Interlude 1: Federal Bureau of Investigation

I roll through the open gate at the Denver field office of the FBI. The guard in the booth on the outgoing side glares at me.

Okay, here's my first thought. Shouldn't the guard house — seriously, it's bigger than my first apartment — be on the side where people come in? What if I was some crazy person coming onto their property?

Oh wait. I sort of am a crazy person. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here.

Maybe this is the employees only lot. Heh, like I care. Still, it's hard to taunt people from three lanes away.

I pull into a no parking area near the entrance. Hey, if Garcia can do it when he picks me up from the library, I can get away with it, too, right? See? Crazy thinking.

This is my punishment for getting involved with that Jacobs woman. Apprehending — or, in this case, eradicating — criminals who've committed crimes that cross state boundaries means I now need a contact with the FBI. City cops, county cops, the freaking United States Army, and INTERPOL aren't enough? What's next? State Police and CIA? How about NSA? No, not NSA... they don't like mutants, even if we're the good guys. And if Sanchez has his way, the State Police thing will happen.

I sigh... and then chuckle to myself. For Maddie, I'd even put up with the beasts at NSA if they'd deign to speak to me. Hell, for Maddie, I'd do most anything short of moving away from Denver.

I get off the bike and just look at it for a moment. I'm still trying to get used to it. Oh, not the bike itself... I'd fallen in love with it inside of twenty minutes. I'm trying to get used to the fact that I'm riding a Ducati now, and not a Harley.

Oh, Markensen is NEVER going to catch me, and he's going to be so annoyed!

I'm almost used to the scabbard for my staff. It's really much more practical than the holster I had on the Harley, plus I can get to the staff before I even get off the bike. Hmmmm. That might come in handy when mowing down miscreants. Might be fun, too.

Okay, maybe Maddie has been a bad influence on me.

I chuckle to myself, then head straight for the entrance. I know what to expect; it's a government building, after all, right?

First, there's the metal detector. Really? What's the point? A seriously determined bad person is going to get weapons through your metal detector without setting it off, you know.

Of course, then there's the fact that I have a weapon and have no intention of giving it up. That sort of thing tends to upsets most people who man these stations.

And that brings me to the third problem: The puffed up popinjays they hire to man the security stations at Federal, State, County and Municipal buildings. Oh, not all of them are like that; just enough to make my teeth itch.

Well, now, I could eliminate the second problem fairly easily. I've gotten pretty good with small camouflages using Fox's magic, and even making my staff invisible isn't difficult. I haven't really had the opportunity to test my hypothesis, but I think I could even keep the staff invisible while fighting a single opponent, maybe even more than one. Gosh, I miss Maddie and Logan. Sparring with Pablo is great, but it would be nice to work with multiple partners.

That is such a weird thought... after so many years of working alone, surprisingly I find I enjoy working with Pablo. Working with Maddie and Logan isn't exactly something one enjoys, but it is certainly satisfying. Okay, yes, maybe there were times when it was enjoyable, too. And I mean the actual working, not the other stuff. Heh... yep, Maddie's been a bad, bad influence on sweet little Andi. And an extraordinarily good one, too.

Anyway, my current dilemma... hide the staff, or play with the guard first? Even though it's in its scabbard on my back, it's pretty hard to miss since it peeks up over my shoulder a good ten or twelve inches.

Unfortunately for the guard, it's been uncommonly quiet in Denver lately. I haven't had much opportunity to play.

I enter the building through the handicap door — revolving doors are death traps — and head over to the metal detector, stopping several paces back. I drum my fingers on my thighs as I give the thing the stink eye.

"Ma'am, you'll need to relinquish your weapon and step through here," says the young man standing at the station. "No phones are allowed, and you'll need to put everything in your pockets in a tray on the conveyor there."

I look at him — name badge says Nielsen — and sigh.

"No, no... I don't think that's going to work for either of us, Mr. Nielsen. No one gets my weapon or my phones," I say, almost sadly. "And your machine is not going to be happy if I walk through there. They just don't seem to like me anymore."

"Ma'am, you can't get into the building without going through the security scanner, and relinquishing your weapons and cell phone."

"Hah. Well, I told Assistant Special Agent in Charge Van Dorn that we should meet for coffee somewhere, but he was all No way! Coffee shops aren't secure! and all that." I shrug. "If I call him down, will you let me through the gate? Because... seriously... you're not getting my staff. And I'm a deadly weapon without it, so... you know... pointless."

"No, ma'am. Everyone has to follow the rules," he says.

"Ah. You're one of them," I say knowingly. "You know, even the TSA lets me bypass security. When I'm in uniform."

"We here at the FBI are not the TSA," he says defensively. "Ma'am."

I grin at him, having not moved at all. "You're fun, Nielsen, I'll give you that. But I do have a meeting with a guy who's way above your pay grade. For gods' sake, even the people at Interpol are less tight assed than you are." I raise an eyebrow at him.

Okay, so I only met Maddie's uncle and her — well, our, I suppose — new contact... and it was at Uncle Alois' house... but still. I got the unmistakable impression that La Roux has a wickedly playful side that neatly dovetails with his excellence as an Interpol agent. They absolutely were not as anal as Nielsen here. So I didn't lie to the poor man.

And that reminds me... damn, I wish I'd had more time to get to know Uncle Alois. Maddie's and Rene's and Logan's memories of him — even the ones Logan doesn't remember — will have to suffice.

"Tell you what, buddy... if I make the weapon disappear, you won't have to worry about it, right?" I stand up straighter and pull a tiny bit of energy from my zhong dan tian and use Fox's gift of magic to make the staff invisible. I hold both arms out to the side and turn around, a full three hundred sixty degrees. "See? All gone!"

He stares at me for a minute, then switches to a glare. "Where did it go?"

I lower my arms, my fingertips resting lightly on my thighs again, and shrug. "For all you know, I teleported it to my secret lair. Or to a pocket dimension. Or moved it completely from the space-time continuum." Or just made it invisible, which I don't mention because it isn't anywhere near as interesting as the other possibilities.

You might be having too much fun at the poor human's expense, Warrior, Opossum says from its perch on my shoulder.

There's such a thing as too much fun?

He does look very upset, Bear agrees with Opossum from behind me.

Well... okay. I'll grant you that. But going through these things was always a hit or miss endeavor, I tell them. Never knew when I was going to set one off. Since we formed the Pentad? I mentally sigh. It's not a matter of whether I'm going to set the alarms off anymore; it's a matter of whether or not I'm going to fry their circuits. That's expensive equipment, and I'd rather not ruin it for them.

"Ma'am, I'm going to have to insist," he guard says, one hand conspicuously resting on the gun at his hip.

I sigh again.

"Son, you can insist all you want, but I'm not walking through your toy there. Not because I don't want to — although I don't — but because there's a damn good chance I'll fry the circuits, and the taxpayers we've both sworn to serve and protect aren't going to be pleased when they find out you forced me to break this expensive piece of equipment. And trust me, they will find out." I shrug. "Just keep in mind that they can only fire one of us... and that someone isn't me."

Finally, I'm starting to see some uncertainty in his aura, though his posture and eyes are still showing his will is made of steel. "Then you can't enter the building, ma'am," he insists.

I look at him for another few seconds, then shake my head. Some people have a hard time coloring outside the lines. I pull my work phone from an inner pocket of my vest — and I can't wait until Peregrine's wife finishes my new outfit, because wearing the scabbard makes it just a teensy bit difficult to get to the inner pockets of my vest — then search for the contact I need, and dial the number. When a very pleasant sounding woman answers, I say, simply, "Would you be so kind as to inform Agent Van Dorn that his ten o'clock appointment is being delayed by over zealous efficiency in the lobby, please?"

The gatekeeper laughs and assures me the message would be delivered to Agent Van Dorn immediately, and then adds, "I assume you're dealing with Danny Nielsen, and you have my condolences, Ninja. Mr. Van Dorn will be down as soon as possible."

After thanking her, I disconnect and return the phone to my pocket. Nielsen and I proceed to have a stare down for many minutes... seven, by my reckoning, though I don't have the stopwatch in my head that Maddie does.

After those seven minutes, however, a man steps from the stairwell and leans against the wall, observing the mini drama being played out near the entrance. Well... it could possibly be more of a comedy, really. Comedic drama? Comedy of errors?

A smile slowly spreads across my face, making Nielsen a bit nervous. Perhaps more than a bit nervous, as I haven't moved at all in those seven minutes... not a twitch, not an eyeblink — not easy by the way, and don't try this at home, kids — not even a perceptible breath. I'm as still as a statue for seven minutes; this act is followed by what ought to — by now — be the famous Ninja smile.

The man on the far side of the lobby is sizing me up, although he doesn't have the talent to see all there is to see; all he can see are what his eyes are telling him, he can only hear what his ears are telling him, he can only know what his senses and — if he's as good a cop as his aura seems to indicate — his gut are telling him. He's not Normal, not quite, but his gift is small enough that it probably wouldn't even register on the blood tests doctors like to run to test for these things. I mean, besides me being able to see it with my power, maybe Charles could find him. But is he really a mutant? I suppose that's a debate for another time, and with people like Charles and Maddie and Hank.

For my part, I can take the measure of the man without ever taking my eyes from the guard, and know that Van Dorn is damn good at what he does. He has observational skills what would have been considered slightly extraordinary in a completely ordinary way... before the world went mutant crazy. So he has some amazing skills, and a mind that makes connections quickly. Just as Pablo is DPD's top homicide cop, I wouldn't be surprised to discover Van Dorn is legendary — or trying very hard not to be legendary — in the FBI.

No! Of course I didn't Google him before coming out here! What would be the point, really? First, I wouldn't get any relevant information. Second, I like to form my own opinions that are untainted by media reports. Based on what I see of the man, it wouldn't surprise me if there were people in the Bureau who compared him to Sherlock Holmes. I don't think they'd be too far off there.

Van Dorn pushes himself off the wall after watching us for a couple of minutes, and saunters across the lobby, hands in his pants pockets... looking quite dapper, actually. When he's within earshot for someone with ordinary senses, he says amiably, "I did take the opportunity to check with your local contacts, Ninja. You certainly have a way of toying with the help, don't you?"

I turn from my stare down with Nielsen and favor Van Dorn with a brilliant smile. "I'm a little giddy that you took the time check up on me," I say. "So few people care about thorough research anymore."

He arches his eyebrows. "Ah, so I can assume you've also done a background check on me?"

"Nope." I chuckle at the surprised look on his face. "Oh, really, Agent Van Dorn? So soon into our beautiful relationship and you're already acting surprised at my methods?"

"You can hardly blame me," he responds with a wry grin. "Your previous statement did lead me to believe you place a great deal of value on knowing who and what it is you're dealing with." He continues to stand on the other side of the security station, very relaxed and at ease. He does note Nielsen's discomfort, however. The only way I can tell he's paying any attention at all to the guard is the dual focus of his qi.

"I do, indeed, place an inordinate amount of value on knowing such things," I say, my eyes flicking to Nielsen and back to Van Dorn. "My life generally depends on it.

"But Rodrigo Sanchez vouched for you, and getting the kind of recommendation he gave you goes a long way in telling me things public records don't." I shrug, and I know there's a bit of a mischievous glint in my eyes. "Besides, I've been scoping you out since you stepped out of the stairwell.

"So... are you going to get me past this infernal machine, without having to relinquish my cell phone?" Weapon? What weapon? And as far as anyone knows, I've only got the one phone on me. The personal one nearly always stays in the bike's — the new bike, the new bike! I'm not a kid at Christmas, no I'm not! Yes, I am! — locked case, the spy phone from Perry doesn't technically exist, does it? I raise my eyebrows questioningly. Some people see that as a dare... some don't. I'm willing to bet Van Dorn is one who doesn't.

"I could do that," he agrees, "although I am curious about your reasoning for not going through the scanner."

I shrug again. "While your research may have been thorough, there's information that hasn't made it into the official files yet. The last few months have been rather interesting." I nod toward the frame through which Nielsen is so anxious to have me walk. "The odds are fairly high I'd break the FBI's little toy here."

He smiles as the part of his attention diverting to Nielsen takes on a malicious tint. "How high are we talking?"

Oooh, so the lowly Nielsen likes to throw his weight around, does he? I tilt my head and study Nielson while apparently focusing on Van Dorn. Tsk... the man likes to use the rules to harass those he thinks are looking down on him, or so it would seem. Well, that's certainly not going to make him any friends, now is it?

"Upwards of ninety percent for some type of damage," I answer. "No way to tell the extent of the damage, really." I glance at Nielsen, then grin at Van Dorn. "Well, there's probably a complex equation involving the number of Spirits I have with me, how riled up I am, I much qi I've stored... yada yada yada."

Van Dorn raises both eyebrows. "You travel with packs of Spirits?"

I chuckle. "No, no. I wouldn't call them a pack." I look down at Fox, who's looking at Van Dorn with confusion. Yep. He confused a Spirit. I love this guy! "I'd call them an entourage." I look up over my shoulder at Bear. "Is entourage okay with you guys?"

Fox looks up at me. We are with you and part of you, Warrior. If this word pleases you, we have no objection.

Bear nods. Indeed. Fox speaks for all of us. Although I like the word posse.

I snicker as I look back at Van Dorn. "Entourage some days, posse other days. I suppose it depends on what I'm doing."

"I see," he says, so very calmly. "And might I extrapolate that a posse would be more hazardous to the equipment than an entourage?"

"You're a smart one, Chief. I like that. And for the record, today I have an entourage because I'm not cracking skulls. However, I'm pretty well set on qi here, and Nielsen's been trying to rile me up." I inspect the scanner, making a point of looking at every visible part of it. "Nope... doesn't bode well for your machine here."

Van Dorn cracks a smile. "Just out of curiosity, Ninja... how big is your entourage? Your records say you occasionally travel with a single Spirit called Raven."

I wave a hand absently in his direction. "Old news! I picked up Fox, Opossum and Cobra when the veils fell... came in real handy out there in Idaho Springs, let me tell you... although when the veils are down, the entire Pantheon is willing to help me out. And then traded Raven in on a new model, Bear. Less crazy, doesn't try to snatch me bald."

I could pluck your hairs out if you'd like, Warrior, Bear helpfully suggests.

I look over my shoulder again and glare.

Or not.

"Not is good. No insanity. Thank you all very much."

When I turn back to Van Dorn, he's got both eyebrows raised again. I shrug. Again. "Bear sometimes thinks it needs to follow in Raven's footsteps. Bad idea. Very bad."

The FBI agent studies me for a moment, then says to Nielsen, "Buzz Ninja through, will you, Nielsen?"

I smile and let go of the invisibility on my staff, which causes Van Dorn's smile — a small one, to be sure, but still a smile — to return.

"Agent Van Dorn, you know that's against regulations!" Nielsen protests.

Van Dorn continued to look at me, his smile grew slightly broader, and he said to Nielsen, "Yes. I know. If the Super who's been protecting Denver for close to a decade turns out to be a terrorist, I'll take full responsibility."

Nielsen continues to sputter about regulations, and I've had all the fun I'm going to have here. I roll my eyes and sigh, then focus a tiny amount of qi at the lock on the gate Nielsen is supposed to be opening... short circuiting the locking mechanism. Nielsen watches in horror as the gate swings open, apparently of its own accord. I step through the gate and walk over to Van Dorn, hand extended. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Agent Van Dorn."

He hesitates a microsecond before shaking my hand. "I'd say the pleasure was all mine, Ninja, but you seem to be having a good time." Releasing my hand, he adds, "My files say you don't care for handshakes. More out of date files, I assume?"

"Quite," I agree, gesturing toward the elevators. "Let's continue this scintillating conversation in your office, shall we?" Then I tilt my head and say over my shoulder, "You might want to get that gate fixed, Nielsen. Oh, and get your hand away from your gun. I can move faster than you can shoot, and if you get lucky, the itching while I heal is going to make me hate you."

"More than I already do," I mutter so only Van Dorn can hear.

"Hmmm, yes. Mr. Nielsen isn't what you'd call a people person," he says softly, pressing the call button for the elevator. "Would it be safe to assume you won't destroy the elevators?"

I laugh. "A safe assumption, Agent Van Dorn, yes. Elevators are mostly mechanical, and I'd have to expend a great deal of energy to do any damage. Even then, I don't think I'd do much more than get us stuck between floors until the maintenance people got it moving again." I look at him from the corner of my eye. "It's probably too soon in our relationship for that sort of thing."

"Having once been trapped in an elevator for three hours with a hysterical woman and an oversharing gentleman, I can't see ever reaching that point in a relationship with anyone," he says dryly.

"Ah. Yes, that could certainly be a recipe for disaster... likely to ruin any relationship."

"It certainly altered my relationships with the two individuals." He tilts his head, looking at me, then sighs softly. "I was six. The hysterical woman was my mother. The oversharing gentleman was my stepfather."

I grimace. "Ouch."

The elevator arrives then, and he motions for me to precede him. As the doors slide shut behind us, he presses the button for the fourth floor, surreptitiously glancing at the upper right corner of the smoothly moving container.

Ah, our friend Nielsen has eyes and ears on us still. Good to know. Inane conversation it is.

"I was pretty impressed watching the construction of the building here," I say, cognizant of Nielsen's eavesdropping. "LEED certification is still a pretty big deal; two years ago, you guys were really cutting edge."

Van Dorn's aura vibrates with amusement, and he's happy enough to play the game. "The bean counters back in Washington weren't convinced all the environmental gobbledygook was worth the effort or the money, but the good citizens of Colorado were rather insistent. Given the expenses of the three campuses that were consolidated here, the bean counters were shocked to discover just how large the return on their investment was."

I nod sagely. "I can only imagine. If I ever decide to build a secret lair, I'm sure I'll look into LEED certification."

He turns his head slightly, raising an eyebrow. "You don't already have a secret lair? I thought that was a requirement... part of the Supers' rule book."

I sigh dramatically. "Alas and alack, I never received a copy of the rule book, so I have no idea. I should try to remember to ask Perry about it."

Van Dorn barely hesitates as he makes the connection. "Peregrine... haven't met him yet. He seems a bit... dreary."

"No, no," I assure him. "Very nice, down to earth guy. But he has to deal with the press, so that probably colors people's perceptions."

The elevator chimes softly, the doors slide open and again I precede him into the... wow. I take few steps into the open space and stare.

"Dude, this is SO not how I imagined an FBI work space!"

Van Dorn laughs as he leads me around the open work areas of FBI worker bees. "We — meaning the architect firm we hired — pretty much stole ideas from Google and Zappos and a few other successful dot com companies. All the folks who work on this floor are analysts, and when the powers that be decided to make workstations comfortable, the environment a little more colorful and energizing, and provided some brain relaxing view of the Rockies," he says, pointing to the chairs along the wall of windows, "productivity nearly tripled." He glances at me with an amused expression. "And the analysts are, believe it or not, willingly sharing their findings with one another much more readily."

"Looks like a virtually paperless workspace."

He nods. "It is. Believe it or not, electronic files are a lot easier to track and control; security protocols are stringent, but not onerous. It seems to help that our Chief Security Officer is completely paranoid and his deputy understands people. They're a good team. We still get paper files, of course, but those generally get scanned in immediately and returned to the archives... or just shredded."

He pauses at one of the few offices along the far wall and asks, "Would you care for some coffee? Tea?"

"As tempting as coffee is, you're still law enforcement... and law enforcement is renowned for its spectacularly vile coffee." I smile and raise my eyebrows. "Besides, I've been spoiled lately by excellent coffee... so I'll stick with water."

"Hmmmm, so I heard when I spoke with my friend Armand the other day," Van Dorn says, sounding slightly peeved. "I'm fairly certain he failed to tell me everything about your adventures in Paris." He turns to look out over the analysts' work areas.

"Harry! Where are you? I need a few bottles of water in my office."

"Yeah, yeah," says the voice of the gatekeeper from somewhere near the floor. "As soon as I finish torturing the printer."

"Harry, I'm beginning to think printers don't last long on this floor for the very reason that you continue to torture them."

A tiny brunette in jeans and a t-shirt stands up near the center of the room; she doesn't look more than twelve. "Nick, you know damn well I don't start pulling out their fingernails until after they start acting up." Her eyes shift to me, and she smiles. "Hi, Ninja, nice to meet you. I'm Harriet Gibbons, everyone calls me Harry. Give me five, and I'll bring you some water." Then she ducks down, apparently to disembowel the large printer.

"Huh. Does she make house calls?" I ask.

"Only if you have a lair, I suspect," the agent replies, ushering me into his office.

"Bummer." Stepping into Van Dorn's office, I look around. "Well, this is certainly a disappointment."

He walks toward the chairs near the window. "Oh? How so?"

I draw my staff from the scabbard, but settle it into a non-threatening position quickly. I still haven't figured out how to pull the staff out in a way that doesn't appear to be a threat, but I suspect that's the nature of the back scabbard. "Well, the outer work area is colorful and vibrant." I gesture around his office. "You get sterile and — no offense — boring."

He points out the window as he stands beside one of the chairs. "How can you say that? I have an incredibly inspiring view of the building's other wing!"

I sit down and place the staff on the floor beside the chair, then study him as he takes a seat. He notices my scrutiny, of course.

"So? Am I passing inspection?" he asks as he leans his elbows on the arms of the chair and steeples his fingers.

"Oh, you passed by the time you started your chat with Nielsen," I reply, crossing my ankles, stretching out my legs, and folding my hands over my xia dan tian. "You mentioned Monsieur La Roux vexed you by apparently withholding information. What makes you think he did that?" I'm nearly certain I know what information Armand didn't share, but I want Van Dorn to get it out in the open.

Van Dorn smiles, it's almost mischievous. "He danced around a few details that might have given me the information I need to find your secret lair."

"Well, assuming I had one, you mean. But don't think I'm happy about some of the information in the man's head. The only other law enforcement person who has that information is Captain Sanchez, and only because he does the paperwork to keep the two halves of my life from colliding. Denver's other two Supers also know, but sharing that information might be protocol contained in the Supers Handbook that I don't have. Unfortunately, because of the company I've been keeping lately..." I sigh. I love my Sister dearly, but she does have one or two less than completely legitimate concerns. "...Monsieur La Roux needs to have as much information as possible to keep webs from becoming entirely too tangled."

He nods almost imperceptibly. "La Loup Noir... the Black Wolf."

"The very one. She's ultimately the reason I'm here, I suppose... that business last month out in Idaho Springs." I shrug and smile crookedly. "Never needed to chat with the FBI before."

"As you might imagine, I have quite a few questions about that... incident."

I regard him for a moment, then turn to look out the window. He's right... he doesn't have a great view. Not that it matters at the moment.

"I might have answers, Agent Van Dorn, but I've still got my own questions that haven't been answered," I say softly. "Although I will give Professor Xavier and Doctor McCoy credit where credit is due... they're doing their best for the remaining children and they do keep me updated." I just sit and breathe for a moment before turning back to him. The irises of my eyes have a faint ring of gold around them, but other than that, I'm not showing any indication of my deep and abiding anger.

"I hope you'll understand, Agent Van Dorn, that I am not normally a vindictive person prone to excessive use of violence. But in the case of William Stryker, I would happily make an exception if I had the opportunity to kill him over and over, in the most painful ways possible."

He looks at my eyes, the only indication that he notes the change in them is a slight dilation of his own pupils. He's silent for several long minutes, during which Harry comes in and sets a wire mesh basket of water bottles on the table between us, then slips silently out again.

"I read Colonel Masterson's report. He included the..." His lips tighten as he holds back his own anger. "...messages you and Wolf transcribed. I cannot begin to imagine how difficult that was."

The anger seeps from my body and soul. It's only temporary, I know, but for the moment I am serene. "I can't explain the emotions I feel when speaking to the spirits of the dead, Agent Van Dorn."

"Please... I think at this point in our relationship, you have the right to use my given name." He manages a bittersweet smile. "Call me Nick. Nicholas is reserved for my mother... and for Harry when I've unknowingly done something to annoy and/or offend her."

"Nick, then." I pause, remembering sitting on the floor in one of Stryker's labs, the spirits of the children waiting patiently to have their say. "They were children, and they only wanted to be heard. That's not uncommon among children who live and breathe... it's not surprising such desires remain after death, is it?"

He shakes his head — in wonder, I think — before answering. "I've been with the FBI for about twenty years. I requested a transfer to the Paranormal Division as soon as I had enough time in the Bureau to make transfer requests. I've worked with Supers in Atlanta, Chicago and Seattle. Meeting someone who speaks to... transdimensional beings? Is that how you'd classify your Spirits? And the spirits of people who've died... well, that's a new one for me."

"I've never actually thought about how I'd classify them," I say, glancing at Fox who's leaning against my leg. "Never saw the point in it, I guess. And my power is the ability to see and manipulate qi. Qi is simply the energy that permeates the universe. Souls are partially qi." I shrug. "It's really less freaky than that I see dead people movie. And..." I feel my guardians with me; besides Fox, Opossum sits, as usual on my shoulder... Cobra is wrapped around my waist... and Bear's paw rests on my shoulder opposite Opossum. "...well, they just wanted to be heard, as I said. It would have been heartbreaking if I'd been thinking about it at the time, but I had to be in the moment, you know? The elders who'd been watching over them since Stryker started up his operations out there..." I shake my head, I know I have a bemused look on my face. "I don't know how they knew their help would be needed a hundred to a hundred and fifty years in the future, but I think that's above my pay grade," I say with a hint of a smile. Then I sigh. "They were immigrants, freed slaves... none of them spoke English when they were alive. But they managed to communicate with the children Stryker had..." I pause, this time my jaw tight. I take a cleansing breath before continuing. "In simple terms, they convinced the children to leave their earthly bodies and join them in a place of no pain. It wasn't a hard sell; you've got Masterson's report of what his people witnessed."

"So, what you're saying is that... ghosts were... what? Convincing these children to... to just... die?"

I look him in the eyes. He doesn't believe it, not really. "Yeah. That's what I'm saying. Do you understand, really understand what Stryker was doing to those children?" I tuck my feet under the chair as I sit up, and lean slightly forward, my eyes never wavering from his. "Torture, pure and simple. There were children as young as three years old in his labs, Nick. Children that young have no concept of why the bad people are hurting them, they have no way of rationalizing it except to think they are the ones at fault... they must be bad children or the bad men wouldn't have taken them from Mommy and Daddy, the bad men wouldn't be doing terrible things to them. The younger the child, the easier it was for the elders to convince them to come away from the pain.

"But the older children, the preteens and teens, they understand the world a little better, they understand that bad people kidnap children from their parents, and that it wasn't really their fault. But they don't understand, either, why the bad people just keep hurting them over and over and over. All they want is to go home." I pick up a bottle of water, open it, and take a long drink. Then my eyes go back to the agent's. "It was harder for the elders to convince them that no one was going to save them because they knew... they KNEW their parents loved them.

"And then there were the ones whose parents didn't care... the children Stryker bought. Don't tell me if you track any of them down, because I hold them as culpable as Stryker and his scientists. The Avenging Angel isn't my preferred role, but by the Gods, Spirits and Buddhas, I'll play that role for those children!" My irises are more than ringed with gold now; I can see the telltale shadows in my peripheral vision that mean my eyes are starting to glow with anger. Probably time to dial it back, don't you think?

I finish off the bottle of water, toss the empty bottle in the basket and take another. I sit back in the chair, eyes closed for a moment... willing them to return to normal, breathing to calm myself... before opening my eyes to look at Nick again.

"Sorry. Some things piss me off more than other things."

"That I get," he says. "And we haven't found the families of all the children yet... but of the sixty one we've found, only four turned out to be... not kidnappings."

I nod. "A smaller percentage than I feared."

"Well, it looks like he didn't start that practice until about four years ago."

"Fucker," I mutter. "Killing him again would be nice."

"Ah, we the at FBI — to use Nielsen's favorite phrase — don't have proof of his demise."

I snort. "My word's not good enough? The word of a US Special Forces Colonel isn't good enough?"

"I'm not about to doubt either you or the Colonel, but the anal retentive record keepers like to know these things," he says with a shrug of his own.

I roll my eyes. "Well, I can ask Mother if She'll have his fingers or something brought out... kept separate from the children's bones, of course... and you can run your DNA analysis on that, too."

He just stares at me.

"What? Don't stare at me with that tone."

"Who are you asking for what?!"

I look at him with what I hope is an expression of deep disappointment. "Didn't you read the whole report? The part about I'll be providing you with bones from all Stryker's victims around the Spring Equinox for DNA analysis so you can positively identify them? You know, for the whole court of law thing you guys do?"

"I read the report. And that's exactly what the report said... that you'd be providing bones for analysis."

"Seriously? With all the other weird shit that went down in that place, Masterson left that out?" I shake my head and sigh. "I really need to have a serious talk with that man. Details are important. And not just the details he likes. I saw his report about the skeeve goblin... he didn't forget to mention how my qi blast affected said skeeve goblin. But he can't put in the report how helpful all the beings around that mine are willing to be in getting evidence to posthumously convict Stryker? Harumpf. Just... harumpf."

"So... you're not going back into the mine to get the bones," he says, though it almost sounds like a question.

"Didn't Masterson put in his report that his demolitions people sealed the mine? For good? Forever?"

"Yessss... I guess I was expecting a normal sort of explanation about how you were getting the bones to us. Or, even better, no explanation."

I give him the stink eye, something I've been practicing extensively since Pablo moved in with me. I'm getting pretty good at it... according to Bobby.

"No explanation? Right. No law enforcement officer has ever said that in the history of ever." I pause a moment. "No, wait... Sanchez had spent enough time with me and Wolf by then... so he really didn't want to know what we were doing up in Commerce City." I shake my finger at him. "But you, sir, have not had that glorious opportunity, so I don't believe you for a second."

He raises an eyebrow. "Do I want to know more about the Commerce City incident than what's in Masterson's report?"


Again, he just looks at me for a very long minute.

"Just out of curiosity, how do your other contacts manage to get along so well with you?" he asks in a way that makes me think he might just be regretting this assignment.

I grin at him. "Well, it helps that most of them are even crazier than I am. Except Sanchez... he makes me deal with his top cop, Garcia, most of the time. Forsythe isn't crazy, but I make her laugh. Dennison isn't really crazy either, but he's a good cop and has learned to just expect the unusual around me. You just need to go with the flow, Chief." I shrug and become more serious. "There's a lot of shit in the world, and I have to deal with a lot of it that falls in my six counties. I'm an irreverent smart ass because that's how I deal with it. My people understand that... even Sanchez."

He nods slowly. "Fair enough. Also, you get a little scary when you're angry."

"Mmmmm, yeah, that's a recent development. But that's also part of the none of your damn business clause for the official reports." I pause to open the second bottle of water and take a sip. "Stick around long enough, and you might get the story."

He reaches for a bottle of water as well, opens it, and drinks down half the bottle. "And you seem to have added to your resume of skills... multiple Spirits, conversing with... ghosts. There's more, isn't there?"

"Well, technically, talking with the spirits of the deceased has always been part of my skill set... just one of the ones only available on Halloween."

He recaps the water bottle and sets it on the table. "Dare I ask?"

"Dare you may," I respond cheerfully. "I'm sure you've heard the phrase 'veil between the worlds', probably from Wiccans or the New Age folks."

"Yes." He closes his eyes. "You're going to tell me there really are veils between worlds, aren't you?"

I chuckle. "In a manner of speaking, yes. It's not really like curtains going up and down, though." I settle back into the chair more comfortably. "As part of the... what did you call it? The Paranormal Division? Well, you should understand that there are other dimensions or planes of existence than just the one most people can perceive, right?"

He nods. "There have been multiple incursions all over the country of the replicating goblins you and Masterson took out up in Boulder."

"Okay, good. Now posit that there are an infinite number of them; some of them are adjacent to our own plane, some are so far removed they may as well be in the 40 Eridani system."

"The what system?"

I stare at him as Bear pats my shoulder. It is possible to repair that defect in his character, is it not, Warrior?

I sigh. "Star Trek, Van Dorn! A third of my references will go right over your head if you do not, as Bear puts it, repair that defect of character." I shake my head and continue. "All the various dimensions have — for lack of a better term — walls separating them from all the other dimensions. For whatever reason, on Halloween, the wall between our world and the world of the Ancestors develops a lot of doors. Or maybe just one huge door. Hell, for all I know, the wall crumbles. I've usually been too busy protecting people to investigate the mechanics of it."

"Okay," he says. He looks like he's starting to make connections. That's good. "That would explain a lot of mythologies. I can buy that."

"Cool. Now, world of the Ancestors is a bit of a misnomer... it's really just the plane where — again, for lack of better terminology — souls get stuck, for whatever reason. Unstuck souls move right on to wherever they're supposed be. The Diné, for example, believe a person goes to another world similar to this one."

"How do these unstuck souls, as you call them, know where they're supposed to go?"

I nod. "Yeah, that's a common question. To each their own belief is probably the best way to put it. Your belief system will determine which plane you wind up in. Christians have heaven and hell... Buddhists have Nirvana or a reset button on this plane — and I've actually seen that one happen. Well, it was someone who should have gone to Nirvana but hit reset to come back here. Buddhists call them Bodhisattvas. Very cool." I smile, remembering little Aliza. "Very, very cool."

"So on Halloween, you'd be able to talk to the people stuck and... help them get unstuck?"

"Well, I suppose, theoretically... sure. Or I'd at least be able to talk to them if the reason for their being stuck isn't obvious. But as I said, I'm usually busy working on Halloween. Assholes seem to think it's a better than usual night to harass the boys and girls working Colfax..."

"Wait... you protect the hookers? Don't you realize prostitution is illegal?"

"Oh, you do not want to go down that road, my friend. First, I have never observed anyone soliciting another person; I keep them from getting beat up and killed, they provide me with tips that sometimes pan out into something I can take to the cops. Second, and this should be in my file, I'm more apt to keep people safe who are generally ignored by law enforcement. That would include the aforementioned prostitutes, members of the LGBTQ community, anyone who lives in what passes for slums around here — although the police are actually starting to get better about doing the right thing in neighborhoods like Five Points — and Unfortunates."

"I seem to be pushing a few buttons," he says. I wouldn't say his tone sounds regretful, perhaps a little concerned.

I shrug. "You need to know my lines, and you need to know my buttons if we're going to work together. I'm hoping I don't have to Gibbs slap you on a regular basis like I do Markensen," I say, smiling in a way some people have called disconcerting.

"You have your people, you protect them, and you take that seriously. Got it. Anything thing else I should know?"

I take another sip of water. "Yeah. Don't try to outrun me on my bike. You can't."

He smiles slightly. "FBI has some pretty tricked out vehicles."

"I have a new bike. Unless your car can run the Indy 500," I say with a grin, "don't even bother."

"Duly noted. That's not generally our style, anyway. We like to let the locals have a little bit of fun."

"Very funny, Chief. I'll tell you right now, not one of the locals wants anything to do with this case. However, they will assist in any way they can for any of the kids in their jurisdictions. We all hate bastards who prey on children."

"Of the ninety-two children whose statements you took..."

"I know. One's from Adams County, and I've already talked to Dennison about it. It's from before his time, but he's tracked down the parents. Wants me to go with him." I look back out the window. "That's going to suck."

"It always does. When it stop sucking, that's when you know it's time to turn in the badge."

I don't have a badge to turn in. As the Warrior, I can't just hang my staff over the mantle. And I'm in this for the long haul. I could be working with Dennison's grandchildren before I'm even allowed to think about taking a rest.

"So, you were telling me about the dimension of the Ancestors before I so rudely interrupted," he says softly. Yeah, I know that's in my file... two or three or maybe four times the normal lifespan. Except now that I have Logan's and Maddie's gift of healing from the dead, that could be even longer.

"You had a question about it."

"Well, if the people there are ones who haven't moved on to where they ought to be, isn't there a way to help them along?"

I look back at him with a half-hearted smile. "Not usually, no. People get the idea — from urban myths and their needs for wishes to be true or from Hollywood — that souls stick around because of unresolved issues. A lot of the stories talk about ghosts waiting around until their killers are brought to justice, or stuff like that. But the truth is that the vast majority of people in that plane are there because they're still attached to people on this plane, emotionally, in a positive way." I can see... well, not quite skepticism, but not belief either.

"Talk to Masterson. Ask him when his grandmother died. I don't know when it was, but it wasn't more than a couple of months before our operation in Commerce City. Her spirit followed him; she wanted to know that he was going to be okay. She saw that he was healing, and that released her. They'd been very close... talk to him and he'll tell you that. He'll also tell you he has no idea how the hell I know that.

"A lot of the spirits are tied to loved ones because they're worried like that. They're afraid that their parent or child, grandparent or grandchild, or hell... even best friends aren't grieving; that they're holding in the grief, which can cause all kinds of problems. The unresolved grief keeps them close — sometimes for years — until those left behind can find peace. Of course, time passes differently in the other dimensions, so it might only be a few days for them... or it could be decades. Every dimension is different.

"Then there are the people like my grandparents, or my parents, or any of a number couples I could name — but won't. They have a bond so great in this life that the bond itself won't allow the deceased to pass to the place they're supposed to be until their spouse dies as well." I pause, not wanting to think of Papa and Tita, but I know eventually they'll leave this life for the next one. "You've heard of couples who've been married fifty, sixty years who both died in their sleep together. That's why, you know. Or how some surviving spouses don't live more than six to twelve months... it's that bond that united them in life."

"Would it surprise you if I said I believed that?"

I smile. "No. Because you've seen it."

He raises an eyebrow. "Another of your super powers?"

"Nah. I can read the look on your face. You've seen it."

"I was in high school when my father's — not stepfather's — father died. It wasn't really unexpected, he had a whole host of health problems. But six months after he died, my grandmother — who was healthy as an ox — just up and died one day. The doctors said it was a heart attack; my mother always said it was a broken heart."

"Your mother was probably more right than the doctors. I suspect your grandmother decided she just didn't want to be apart from your grandfather any longer."

He looks at me, clearly wanting to say something, but very hesitant to do so.

"Come on, Nick. You've got a question. Just spit it out."

"Not really a question... just that it's actually a rather comforting thought."

I nod. "It is, isn't it? And remember, these bonds that people have? I can actually see them. So... yeah. There's that."

"So, hanging out with you isn't going to get any cold cases solved." He almost sounded disappointed.

"Let's say the chances aren't good. But if you want to know if your best friend would drop dead unexpectedly if the love of his life passed on..." I shrug. "I can give you the odds on that."

He gave me what I think is his version of the stink eye. Not nearly as good as Pablo's; not terribly intimidating. "My best friend isn't married. Yet."

I smile. "Neither is mine. That doesn't mean I don't see the connection between the two young lovers."

He shakes his head while smiling, then reaches for his water. "You mentioned multiple dimensions, and the different way time flows in them. How many different dimensions are there?"

"Dear gods, I don't know! I'm not sure sure anyone does." I look up at Bear. "You guys know?"

There is no way to number them, Warrior. The number is in flux... one may disappear, but one or ten will be created to take its place. There is no limit to the possible number of worlds where spirits or physical beings live. All time is now. All places are here.

I snicker and shake my head, then look back at Nick. "Sometimes I think the Spirits are Zen Buddhists. All time is now, all places are here. But the number of dimensions is pretty much infinite.

"Now, the good news is that only two dimensions open to ours on Halloween... the aforementioned world of the Ancestors, and the world of the Benevolent Spirits." I circle a finger around me. "That's where these guys and a bunch of their friends are from. There are dimensions that touch ours to which I can — and have — opened portals."

I finished off the bottle of water and set it down, but continue to lean forward... just staring at the empty water bottle.

"I think that's how all this got started... when one of the Spirits' equivalent from another plane came through to warn me..." And Pablo, but let's not open that can of worms. "...about a threat from one of the seriously bad planes... possibly the worst. Blah blah blah, fight the Shadow, blah blah, destiny, blah blah blah, save the world. And then a lot of annoyance. From that particular Spirit."

I sigh and sit back, looking at the agent. "You no doubt heard that the Aryan Knighthood had started up their Denver chapter again."

He furrows his brows. "Yes. The Major Crimes unit was just pulling together a task force to deal with them when the problem vanished virtually overnight. Every single one of the Knights who'd been members of DPD disappeared one night... except for the one who got killed in your friend Garcia's house when he tried to kill Garcia's girlfriend. Of the three in jail, two died in fights with other prisoners and the third's in a Federal penitentiary. I suspect you know something about what happened."

"Yeah, well, they killed one of my people. They kidnapped two others, one of whom — until this past weekend — was in what I'd called protective custody in Quetzalcoatl's prison world. I still need to extract the Shadowkin from him, but he needs to regain some physical strength first. That asswipe didn't exactly live up to his word that he'd watch out for him while he was there. Anyway, the Knighthood was part of Stryker's first wave of troops."

"Whoa, whoa... wait a minute. Quetzalcoatl? Ancient Aztec god?"

I roll my eyes. "He's no more a god than the Spirits are, and he's a jerk." I close my eyes and take a deep breath to keep the anger out of them. "It gets worse actually." I open my eyes and look at the FBI agent again. "If you know anything about Aztec history, you know Quetzalcoatl has a mirror twin, Tezcatlipoca. Quetzalcoatl found a Chosen One — my buddy Garcia — and did his damnedest to drive me insane with his interference. But, on the whole, Quetzalcoatl's goal was to prevent the Shadow from breaking through into the world and destroying it.

"His mirror twin also had a Chosen One..." Fucking skank. "...who had been trained to open the portal to the Shadow dimension and let it loose. Fortunately for the world, Stryker was a lynchpin in the plan. Without him, without his particular flavor of pure evil, Tezcatlipoca's Chosen One couldn't open the portal. Hell, the bitch couldn't even get a portal open from our dimension to the dimension where she'd taken up residence. It takes a hell of a lot of energy to open one of those portals, and Stryker was providing the fuel. I ran into her over the weekend and took her out of circulation. She was off on a little mission to fuck with Garcia and his girlfriend again, and that's just not polite." Okay, maybe she had slipped out of her dimension rift to go hunting, but the fact that she SHOT ME pretty much constitutes a metaphorical fucking over in my book. I grin the really not nice at all Ninja grin. "I taught her some manners. And then I made sure she wouldn't bother anyone in this dimension again."

"Remind me to stay on your good side," he says, seeing the righteous retribution side of the Warrior.

"I don't think you need to worry, Chief. But if beings from another dimension or their earthly minions start messing with you and your significant other, I've got your back."

He nods slowly. "Okay then."

I grin the smart ass friendly Ninja grin. "Hey, there's got to be some sort of compensation for putting up with me, right?" I chuckle.

"Anyway, the majority of my time up in Jeffco is spent dealing with the wildlife that wander a little too close to human habitation. Not quite Doctor Doolittle, but I have a way with animals. A couple of nights prior to and on the night Sally Banner was murdered, Raven was a huge pain in the neck insisting that I open a portal to one of the other dimensions. On a scale of pure evil where the Shadow resides to pure good where Great Spirit lives, it was only a moderately bad neighborhood. A bit like LoDo used to be after dark before the City got it all cleaned up.

"Turns out there was a guy stuck there, also warning me about the coming of the Shadow."

"Wait, how could that happen? I thought you said dead people when to the Ancestors' world."

"Yeah, they do. But this guy had been kidnapped by Stryker — the reasons aren't relevant to this discussion — and brainwashed when he was taken to another dimension. How Stryker had access to different dimensions... well, that concerns me. But the guy also had a bond with his wife that was something like I had never seen before. If you think of a normal bond between two people as... oh, maybe a bicycle chain? The bond he had with his wife was like the steel wire cables used in suspension bridges... only instead of the cables being made of steel wires they were made of tritanium wires. That's another Star Trek reference, by the way... it's what starship hulls are made from.

"Anyway, when he was killed, his soul could only move to the closest dimension from where his wife was. At that place and time, it was the dimension where he had been held by Stryker.

"Yes, the dimensions move around in relation to one another, sort of like the planets change configuration as they all revolve around the sun.

"Now, this guy was in a world of hurt... not literally, just emotionally. He could watch over his wife... but only sometimes. After all, this wasn't the best neighborhood. And there was the added dilemma of time flowing oddly on the other planes relative to time here. Long story short, with the blessing and help of the Spirits, I got him moved into their neighborhood where he's hanging out while waiting for his wife."

Nick looks at me with complete skepticism this time. And he looks so conflicted; almost as if he's got so many questions that he doesn't know which ones to ask first.

"Okay, as to the why... because I can see that's one of your burning questions... that's simple. I'd want someone to help me out if I ever got stuck like that. I could help him. I did."

He shakes his head. "It's going to take years to figure you out, isn't it? So why move him to the world of your Spirits and not the Ancestors' world? Isn't that where he should be?"

"Yes, technically, that's where he should be. And let me tell you, him not being where he should have been royally pissed Quetzalcoatl off.

"But at the time, I didn't have the power to do something like that — move someone from one dimension to another — without the help of the Spirits." I pause to consider. "Now...? Maybe I could if Mother and Father agreed to help. But because the Spirits could only open the portal to their own world... and they were willing to accept him as one of them..." I shrug. "That's how it worked out."

He pinches the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger. "I'm almost afraid to ask, but... Mother and Father?"

"Mother Earth, Father Sky. Mother's helping gather the children's bones by showing the small animals who live within her where they are."

"Yeah, I had a feeling I was going to regret that."

"I'll ask Mother to bring bits of Stryker out, too," I add helpfully.

He shakes his head and waves his other hand, water battle and all, at me.

"Or the whole skeleton, if that would help," I say brightly. "That would take longer, however.

He groans. "I don't want to know."

"Well, you implied that you folks needed proof of death." I shrug. "I was just trying to help."

He looks up at me, slightly paler than he was a moment ago. "I'm coming to accept I'll never figure you out."

I nod. "Yeah, probably better that way."

He sighs. "You want to finish telling me about the Aryan Knighthood and Stryker?"

"Sure. La Loup happened to be in town... Supers protocol, I guess, is to let the locals know you're around, but still... it was downright sweet of her. Perry was off doing something that day for his sponsor, so it was just me. Newbie didn't even have his uniform yet, and besides Sanchez was the only one who knew about him about that point. Well, besides me.

"I was trying to find my two missing people; she was kind enough to offer her assistance. She runs with Wolverine sometimes..."

"THE Wolverine?!"

I look at him with a puzzled expression. "As far as I know, there's only one Wolverine, so... yeah?

"Anyway, the guy's a hell of a tracker, and we located my two missing people. Sadly, Ben had to be put in quarantine because he'd been infected with Shadowkin. Dick was in pretty back shape... he's an elderly man, had been beaten and held for a couple or three days without food or much water. Dennison got him up to the hospital where, I'm pleased to say, he made a full recovery. Physically." I sigh. Poor Dick. "Mentally, emotionally... well, he's still struggling, but there are people helping him out.

"They were being held by two members of the Knighthood. Wolf interrogated one and determined that they were working for Stryker. Wolf and Wolverine had both had encounters with Stryker in the past, and owed him payback. Wolverine went to follow the second member of the Knighthood so we could get a location on Stryker. We planned a joint operation with the help of Masterson's Special Forces team to smoke out the rest of the members of the Knighthood..."

"And I don't want to know what happened to them, do I?"

"Already said you don't, Chief. Stryker grabbed Wolverine in the meantime. So we went after him. Apparently, Masterson knew of Stryker, too. I seriously felt like the new kid on the block, but Wolf was kind enough to fill me in on just what sort of person — and I use that term loosely — he was. We took the fight to him at his base out in Idaho Springs, where we discovered the eight children he was holding." I try to keep my expression neutral; I'm not sure I succeed. "We had the children evacuated to Professor Xavier's school in New York... Wolf and Wolverine have some sort of connection with him, and his Doctor McCoy knows his stuff. And then we went looking for Wolverine."

I pause. I know things are getting weirder from this point.

"This was all done on Halloween, I'll remind you. To my surprise, that meant I had the entire pantheon of the First Nations ready to lend their assistance. And that's a lot of assistance."

"I don't mean to seem ignorant here, but how can Spirits help you? Aren't they... well, ghostlike?"

Bear laughs from behind me. White Men are funny!

I smile. You wouldn't mind showing yourself, would you? Not all of you... I think that would be a little overwhelming. Opossum would be the least threatening, but I'd like to explain Fox's gifts... if you have no objections.

None, Warrior, Fox says as it allows itself to be seen by the FBI agent.

...who actually takes it rather well, with only a look of surprise on his face.

"This is Fox," I say, nodding to the Spirit.

"Uh, how do you do?" Nick manages to stammer out.

"Quite well, thank you for enquiring. And thank you for assisting the Warrior in her quest for justice."

Nick just looks at me, and I laugh.

"Fox has been here the whole time. And yes, usually they're what I suppose you'd call invisible. Most of the time I can see them, sometimes — depending on what I'm working on — I just feel their presence."

"They... they're with you all the time?"

"Oh, good heavens, no! I'd go insane!"

"The Warrior has requested that we not intrude upon her life as Raven did," Fox explains. "We wished to take your measure, so we accompanied her today."

"Talking animals? Your Spirits are talking animals?"

"Oh, no, no, no!" I assure him. "They're pure energy; incredibly beautiful, but unless someone has a power like mine, they're not going to be able to see the actual energy being. But the shamans, the holy men and women of the First People, they could sense the Spirits, and the Spirits could, on a rudimentary level, communicate with the Medicine Men and Singers. Over the ages, humans observed animals in the wild and emulated their traits. A person of great strength would then be said to be protected by the Spirit of Bear, for example. After a time, when the Spirits wanted to appear, they would take the form of an animal that was familiar to less technologically advanced people.

"Fox, of course, represents cunning... among its several traits. I used one of those traits earlier to make my staff invisible, and toy with Nielsen." I grin mischievously. "Contrary to what some claim, toying with pompous asses is not a trait I picked up from the Trickster, Coyote. That's just pure smart ass Ninja."

Nick still looks a little dazed. I give him time. "But... animals... talking."

"Oh, good grief." I sigh and pull out my smartphone, open up the browser, and open one of my bookmarks. I'd happened across an artist's website recently that contains primarily fractal art. Yes, there are a lot of those out there — fractals are a big thing, I guess — but this particular site has a few pieces that look an awful lot like some of the Spirits' True Forms. I navigate to the page I wanted, then turn the phone toward Nick.

"This is almost exactly what Fox looks like in its True Form."

He looks at the phone for a moment, then at Fox. "Incredible. So this is what you look like in your own world?" he asks Fox.

"I will have to take the Warrior's word for that, as we do not see the way you do."

I shrug. "Humans can be described as chemical formulas, right? Well, it would appear that the Spirits can be described as mathematical equations. Render the equations with the right program, and..." I gesture to the phone. " get a close approximation of what I see."

He hands the phone back to me; I close the browser and lock the phone before putting it back in my pocket.

"So, my point being, I suppose, is that the Spirits can either appear physically or simply exist as energy. They can converse out loud as Fox has with you, or — more usually — telepathically as I've been conversing with Bear. Having more than a hundred Spirits just in the pantheon of the First People, there was a lot of energy in those mine tunnels that day... to say nothing of Mother Earth's presence.

"And no, I'm going to tell you the same thing I told Masterson and his people, I do not talk to the planet; I have the Spirits interpret for me." I pause and look at Fox as I consider that statement. "Hmmm, actually, due to some of the subsequent events over the past few weeks, it's gotten a little easier to talk to Her and Father. They're still difficult to understand, but they seem to understand me well enough." I shrug.

"Everything's in Masterson's report — well, I guess the main points are, anyway. Aside from Wolverine getting taken off to another dimension to be brainwashed — apparently, a trick Stryker liked to use to mess with people he particularly disliked — and the recordings of more than just the regular sight and sound in the labs, I'll just let Masterson's report speak for itself. The dimension where Wolverine had been taken, and the clone we found of Wolf, will be important later.

"It was the recordings that we found that intrigued me. You remember I said the elders who'd been watching the children couldn't speak English, right?"

"Right," he says, just raising an eyebrow when Fox disappears again. "I'd assumed they were speaking a language you or Wolf or one of Masterson's people understood."

I shake my head. "Wolf and one of the other folks there heard an old Malay dialect, an African tribal language, something called Caijia... which I'd never even heard of, let alone heard. They recognized the languages, but not what the spirits of the elders were saying.

"When I listened — this is important — I heard Athabaskan. That the mother language of both Diné Bizaad and Athapaskan, the languages now spoken by the Navajo and Apache.

"Here's the thing, Nick. Technology to record the presence and conversations of spirits, of ghosts, doesn't exist. Not at this level. Stryker had started recording not just the usual image and sound, but thermal and infrared and I don't even know what the hell the last one was. The elder spirits were clearly visible in infrared and clearly heard on whatever wavelength he was recording." I look at Fox, who seems to shrug.

We have not found a way to explain it, Warrior. Cat believes your Sister's friends in the place where your Nephew learns might be helpful.

I shrug, too. "The Spirits don't have an answer for it. They suggest the geniuses at Xavier's school might be able to suss it out. Personally, I'd prefer if no one ever figures it out, but that might just be my personal sense of privacy talking. If you're dead, I would think you're entitled to privacy."

I close my eyes and swallow hard. "I will never forget those voices on the recording. The ones of the elders speaking to the children who had died were so full of pain and despair and unbearable grief and utter helplessness. I had to translate from Athabaskan to Diné Bizaad; I couldn't bring myself to write out the translations in English. It didn't matter which of the elders spoke to the children, they all said the same thing...

"Come with us child; we will take you to a place of safety. There will be no more suffering. Please, child... allow yourself to leave this world, allow this existence to end. We wish people would come for you, but they will come too late, too late to save you. Come... please come with us. Your suffering will end, we swear it to you. Oh, child... please, we cannot bear your suffering any longer, we cannot bear it any more than you can."

But by sheer force of will, I manage not to cry, but I know my voice is shaky. I wait, I breathe. Nick waits. Without opening my eyes, I continue.

"The latest recordings were more hopeful, although the pain and grief were still evident in the voices. Again, no matter which elder spoke, they all said the same thing.

"Do not despair, little one. There is One who will come to rescue you; of this we are certain. Hold on, child, it will not be much longer. The day is coming; THEY are coming to take you home."

I open my eyes. "They knew, Nick. They KNEW that I would show up to translate their words and that I'd be bringing people with me to save those last eight children. I don't know how they knew. I know time moves funny in other planes, but it's almost as if it was circular, in this case."

Cobra looks up at me. It could very well have been, just in that location. Mother has a way of doing things others can't.

I groan. "I'm pretty sure that wasn't helpful, or what I needed to hear," I say, leaning my head against the back of the chair.

"I think I'm getting the hang of this," Nick says, "so I suspect I don't want to know what that's all about."

I raise my head and look at him. "Yes, I think you are. However, I intend to share this pain with you by letting you know that Cobra says it's possible that time was moving circularly... at least in the area around Stryker's labs. Apparently, Mother Earth is extraordinarily clever."

"And at this," he says, nodding sagely, "I should not be surprised."

I chuckle. "Actually, at this, it would be perfectly normal to be both surprised and skeptical. If it's something that even I find hard to grasp, there's no sense expecting anyone else to embrace it wholeheartedly." I shrug and indicate my invisible — to him — guardians. "These guys are still a little bemused by the fact that I had a lovely conversation with Great Spirit. I guess Eagle is about the only Spirit that ever talks to Great Spirit."

I lean forward and rest my forearms on my knees. "But here's the thing about the infrared and aural recordings of the spirits... I don't think Stryker added those until he realized the kids were dying considerably sooner than he expected.

"You got the names of all the children and their last known homes. You'll have bones for DNA analysis come spring. You have their statements, my report, Masterson's report. What else do you need to convict that son of a bitch?"

He thought about that for a moment before answering. "If the man's dead, we can't try him. Not in a criminal case, anyway. Some civil jurisdictions will allow you to try someone in absentia; the surviving families might consider wrongful death suits." Nick raises an eyebrow. "Unless you think you could get his ghost to sit in a courtroom."

I sit up again and stare at him. "See, now you're just messing with me. Even if hauling his smarmy, manipulative dead ass into court was possible — and I hope to the Gods, Buddhas and Spirits that it isn't — I don't know if you could find anybody willing to babysit that piece of shit. What bailiff is going to keep him from wandering off or disrupting proceedings?"

"You see our dilemma," he says wearily. "Even if we had an ironclad case, without the accused present, we can't take it to trial."

"Well, that sucks." I take a deep breath and let it out slowly. "It's a situation like this that would get me into a lengthy discussion with Garcia about the law and the justice system. And why sometimes eliminating the problem — in this case, Stryker — is better than letting the courts handle things."

His eyes narrow as he looks at me. "That sounds an awful lot like vigilantism."

I incline my head in acknowledgment. "So you understand how my conversations with Garcia can become rather... interesting.

"Mind you, I learned about much of Stryker's past — though not all of it — after he was already dead. He had already stood trial for crimes he committed, and all he'd gotten was a slap on the wrist. And then he disappeared for ten years, only to turn up in Colorado manipulating the Aryan Knighthood... torturing and experimenting on children... harming MY people.

"Given what Wolf and Wolverine knew about him when we found him in his office, I wouldn't call what happened that day vigilantism, Agent Van Dorn. I'd call it an acceptable use of deadly force." I shrug. "Sure, a lawyer could argue any damn thing they want. But I promise you it's better that William Stryker is dead rather than having even the slightest possibility of him not being locked in a tiny cage for all eternity."

I'm angry, but relieved that it's it a normal sort of anger and not the rage that gets my eyes glowing.

I chuff out a very non-humorous laugh. "It's not like I had a say in the matter. Wolverine moves a hell of a lot faster than I do. Wolf probably... possibly... could have talked him out of killing the man, but I don't think she liked the odds. If there were even one chance in a billion Stryker could disappear again to start up his little laboratory of horror somewhere else... well, even I don't like those odds.

"Despite that, you'll find if you ask around that I'm the sort of person to talk first and shoot — figuratively speaking — as a last resort. There's one exception... and that's when children are being hurt. In those cases, I'll crack a perp over the head and ask questions when they regain consciousness. Or just turn them over to the cops."

I think about the situation for several minutes. "Wolf's geek is analyzing the data. Having seen what was going on, knowing what the lunatic was planning, I'm not sure the courts or the public are going to want to know some of that stuff. Nobody needs to know that the twisted fuck — pardon my French — was planning to destroy the world. Or how.

"However, she's pretty sure her geek can follow the money and track his backers. I have a feeling that you and Armand are going to be working together on this one," I say wryly. "I seriously doubt every asshole he schmoozed for money is going to be in the States."

"We'd like to do our own analysis of the data," he says, steepling his fingers again.

I smile crookedly. "Of course you would! Talk to Armand. I don't have the data, and you may as well use your official channels to make things easier for you down the road."

"There will be the small problem surrounding chain of custody."

"Seriously? I don't think so. I saw Masterson's people labeling and inventorying every box and bag, and then they made Wolf sign for them. You should have seen the look on her face." I smile broadly. "It was priceless!"

"Yes, but then she gave the file and hard drives to her data analysis guru."

"Who, for all anyone knows, could be living in her basement... making it, technically, still in her possession."

"But other people will have touched it."

I roll my eyes. "Oh my gods, so the geek will initial the papers, too." I pause, thinking about Freak's paranoia. "Well, the geek's more likely to write something obscene in the language of the Ancients — Stargate reference — or at the very least, Klingon. But you'll know he had possession of the data."

Nick rests his head in his hands. "This is going to be a nightmare."

I look at him, puzzled, then shrug. "But not mine. My nightmare will be assisting law enforcement officials in dragging the slugs the data guy turns up out from whatever rocks they're hiding under so the legal types can do their thing. And at the same time also protecting the people of my adopted home. While also doing those things I need to do as a private citizen. Busy, busy, busy... and juggling all that will be a nightmare."

He looks up at me. "Oh, well, if I'm not all alone in my pain, I suppose that makes it all better." Oh, my. Sarcasm. Either I'm rubbing off on him already or we've got a good thing started here.

He rolls his eyes, too. "You know, we don't have conclusive proof that Stryker is dead."

I sigh. "A hand isn't good enough?"

He shrugs. "Could have been hacked off like Luke Skywalker's," he says, then adds, "See? I do know something about pop culture."

"So what do you want?" I ask, despite knowing what he's going to say.

"A body would be nice."

I sigh and shake my head. "There aren't any burrowing animals that can move a human body, even if a whole clan of them worked together. Also, we sealed that mine up really well... without digging back into the mine, you'll never the body out anyway."

"Tell us where the body is, and we'll send a team in to extract it."

"Yeah... I don't think so. That would tick Mother off; the whole reason Masterson's people sealed it off was to keep people from where they shouldn't be in the first place." I tilt my head, considering. "How about just the skeleton?"

"How's that any different than a whole body?"

I peer at him suspiciously. "Really?" I shrug. "Okay. A body is a big old meat sack, the operative word being big. A skeleton is two hundred and six bones, the largest of which is the femur." I pat my thigh. "Granted, the femurs might take a little more work than the other bones, but all two hundred and six bones can come out of the mine one by one."

He opens his mouth to speak, then snaps it shut, shaking his head. "How long will that take?"

"Well..." I'm going to guess he doesn't want to know the gruesome details about scavengers cleaning the bones prior to transport. "Stryker's body is considerably closer to the surface than the bodies of his victims. Personally, I'd rather priority be given to the children..."

I will discuss the matter with Mother, Bear says helpfully, then leaves.

I look over my shoulder to where Bear had been, sigh and turn back to Nick. "Ah, Bear's gone off to chat with Mother about removing Stryker's bones. I'm sure I don't want to know anything more than just that."

Bear will need to know where Mother will be directing the creatures who live within her and upon her skin. This way you will know where to find the bones you seek, Opossum says, and to encourage the scavenging animals to feast upon that body before the others.

"Yep, did not need to know that last bit, thank you very much, friend Opossum," I grumble.

Nick is just watching me with a raised eyebrow. "This one-sided conversation act could be fun at children's parties," he says somewhat sarcastically, "especially for the older ones... say, preteens and teens."

"Hardee har har. At least I know neither one of us is going to get bent out of shape by the other one's smart ass remarks."

Nick chuckled. "You know that that movie Men in Black? The first one?"

"Well, duh... who doesn't?"

"Around here? You'd be surprised. Relevant to your last remark, Tommy Lee Jones' line We at the FBI do not have a sense of humor we're aware of is much too close to the truth. I find myself at odds with most of the SAICs as I've moved from office to office, for I not only possess a sense of humor, it's a bit twisted.

"What I haven't figured out yet is whether you're just as twisted as I am or you're testing my ability to believe the bizarre."

I smile; it's that one that tells everyone who knows me that I'm up to something. Henry claims I'm listening to Coyote. Well, he would.

"What if it's both?"

"It would serve me right, I suppose. You mentioned earlier that Wolverine — you've actually met Wolverine? — was taken to another dimension and brainwashed? Is that relevant to our discussions here, and how much of it am I going to be expected to believe."

He looks at me rather suspiciously. My goodness, such a cynic! I just roll my eyes at him.

"I have. And you sound like a fanboy. Be glad he's on our side. I've sparred with the man and got beaten soundly while he was holding back and Wolf was my partner. I heal fast from just about everything..." Well, we've tested the actual everything theory, and though I did heal from dead, it seemed to upset just about everyone. In fact, I was probably the least upset by the whole experience, although that was only because I had a lovely chat with Great Spirit and then snapped the neck of the bitch who shot me. "...and definitely would not want to be on the other side of the law from that man. And yes... as I said, Stryker had access to other dimensions and liked to brainwash people."

I pause and look out the window again. We're edging close to personal territory. True, that skank of Tezcatlipoca's is dead and gone. But even though I've closed off the access to this dimension from his dimension and both of Quetzalcoatl's, I wouldn't trust either of them for a nanosecond. I wouldn't trust them not to find another way into our world, and I wouldn't trust them not to find another Chosen One for Tezcatlipoca. Of course, ostensibly the ancestral snake is trying to keep the Shadow from taking over this world. His eagerness to restore the mighty Aztec Empire is just a little too creepy... especially since it involves snatching my husband away from me. I just hope Pablo is old and gray and no longer of interest to the snake by the time he figures out how to get back here. Oh, he's going to be so pissed at me.

"It's all relevant in a roundabout way," I say without looking away from the window. "If Stryker had access to other dimensions and the ability to brainwash someone like Wolverine... Well, that most definitely does not bode well for anyone else if that kind of information is available to others."

I look back at Nick.

"Since I'm not spinning much of a tale here — no exaggerations, and only lies of omission, something that would have my family chiding me — I'd kind of hope you believe the whole thing."

"Yes, I noticed you lightly skipped over the whole clone issue."

I grin at him; he's sharp. "I was hoping you wouldn't notice." I lose the smile and am serious once again. "It was ugly, Nick. I mentioned that Wolverine and Wolf work together. When you do that, you develop a trust that's instinctive. Garcia tells me cops have the same sort of thing, and when his partner was killed — what was before I took up the staff — it was a hell of a blow to him.

"Stryker had a clone of Wolf. Why he did, how he knew that someday it would come in handy to fuck with Wolverine... I don't know." It's not really a lie either... there are a lot of questions I could answer about the clone, those are two I can't. "But he used that clone to convince Wolverine that Wolf was a traitor and his enemy. It took killing her to break through his brainwashing. That's probably when he decided Stryker wasn't getting out of his base alive."

"Wait, wait! Wolverine killed the Black Wolf?!"

I look at him curiously. "You know, there's a lot more stuff Armand didn't share with you than you think. Wolf has an ultra high healing factor, I'm not sure what — if anything — is going to kill her. I'd also rather not have the theory put to a test. As I may have implied, I've grown fond of the woman. But yeah, Wolverine killed her. I'd just gotten to the room where she'd found him. I'd been detained by some of Stryker's bad boys who tried to take out Masterson's people while they were getting the kids out of the labs. Took a bullet meant for one of them, and it took a bit to heal up.

"Now, I knew Wolf had a healing factor as high as mine, I had seen her take serious damage up in Commerce City... I'm not sure I knew at that point she could repair fast enough to essentially come back from being dead." Well, okay... that was a lie. "I was kind of pissed at Wolverine, as you might imagine, and cracked him over the skull with my staff." I shake my head. "I obviously wasn't thinking very well. I could have hurt my staff on that thick adamantium skull of his. But he didn't even notice, really. He just looked at Wolf and mumbled something like What have I done? And yes, he had known about Wolf's healing factor, but apparently the brainwashing scrambled a few more of his brain cells than had previously been scrambled. Fortunately, once we had Stryker's base cleared out and sealed up, the Spirits were kind enough to unfuzz the guy's brain."

He raised his eyebrows slightly. "I can see that you're testing my willingness to believe the bizarre; that much is clear."

I give him a look of resignation. "And here I thought you got the job because you already had an unlimited willingness to believe the bizarre."

"Even in the Paranormal Division, some bizarre things are beyond bizarre. I'm not Fox Mulder, after all."

That gets a big grin from me. "Of course not! You're better looking and have a nicer office." I chuckle. "I've been called a magnet for weird, and even the Spirits seem to agree with Garcia on that point. Stick with me, buddy, and I'll have you believing six impossible things before breakfast."

"Gosh, could we wait until lunchtime?" he asks with a grin. "I'm not really a morning person.

"So, you were saying something about Aztec gods. Are you suggesting that the gods were real? All gods?"

Ah, the first lesson in believing impossible things, eh? "I'm not suggesting anything, Nick. I'm flat out telling you they exist. Why shouldn't they? Just because your technology can't detect them, it doesn't mean they don't exist. That's not to say they're actually gods... except to the people who believe they are. Oh, I suppose some of them probably believed it themselves, sure. Quetzalcoatl admitted that he wasn't a god, although the ancient Aztecs didn't have any better way of describing him and the others from his dimension.

"We've already established there are numerous other dimensions, right? And that things live in those other dimensions. And that there are times when the things living in other dimensions can cross over into ours, and vice versa as I've discovered. Hell, Tezcatlipoca's so-called Chosen One seemed to spend more time in his dimension than ours."

"Wait. Seemed to...? Past tense?"

"Well, her current tense is a permanent past one."

He groaned slightly. "How much of this do I really want to know?"

I shrug. "I can tell you that she was born in this dimension and that she had the same heritage as hundreds of people around the country... at some point in the distant past, her ancestors were Aztecs of the royal caste. I'm not sure if that alone was enough to make her of interest to Tezcatlipoca, any more than having the similar ancestral markers made Garcia — whose ancestors were members of the priest caste, by the way — of interest to Quetzalcoatl. If I had to guess — and that's really all it would be — I'd say that's probably all it took. Well, plus a predisposition toward the Dark Side for Tezcatlipoca's skank, and a predisposition to be a proper Jedi in Garcia's case. Anyone could have been picked by either of them for their own peculiar other dimensionally and incomprehensible reasons. Personally, by our standards, I don't think either one of them — Quetzalcoatl or Tezcatlipoca — was, is particularly sane." I smile slightly, the not terribly nice Ninja smile, not enough to be all that scary. "I'm biased, though, you understand."

"Oh, of course."

"You do sarcasm well, you know."

"Why, thank you. So few people truly appreciate it."

"I can't imagine why not. Anyway, I think you'd probably be able to track down who this Chosen One of Tezcatlipoca's is... was? Whatever. It probably won't be easy. After all, how many Hispanic women between... oh, let's say maybe thirty and forty have gone missing in the past few years? I saw what she looked like in Tezcatlipoca's dimension, I saw what she looked like in this dimension and she was not remotely close to looking similar... that's not even taking into consideration that she was a hot mess in this dimension. I'd be willing to guess the guise she used in the other dimension was an illusion. Maybe some parents are out there wondering where their daughter is." I shrug.

"To continue, the few tidbits I picked up last weekend lead me to believe she had been — well, mind you, the words here depend on whose point of view you want to accept. Bias over here, remember? So anyway, I think she'd been recruited by Tezcatlipoca at least ten years back. I got the impression she'd been moving between the dimensions at least as long as Stryker had his base out in Idaho Springs; it's possible she had been working with him for even longer."

I pause to consider just how to explain Pablo's initial visit to Q's prison world.

"Garcia said he spent a weekend — though he also said it seemed like three years to him — working with Quetzalcoatl in one of his dimensions. I guess because he was supposed to be watching out for this Shadow nonsense, said demigod had a couple of hidey holes. The point is that Tezcatlipoca's Chosen One very likely did the same. From the looks of her, she got the same super condensed version of training Garcia did... though she looked like she had a hell of a lot more scars than Garcia claimed he came back with."

"That didn't raise any eyebrows at work for Garcia? Coming back scarred on Monday morning? Even the geeks around here would notice something like that. And what the heck is he supposed to be doing as this Chosen One?"

I chuckle. This part? Oh, the fabrication I get to spin! "Apparently, he didn't get dumped back at his house when Quetzalcoatl was finished with training him... he got dumped in an alley off Federal. Demigods don't have very good senses of direction, maybe? I don't know. Anyway, he was pretty beaten up to hear him tell it, but there was a homeless kid in the alley where he got dropped. I guess the kid's powers were just starting to spawn — hence the reason for him being homeless. And do not get me started on the subject of parents who turn their kids out onto the streets for being a little different. And that kid has a powerful healing gift. One touch and Garcia was as good as new." I sigh and shake my head. "I hope the kid made it up to Commerce City... he'd be welcomed with open arms, and they could use another healer up there."

I'm quiet for a moment, because... well, someone like that really would be an asset to the community. There are a few healers who aren't quite that powerful, and they have the Doctors Without Borders folks... but they lost their best healing team when Clarise and Imala went out to New York to help with the children. Sure, they'll be back. But not until they're certain all the children are well enough... and it could take quite a while to convince the littlest one that it's safe for her mind to return to her body.

Finally, I sigh. "I believe Quetzalcoatl's original intent was for Garcia to be one of my lieutenants in this impending battle against the Shadow. But mind you, I have no real idea what was going on in that snake's mind. Now that we seem to be safe from that little problem, Garcia can go back to catching bad guys in Denver." I shrug. "And putting up with me, of course."

"Of course." He takes a sip of his water. "Let's go back to this clone, which is highly illegal. Any idea how Stryker managed that?"

I shake my head. "That's way above my level of knowledge in the field of biology, man. I know anatomy and basic physiology from the Western perspective; I'm a little more well versed in human health from the Eastern perspective. But that shit? That was just plain fucked up." I sigh. "Energy runs through the body in different ways. Western medicine seems to think it's pretty much confined to the nervous system. But the Chinese have been using acupuncture and acupressure on the body's meridians to relieve ailments for upwards of four thousand years, depending on who you ask. I can see the qi in those meridians. Part of my training in learning how to see them was to sit with the village... well, I suppose you'd call him doctor... when he was with patients." I grin. "In the beginning, when my Chinese was still pretty terrible, I got the impression the old man felt like he was talking to a two year old. But it got him to explain in very simple, rudimentary terms what was happening in the meridians when he placed the needles."

Nick shudders. "Ew. I've seen pictures of people with needles all over their bodies. It looks like some kind of torture."

I laugh. "Honestly... ninety percent of the time you have no clue you've been jabbed. Most of the rest of the time, it's less annoying than a mosquito bite, which most people don't even notice until the little fucker's pumped its poison into them. Every once in a while, if there's a large block of energy in the meridian, you might feel a pinch or a sting for a few seconds as the needle breaks up the energy clot."

"Still... no thanks."

"Wuss. Anyway, looking at a person's meridians is no more difficult than looking at their aura, it's just a different focus. Rather than looking at the Front Range and saying, 'Yay, mountains!' it's more like saying, 'Ah, there's Mount Evans, and there's Longs Peak, and those over there the Twin Sisters Peaks.' When I looked at the clone's aura, it was kind of a mess. But her meridians..." I shake my head and frown. And then I don't say anything for a few minutes.

"That's why cloning should be illegal. The morality of the subject, the morality that people prattle on about? That's bullshit compared to what I can see. I know I insisted the clone was a thing to Wolf because she was understandably upset that it looked exactly like her..." Upset? Well, that would be putting it mildly. "I don't know how else to say it, though. First of all, it had been grown for a specific purpose and programmed — apparently — with tons of data on Wolf. It truly believed it was the woman Wolf is when she goes home at night. In that respect, it wasn't anything more than a computer. But physically..."

I take another bottle of water from the basket, open it, and down half the bottle.

"It was designed — designed, Nick — to live only a short period of time. It was already dying, decaying.

"Oh, did I mention it was pregnant? With another clone of itself?"

I can feel my eyes starting to glow again. I try to dial it back, but my anger is still pretty strong when I think about that day. I look down at the floor and close my eyes.

"That Stryker was one sick fuck. The adult clone probably would have lived to give birth to the fetal clone... or maybe not. I doubt Stryker cared."

I can feel the wave of nausea he's trying to suppress. Probably the only reason I can feel it is that I'm trying to suppress my own.

"Sorry," he says after a minute.

I wave a hand at him while tightly clutching the water bottle in the other hand. "How could you know, right?"

I feel Bear's return then and take a deep breath. At the same time, Van Dorn gasps. I open my eyes and look at him. "What?"

"Bear... large bear... in my chair!"

"Nice rhyming, Chief." I turn to look at the chair beside me and sigh. Bear is, indeed, squeezing its bulk into the chair. "What the hell are you doing?"

Bear stops wiggling. "You both look so unhappy, I thought I should cheer you up."

I just stare at my guardian Spirit for a while. "Whyyyyy?"

"Because I don't like to see you unhappy?" it asks hopefully.

"Great Spirit, whose idea was it to give me four of these guys?" I mutter as I raise my eyes upward.

"Eagle implied it was Great Spirit's idea," Opossum says from its perch on my shoulder.

"Some of us do not agree with that," Cobra adds.


I look at Van Dorn, who looks just a little freaked out. "Cobra and Opossum... though I'm wondering if Badger might not have been a better choice than Bear," I say, eyeing said Spirit. "What the hell are you guys doing?"

They are clearly distressed, Warrior. Perhaps you would like me to escort them home, Deer says from the other side of the room.

I look between Deer — Deer? What the heck is Deer doing here? — and Bear, then nod. I keep my eyes on Bear. Yes, please, I'd really appreciate that. What has them so distressed?

We can speak of it at a later time, Deer replies. A more private setting would be more suitable.

"All right, then. The lot of you can go home." I glare at Bear. "What did Mother say?"

Bear seems to gulp at the site of Deer. "Oh. Well, yes. She, uh, said there would be no problem bringing the bones to you. It will take until the longest day, though."

I nod again. "Great. Now out. Scat. Scram."

Bear, Opossum and Cobra disappear with Deer. Raven wasn't bad enough? Now I have three of them acting like lunatics?

May I remain, Warrior?

Well, at least Fox hadn't joined in the madness. Fine, yes. For now. I sigh and look at the FBI agent.

"I'm sorry about that. I have no idea what's going on. They've never done that before."

The door opens then, and Harry peeks her head in. "Are you two okay in here?"

Nick is leaning over with his elbows on his knees and his forehead resting on his palms, fingers massaging the top of his scalp.

"It depends on your definition of 'okay,' I guess. Some of my guardian Spirits were misbehaving... Bear is rather large and City Boy here mistook Opossum for a badger. Oh, and I don't think he likes snakes, either."

Harry looks a little bemused. "Ah... no. He's not a fan. Not as bad as some people I've met, but when I brought Ginger to work not too long after he started, he refused to come out of the office all day."


"Oh. My boa constrictor. She's a real sweetheart."

Nick moans. "Boas as feathery things worn by drag queens. They should not be living leathery things that move and have flickering tongues. Said living leathery things with flickering tongues should not be worn around one's neck." He looks up at me. "Or as a belt."

"Whoa, you have a snake you wear as a belt? That's so cool! Can I see?"


"Wow, Nicholas, there's no need to get testy."

I hide a smile as I look at Harry. "Cobra was one of the misbehaving Spirits, and I sent it home. Maybe later?"

"That would be super! Oh... looks like you guys need more water already." She steps into the room, gathers up the empty water bottles, leaves the two full ones from the basket on the table and heads back toward the door with empties and basket. "I'll be back in a few minutes with more."

The door closed behind her.

"It probably isn't any consolation, but even the Shamans have been a bit startled by the behavior of the Spirits when they're around me. Being a magnet for weird apparently affects the Spirits, too."

I am behaving well, Warrior. I am nearly as adaptable as Coyote in that regard.

And I truly appreciate it, O Fox. Do you know what's going on with your siblings?

I likely do, though if my theory is correct, then it is best to wait for a later time to discuss it, as Deer suggested.

That bad?

I would not think it is actually bad, simply something that you would prefer to hear when you are not in the company of those who are still strangers to you.

Hmmm. I'm not sure that's comforting, but I don't have much choice, do I?

Van Dorn looks up wearily. "Does that sort of thing happen often? If so, I'm going to need to find a good therapist."

I smile; his sense of humor seems to be returning. At least... well, I hope that's his sense of humor returning. "First time for this set, though it was a regular occurrence with Raven when Quetzalcoatl was around. The fool bird did have moments of sanity, but they were few and far between."

"As the saying goes, there's a first time for everything... which leads one to assume that second, third and six thousandth times also can occur. Please tell me that's not going to happen again. At least not when I'm around."

I shrug and look at Fox.

It is doubtful, Warrior.

"Well, Fox doesn't seem to think it will happen again. So..." I shrug again. "You're probably safe."

Harry returns with another basket of water. After setting it down, she pulls out a Halloween sized bag of M&Ms from her pocket and hands it to Nick. "Eat." She looks at me, grinning. "Would you like one, too? I have plenty. The munchkins in my neighborhood are erratic... this was a fallow year."

"No thanks," I reply, returning the grin. "I get enough sweets as it is. If not for my accelerated metabolism and healing factor, I'd be grossly overweight and there'd be a rich dentist somewhere in Denver. Well, possibly a richer one."

She chuckles. "Just checking. Wouldn't want you to feel left out. Make sure he eats that. Most people need protein when they're stressed; Mr. Bizzaro here need sugar."

"You know, you seem to accept the weird more easily than Nick does, despite his many long years in the Paranormal Division. Why does he get the cushy office and you spar with printers? Seems like you'd handle a magnet for weird easier than he does."

"Oh, you're way above my pay grade, Ninja. I'm just a glorified den mother for these people. And paranormal is a misnomer anyway." Harry laughs. "Back when the division started, sure... maybe they investigated the oddball things like you see on the X-Files, but in our lifetimes? Nah. Paranormal deals with the bad guys who are mutants. One of these days, they'll get around to changing the name." She turns to leave but pauses in the doorway on the way out. "Sure would like to see that cobra of yours, though." Then she closes the door softly behind her.

I finish the bottle of water in my hand while Nick opens the small bag of candy and pours the contents in his mouth.

"So, if it wasn't clear, I should be able to pick up Stryker's skeleton on the Summer Solstice."

He nods, and holds up a finger while he consumes the candy. Finally he says, "What are the chances of getting all the bones — or as many as possible — from all the children? For the families..."

I press my lips tightly together, remember what the old Siamese man had said... that the white devil hadn't been respectful. It was going to take close to five months just to get a couple of bones from each of the ninety-two children he'd buried. I shake my head. "Nick... ninety-two children! Two hundred and six bones each... do you know what kind of nightmare that would be?"

He has the good sense to nod. "Yeah. And if we didn't have the best forensic anthropologist on the planet consulting for us, I wouldn't even mention it. She and her team have worked miracles, Ninja. And if I passed the word along about who they are... Well, I promise she will match all the bones perfectly."

I pinch the bridge of my nose; honestly, it's mostly to hold back the tears. That someone at the FBI actually wants to help reunite these lost children with their families... that they have someone who has the skill to really make it happen... I take a deep breath.

"Nick, that's close to nineteen thousand bones. Even if the small animals could pull out a dozen bones a week..." I look at him, and I know my face reflects the anguish I feel. " would take... gods, something like thirty years to get them all out."

"Brennan and her team are amazing, Ninja."

"You don't understand, Nick. Stryker dropped those children's bodies down an old mine shaft as if they were nothing but garbage. As one of the elders said, he wasn't exactly respectful. Mother can't even guarantee my safety... and there are places too small for a human to maneuver around."

Warrior? I can not say for certain if it would be possible, but because of our sibling Rene's former existence as a human, he has advantages that humans do not have. He has advantages the rest of the Spirits do not have.

I stare at Fox. I'm not sure how long I stare. "Ask Mother first if she believes it would be possible. Then I'll talk to Brother Spirit."

"New possibilities?" Nick asks hopefully.

I nod slowly. "Maybe. Remember that guy I mentioned who moved from the LoDo of dimensions to the Spirits' dimension? Well, Fox thinks it might be possible for him to do some of the moving."

"Really? How..."

"Hey, hey... don't get your hopes up." I look back at Fox. "How long would it take you guys and Mother to figure out if it's possible?"

Fox pauses a moment. I believe we can know if it is possible, and how it would be possible, by the time the moon is a full circle again in the sky.

I nod. "Fair enough." I look at Nick again. "Week after Thanksgiving, full moon. While I suspect Brother Spirit will be part of the conversation with Mother and the rest of the Spirits, give me another week or so to talk with him. It would be a hell of a job; I'm not a parent... he is. Or was." I shake my head. "No. Is." I hold up a hand when Nick looks like he's going to say something else. "Nope. Nothing more right now. You'll have to wait.

"By the way, I'm not sure who dropped the ball, but whoever was supposed to take credit for that whole bit out in Idaho Springs made a mess of things. Apparently the Army wasn't all that keen on getting the credit, and I can tell you Masterson is definitely pissed about being in the spotlight. He doesn't like it any more than I do."


"Ooops? What do you mean, ooops? Don't say ooops." I glare at him.

"Ah ha!" he exclaims, brightening. "I know that one! Independence Day, right?"

"And you're trying to change the subject, Nicholas."

"Oh, please don't do that. I really hate that name." He shudders. "Fine, fine." He tosses the empty candy wrapper on the table and shakes his head. "The boys back in Washington were fighting over who was going to get credit for it. FBI wanted to hang it on your friend Peregrine, but he had a prearranged protection detail for his Sponsor up in Loveland that day. NSA wanted the CIA to take it, CIA wanted us to take it. It's no secret that the three organizations at the top of the food chain couldn't agree the Earth is round if the President ordered them to believe it. We try to do a little better down here in the trenches if it's any consolation, although there isn't much overlap down here. Anyway, before anyone could make a decision, some API hotshot talked to the kid who works at the gift shop... he mentioned the Army and some old woman who turned into a Disney princess..." Nick looks at me quizzically. "Did you really do that?"

I snort. "Hell no! I was going for the fairy godmother archetype because I figured that would be the most calming to the kids. I don't know, maybe the kid's just seen too much Disney."

He smiles. "Well, that could be. Anyway, the reporter didn't know what to make of it. There aren't any Supers west of the Mississippi, who can disguise themselves like that. And the whereabouts of the two east coast Supers even remotely capable of such feats was also known at the time — so the reporter figured it was an Army operation all the way." He shakes his head, looking puzzled. "I really expected the Army to issue their standard No comment, just following orders statement. I'm more than a little surprised they haven't. But the Director is having a press conference Monday morning and we'll be taking responsibility."

"I guess that makes sense. Masterson says the new CO down there is a bit of a glory hound... although given that fact, I'm surprised he tossed Masterson under the bus. But what took you guys so long to do something?"

Nick shrugs. "The Director thought it would be a good idea for me to have a conversation with you first."

"Why?" I probably look as surprised as I sound. "I'm not official even in Denver, and Idaho Springs is well outside my territory. Except for the weirder stuff, everything is in Masterson's report."

"Welll..." he says slowly, "my boss would like it if you'd officially be an official Super."

"Fuck no!" I lean over to pick up my staff, preparing to stand. "I'm happy being unofficial. I can help the people who matter to me by being unofficial. Being Official is the minimum wage version of being Sponsored... and I'm a hair's breadth away from saying no to that, too."

"Hey, hey... no, I'm just relaying a message. And I'm happy — okay, I won't be happy — but I'll relay your message back to him."

"What's his angle? No one else seems to care that I'm not officially recognized as one of Denver's Supers.." Oh, you think I'm suspicious? Nah. Ratchet that up to paranoid. Note please, for the record, that I am not setting my staff down. "If you call me, I'll help you... if I'm available. That's how this thing works. It works for the Counties and it works for the City. That's how it will work for the FBI and Interpol, too."

"Don't get angry and take it out on me, okay? I'm just the messenger. But I'm pretty sure he wants the FBI to have priority over the locals."

I stare at Van Dorn, drumming my fingers along my staff. It's actually very soothing.

Warrior? Fox sounds worried.


I believe I understand why you are angry, but it is not this man you are angry at, is it?

Nope. That's why I'm trying to calm down. It's not his fault his boss is an idiot.

Fox just leans against my leg.

"I... uh... I told him it wouldn't go over well," Nick says. "After I talked to your other contacts, I mean."

"Uh huh. That's good. So in addition to telling him fuck no, you can tell him I think he ought to have his head examined... after he pulls it out of his rectal cavity. Don't pretty that up. I can seem like a really nice person, but when it comes right down to it... when I'm defending the people I've sworn to protect... I'm a cold-hearted bitch. I can't be bought, and I won't be co-opted. I won't put up with anyone telling me what my priorities should be." I give Nick the stink eye. "This boss of yours wouldn't happen to be here in Denver, would he? Because I'd be happy to tell him myself."

"No, no! Fortunately for all of us, especially me because I'd really rather not get fired, it's the head of the Paranormal Division, and he spends most of his time in Washington."

I stand and lean on my staff. "Is this guy certifiable or just delusional?"

"The latter," Nick says as he stands as well. "At least I hope so. I'm pretty sure."

I shake my head. "Is there anything else you need? Apparently, I need to go find out what the hell is wrong with my guardian Spirits now."

"No, I think we're good for now. We'll get that bit about the incident in Idaho Springs straightened out. I'll give you a call if anything else comes up."

"Well, here's to hoping things will remain calm through the end of the year, as I do have a personal life, and like everyone else I have to deal with the holidays. And family." I remember my promise to Dennison. "And apparently other people's families, too." I grin at him. "No need to walk me out... I promise not to terrorize Nielsen on the way out." Much.

"Why don't I have much faith in that statement?"

I open the door and look over my shoulder at him. "Because you're a quick study and you already know me fairly well?"

"Yeah, that must be it."

I chuckle as I exit his office. "I'm afraid Cobra is still in time out, Harry. Maybe they'll all be better behaved next time."

"Well, that's a bummer. Let me know when you plan to visit again. I'll bring Ginger by, and we'll drive Nick crazy."

"I heard that!"

Harry laughed. "I know you did, Nick, and I meant it!"

I grin. "Like I told Nick, give me a call if you guys need anything. I reserve the right to have holidays and vacation days just like normal people do, however."

"Will do, Ninja. It was nice meeting you. If we don't see you before then, may all your holidays be happy."

I have a smile on my face as I ride down the elevator and do nothing more to Nielsen than grin at him as I push the still broken gate open with my staff.

It's nice to be out in the sunshine again. I should have plenty of time to get home, change my clothes, and do some grocery shopping before picking Pablo up at work.

© Kelly Naylor