maybe this is where Swanson found the drone he wore in the pouch around his neck," Liz said.
"Could be," Valenti agreed. "Swanson was still around back then."
Before Valenti's words could die away, the cave throat filled with the familiar hum of miniature winds. Max raised a shield, filling the cave with the energy barrier. The drones slammed into the force field and imploded, leaving bright sparks and their aftereffects.
"Drop the shield, Maxwell," Michael said, as the drones gathered, obviously trying to regroup.
When Max dropped the force field, staying ready to raise another one, Michael zapped the drones with an energy bolt. The mad rush of exploding drones jumped back and forth, like a pinball trapped between bumpers and getting some serious play. As with the last time, none of the drones survived the attack.
The tunnel took a long, loping turn to the left. Max only had to follow the tunnel a little longer before he found the ship. At least he found where the ship had to be.
The tunnel dead-ended against a tall wall scored with pickax marks. But in between the pickax marks were conical holes that looked slightly like anthills.
"Entrances," Kyle said. "The drones must be using those. But none of them are big enough for us. We're stuck."
Max looked at Isabel. "Is the ship behind this wall?"
"Yes. I've seen it. In the dreamwalk state, I can walk through that wall."
Michael stepped forward. "Fine. It's there. All we've got to do is get to it, right?"
"Maybe we should try talking to them first… " Max didn't get any further in his suggestion.
Michael threw his hands forward. Blue-white energy cascaded from his palms, meeting the wall in a thunderous explosion. The wall fell in sections, revealing a dulled, fire-blasted, and pitted metal surface behind the rock and earth.
The whole cavern shook with the force of the energy used. For a moment, Max was afraid that the cavern roof was going to come down. Miraculously, the ceiling held, but clouds of dust filled the cavern while debris rained down.
Hacking and coughing, choking on the roiling cloud of smoke around him, Max stared into the cavity that Michael's impulsive actions had revealed. Something slithered within the opening, but he couldn't make out what the thing was because of all the dust and grit in his eyes.
"Look out!" Valenti yelled, pulling the shotgun to his shoulder.
Dazed, Max watched incredulously as what looked like a vine sprung from the cavity in the wall. But the flashlight beams that hit the vine struck a metallic surface. Before Max could move, the vine wrapped his feet and yanked, lifting him from the cavern floor. He upended, falling backward and striking his head on a rock. Blackness clouded his vision and took him away.
Max!" Liz screamed. Fear thudded through her, at first nearly stopping her heart, then making her think it was going to explode.
The thing that wrapped Max's lower body looked like a snake, but she'd never seen one that big in the desert. The monstrosity that had captured Max would have dwarfed even South American anacondas.
"Max!" Liz yelled again, and started forward.
"Kyle!" Valenti barked.
Before Liz could reach Max as he was dragged away, Kyle caught up to her and wrapped his arms around her. He locked down and stopped her, then dragged her back to the safety of the group.
"Let me go!" Liz demanded. "Let me go!"
Valenti's shotgun roared, spitting out a bright yellow muzzle flash. For a moment, Liz was afraid that Valenti had shot Max. Then she saw the tentacle thing break away in a flare of popcorn-size explosions.
"That thing's made out of those drones," Maria said.
In disbelief Liz saw that Maria was right. The sporadic flashlight beams, maneuvered by excited hands, crisscrossed the length of the tentacle, revealing the gleaming surface and some of the individual shapes of the drones.
Max lay in a loose sprawl on the ground. One of the flashlights revealed the blood gleaming at the back of his head. The severed section of tentacle remained around his lower body, writhing mechanically like an earthworm that had been sliced in half.
"Max!" Liz yelled, straining against Kyle's hold. Oh God, don't let him be dead. He can't be dead.
"Michael," Isabel said.
Michael raised his hands and stepped forward. Before he was unable to unleash the power he wielded, a dozen lightning strikes strobed into the ground around him, blowing him backward, forcing them all back.
Static electricity popped and cracked in the air. Liz shielded her face with her hands.
Without warning the end of the tentacle that did not have Max shot forward and rejoined the severed section. They immediately melded and became one again. Effortlessly the tentacle lifted Max from the ground and drew him into the hole. He disappeared as Liz watched in horror.
"Max!" Liz pushed free of Kyle, accidentally hurting his injured arm. He yelped in pain. Then she was running, driving herself across the cavern floor.
By the time Liz reached the cavity in the wall and looked down, Max was disappearing into the side of the spaceship that was buried inside the hillside. The clouds of dust stirred up by the tentacle's passage floated slowly downward as they settled.
Tears came to Liz's eyes. Max couldn't be lost to her. Not like that. Not so final. She pointed her flashlight down into the cavity.
The spaceship lay embedded in the hill strata twenty feet down. The excavation that had progressed so far had been meticulous. The sides of the dig area looked like they'd been cut with a laser due to their smooth uniformity. The spaceship metal was a deep blue-green that looked iridescent under the flashlight beam, but partial patches showed obvious bum and impact damage. Judging from what she saw of the spaceship so far, it was huge. She just didn't know how huge.
And somewhere inside that ship, Max was hurt and alone.
"Hey," Michael said, placing a hand on Liz's shoulder.
Liz turned and faced him, seeing the worry on his face. The emotion was something she'd seldom seen on Michael's features. He was so strong, so cynical about expecting the worst of situations, and so private that the worry looked out of place.
"We'll get him back," Michael promised.
"Now may be the time to call in the military," Kyle said.
"If we do," Valenti stated grimly, "they'll wonder what the travelers wanted with Max."
"Look," Michael said, "I can hurt these things. They know that now, and we know that."
"They can still hurt us, too," Kyle pointed out.
Michael shrugged. "Suit yourself. I'm going." He turned and started climbing down into the cavern tunnel.
Without hesitation, Liz followed.
A blinding headache woke Max. He knew he was lying on the ground. A hard surface supported his back. His legs felt bruised from the vine-thing, but he didn't feel the constriction around his legs anymore. Slowly he opened his eyes and took in his surroundings.
The smooth, metallic walls told him that he was inside the travelers' spaceship. He wondered if River Dog was still present somewhere, viewing everything from his vision quest. If he was, Max realized, then maybe Isabel and the others would at least know he was all right.
An ambient red glow, from scattered screens built into the walls and from consoles, filled the room. Max had no clue what the consoles were for. For all he knew, this could have been the pilot area or a library aboard the ship.
Max turned to the sibilant voice, watching in stunned fascination as a stream of drones flooded into the room and began piling on top of one another. The drones made a tower, building with unbelievable speed, like a dust storm in reverse.
In seconds the drones went from a pile of small insects to a vaguely human shape. The creature looked like something from a low-budget science fiction movie.
"What do you want?" Max asked, taking a step back. He spotted a door behind him. It was only partially open, six steel plates frozen in midiris. Evidently the door dilated to open and constricted to close. The six steel plates recessed into the surrounding bulkhead. Sand and rock had poured into the room through the door. Streams of drones worked like ants, carrying off the debris.
The creature hesitated. A rippling passed over its face, suddenly creating a mouth. A second later it opened its eyes. The eyes were hard and shiny, like hard silver marbles.
"This appearance is more pleasing to you?" the creature asked.
"Why did you bring me here?" Max demanded.
"We wished to speak with you." The figure rippled, like a monitor repixelating, tightening the image and refining the features.
"You're afraid of us," the creature said.
"Yes," Max said.
"You've worked hard to be scary," Max said.
The creature cocked its head, an altogether human expression that made the thing's alienness even more apparent. "We have," it admitted, and the voice almost sounded contrite. "Those actions are part of our preprogrammed defense. Our primary functions are the defense and repair of this ship."
"Who are you?"
"We are… " The creature hesitated. "Your language remains something of a problem to us. Our dealings with River Dog have been inaccurate and unsatisfying to a degree. Still we have learned much." The image flickered and refined again, becoming more human. This time some of the metallic sheen faded, leaving a color much closer to human pigmentation. The color looked pale and unhealthy. "You may address us as the Builder."
Max waited, running his options through his mind. His head still throbbed. Running wasn't a good plan, because he didn't know where to go.
"Scaring the local populations from this area is necessary to the continued survival of our crew," the Builder stated. "We jettisoned an emergency beacon before entering this planet's atmosphere and gravitational fields. We are awaiting rescue."
Max looked at the thing in front of him, watching as the image rippled again and the features became even more human. The eyes had true color now, and had turned greenish-gray.
"How long have you been waiting?" Max asked.
The Builder was silent for a moment. "We are not certain. While we were in stasis to conserve power reserves, several systems failed. We have been working to bring those systems back in working order."
"It's been thousands of years," Max said.
"We are still here," the Builder said.
"Where is the ship's crew?"
"They are awaiting rescue."
Max looked around the room. "Where?"
"It doesn't matter." The Builder rippled again. The chameleon power of the drones was incredible. In the poor lighting of the room, the creatures that had bonded together looked human. The body language, though somehow off, was still human in its interpretation.
"I want to talk to one of the ship's crew," Max said.
"Talking with the ship's crew isn't necessary," the Builder replied. "You can interface with us."
"Is someone coming to rescue you?" Max asked.
"The emergency beacon is in place."
"Have you been in contact with someone?"
"That doesn't concern you."
"You're hurting people I know," Max said. "You're hurting my town. That concerns me."
The Builder regarded him. "These are not your people, Max. We have seen you. We have scanned you. Your true species is unknown to our data banks, but we know you are not of earth stock."
"These people out there," Max said, "they're going to come hunting for you."
"Nonsense," the Builder replied. "We will simply scare them away. Our defensive position was programmed not to be overtly lethal. We rely on the primitive fears and superstitions of the mammal species and civilizations that live in this place. They fear the wrath of their dead ancestors. They will recognize this place as sacred and put it apart from the rest of the world."
"That's not true anymore."
The Builder regarded him.
"The civilization you first dealt with had a different way of looking at the world," Max said. "The early civilizations accepted the natural world and their place in it. People today investigate things like this. They seek to understand." And they want to control things they don't understand or are different, he thought.
"No," the Builder said. "We have adopted the proper defensive mechanisms and approaches. We will protect the crew."
"You need to talk to one of the crew," Max argued. "Do they know what's going on?"
"We are here to care for them and protect them," the Builder said. "We are not here to bother them while they are involved in their mission."
Vague unease stirred within Max. "Let me talk to one of the ship's crew."
"Impossible," the Builder replied.
"The ship's crew has important tasks to perform. They must not be disturbed. We are here to keep them safe and productive."
Max made his voice harder, sensing that something was wrong but not knowing what. "I insist."
"Request denied," the Builder replied.
"You brought me here for a reason," Max pointed out.
"You must communicate with your friends for us," the Builder said. "They must be made to understand that they must leave this ship alone. The crew must not be disturbed. No one must interfere with our rescue. We will be taken back and assimilated into the One."
"The One that is all of us," the Builder said. "The one we were separated from to go on this voyage with the crew." The figure paused. "We miss ourselves. We miss being… whole."
"I want to see someone from the crew," Max said.
"You can't. We exist to take care of the crew. We minister to their wants and needs. That makes us worthwhile. Without them we would be alone more than we are while outside the One."
Max's mind worked furiously. He started to see the incongruities in the Builder's logic.
"You must tell the others to leave," the creature said.
"You're afraid of Michael, aren't you?" Max asked. "His power destroys you."
"Your friend endangers this ship," the Builder said. "He endangers the ship's crew. That will not be tolerated."
"You were in stasis until a few days ago," Max said.
"We were conserving power," the Builder agreed. "Our energy converters had been damaged as well. We decided it would be better if we hibernated with the crew and awaited rescue."
"Why did you leave hibernation?"
"Because we felt a ship near us," the Builder said. "We felt the power surge only a few days ago."
The Granilith, Max realized. The power the vessel had used to return to the home world had been incredible.
"When the ship took off," the Builder said, "we were forced to wake. The ship was unknown to us and of alien origin. We knew it was possible that an enemy or potential enemy had found our emergency beacon. We can't rest until we are rescued now. The local communities must be repulsed in the manner in which we repulsed them before."
"Let me talk to the ship's captain," Max said.
"The person in charge of this ship is busy," the Builder said. "Tasks must be completed. Our rescue must be effected."
Max stepped forward, quelling the immediate instinct to avoid a confrontation with the creature.
The Builder shimmered again, adding inches to its height. "Stay back." The rapid growth took away some from the humanness of its features.
"Take me to the ship's crew," Max ordered.
The Builder shifted suddenly, and the movement was too quick to be human. The humanoid figure seemed to
flow from one spot to the next. He stood in front of a closed door that Max hadn't seen in the darkness before. A softly glowing handplate gleamed to one side of the door.
"You must stay back," the Builder said. The creature knotted its hands into fists. "If you come any closer, we will be forced to harm you. That is not what we wish. We wish you to be our messenger."
"Take me to the ship's crew," Max repeated, more forcefully.
Turning, Max watched Michael step into the room, followed by Valenti, Isabel, Kyle, Liz, and Maria. All of them looked disheveled and worn, caked in dust.
Isabel stepped forward.
The Builder rippled again, flowing with predatory intent toward Isabel.
Michael held up his hands. Energy coiled around them. "Don't," Michael said. "I'll fry you where you stand."
The Builder moved back a step.
"What do you mean it's impossible to take me to the ship's crew?" Max asked.
"The ship's crew must be protected," the Builder said. Screeching hysteria filled the words.
"There is no ship's crew," Isabel said. "River Dog uncovered the truth and showed me. These things…" She looked at Max.
"They call themselves the Builder," Max said.
"The Builder has been hiding the crew's loss from themselves in order to keep from going mad." Isabel approached the door the Builder had been protecting.
"That door is broken," the Builder said. "We have not yet gotten it repaired. There has been no need."
Isabel waved her hand in front of the plate. The door irised open, all six steel plates retreating effortlessly into the bulkhead.
"No!" the Builder shouted, starting forward.
Michael shoved an energy bolt forward. The blue-white energy blast cut the Builder off at the knees in a series of electrical explosions.
Moving quickly, the Builder separated into halves, throwing their upper body away from their lower half, managing to save some of themselves. The upper half fell heavily to the dust- and debris-covered floor. Even as Max watched, more drones sped to the upper half of the Builders body, adding their masses to the hive organism. The Builder altered their body, growing legs again.
Isabel took Max by the elbow, pulling him into the next room. "Here," she said. "It's time that all of them know the truth again."
Max followed her into the room, listening to the Builder's voice shouting behind them. Liz and the others followed, but Valenti and Michael remained between them and the Builder.
A series of capsules in a wheel shape occupied the center of the room. The capsules looked like long test tubes. The incandescent light gleamed dully through the dust-covered surfaces.
"The crew," Isabel said, leading Max to one of the capsules, "didn't survive planetfall. The ship and the hibernation systems were heavily damaged." She wiped off one of the tubes, revealing the skeleton inside the tube. Though basically humanoid in appearance, the horns and four-fingered hands revealed the extraterrestrial origins of the dead.
"Then why didn't the Builder know this?" Max asked.
"There was an accident," an ancient voice stated.
Looking up, Max watched as another figure formed in the center of the room. More drones swirled together, creating another figure that stood up in the room. This one looked less human than the Builder, as if these drones could no longer quite fit together properly.
"The enemy ships were unmerciful in their attack," the drone-creature said, gazing down at the capsules that contained the dead aliens. "We tried to save them, but the damage to the systems was too severe. Our… loss… was too hurtful. We only wanted to die as our crew did. We went mad, but we could not allow ourselves to die, because that goes against our programming. We were going mad. So to save ourselves, we built another. One of us who did not know."
"Lies!" the Builder snarled. The first creature slithered into the room, staying back from Michael and making no threatening gestures.
"No," the second drone-creature said. "We tried to save them. We couldn't. The ship separated. We separated. When we landed, we decided to keep the truth of our loss to ourselves. So we told ourselves that the crew had survived and that we must protect them until help arrived. Separating from ourselves was a horrible experience, but we succeeded."
"No!" the Builder yelled, rippling over and over, changing shapes and features slightly as if losing control. "You killed them. You weren't good enough to save them. You were supposed to save them."
The second drone-creature faced their accuser. "We were not good enough. But we didn't want to accept our blame. We wanted only to be reunited with the One back on our planet. We give up so much when we are placed aboard these ships and help the crews."
"We should have died with them," the Builder said.
"No," the second drone-creature replied. "It is always our way to live."
"We can't live here," the Builder said. "This is not our home. We can't reunite with the One here. We are incomplete outside of the One."
The second drone-figure turned to Max. "We protected the ship from the Mesaliko people until the desert sands drank us down. During that time we remained separate from our others."
"A mind divided," Isabel said.
"We used the legends of the Mesaliko people to enforce our privacy," the second drone-figure said. "And we shut down the ship, freely entered stasis. We had thought the power would gradually dwindle and we no longer would exist, but that was allowable because we had no power over that. The thought of existence while trapped here was painful to us. Instead the ship's engines powering up not far away woke us."
"The Granilith," Max said, so they would all know.
"We sensed the ship," the second drone-figure said, "and we went on alert. We could not stop ourselves." The figure turned to face the Builder. "We would stop ourselves now. We would end our pain."
"No," the Builder said.
"Yes. We serve no purpose here."
"The distress beacon," the Builder said.
"Failed. If it still circles this planet, it is inoperative. There is no reason to chase the surrounding people from their homes. We're hurting others needlessly."
Soundlessly the Builder exploded into thousands of drones that immediately went on the offensive. "We can't live on our own. We choose not to live on our own."
Michael unleashed an energy bolt. The blue-white blast arced into the midst of the spreading drones that had been the Builder. Drones burst into electrical fireworks, chasing strings like failing Christmas lights.
Suddenly a powerful voice spoke in an alien tongue. The tone was downbeat, like a death knell. Words came in perfect cadence, one falling relentlessly after another.
"Go!" the second drone-figure shouted. "We have initiated the self-destruct sequence."
"I thought you couldn't do that," Isabel said.
"Only if we are invaded by hostile enemy troops. We see you as the enemy. You have served our purpose. Go. There is very little time remaining to make your escape."
Which "we"? Max wondered. The "we" that suddenly realized they weren't going home again, or the "we" that didn't want to be responsible for hurting anyone else? He had no way of knowing, so he ran.
Michael took the lead, throwing energy bolts at swarms of drones that tried to intercept them. Every time the energy hit the drones, the strings of explosions ripped across the rooms, leaving the way clear.
A warning Klaxon screamed through the hallways as room after room suddenly filled with pale amber light. Max's head screamed in pain and he felt dizzy, but he didn't let up.
At the doorway leading to the tunnel from the spaceship, Liz stumbled and fell. Without hesitation Max stopped and helped her to her feet. Together, hand in hand, they ran, scrambling up the tunnel to the cave mouth.
Valenti and Michael caught them at the top, pulling them from the cave mouth and toward the outside. The interior of the cavern whipped by, then they were outside in the night air, stumbling, falling down the hillside.
Gasping for air, Max pushed himself up and watched as a swarm of drones rocketed down the hillside after them. "If we are to perish," the drones said, "then you will perish with us."
Max put up his energy shield, watching as the lead drones blew up on contact with the force field. Then an enormous explosion rocked the landscape and the top of the hill collapsed, crunching down into the earth.
The remaining drones fell to the ground. As Max watched, the drones dissolved, leaving nothing.
"Biodegradable," Michael commented wryly.
"Degradable, at any rate," Isabel agreed.
Dust clouds gathered over the fallen hill, but the wind quickly wiped them from the sky.
"Although the military doesn't accept responsibility for the explosion that ripped through Mesaliko reservation territory, speculation remains constant that the blast came from a munitions dump kept in the area during World War II."
Max watched with idle interest the television news. Three days had passed since the spaceship had been destroyed. There had been no more ghost sightings in Roswell or in the Mesaliko tribal lands. He sat in his room and tried to remain calm with the idea of not beating his brains out trying to find a way to get to his son and fix things with Liz.
During the last three days he hadn't talked with Liz, hadn't felt like he could be around her without putting pressure on her. He wanted her back in his life, wanted everything to be back like it was before Tess came along to twist things so badly.
The phone rang unexpectedly.
Max scooped the receiver up and said hello.
"It's me," Liz said.
The world suddenly seemed to stop around Max. He had to force himself to breathe. "Hi," he said.
"Are you okay?"
"Sure. I was just dozing," Max said. "Still catching up on sleep."
"I just wanted to check. 1 haven't seen much of you these past few days."
"I knew you were busy with the repairs being done to the Crashdown."
"Well, they're all done now," Liz said. "In fact, the grand reopening is tonight. Going on right now. That's why there's so much noise in the background;"
"1 thought maybe you could come by after the rush was over. I'll treat you to a cheeseburger. Kind of a combo Glad-My-Mom-Isn't-Talking-to-Ghosts-Anymore and We-Survived-the-Haunting-of-Roswell occasion."
Max didn't hesitate. "Sounds good."
"Maria and Michael will be there too."
That took some of the edge off the meeting. And in a way, it was a relief. If they were together, he didn't know what he'd say without forcing her hand.
"Sure," he said.
"Okay. I guess I'll see you then."
Max said good-bye and hung up the phone. Some of the fatigue and worry left him, and he felt a little more relaxed. He stretched out on the bed.
Glancing over at the doorway, Max spotted Isabel standing there looking positively elegant. "I haven't seen much of you the last couple of days," he said.
"Work," Isabel said, maybe a little too quickly. "Dad's been keeping me buried in lots and lots of work. There are still people wanting to sue somebody over the appearance of ghosts in Roswell."
There was still no explanation for the ghosts, although some local psychologists were of the opinion that the ghosts had been a mass hysteria. Other people were certain that the military's mistakes hadn't been limited to munitions but to nerve gas agents that had been kept in underground bunkers that had been destroyed… but not before infecting the local populace. There wasn't any proof of that, and the Mesaliko weren't letting anyone on the tribal lands to go prowling around.
"So who was on the phone?" Isabel asked.
"Liz. We're having a small get-together tonight at the Crashdown. Has she called you?"
"She probably will."
"I'll have to take a rain check."
Max looked at her, making a show of noticing her outfit.
"Oh. This." Isabel smoothed the lines of her miniskirt. "Just wanted to be comfortable."
"Where are you going that you need to be so… comfortable?"
"Office hours are over," Max said.
"I've got to go to the library."
"I just wanted to check on you," Isabel said. "Make sure you were doing okay."
"I am," Max said.
Isabel nodded, but didn't look convinced.
"Part of me," Max said, "wants to say that's not true, that I'm in denial about how I really feel." He paused. "I just don't want to be alone, Isabel, and I don't want to think about my son being out there somewhere, possibly in danger."
"I don't think Tess would hurt him, Max," Isabel said. She entered his room and sat on the bed next to him. "And as far as being alone, you're not. I'm here. And on some days you've got Michael. And our parents. And a lot of other people."
"I know. I just feel alone."
Isabel put her hand on his arm.
Max sat quietly, feeling better.
"You'll be seeing Liz tonight," Isabel said. "That's a start."
"A cheeseburger with friends. Not very promising."
"Not having a cheeseburger with friends is even less promising."
"True." Max exercised restraint within himself. He'd go; he'd have fun. And he would not expect too much. That was the secret. He looked at Isabel. "I thought you had to go to the library."
"I do. I will. It'll be okay. We have a… " Isabel stopped. "We have a very understanding library. That's one of the things that I've always liked best about the library."
About the author
Mel Odom lives in Moore, Oklahoma, with his wife and five children. He has written several Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch books, and the nov-elizations of Tomb Raider and Snow Day. He coaches basketball, baseball, and football and loves watching his kids play sports. When not at a game or writing, he's known to hang out on the Internet until way after the cows come home. He can be reached at email@example.com.
From the television series developed by Jason Katims
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Read all the books in the new series.
SKELETONS IN THE CLOSET
NO GOOD DEED
LITTLE GREEN MEN
And don't miss any books in the series that started it all.
#01 THE OUTSIDER
#02 THE WILD ONE
#03 THE SEEKER
#04 THE WATCHER
#05 THE INTRUDER
#06 THE STOWAWAY
#07 THE VANISHED
#08 THE REBEL
#09 THE DARK ONE
#10 THE SALVATION
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