Track Five

There's a visible blip before the scene change for those with eyes sharp enough to catch it. It doesn't seem worth mentioning to Pablo and Rene. It would appear that Newspaper Man has followed Melody and Sunny home, which is to say he arrives as Sunny is running around the yard where his sister and niece live. His sister is sitting on the porch watching her daughter, a brown paper bag at her side.

Newspaper Man just keeps walking.

I sigh. That man needs a lesson in what Navajo: family means.

From the house on the small road that's nearly across from his destination, a pickup truck heads toward town. Two things are peculiar.

First, with the way the driver is careening down the road, I'm surprised Newspaper Man doesn't get hit. Sure, he's doing his best to stay out of the way and can see the truck coming, but that's one dangerously erratic driver.

Second, while all the houses on the little road have satellite antennas, the one at the end belonging to the crazy driver has so many antennas that it's hard to count them all.

"Dang, have you guys ever seen so many dishes and antennas on one building?"

"Yes," Pablo and Rene reply in unison, something that seems to surprise both of them.

I raise an eyebrow at Pablo.

"There was a house, one of the few bungalows in my old neighborhood in Denver — before I moved in with you — that had maybe a dozen of them. Turns out the owner was a ham radio operator, plus his mother and brothers were living with him, and both brothers' wives and a bunch of kids. Cable service over there was pretty crappy back then." He shrugs.

I look over my shoulder at Rene.

"Hmm. Well, my experiences have been far less innocent, and most of them occurred when Maddie and I were working together, mostly in Africa." He pauses, smiling sadly. "That was long before we somewhat settled down and Leon was born, of course."

"Interesting." I turn to look through the portal again. "Well, that isn't Africa a few decades ago, but having crappy cable service seems to be a universal concept just about anywhere."

Newspaper Man walks up the driveway of the last house, and that sweet elderly woman looks up from tending to her roses to gesture toward the pitcher of lemonade on the little table beside the front door.

I tilt my head to the side as I watch the man talk to the woman. Something about cooking for her and Melody. If these people would just hold still, it would be a lot easier to figure out what they're saying. But his aura is flowing with caring, worry, embarrassment . . . but predominantly what most folks would probably label just plain neighborliness.

She seems utterly delighted with whatever plan he's presented. Interestingly, when she ducks her head and looks around — as though she wants to make sure no one hears her — and despite the fact that I suspect she's whispering to Newspaper Man, she's managed to angle herself well enough for me to catch most of what she says: that Chelsea is the first person from school that Melody is comfortable around. I guess that's not surprising, given the strange small-town dynamics and the general unpleasantness that teens seem to pick up as a bonus feature of puberty. But then I blink as she speaks again.

"However long this phenomenon has been going on, Mrs. Mallory believes Melody and Sunny have only been friends for a week or so." I smile a little. "And that it seems like forever."

"Reminds me of a couple of women I knew a few years back." Rene chuckles, then nods at the scene on the other side of the portal. "Do you think they have a connection like you and Maddie do?"

I shrug as I watch Newspaper Man pull out his phone and send off a text message. "Rene, I couldn't see the split soul thing even after my hellions pointed it out. Not at first, anyway. It's one of those oddball aspects . . . well, odder than usual oddball things about my Curse. If I don't already know what I'm looking for, in the case of something like soul splitting and merging, anyway, I don't see it."

"But it could be a possibility, right?"

"Anything is possible. I don't know for certain, so I don't even know what to look for. The way Maddie and I looked was completely different than the way Moira and Padraig looked in her memories. Our . . . reintegration, for lack of a better work, looks different than theirs but a little bit the same in some says. So . . ." I gesture to the portal. "I suspect it's more a factor of the two of them being aware of the shifting realities, the spirals, whatever that phenomenon is. I guess the real question is just what the hell is going on? What is it about those two that makes them more aware of the shifts? Why are the shifts happening?"

"And what does it have to do with our son?" Pablo adds. "Rather, why did he home in on this universe, and the particular scene he found?"

"Yeah. That, too."

"Did you catch what he was texting about?" Rene asks Pablo.

"Some of it. I think he's texting the girl who works at the diner."

"Chelsea. You aren't usually so bad about remembering names."

"Consider the circumstances and previously mentioned concern about my son."

"Hmm."

Almost as if talking about her causes the scene to morph to Chelsea's location at the diner, we watch her walk out of the front door and start up the sidewalk to the uneven intersection of the town's main street and the highway that heads out of town. We can also see — although the girl doesn't appear to notice — that the town garbage truck is careening down the western part of Main Street. As Chelsea reaches the intersection to go up the eastern portion of Main Street, toward the apartment she shares with her mom, the truck has taken the turn onto the larger road at a ridiculously high speed, swerves dangerously once on the highway, and nearly hits Chelsea as it accelerates. She stares at the truck as it goes by from the relative safety of the building's shadow, shaking her head in . . . disbelief? Hard to tell — nearly getting run over would give almost anyone an adrenaline rush.

She stoops to pick up something that feel out of the truck: a really nice camera, from the looks of it.

"Okay, I'd hire her," Pablo says."

I chuckle. "Why? Just because she picked up the camera by the strap?"

"You wouldn't believe the number of rookies who pick things up and start manhandling them, despite going through training about that sort of thing. And don't get me started on the civilians."

"I probably would believe it, Pablo. I'm out on the streets, too. And that's a neat trick there, being able to keep the camera from swinging while taking a picture of it with a cellphone. Those professional models aren't all that light."

Lucky for us, we can see what she texts and to whom.

This fell from garbage truck. Says Canon EOS-1D X. That's expensive, right. Think I saw something else.

After a moment, Newspaper Man responds.

$4-8 thousand. Yes. Expensive.

Fell out of garbage truck! I might be going crazy, but I think I saw an arm. Unless its tourist, only think of one person in town who would have this camera. Cary Taylor.

Chelsea looks at some of the photos on the camera while waiting for a response. Some are more horrific than others. The Shadow, like ribbons of inky black smoke, seems to flow everywhere — through the trees, out of a nearly-shredded metal building, leaping skyward. Some of the photos are even worse than that: blood, gristle, remains of a staring eye. Those are followed by another series of pictures: a flipped-over truck surrounded by those blood-drenched oily tentacles that then looks to be arcing impossibly through the sky to momentarily cast its shadow on the moon. The remaining photos are askew, as though the camera had continued taking pictures after falling to the ground: tall grass dripping with blood and eventually a thick-soled boot that looks like it had been splashing through . . . Well, through something I don't even want to think about.

"Mon Dieu," Rene whispers.

"Yeah," Pablo replies, his voice barely more than an exhale.

The girl keeps flipping through the photos until she's distracted by her phone.

Better tell the sheriff. Where did u c the truck?

"What the hell was that?" Pablo asks.

I swallow a few times before answering. "It's got the same vibe as that hitchhiker you brought back with you from Quetzalcoatl's world. Just not as hideous." I shake my head. "I don't know how to describe it. It's more like the Shadowkin we pulled out of Ben, only a hundred, two hundred times bigger."

"I thought you, Tommy, and John took care of that thing trying to fight you for Pablo," Rene says, puzzled.

"After a fashion. Between the three of us, we barely had the strength to send it back to hell with Quetzalcoatl. Pablo was barely conscious for the better part of twelve hours, and was too weak to fly all the way back to Denver for a few days."

Pablo nods. "I don't remember much of the twenty-four hours between getting to Tommy's house and waking up the afternoon of the next day."

"Are you saying that there's no way for us to take that thing on?" Rene asks. "Not that I plan on letting it get through this portal, nor am I letting you go through there. It's just an academic curiosity at this point."

"I'm saying that it's powerful and those people are going to continue to be in a world of hurt until they figure out how to stop it. At one time, it would have been too much for me. Now?" I snort. "Seriously, Rene, sometimes you're almost as adorably clueless as my husband." I give him a half-smile. "How often do I need to remind you how powerful the Pentad is, how powerful I am?"

"She's a nuclear power plant, after all, Rene," Pablo adds.

Rene looks back through the portal and shakes his head. "I trust you, Andi. It doesn't stop me from worrying."

"I know." I sigh softly as I turn back to the portal as well. "I know."

Hanging the camera around her neck by the strap, Chelsea replies to Newspaper Man.

I don't think that's good idea. You need to see pictures. Now.

meet you where?

Was on my way home. Are you with Jilly? I can start that way. Or I can text one of the others.

With Jilly. Almost done. Have invite set for us.

Can you leave now and I'll meet you part way? Or I'll just go there.

Meet u on way. Leaving in 5.

As we watch Chelsea walk up the street toward the school, it's obvious the kid is scared; she looks around and twitches at every little noise.

I hear the faint sounds of chittering. It's almost like crickets, except I know it's one of the varieties of smaller Shadow creatures.

Chelsea and Newspaper Man meet just beyond the school building. She as a look of panic on her face as she pulls the camera strap back over her head and practically pushes the object at him. The moment he takes it from her, she hugs herself, curling into the very epitome of fear.

Newspaper Man gives her a worried look before turning the camera on so he can view the photos, which we get to see again.

"Okay, master of all things weird," Rene whispers, "can the Shadow actually be photographed? The evidence seems to indicate that it can, but . . ." He pauses and exhales a sigh of frustration. "Well, based on my experience of it, I don't see how it's possible."

I think about my own encounters with the Shadow, with the various types of Shadowkin, with those infected with the Shadow. I nod.

"I'm not sure photos of the mess we pulled out of Ben would have looked like that, but I think something would have registered on a camera, especially a digital one. I'm just guessing here, but I'd say its ability to be captured on film or digitally might depend on which dimension it's in."

"I'm so glad no one had the chance to do any photography while saving my soul back in Ganado," Pablo says wryly. "All three of you described the thing differently, but you all used 'hideous' as a common word."

I shrug. "Even humans are going to see some of this stuff differently, so why wouldn't cameras? Well, I'd say that particular piece of shit was definitely going to look different to anyone who looked at it. But when it comes right down to it, we're talking about capturing the essence of energy in a physical medium — whether its the human brain using the eyes as a register, a film camera using light and chemicals, or a digital camera using light as waves and particles.

"And sometimes you just can't photograph energy." I point my chin at the camera in Newspaper Man's hands. "Sometimes you can."

"Does that stuff infest every universe?"

"I don't know, Rene. It has that potential, I think. It's the embodiment of evil, so I'm sure there are some places it couldn't survive. We banished the biggest part of it from our universe, but it clearly exists in that one."

I shake my head, beginning to feel scared . . . not a familiar feeling to me anymore.

"We stopped it in our world." I speak barely above a whisper. "What if it's our fault it went elsewhere?"

"Don't think that way, Andi," Rene says as he pulls me closer to him. "Like you said, it has the potential to be almost anywhere. You can't claim responsibility for every dimension and every universe."

I don't disagree with Rene, but there's something tied to my Warrior's duties that makes be believe — rightly or not — that it ought to be possible for me to protect every dimension and every universe.

Newspaper Man and Chelsea are having a conversation that we can't hear. He's outwardly calm, although his aura shows that he's unnerved by everything that's going on, the photos on the camera being the culmination of too many unexplained things. The teen isn't even trying to pretend anymore. She's close to full-blown hysteria, the poor kid. When Newspaper Man does the right thing and offers her a hug, she accepts gratefully. They continue talking but, again, we can't hear them.

Finally, the girl pulls away and wipes her eyes. She's calmer, but she's still terrified. Newspaper Man seems to be asking her questions, but our vantage point keeps panning around, making it difficult to see what they're saying.

"I think they're talking about the garbage truck," Pablo murmurs.

"And something about a body?" Rene frowns at that.

I nod. "That's what I'm picking up, too. That there was a body in the garbage truck and . . ."

It's not really all that strange, I suppose, that I strain to hear what they're saying as my eyes translate what their lips can tell us. After all, I've had this super hearing gift for over thirty years now. Just because I can hear them through a look-see portal doesn't mean I won't try to hear them.

"Well, the gist of it seems to be that they shouldn't get overwhelmed by everything — that they should break it down and maybe treat it like a puzzle. I suppose that's a step forward . . . realizing that they've got a puzzle with a lot of missing pieces, I mean."

"And I think the guy is trying to make the point that someone might have panicked if . . ." Pablo shakes his head. "The girl isn't sure it was a body?"

I study her for a moment. "Oh, she might be saying she's not sure, but her qi looks like she's in full-out panic mode."

"That makes sense, though," Rene interjects. "If they've got professionals there, military or paramilitary involved in a clandestine operation, I don't see how throwing a body in a garbage truck could be anything other than absolute panic on their part. Something certainly went pear-shaped in a hurry."

Chelsea is looking at Newspaper Man with wide eyes, pupils dilated and her whole aura pulsating with fear.

They walk back into the town, heading toward Newspaper Man's office; hopefully, he's enough of a gentleman to see that Chelsea gets back home safely. They pause, however, in front of the Sheriff's Office, standing there for a while, just talking. Posture, auras, the look on Chelsea's face . . .

"Hmm. Trying to decide if they should involve the sheriff, I think."

"Interesting dilemma, I'd say," Pablo opines with a sigh. "On the one hand, they suspect a crime and probably should report it. On the other hand, even I'd have a hard time believing a body in a garbage truck."

"If the homicide detective is ambivalent, it's not surprising civilians are," I reply. "Denver is a hell of a lot bigger than this little town. I'd say a body in a garbage truck is far more likely back home."

Pablo shrugs. "I'm not saying it couldn't happen. But I think it's more likely for someone to find a body in a dumpster before the garbage trucks come by on their rounds."

Finally, Newspaper Man and Chelsea enter the Sheriff's Office, him holding the door open for her. Interestingly, oddly, even bizarrely, the sheriff is already having a conversation with Lucy.

The next shift is abrupt — it makes my ears pop and my head spin a little.

"You okay, dear?" Pablo asks solicitously.

"I think so. Maybe? Okay, probably. That was a dizzying change of scenes."

The both look at the new scene, puzzled. It's a scene from back in town earlier in the evening, with the white-clad, parasol-toting women having a conversation on the sidewalk with a priest — haranguing the poor man, really.

"Other than the scene changing, it's not so odd," Pablo notes. "Haven't we seen those two women pestering people before?"

"Yeah. None of the other scene changes or their appearances made my ears pop, though."

"Oh, look," Rene says with a touch of sarcasm, "it's a Lucy scene."

"Stop it, Rene." I half-heartedly bat at his hand over my shoulder."

As we watch the scene play out, I practically jump when Lucy starts talking. I definitely twitch.

"Andrea?"

"I can hear her . . . barely. Hush."

I listen to her gushing at the three locals, acting and sounding like a complete ditz.

"Okay, that's just creepy. She's going all Bible-quoting on them. Now I grok how Maddie must have felt on that Halloween when we found the Knighthood in Commerce City, and I was playing the part of Preacher Girl." I shake my head. "Poor Maddie. Ew."

"Can you hear what the rest of them are saying?" Rene asks. "And I thought Preacher Girl was damn scary, too. When you take on a role, you really go all-out."

I shake my head. "No. Only Lucy." I glance back at Rene. "I had to convince the Leader I was the real deal. It was the only way to break the geis on him. Sorry."

Rene shrugs. "Just saying that you could probably be as much a chameleon as Maddie and Mitch if you put your mind to it."

"Um . . . thanks?" I turn back to the scene on the street, where Lucy seems to be adding insult to injury by calling out to the sisters as she walks toward the bookstore.

Jesus loves you!

When she goes into the bookstore, I can't hear what the clerk says any more than I could hear the townspeople outside. But again, I hear everything Lucy says, despite the fact that all we can see is her back.

"She's doing some kind of airhead act, looking for books on . . ." I stare at the portal. "A class in World Superstitions? The fuck? And a new book by a YA author? They're really out of sync with our world. Aly Carter was pretty popular when I worked at DPL, and the book she's asking about was published while I was still working there . . . maybe in 2010 or '11."

"You really need to get a job, dear."

"Knock it off, Pablo."

I'm not really annoyed with him, I'm just trying to catch anything else Lucy might say as the store clerk points toward one of the book racks.

"Did he just say Project Stargate?" I ask, astounded.

"Oui," Rene says, "and something about time travel."

"One of these days, I'm going to get down into Cheyenne Mountain and see for myself if that Stargate is really there or not. Masterson has got to know someone in the Air Force who can get me in."

"I thought you said you've seen NORAD," Rene says.

"Surface level only and that doesn't count. The Stargate is on level 28."

"What's he shaking his head about, dear?" Pablo asks, hoping to derail my obsession with the Stargate, I suspect. "If you're going to eavesdrop, you can at least share with the rest of the class."

"Oh, sorry. She just asked if anyone else was looking for the same kinds of books she grabbed. Claims to want to chat with others with similar interests. Honestly, she's confusing. Maybe that's an act. And she's asking about anyone who might have been a part of whatever the clerk was talking about. Claims to love mysteries and local legends."

"Not a lot of that makes sense, you know," Rene says.

"No shit. Didn't I say she was confusing? And if that kid would stop looking out the window while he's talking, maybe we could—"

That's when Lucy squeals like a cat that just had its tail stepped on. Even covering my ears doesn't help because I'm still holding Pablo's with one of them."

"Holy fucking gods of wrath! Somebody shoot that woman!"

They both try to protect me from something they can't see or hear.

"What is it, Andrea?"

I close my eyes and wait for my ears to stop ringing. On the other side of the portal, Lucy keeps on babbling.

"Loud squeal barely in the range of human hearing — almost dog whistle territory," I say without opening my eyes. "Not a good combination for someone with super hearing. Ugh. She's still asking questions. See if you can catch the kid answering any of them."

I sense Rene's nod as Pablo kisses my temple.

"And all Logan ever does is wince at sounds like that."

"Normally, that's all I'd do, too." I take a deep breath and open my eyes. "I've got Mother feeding me a lot of energy right now. I'm beyond hypersensitive, I guess."

"The kid's at least looking this way again," Rene remarks. "Something happened two or three years ago. There's a woman named Mary Lee, the thinks. Got a kid? Husband is Chuck . . ."

"He must be the one who was murdered. Still an unsolved case," I say as I contemplate how it might be possible to repay that woman for the way my ears are going to ring for the next few hours.

Rene nods. "Okay, makes more sense now. I think he's telling her that the wife will be either at the sheriff's office or in an alley somewhere. Or in a bar? Suggests Lucy talk to the sheriff about the murder, but that she's sensitive about the topic."

"Not surprising," the homicide detective says. "We hate cases that stay open for years."

I lean on him as I watch Lucy. "She's gushing and saying goodbye, so maybe she'll drop the fan girl act now." I look up at him and manage a smile. "You, my dear, hate cases that stay open for more than two months."

He returns the smile and merely tilts his head in acknowledgment.

Lucy walks to the Sheriffs Office, and I gasp as she opens the door. It looks so much like Abe's old offices up in Boulder County — including the tidy little wooden plaque with the sheriff's name on it — that it's a bit of a shock.

"Now what?" Rene asks, sounding worried again.

I shake my head. "Nothing to worry about. It just looks like a miniature version of the old Boulder County offices that . . ."

"That your Curse did that horrible memory thing it does, and you miss Abe like the dickens?"

I nod at my husband's astute observation. I must have been working with him for fifteen years or more when he finally retired — that was when the County had opened up their new offices. He was probably somewhere around my other's age, so it was a hell of a shock when he died last year. And yeah . . . I really miss the man. Next to Rodrigo Sanchez, he was the LEO who helped me the most to become the Protector I was and am for the Denver metro area.

Other than the slightly smaller size, the only real difference is that the sofa in the lobby of the Boulder County Sheriffs Office had a couple of pillows instead of a pillow and comforter.

This sheriff, however, is not cut from the down home country mold that Abe was — she's more like Sheriff Forsythe down in Douglas County: smart, tough, no-nonsense. The instant the door opens, she has her whiteboard turned away from any visitors. I wonder if she has a wicked, wry sense of humor like Forsythe, too.

"Lucy introducing herself, was just at the bookstore, now tripping over her tongue, making up a story about researching the military installation that was there, says Ms. McGee might have . . . Ha! She might have 'insight into all things military.' What bullshit. Oh, and she just loves local history.

"Claims the bookstore clerk implied that giving the McGee woman a project might be good for her, give her something constructive to do. I'm pretty sure the clerk didn't imply any such thing. Oh, and the clerk also said McGee would be here, and that she'd like to speak to the woman."

"The sheriff is not buying that story," Pablo observes, not quite laughing.

"And she's pretty protective of the McGee woman, too," Rene adds.

"There's a connection between them," I say. "You can see it . . . Sorry, I can see it when the sheriff talks about her. A good friend, best friend, that kind of thing. She's a straight talker, too. She's not beating around the bush calling Lucy out, but she's polite about it."

"I noticed that, although I just see professionalism there." Pablo shrugs. "I'll defer to your more highly-attuned perceptions, dear. But asking Lucy what she really wants to know is certainly cutting right through the bullshit."

"It's a relief. She's stopped the airhead ditz routine and just asked in a much more straightforward way what was going on at the base. But then she goes on to say she has a hunch that they weren't being quite truthful and were running some sort of experiments out there . . . paraphrased, of course."

Rene watches the sheriff's response. "She's just doing a rundown on the local history as it relates to their military, as far as I can tell. Oh, wait . . ." He chuckles softly. "She's not a believer in conspiracy theories, that one, unlike someone I could name," he adds, gently prodding my shoulder.

"Hey. If I believe in a conspiracy theory, it's because there's actually an awful lot of truth behind it. That makes it merely a conspiracy that I probably need to do something about."

"Stop it, children," Pablo says, every bit as absently as I usually do while he watches the sheriff. "She does seem to have the kind of conspiracy going on there that Andrea's talking about, though. Military presence has been gone from the island until this guy is killed, then they're crawling all over. Looks like all the documentation they gave her was heavily redacted."

"Hmm. Lucy's insisting that either the military isn't gone or someone just swooped in and took their place. And she wants to talk to Mrs. McGee to see what she knows, see if she has any ideas about any of it."

"The town drunk?" exclaims Pablo incredulously.

"I know, I know. It sounds stupid to me, too." I sigh, then frown while I watch Lucy. "She wants a pass phrase to use with the sheriff just in case they're all time traveling."

"I thought we determined they're not time traveling."

"If she's defining their 'resets' as time traveling, then yeah. We have. I don't think they have, Rene."

"Damn it, I'm getting annoyed with that woman on the sheriff's behalf." Pablo tenses a bit as he watches the LEO. "She's being exceptionally calm, professional, and — yes, dear — polite at Lucy's request to pick at her friend's old wounds."

Turns out, having the speakers — in this case, the sheriff — looking directly at us helps a whole lot for lip reading.

"She poses some valid questions, though," Rene says.

I snicker at the sheriff's response to the request for a pass phrase. "I don't think I'd want a DeLorean even if Maddie gave me the money for it. Call me crazy, but I think they're ugly. And a Ducati is so much more fun!"

"It's a motorcycle, Andrea . . . of course, it's more fun. Do you really think I like driving the minivan?"

I smile sweetly at Pablo. "You act like you do. That's what matters, love."

"I think I just threw up in my mouth," Rene mutters.

Fortunately, Newspaper Man and Chelsea come into the Sheriffs Office right about then. I can still hear Lucy's question to both of them, asking them if everything is okay, but I can't hear either Newspaper Man or Chelsea. The youngster's head shake and still-present fear are enough to make it obvious that something needs to change for the better in her life. How does she get from here to the horrifying place my son witnessed?

"Interesting way to pull the scene together, pushing Lucy and her questions at Newspaper Man, then tying the two murder investigations together for him." Pablo looks and sounds suspicious. "Have we considered that we actually are watching a telenovela? Because if we're not, that sheriff is every bit as savvy as Sanchez."

"I have no problem putting her in the same class as the Chief," I respond as we watch the sheriff turn her attention to the teen. "She's tired, too. You look like that when you have a bad cases going on. Too much coffee, not enough sleep or decent food."

"I don't know if it's sympathy or if this is one of those times when I tap into your gift, but I can see a cloud around her," Pablo says. "I love you, Andrea, but your gifts creep me out."

"Ha." I don't look at him this time; I just watch the sheriff. "You don't know the half of it, either."

Rene sighs . . . again.

We can only catch parts of what Chelsea is saying, but it's enough: nearly getting hit by a garbage truck and an arm hanging out the back. Then she looks expectantly at the LEO. That's an expression we've all seen before, the one that says: I know I just said something really outrageous, but I'm not crazy.

We can't tell what the sheriff is saying, but she does grab her jacket and looks like she asks Chelsea which way the truck was heading. Whatever the girl says seems to make sense to Garret. She hustles them out and locks up her office. I'm fairly sure she asks Newspaper Man to walk Chelsea home. Sure, it's just up the street a little, but she did nearly get run over by a garbage truck just trying to go around the corner to her apartment. She must have asked Lucy something, too, because the tourist responds that she might need a few more questions. Very odd.

Newspaper Man's phone rings, the sheriff gets in her truck, and Lucy asks Chelsea if she's okay — and if they'd found anything other than a dead body.

Right. Like a dead body wasn't bad enough. Some people . . . I shake my head.

Newspaper Man hands the camera over to Lucy who takes a look through the photos. At least this time, we don't need to see them again, and I'm grateful for small favors.

"Huh. Well, the woman does have a knack for understatement." I nod toward Lucy, who is powering down the camera again. "Things are getting highly dangerous exponentially fast. That's what she said."

Chelsea doesn't appear to be the least bit comforted by any of it.

"Geez, I know that feeling," Pablo says, gesturing toward Chelsea. "Maybe this is all just a bad dream, and I'll wake up, and none of it will be real."

I snuggle closer to him. "I know, love. You've had a lot of those — starting with your dad dying, going through Rosalia's and Juan's murders, and Denise's murder, and all the way up to Quetzalcoatl and his dementia." I kiss his cheek. "The good still outweighs the bad, doesn't it?" I realize Rene is wrapping us both in a fierce hug.

Pablo glances back at the mansion that houses the school and nods slowly. "I think so. I'll be certain about it when I know Paul really is okay."

"Always the protective Papa," Rene says with a touch of humor in his voice. "Always forgetting that the Mama is more fierce and dangerous. Don't worry, brother. I still sometimes forget myself."

The scene fades out gently, and we're brought to the Discovery Center in the late afternoon. Beach Guy and Diver Dude are just arriving to find a very touristy-looking older couple looking over the exhibits.

"Mon Dieu! Will you look at that shirt? There is no better way to scream tourist than by wearing a Hawaiian shirt."

I'm going to be polite and not label Rene's chuckle a 'cackle,' although he really does cackle.

"Hey! I still have one of those," I say as I elbow him again. "Somewhere. In the back of a closet maybe. I used to wear it on Halloween sometimes before I took up the staff."

"You used it as a maternity shirt for a few months, too," Pablo adds. "I haven't seen it since we moved, though."

I shrug. "Probably in a box. The kids will have fun with it. I'm more interested in the other two — they look like a couple of Chelsea's classmates. Hmm, Queen Bee and her newest subject, I'd guess. That girl is a piece of work."

"I think we've seen her with the town bully, haven't we?"

I nod slowly. "You're right, Rene. And a more deserving couple probably couldn't be found on the island. Ew. If I'm reading her right, she's an asshole, too. Maybe the sweet librarian in me is just miffed at her for getting someone else to do her work. But dear gods, she and that boyfriend of hers really need a visit from Ninja."

"No. Let karma in that world take care of them," Pablo says.

"Yes, dear."

"Nope. I don't like her at all, either," he murmurs. "Sometimes you just don't have any choices? From that body language, I'd say that was a threat."

I glance at the redhead and nod. "Her qi says the same thing. Well, more like intimidation, but in high school, I think it probably amounts to the same thing."

Beach Guy takes up the apparent role of bodyguard or attaché. He stays closer to the door while Diver Dude heads right for the young man working at the desk.

As in a previous scene, he's pleasant and attentive even as he slips his work into a folder and then into his briefcase. Diver Dude nods at whatever he says.

Doctor Danalla and Diver Dude walk to one of the displays as they continue talking. Something about account information? Managing budgetary reports? Ah, right . . . Diver Dude was emailing back and forth to his financial people about donating to the Butterfly Center. Didn't they say it was a bad investment? Obviously, Diver Dude doesn't care. He gestures to the doctor that they should go . . . elsewhere? But Danalla leaves Diver Dude where he is and heads through the airlock into what I suppose would be the actual research section of the facility.

It takes a while for him to return.

"Not much going on with the others," Pablo says. "The tourists have left. The school kids are acting out the Queen and Underling scene in which the underling does all homework while the queen sits and watches. Creepy child."

I shrug. "Nothing we can do about it. It's isn't as though we interfere in teenagers' relationships in our own world unless they get ugly."

"True. It still bothers me."

"I know."

Eventually, the door to the back area opens again and an extremely grumpy-looking man in a lab coat, definitely older than Danalla, precedes the younger man through the airlock. His name badge says Lermentov — why the heck does that name sound familiar? Maybe I'm remembering Mikhail Lermontov, the Russian poet, but I don't think so. It's something else.

I mentally shrug. It will come to me.

He immediately starts ordering the younger doctor around, which piques the interest of the queen. She's probably looking for pointers on being even more efficiently annoying. After pulling one of the side tables toward the center of the space, Lermentov takes one of the chairs Danalla drags over and sits on it.

"Hey! I know that move! It's the Riker move!" Pablo is delighted with this bit of trivia.

"Ah! My nefarious plan has paid off," I say with a faux sinister chuckle. "Soon, you'll know more about Star Trek than Bobby!"

Pablo laughs. "I already know more than he does, seeing as I acknowledge the existence of series other than the original one."

"Please stop. Just . . . please," Rene nearly whines.

The older doctor flips open a folder on the table and turns it around for Diver Dude to see as he takes the seat opposite Lermentov.

"I've seen warlords with more personality," Rene says as he gestures toward the man across from Diver Dude. "Said Riker maneuver notwithstanding."

We're treated to an excellent view of far too many legal documents for my taste, although it might be an appropriate amount for the purposes of the Butterfly Center. When I came back to the States from China, the Mutant Registration Act had yet to be repealed. Filling out all that paperwork gave me the heebie-jeebies . . . so I was monumentally passive-aggressive about filling it all out.

"I'm biased, so I'm going to trust you guys to let me know if there's anything that looks hinky about all that paperwork," I say as I focus on Beach Guy instead, which isn't as interesting as I'd hoped as Beach Guy isn't doing much of anything.

"You mean other than the fact that there's a hell of a lot of it?" Pablo asks.

"Yeah."

"Well, there's a non-disclosure agreement that would have made Maddie's father smile — and not in a sweet, loving, fatherly way, either," Rene notes.

"Other than that, it all seems to be just the standard forms you hate to look at whenever we make an above-board donation to a legitimate organization," says Pablo.

"As far as I remember, there are only two of those: one is the Library Foundation and the other is the Logan School," I say absently. "Everything else is anonymous or, for the folks in Commerce City, donated in Ninja's name."

I turn to look at Diver Dude and Lermentov when Rene laughs. The doctor is getting up and walking off.

"He has the personality of a wet dishrag!"

Pablo chuckles. "One that's been sitting in a bucket of dirty water for weeks and smells bad, too."

I shrug. Not everyone is warm and fuzzy. He doesn't treat his junior associate very well, however, and that's a little more difficult to overlook.

"Ha! I know why I recognize the man's name!"

"Um, dear?" Pablo isn't quite looking at me in a way that would suggest he's mentally fitting me for a straitjacket, but it's close.

"Lermentov. I thought the name was familiar, but it's not one of my memories. It's one of Moira's."

"You know, even I'm going to say it this time: your Curse is an asshole."

I shrug. "This time, it was only annoying. It's Duffy's sister's surname before he sort of adopted her into the Kahallan clan."

Pablo and Rene look at one another over my head, and I snicker. "Someday, you'll get used to it."

"I find that highly unlikely," Rene says dryly.

"Ditto."

Danalla is . . .

"Good gods, how common are these names, anyway? There's a Danalla on Moira's ship . . . No, it was the last one. I think. Her memories are a mess. But I know it was Kristine Danalla, and she was one of the security officers who worked for Duffy . . .Chief Petty Officer, I think."

"Please, dear, discussions about your imaginary friend give me a headache." Pablo pretends to pout.

I give him a stink eye. "She's not imaginary, and you're coming with me the next time I visit her."

"Don't wanna!" he says in a perfect imitation of our son, which causes me to snicker again.

Doctor Danalla is just shooing Diver Dude and Beach Guy along — ever-so-politely, of course — before going back to the front desk to work.

The two dreamers walk back out to the car; nothing looks amiss outside the building. A groundskeeper is doing all the little end-of-day chores a groundskeeper would do. The teenage girls come out, unlock their bicycles and ride off. The tourists' big blue Lincoln Continental is still in the lot, but it isn't full dark yet, so it might be safe to assume they'll return soon. One interesting thing of note, which Beach Guy also notices: the bundle of flowers he swiped on their last trip out has been replaced with a new one.

That definitely points to a ritualistic symbol of protection, in my opinion.

It's not until they get back in the car that they say anything. Diver Dude's aura is saturated with paranoia; Beach Guy is merely watchful.

I blink when Diver Dude speaks. We're looking right at him, as though there's a camera mounted on the hood of his car.

"Did he just toss out a big helping of word salad there?"

"If he's as paranoid as you think he is, he's probably assuming that they're being watched and someone is listening to everything they say," Rene says. "Although, if he were any good at this spy game, he'd play like Maddie does and tell them everything he thinks they want to know without saying a thing about his own thoughts. I always knew, though."

"Why would she need to say anything?" Pablo asks. "The two of you have that telepathy thing going on."

"We didn't in the beginning. Or not really very often; it was kind of hit or miss, to be honest."

"Ah. Another side effect of forming the Pentad?"

Rene nods, then pauses. "Well, no. It was a side effect of the magic your wife performed before that."

"Oh, my," I say, cutting off the trip down memory lane. "Look at our paranoid friend, Diver Dude, who wants to remove all the symbolic items of protection. Isn't he just charming?"

"Didn't I tell Ninja to go to sleep?"

"Working here, Pablo. The Warrior isn't going anywhere."

"I'm not sure I'm following their logic there," Rene says, attempting to short-circuit another round of teasing between me and Pablo.

I wink at my husband before looking back through the portal. "You're assuming there's logic to be followed, Rene. Beach Guy is trying to rationally work out the meaning of the bouquets, which may or may not lead down a path where those making the bouquets are nominally on the same side of whatever divide there exists between reality and the return of the Shadow. Diver Dude? I think he might be mentally unbalanced. Some people just put up fences because they like fences or are cautious and are paranoid like he is. There doesn't need to be any nefarious reason for the fence or, in this case, the circle of protection."

"But a circle of protection, as you call it, isn't exactly an ordinary kind of fence."

"Sure it is, Rene. If you're a Wiccan it's ordinary. Okay, maybe not for other folks."

"The detective here is going to put the flower bouquets in the 'interesting things to check' category if you don't mind," Pablo says, smiling.

"Go for it, detective!"

"I'll also point out that your Diver Dude is kind of a dingbat. If you're given a stack of legal documents to sign, you'd have to be all kinds of naive not to go over them with a fine-tooth comb, as he puts it."

"Not my Dude, dear . . . just Diver Dude."

"He does have a name, you know."

"Of course he does, Pablo! But since it's the same as my son's and I don't like the man, I'm not going to use it."

"Oh, for the love of all that's holy, will the two of you please stop?" Rene begs us.

"This is why we don't invite him over at night," Pablo says, nodding sagely.

"I'm sure it's one of the reasons, anyway."

Rene groans as both Pablo and I chuckle.

By this time, Beach Guy and Diver Dude have headed back to the latter's rented home near the Inn. After reading through the NDA, Diver Dude sets it aside and fires up his computer, which gets Rene chuckling again.

"He wants to buy the place?" I'm not sure that's what all those bits and bytes of information mean, but there sure are a lot of dollar signs. And the numbers have lots of zeros before the decimal points.

"Hmm, more of a hostile takeover. It's not Maddie's preferred styles, but that doesn't mean she won't use it." Again, Rene chuckles.

"Okay, I'll bite. It's a government-run facility and that would make a hostile takeover . . ." I tilt my head as I think about it. "Would you have to bribe congressmen as well as DEC officials?"

"Probably just a majority of the congressmen," Rene says, enjoying the game. "You might be able to weasel your way into the hierarchy somewhere, but that's an iffy proposition. If you're too close, the folks at the Butterfly Factory are going to get suspicious with you watching over their shoulders. If you're too far up the food chain, there's nothing you can do."

"So Diver Dude is completely bonkers."

"Indeed."

I nod. "As I thought."

Watching the two dreamers again, I shake my head at Diver Dude's continued belief that he's in a Groundhog Day situation. At least Beach Guy seems sensible. He pulls out his phone and sends a text message to Newspaper Man about getting the whole group of them together.

Everything fades to black on the other side of the portal. That usually means we'll have a new episode. The good news, I suppose, is that there weren't Shadow creatures killing everyone off in this episode.

I'm not comforted by the idea that there could be subtle, less than world-ending changes that were created in this episode.

Next up: Track Six

© Kelly Naylor