Flashie Thing

by Christine Morgan

Author's Note: the characters of Gargoyles are the property of Disney
and used here without their knowledge or consent. The characters of a
certain summer blockbuster are also used without the consent of their
creators, and any resemblance to actual secret organizations is purely
intentional! ; )

LITTLE HOLLOW, VERMONT. 2:15 PM SUNDAY. A copper-colored Avalon, its license plate reading ILUMIN8, moved slowly through the snow-covered postcard-perfect town. The white-steepled church on one side of the square was balanced by the city hall (complete with statue of a soldier) on the other. The small businesses that ran the rest of the way around the square were all neat, all tidy, and all with sidewalks and steps carefully salted clean of ice. The sky was a misty blue-grey, with a few wispy clouds. Mares' tails and mackerel scales, Matt Bluestone thought. Uncle Ray's recipie for predicting rain or snow. Little Hollow was set against a backdrop of dense forest, white-flocked evergreens mingling with bare-branched trees dripping icicles. On the far side of town, the land rose as Prescott Hill, then sloped down to the lake. Yeah, good old Little Hollow. A far cry from New York. Not all that far geographically, but it might as well be on the far side of the moon. "It's so pretty," Edie said. He glanced over at his wife, sitting in the passenger seat with her hands folded over her bulging stomach. Theirs had been a civil ceremony, in the precinct courthouse. Officer Alvarez as his best man, Elisa as Edie's maid of honor. Nothing fancy, attended mostly by other cops. Cops, and of course Matt's mom. "You like it?" She nodded. "So clean, so quiet --" "So boring," he added. "I lived here until I was five, and then we came back every summer and every Christmas break, so it was like I never really got away until I went to college. Place hasn't changed much." "Why did you move to Manhattan?" Matt shrugged and braked to let a pair of boys with sleds go past, headed for Prescott Hill. At least, he assumed they were boys; they were bundled up so that only their noses were visible. "Our family's lived here just about forever." He chuckled a little, embarrassed. "I didn't tell you before, but that's Bluestone Lake. Dad was the first Bluestone to leave. The rest of the relatives couldn't believe it, that he'd want to teach in the city instead of here. Uncle Ray swore Dad would come to a bad end because of it." "And did he?" "That's the funny part," he said bitterly. "He would have been fine if he hadn't come back to Little Hollow that last summer ..." "He died here?" Matt paused, then said, "Yeah," in a slow and doubtful voice. "Car crash. He was hit by a drunk driver, or at least that's the official story." "Official story?" "See there?" He pointed. "That's the Lakeside Tavern, the only bar in town. The only bar for twenty miles, in fact. Rollie Duncan owns the place, and Rollie's been confiscating keys since at least 1960. He doesn't let drunks leave his place and get in their cars. But the cops said the guy who hit Dad came from the Lakeside." "You don't believe it, do you?" "Nope. I didn't as a kid, and I believe it even less now. The fire was so intense that they couldn't even identify him by dental records. Wouldn't let me or Mom see the body. They talked her into agreeing to a quick cremation." "But why would they lie?" "To cover up a murder," he said. She stared at him, but he only sensed that she did because his eyes were fixed on the road now, and his hands were tight on the steering wheel. He kind of hoped she would ask him about it, would make him talk about it even though he didn't want to. Didn't want to, but _needed_ to. Needed to get it out of his system. It had been festering in there for fifteen years. She didn't ask, just fell silent and looked at the scenery as they turned off the main road onto Bluestone Lane. The going was a little trickier, even with snow tires on the Avalon. Uncle Ray had a pickup with a plow attachment, and kept the road clear all the way to the house. The road circled around the north end of Prescott Hill, giving them a good view of kids sledding and riding inner tubes down the slope. They soon came to a large rambling farmhouse, complete with barn and duckpond. It was surrounded by neatly-fenced fields, buried under pristine snow. "There it is," Matt said. "Home sweet home. That's my old room, second floor in the corner. After what happened with Dad, Mom didn't want to stay in the city anymore. I argued like crazy. I wanted to finish in the same school, which was where Dad used to teach. But Mom was so broken up, I finally just gave in. It was only for another couple years, anyway. Then I escaped to college." "So your mother lives here, with your uncle and his wife? Do they have children?" "Yeah, four. I think Aunt Lucy always rubbed Mom's nose in that a little, me being the only one Mom could have. None of them live at home anymore. My cousin Ray Jr. is stationed in the Gulf somewhere, Jack has an apartment over his auto shop in town, Peggy's over by Tashmore Pond with her husband, and Little Ed is in jail. Mom did her share of nose-rubbing when she heard about that." A tall man came out of the garage attached to the house and stood watching them come up the long gravel driveway. He wore a faded green and black plaid hunting jacket over jeans and work boots. His trademark Bluestone hair was more grey than red now, and there was a bald spot in the back as big as a tea saucer. His eyes, deeply nested in his leathery face, were flinty. He wiped his hands on a rag and tucked the rag into his hip pocket. "Uncle Ray," Matt confirmed. "Whatever you do, don't talk religion with him, okay?" "Why not?" "Because he's a Bible-thumping old fart, and if you so much as mention Zeus or Hades, he'll have a brain hemorrhage. We're off to a bad enough start, what with the baby being due in April and us only married in November." "Are you ever going to tell your family the truth about me?" "They'd call for the men in the white coats. I'm the only one in the whole family that's ever cared about the truth. Mom thinks you're an exchange student from Greece; let's just leave it at that." He parked at the foot of the porch steps and stepped out into the snowy dooryard. "Hi, Uncle Ray." "Matthew," he acknowledged with a slight bob of his head. Matt went around to open Edie's door, and helped her out. She wore her long dark hair in a coil of braid atop her head. Matt saw Uncle Ray taking in her olive complexion, her foreign features, her liquid-ink eyes. Ray Bluestone's flinty gaze flicked back to Matt, loaded with condemnation. Not as much as he'd have gotten if he'd come home with Elisa (or, better yet, Elisa's sexy cousin Nikki), but condemnation nonetheless. "This is --" for a scary moment he almost blurted her real name, but caught himself in time "-- Edie, my wife. Edie, this is my Uncle Ray." "Matt! Edie!" Gladys Bluestone flew out onto the porch, followed by her sister-in-law Lucy. Both of them were in aprons, their hands floured, and the smell of baking pies wafted out behind them. "You're early!" "The roads weren't as bad as I thought," Matt said, embracing his mother. "We made good time." She turned to Edie next, giving her a kiss on the cheek. "Let's get you in out of the cold, honey. There's coffee just brewing." Traditional gender roles in the country, Matt thought, as the women headed for the nice warm kitchen and left the menfolk to lug the suitcases in from the trunk. He paused at the top of the porch steps, his arms loaded down, and turned to look toward the lake. From here he could see a thick crescent of the ice-covered water, and the edge of the stand of trees known as Lost Dog Woods. The woods where even the worst hunter used to be able to bag a deer. The woods where Matt and his cousins used to play war in the summer's heat. The woods where John Bluestone had seen something that led to his death. Matt shivered, not entirely from the cold. Then, feeling Uncle Ray's impatient eyes upon him, he hurried into the house. * * LITTLE HOLLOW, VERMONT. 1:00 PM MONDAY. As Edie was napping, Matt prowled restlessly through the house. He offered to help out, but Aunt Lucy shooed him from the kitchen and Uncle Ray only gave him an appraising, disdainful look before heading off to help their nearest neighbor with a generator. "If you're needing something to do," his mom suggested, "how about going up to the attic and bringing me down those boxes of baby things? I might as well start going over them now, seeing what needs mending and what's for the ragbag." Wearing an old sweater and a pair of jeans that weren't too far removed from the ragbag themselves, Matt went up and poked around the attic. Bare patches in the dust marked where the holiday decorations would go when they'd once again fulfilled their function downstairs. He barked his shin on a crate of his own old toys and stopped to rummage a little through the musty old memories. The Bluestone family was one that could never seem to throw anything away, no matter how old, how broken, how useless. The attic ran the entire length of the farmhouse, and the further back you went from the trapdoor, the older the relics got. Layers, generational, geologic. Dating back to the Civil War and beyond. He and his cousins had made occasional forays up here, even though Mom and Aunt Lucy were both dead-set against it. Either Peggy or Little Ed had always ratted on them, and then it had been a trip behind the woodshed for Ray Jr. and Jack. But never for Matt, whose father didn't believe in discipline by the strop. Of course, he'd paid for it later, getting pounded by his cousins for escaping their fate. Now that he was up here with permission, it didn't seem half so enticing. It was also a lot smaller than he remembered, a trick of perspective. The huge kid-eating spiders of his imagination turned out to be tiny and harmless. A single mouse skittered into hiding when he pulled the chain which lit the line of bare bulbs. That was it for the wildlife. He found the boxes of baby things, in the shadow of a wooden crib that looked terribly unsafe. He carried them one by one to the top of the attic stairs. On his last trip to get a box, he happened to look into one of the more awkward corners formed by an old highboy and a bedframe standing on end. There, on top of an upside-down milk crate, was a battered old shoebox with a lid that wouldn't quite close because of the two rolls of paper sticking out of it. And atop the shoebox was his father's hat. Matt set down the last box and stood for a minute or two, just looking. Then, treading carefully because that bedframe seemed ready to tip over and squash him at any time, he went over there and picked up the hat. It was an old leather cap, creased and shiny with wear, the plaid lining faded. He picked it up to assure himself that it was real. It was. Even had the initials J.B. sewn on the back. "Dad's hat?" he murmured, not even aware that he had spoken aloud. "What the hell ...?" Matt was sure his father had been wearing it the night of the crash, but was it real memory or the certainty of familiarity? Dad _always_ wore it, except on the rare occasions when he had to dress up fancy. It was almost as much a part of him as his red hair and hornrim specs. Matt had to strain his imagination to picture Dad _without_ the hat. It stood to reason that he would have been wearing it on that fateful night. He turned the hat back and forth in his hands, frowning. The leather felt mellow and somehow buttery beneath his fingers. There was a peculiar hot fluttering sensation just below his sternum, the feeling he always got when he was about to crack a big case or get hit with a revelation. He'd never believed the official story about his father's death, but over the years he had resigned himself to the fact that he was probably being paranoid. But, damn it, so much of what he used to be paranoid about had been proved true! The last time he'd tried it on, he had been a kid of no more than eleven or twelve, and it had slipped down over his eyes. Now it fit perfectly, and snugged down comfortably on his head. If he looked in a mirror, would he see his father's face looking back? That, for some reason, made him think of the weirdness during which he'd met Edie. He'd tried to put that all behind him. Strange enough to be married to a figure from Greek mythology, but the way that he'd had to go on that crazy Underworld quest to find her, and the way his subconscious had insisted on translating all the mythic characters into people and gargoyles he knew, that was something he really didn't like to dwell on. But hadn't there been something about his dad? Yes, there had. A hall of judgement, and John Bluestone had been one of the judges, along with Captain Chavez and Matt's former partner and fellow Illuminatus Martin Hacker. But Dad hadn't looked the way he did in Matt's memory. No, he looked as he would if he was still alive today. "That doesn't mean jack," Matt said, and this time he heard himself and was startled. "I was in that weird hypnotic trance. Anybody could have shown up. Dad, Uncle Ray, Dan Quayle, Wendy the Snapple Lady ... sure! My mind picked Dad, that's all." Except that wasn't all, and he knew it on a gut level that reason couldn't touch. There was someting quirky about Dad's death, he had always known it, and the hat proved it. It didn't _explain_ a thing, but it proved, at least to Matt, that he'd been right to be suspicious. Leaving the hat on, Matt lifted the showbox lid and peered inside. The rolled papers were copies of the Tashmore Daily News (Little Hollow had a weekly paper, mostly devoted to church bake sales and school functions). A charred rock. A litter of snapshots at the bottom. He took out the newspapers. July of 1983. Grainy photos on the front page. On the left, a smudge of light over the treetops. On the right, a bunch of men holding up the deflated remains of a weather balloon. The headlines spouted the same sort of cover-up crap that the Air Force always seemed to trot out in these cases. Matt dropped the papers and grabbed up the photos. He riffled the slick, thick, Polaroid squares through his fingers, gaping at the images even though he'd been pretty sure of what he was going to see. Lost Dog Woods, it had to be. And that had to be Cotter's Creek. He'd spent enough summers playing there to recognize it. He laid them out and puzzled them around until they were in some sort of order, then sat shaking his head as incredulous questions whizzed through his mind. Photo #1 -- dusk of a summer's day, Uncle Ray and Ray Jr. standing by a creek with a string of freshly-caught fish held up between them. Both Rays wore identical pursed, joyless, hurry-up-and-take-the- damn-picture expressions. High in the lefthand corner, just visible through the branches, was a whitish-green twinkle with a smeary comet's tail. Photo #2 -- a blurry view upward, leaves and boughs framing a darkening denim sky. The twinkle now grown to a pale blob with smudges of green along the sides. Photo #3 -- steam or smoke mostly obscuring the view of an object approximately as big as a minivan, one end buried in a churned mess of earth and uprooted trees, flames licking up from the point of impact. Photo #4 -- the cloven shell of the craft, broken open in great jagged chunks, alternating green and white running lights along the side but most of them now gone dark and dead. Photo #5 -- a close-up of something hanging out of the broken shell, something narrow and black and chitinous, something that ended in a bristle of claws as long and sharp as Ginsu knives. Matt blew out a long, slow whistle of amazement. "A crash, son of a bitch, he witnessed a crash-landing!" * * LITTLE HOLLOW, VERMONT. 2:20 PM MONDAY. "I saw something, Matty, something that nobody's going to believe. I can't tell you now, because there's people who want to hush it up and I don't want to put you and your mother in danger." Matt stood on the porch, remembering those words his father had spoken to him. It was probably the worst thing he could have said to a kid who was already a conspiracy nut, because instead of scaring Matt, it had started a fire in his soul that still hadn't burned out. The dooryard was a slushy mire, and the sky was heavy and dark. The view he'd admired yesterday was now a depressing grey mess. He stared toward the woods but wouldn't have seen them even if they hadn't been obscured by the rain. His mind was miles and years away. His father, uncle, and cousin had come home late from their fishing trip, he recalled. He himself hadn't been able to join them because he'd been fighting off a throat infection, and had been sitting in the kitchen with a bowl of homemade chicken soup while Mom and Aunt Lucy fussed and worried. At last, they'd come in, and Uncle Ray had said something about ... something about ... He strove for it, and it came, in a flash of memory so clear that he could even feel the hard kitchen chair under him and taste the rich broth. "The fish weren't biting so they decided to hike over to Cotter's Creek," Matt said into the patter of the rain. "And they got turned around. Sure, and remember how even Aunt Lucy didn't buy that last bit? She used to boast about how nobody in town knew the woods better than her Ray. Remember how Dad looked? Like he was bursting with a secret. But Ray and his dad just looked tired, blank." He glanced up at the eaves, wondering if Edie was awake yet. He needed someone to bounce all of this off of. Mom and Aunt Lucy were out. The papers over the next few days had denounced the "UFO" as the oh-so-typical weather balloon, and anyone who claimed otherwise was ridiculed. Come to think of it, Edie wouldn't be the best sounding board either. Where she was from, lights in the sky were easy to explain. Zeus taking pot shots at someone, or Phaeton crashing his father's chariot. He thought of his partner, and almost went in to give her a call. But he held back, realizing with a grimace that while Elisa firmly believed in aliens because of some freaky experience she'd had on Easter Island, she also firmly believed that the Sentinel was protecting the planet. Ergo, there _couldn't_ be any other aliens. "Great," he muttered. "No help there, either." There was only one thing to do. He knew it probably wouldn't help, that any remaining evidence would have been obliterated by fifteen years of harsh Vermont winters. But he had to do it He had to go out to Cotter's Creek. Now, before Uncle Ray got back. "He was there," Matt said, pulling on his gloves. "He was there, he saw it too, but he's no liar. So what the hell happened?" * * MANHATTAN. 11:10 AM WEDNESDAY. Maria Chavez steepled her fingers beneath her chin. "All right, what does he think it is this time? The Rosicrucians? Elvis? Jim Morrison? The six thousand Kennedy assassins?" Elisa couldn't quite meet her boss' gaze. "Aliens." "Aliens." "That's what he said in the message. Alien artifacts, and the government trying to cover it up." "Of course. I should have guessed. The Martians have landed in Little Hole, Vermont." "Little Hollow," Elisa corrected, thinking that this was how Matt felt all the time, with everyone looking at him like he was nuts. The really funny part was that she was the one having to present his crazy ideas with a straight face. "Please, Elisa. I know you've run into some weird stuff over the past few years, but I wouldn't expect you to buy into this." "Hey, Captain, I'm not saying _I_ believe it! But Matt _is_ missing. Whether he was abducted by saucer people, or the government made him disappear doesn't matter. All I know is that Edie called me this morning in tears. He went out last night to the market, which must have been when he called me, and never came back. She's on her own with Matt's family -- that would make anybody cry -- and you know he's cut way down on these wacky crusades of his since he got married." "You're right about that, at least," she admitted. "But I can't have you running off to podunk nowhere looking for him." "He's my partner!" "We've got a lot of big cases on our hands. The screwdriver murderer --" "Peterson's handling that one." "That string of assaults over by --" "All done but the paperwork." "Elisa," she said, sternly but with a touch of exasperated fondness. "Okay, okay, I get the picture." She pretended to look out the window, then smiled. "You know, Captain, I don't feel so well ..." "Don't do this to me, Elisa." "Pretty cruddy, as a matter of fact." Maria Chavez sat back and folded her arms. "Oh, you do, do you?" "Yeah. Maybe I should take a few days off to get over it." She heaved a resigned sigh. "Maybe you should. Get some fresh air, why don't you?" "Gee, thanks, Captain, I think I will!" Elisa winked as she sauntered out of the office. She breezed through the last of the paperwork, made a lackadaisical effort to tidy up her half of the desk before her shift ended, and finally headed out. As she turned up the collar of her jacket against the cold wind, she saw a man leaning against her car. "Move along or I'll cite you for loitering," she threatened with a mock glower. Rick Alvarez grinned at her. "You do that and I'll have to ticket your car. You're illegally parked." "The hell you say!" "The hell I don't!" He kicked snow off the curb to reveal about three inches of red under her front bumper. "Oh, right, who cares in this weather? What are you doing out here anyway? I thought you were on duty." His grin widened, showing Crest-commercial teeth. He had gorgeous golden-coffee skin, smoldering dark brown and thick black hair, and was the best-looking cop to walk through the doors of the 23rd since Jason Canmore. "Sick leave. Seems there's this bug going around." "No you don't! I'm taking care of this!" "And I'm going with you." "Matt's my partner. That makes him my problem." "When you were gone all those months, who do you think worked with him?" "Yeah, okay, but --" "But nothing. I'm going. The only question is whether I'm riding with you or taking my car. You want to be ecologically sound, don't you, Maza?" She thrust her fists deeper into the pockets of her jacket. "Listen, Rick, I'd really rather handle this on my own." "The lone wolf routine. Yeah. Been there, done that. Having someone around to watch your back never hurts. You shouldn't go it alone." "I wasn't exactly planning on going alone ..." He looked at her with unnerving directness. "I don't mind having a gargoyle or two tag along." "What ... how?" she sputtered. "I'm not just another pretty face," he teased. "All this and brains too." "Remarks like that make me wonder if it's really my back you'll be watching, or a few inches further down." "I'll take that as a yes." He went around to the passenger door and waited expectantly. She got behind the wheel and thought briefly about just peeling out and showering him with snow, then sighed to herself and leaned over to unlock the door. * * INTERSTATE 91. 12:35 PM THURSDAY. "Another McNugget?" "Is there any barbeque sauce left?" Elisa asked. Alvarez poked through the white bag emblazoned with the famous Golden Arches. "No such luck. Only the honey mustard." "I'll pass." "I can't believe you bought ten boxes." He laughed and shook his head. "That poor kid at the drive-thru!" "Well, our passenger's going to be hungry when he wakes up." "You sure he's okay in the trunk?" "Until sunset, anyway. And the added weight helps me keep the car from sliding around. Don't they plow the roads up here? I hate Vermont." "I've heard of people hating a town, but a whole state?" He paused, then amended, "unless it's California." "Bad memories, that's all." She polished off her shake. "So, what'd you think?" "Of what?" he asked carefully. She shot him a sidelong glance. "The new developments on Melrose Place, what do you _think_ I'm talking about?" "They're really amazing. Not all that ugly, once you get used to it. But I don't think the big guy, Goliath, liked me. He kept looking at me like he was going to bite my head off." "He's not exactly wild about the fact that you're coming with me on this goose chase." "Why not?" She shrugged. "Don't know. I keep telling him that trust has to be a vital part of any marriage ..." Rick Alvarez sucked most of a french fry down his windpipe and for a moment Elisa was afraid she'd have to pull over and give him the Heimlich. He coughed harshly into his cupped hand, then turned watering eyes upon her. "Marriage?" he choked out. She raised her left hand from the steering wheel and showed him her ring, in a crennelated style like the walls of a castle. "'Til death do us part." "I bet that's a long story. I'd like to hear it." "Sure," she chuckled. "You got about six weeks?" "I'd have to check my calendar. But we've got a few hours until we hit this town." "You'll think I'm crazy." "Hey, I was partnered with Matt for a while, remember?" "Touche." She took a deep breath and began. "It all started the night I got a call about a disturbance at the Aerie Building ..." * * LITTLE HOLLOW, VERMONT. 5:00 PM THURSDAY. " ... to get bread and milk." Gladys Bluestone shrugged and raised her hands palm-up in a helpless gesture. "When he didn't come home for supper, I started to get worried. We called around a few places --" "The tavern," her sister-in-law Lucy put in cattily. "I'm sure his cousin Jack would have seen him if he'd been at the tavern," Gladys shot back. "We called the store," Edie said, focusing on Elisa while the older Bluestone wives glared at each other. "They said he hadn't been there at all!" "Hmm." Elisa looked over at Matt's uncle, who had remained as silent and dour-looking as that farmer in the American Gothic painting. "Did anyone go into town to look for him?" "Ray did take the truck in," Lucy admitted when her husband showed no sign of speaking. If not for the way his eyes shifted to follow the conversation, Elisa could have believed he was a taxidermy project. "But he didn't see any sign of Matt or his car." "Okay," Elisa said. "That all pretty much goes along with what you told me on the phone, Edie. If I could take a look around while we're waiting for Officer Alvarez to get back ..." "Why?" It was the first word out of Ray Bluestone's mouth, and he bit it off as sharp as a celery stalk. She could almost hear the crisp crunch. "Just to see if I can find anything that might tell me where Matt's gone," she said easily, but his sudden suspicion gave her the crazy idea that maybe this guy had killed Matt with a pitchfork and buried him out in the south forty. "I can show you our room," Edie offered, levering herself out of her chair. Elisa watched her with mingled humor and envy, the latter of which took her by surprise. Seemed like lately everyone was hinting, consciously or not, about babies. Hudson and her mom were the most overt, though even Xanatos was getting in on it. They left the spacious farmhouse kitchen and started up the stairs. Behind them, Elisa heard Matt's uncle's voice. She couldn't make out the words, but evidently he had plenty to say _now_, and she didn't need to hear the words to get the general gist. "Are you okay here?" she murmured in an undertone to Edie. "If you want to come back with Rick and me ..." "Not without Matt." "Are you sure? He might not come back right away." "I waited a long time for him," she said with that weird enigmatic inner peace that Elisa had never been able to get a handle on. "But staying here, with these people --" Edie turned her dark, dark eyes on Elisa. "If Goliath were missing, would you go home?" Elisa sighed. "No, of course not. But if you change your mind, you'll call, won't you?" "I will," she promised. "Here, this is our room. I don't know what you're hoping to find, though." "Me either." She skimmed her gaze around. "You said he seemed strange on Tuesday, but I got the idea you didn't want to go into it on the phone. What's the story?" "He did seem strange. Jumpy, distracted, as if he had some huge secret he badly wanted to tell but couldn't, full of nervous energy. Even his mother commented on it, how he didn't seem able to sit still. She said he was worse than the children -- Peggy's and Jack's families were here -- and sent him to the store to get him out from underfoot." "I've seen him like that," Elisa nodded. "Usually when he's hot on the trail. Drives me nuts!" Edie smiled. "He says the same of you." "I bet! He still hasn't forgiven me for keeping the gargoyles a secret for so long, or not getting in touch when I was on that world tour. It's not like I didn't try! He's the one who never erases his answering machine tape! Hey, what's with the hat?" "That's part of it. I saw it Monday night. He had it hidden in our suitcase and said he found it in the attic. It was his father's hat. He thinks his father was murdered, and people tried to cover it up. He also thinks his father saw something in the woods, something he wasn't supposed to see, and that's why he was killed. He even went out to the woods Monday afternoon. It was dark by the time he got back, and he was a mess, but that was when I noticed his change in mood. I can't help but wonder if he saw something, too." "The message he left me was about aliens," Elisa said slowly. "I wonder if that's what he thinks it was? But that's impossible!" "More things in heaven and earth, Elisa. You should know that better than anybody!" "Yeah, but there's a long story behind why I have a hard time believing Matt's chasing aliens, or that the government is after him." "Except that now he's gone." Edie went to the window, her lips trembling. She traced a few Greek letters in the frosted pane. "We'll find him." She lowered her voice to a whisper. "Speaking of which, I've got Bronx in the trunk of my car, and he's going to be waking up any minute. If Rick doesn't get back soon with my car, the people of Little Hollow are going to get the fright of their lives!" * * LOST DOG WOODS. 3:10 PM MONDAY (FLASHBACK). He wasn't expecting to find anything. Which was why it came as such a profound shock when he did. Matt was soaked to the skin, cold, muddy, miserable, and wanting nothing more than a hot shower, a change of clothes, and a big bowl of his mother's chicken soup. But all of his complaints were rendered instantly insignificant when he reached the top of the mound, looked down into the crater, and saw what was floating there. One of his college roommates had been a role-playing gamer who seemed to spend most of his time sitting around a table covered with maps, rule books, soda cans, fast food wrappers, and funny-shaped dice. A lot of the dice tended to make their way to the floor, where Matt never failed to step on them. The worst were the "d4's", but the "d8" came in a close second on the pain-o-meter. The object floating two feet above the muddy floor of the crater looked like a "d8," minus the numbers and a heck of a lot bigger. The shape was a sort of solid diamond, two four-sided pyramids joined together by the base. It was about the size of a football, and a rhythmic cycle of light pulsed from its crystalline depths. Green-gold-red, green-gold-red, like a traffic signal. It hovered there in complete defiance of gravity, rotating slowly, emitting a faint hum that changed pitch with each change of color. Matt felt like he had when he'd first seen a gargoyle up close, or when he'd finally contacted the Illuminati. Two-thirds exhilarated vindication, one-third vague disappointment that the search was over. He slipped and slid down the side of the crater, getting even more wet, cold, and muddy but not caring. To think he was actually standing upon the site of a UFO crash! Looking at a genuine alien artifact! It kept up its cycle of light and humming as he approached. He saw that the ground beneath it was completely dry, free of snow, free of even any fallen leaves. Matt stripped off his gloves and reached out slowly. Cold, cold, cold, and then as his hands came within ten inches of the object, they encountered warm, dry air. It hadn't been a gradual warming but a clear dividing line where the cold just _wasn't_ anymore. It was warm but not hot, like holding his hands just at the right comfort zone above a campfire. Now he wasn't wishing he could talk to Edie or Elisa. Now he was wishing for Lexington, who had turned into quite the science fiction glutton over the past couple of years. Lex would know what this thing was, or at least have some creative guesses. He passed his hand over it, then under it. No wires. No apparent means of support. The object didn't so much as wobble, either. As he was about to touch it, he paused, thinking of all the movies he'd seen where some slimy alien seedling erupted from a pod onto the curious human's face. But he had no sense of danger from this humming, glowing crystal. At the worst, it might be too hot to handle. It wasn't. The surface was as warm and dry as the air around it, and the cycle didn't alter as he ran his fingers down the flat planes. There was a tingle, like a pager set on "vibrate," and that was all. He gave it an experimental pull and found resistance with slight give. Matt sat back on his heels, started to run his hands through his hair, and then realized he was still wearing his father's hat. Good thing Mom hadn't seen him come down from the attic; she would have had a kitty. "You're not thinking what I think you're thinking, are you?" he asked himself. The object didn't react to the sound of his voice either. "Because, if you are," he continued, "you're out of your mind. You don't know what kind of radiation this thing might be throwing off, and you've got a pregnant wife at home!" But it was proof, dammit! This, plus the Polaroids, were proof that his father had witnessed an event, and that the event was still going on. This "d8" might be the key to unlocking the truth around his father's death! He owed it to Dad, to Mom, to himself, and even to the baby, to find out what had really happened. Matt settled both hands firmly around the angled sides of the object and began a slow, steady pull. * * LITTLE HOLLOW, VERMONT. 5:45 PM THURSDAY. Even as she mentioned it, Elisa heard the Fairlane's distinctive growl and the grinding of gravel beneath tires. She looked out the window and saw Rick Alvarez baby her car into a spot between Ray Bluestone's pickup and Matt's mom's boxy little Volvo. "He's a looker, isn't he?" Edie observed. "Heartthrob of the station," Elisa grinned, and hurried for the stairs. She reached the bottom just as Lucy Bluestone opened the door, and supressed a laugh at the way the dowdy farmer's wife gaped up at six-feet-two-inches of dark and handsome. Her laugh died on its own when Ray came out of the kitchen and his mouth drew so tight that it seemed to disappear. "Hey, Elisa, your car's making funny noises," Rick said casually. "I think something's loose in the trunk." "I'll check it out," she announced, hastily, before Matt's uncle could volunteer. As if he would. She followed Rick back outside. "Good thing you parked over here. No chance they can see us out the kitchen windows." "Why, what did you have in mind?" He flashed her a bright smile. "Don't start, okay? Words to the wise. Don't start. What'd you find in town?" His smile turned into a grimace that made his words a lie. "Real nice." "So, you got the red-carpet treatment too." "Yeah, people like us are fine as long as they stay in their place, and that place is the inner city." "Matt always said it was a white-bread sort of town, a real Sunday-dinner culture where you can bet that at six o'clock sharp on Sundays everyone's sitting down together for a big meal of meatloaf or roast chicken. And pie for dessert." "Makes you wonder if they even _have_ television, or they're still listening to radio programs from the 1940's." "No kidding. " She reached her car and unlocked the trunk. "Hmruf!" Bronx grunted, slobbering a wide trail up her face. "Gak! Bronx! Quit it!" She held his head away from her. He bounded eagerly, making the rear tires wax and wane. "Come on, out, before you break something!" Behind the barn, Elisa set out the cold repast from McD's and stepped back while Bronx messily devoured nine 20-piece boxes of nuggets and a bag of cheeseburgers. "I did find out a few things in town," Rick said. "I've got two witnesses who remember seeing Matt go into the store and come out with a bag, then stop at the pay phone. The bad news is, one of the witnesses happens to be the world's oldest man --" "People can be old and still with it," Elisa interrupted, thinking primarily of Halcyon Renard. "You can talk to him next time, then. The only reason drool wasn't dripping off his chin was because his long white beard soaked it up first. The other witness was his five-year-old grandson. The kid says he looked back and saw Matt talking to some people in a black car. I found a few others in town who remember seeing a black car. Out of state plates, but the thing that really seemed to make it stand out was that the people in it were a black man and a white woman." "What about the clerk?" "The clerk swears Matt didn't come in the store all day." * * LITTLE HOLLOW, VERMONT. 4:45 PM TUESDAY (FLASHBACK). Matt tucked the phone between his shoulder and ear while he dug his calling card out of his wallet. He punched in all the requisite numbers and drummed his fingers impatiently on the shelf under the coin return. The bread and milk, his convenient excuse for making a run into town, were in a bag at his feet. "Come on, Elisa, pick up," he urged, even though he knew the odds weren't in his favor. Sunset was still an hour away, so even if she was home, she was most likely asleep. He sighed and fumed as he heard Elisa's recorded voice begin the leave-a-message spiel. Just his luck. He should have tried her last night, but he didn't want to make the call from the house, especially not now that his cousins Peggy and Jack had turned up with their flocks of kids. And he didn't want to call her at the castle and have to dance clumsily with Owen Burnett or (worse!) Xanatos. He turned his face out of the cold damp breath of the wind and saw a black car, an older sedan, was rolling slowly down Main Street. New York plates. Glimpse of a young, good-looking black man behind the wheel. Wearing a sharp black suit. *beep!* Matt barely noticed, intent on the sedan while trying not to noticeably stare. Belatedly, he started talking. "Elisa, hi, Matt here. I know you won't believe me, but I've got evidence, physical evidence, of extraterrestrials. I found something in the woods, an artifact of some kind. It's in the trunk of my car. And it seems the government has just shown up. FBI, maybe, they've got the look --" *click!* as the tape ran out. Matt cursed and was about to redial when he saw the black car slide into a parking space just three down from his car. His car with the surprise hidden next to the spare tire. The sedan's doors opened. The driver got out on one side, and a woman with short dark hair and exquisite legs emerged from the other. She was wearing a female version of the black suit, the skirt and jacket combo that Matt had always privately found really sexy. The woman let a dog out of the sedan. It was an afghan hound, beautiful, with silky fur and a long pointed muzzle. The dog took a couple of sniffs, then made a beeline for Matt's car. He cursed again and headed that way, leaving the phone dangling and the grocery bag on the ground. For the moment, they had Main Street to themselves except for old Abe Chalmers and one of his many descendants. The dog was barking excitedly, and the woman had her hand pressed to her earring and was nodding for all the world like she understood what the dog was saying. "Something I can help you with?" Matt asked, feeling less and less happy about the situation with each passing moment. He'd thought FBI, but now he was having his doubts. "Williams, DEA," the man said, showing what looked like legit credentials. "We need to ask you a couple of questions --" "Oh, please, let's cut the bullshit," Matt said in a low voice. "What agency are you really from? CIA? NSA? The Shop? Whichever branch covered up the UFO crash here fifteen years ago?" Williams glanced at his partner, then smiled winningly. "Sounds like you know why we're really here." "We don't have time for this," the woman murmured urgently. The dog barked once, as if in agreement. "You want to try?" Williams offered. "Sure." To Matt, she said, "Would you tell us your name, please, sir?" "Bluestone. Detective, 23rd Precinct, NYPD." He showed them his badge, which _was_ legit. They exchanged another glance, this one tinged with dismay. Matt stifled a smirk and almost felt sorry for them. He decided to poke them a little more and mention that he was ex-FBI, but before he could, Williams snapped his fingers. "You're the gargoyle task force guy!" "Can you excuse us a minute?" the woman asked, and the two of them stepped back a discreet distance and put their heads close together. Matt strained to make out snippets of their conversation. Her: " ... waiting for? In case you weren't paying attention at HQ, time is of the essence here!" Him, reluctantly: "You know I don't like using that thing. The man's a cop. _I_ was a cop." Her, firmly: "Not anymore. Listen, I don't like it either, but we don't have a choice." Matt decided he really didn't like the way their talk was going, and wondered if it would be possible to make a quick exit. He had the keys in his pants pocket, his car was only a few feet away ... He started to sidle that way, and found the dog between him and the driver's side door, looking reproachfully at him with its big brown eyes. "Okay, Bluestone, we're going to be square with you," Williams said. "Sure, Williams, if that's your real name," he shot back. "That'll be a first." The woman went to the trunk and slapped it with one hand. "You've got a standard Sirius-5 decoy beacon in here. If we don't get that beacon set up again, pronto, we'll be putting out a welcome mat for the Korinians." "And these Korinians, I take it, aren't the good guys," Matt said, crossing his arms and leaning against his car. "Picture something that looks like a cross between a scorpion and Freddy Kruger --" Williams began. "Like this, you mean?" Matt, knowing that he was being an insufferable smartass and yet helpless to stop himself, pulled out the Polaroids and shuffled through them until he got to the one that showed an alien appendage hanging out of the wreckage. "Where's you get these?" the woman asked, alarmed. "Found them. Their ship crashed here, right? And you're trying to keep the rest of the fleet from finding out about it and coming to wipe us out." He could not believe he was having this conversation in front of the mom-and-pop grocery in Little Hollow. "How many people did you tell about it?" she demanded. Matt shook his head. "You think I'm going to tell you and have you go after them too? You think I don't know how it works?" His voice rose and turned distinctly venomous. "A car wreck, right? Make it look like an accident. Burn up the body so the coroner can't --" He got no further, because the woman whipped a futuristic weapon out of her jacket and pointed it at him. Her tone was incongruously polite. "Answer the question, please, detective. Don't make me boil your eyes out of your head." "She'll do it," Williams told Matt. "I can't stop her when she gets like this." Matt looked at the weapon. He had no idea what it was or how it worked, but he was very sure that the bad end was aimed at his face. He was also pretty sure that the woman was bluffing. He and Elisa had played this game plenty of times themselves. "Shoot me with that thing and you still won't get an answer. Stalemate." "Think so? A Korinian battle cruiser could be getting ready to turn this town into a mushroom cloud while you stand there being Mr. Tough Guy. You think I'm going to let that happen rather than zap you right now and deal with anyone you might have told later?" "You go, girl," Williams said admiringly. "Okay," Matt sighed. "Okay. I haven't told anyone. I didn't want to put my family in danger, and there's nobody else here I trust that much." He tossed Williams the keys. "Go ahead and take your doohickey. Save the world and all that good stuff." Williams opened the trunk. The dog got up on its hind legs, tail wagging frantically, pawing at the other items as Williams lifted them out of the way. He uncovered the beacon, still pulsing in its mellow cycle of green-gold-red. When the device was resting on the backseat of the black sedan, with the dog standing over it like a protective mother, the woman flipped open a pair of sunglasses and nodded at Williams. "Do it." Sunglasses? Late on a cloudy afternoon? Williams sighed, shook his head, and put on a pair of his own. "Detective, thanks for all your cooperation." He reached inside his suit jacket. Matt tensed, expecting Williams to pull another weird weapon, but all he took out was a metal thing that looked like a tire pressure gauge. "What's that thing?" "If you'll look right here, we'll take care of all your questions." "Yeah, right," Matt said, and then red light filled the world. * * LOST DOG WOODS. 7:40 PM THURSDAY. "We're really not dressed for this. You didn't tell me we'd be hiking halfway across the state." "You invited yourself along, so don't come crying to me," Elisa said. She was none too warm either, but kept reminding herself of her brief visit to Norway. Now, _that_ had been cold! Rick blew into his cupped hands. His leather gloves were better than nothing, but this was a damp seeping cold that went through everything. "Shouldn't we be doing this in the morning? We're not going to find anything in the dark." "Our secret weapon won't be much use in the morning." Elisa thumped Bronx on the side and he chuffed happily at her. "Go on, boy. Find Matt." "If he _is_ out here ..." Rick began, then trailed off. "I know," Elisa said grimly. Any of a thousand mundane misfortunes could have befallen Matt. Broken leg. Shot by an off- season poacher. And, of course, the ever-popular thought she'd had before, that he'd been killed by Mr. American Gothic. Bronx snuffled through the snow and half-melted slush, wagging his big head slowly back and forth. He made a couple of false starts, then his little tail started flapping and he bounded deeper into the woods. "He's got something!" Elisa cried unnecessarily. She and Rick followed Bronx to a creek that was iced-over at the edges. Rick beamed his flashlight along the creek and they both looked, neither saying what they feared/expected to see but looking for it anyway -- a blue and bloated corpse wedged against a rock. "Whew," Elisa breathed when Bronx hurdled the creek and picked up the trail on the other side. Rick jumped over, then turned back to her with a flirty chagrined look. "Or should I have let the lady go first?" "Ha, ha." She jumped too, slipped, and wound up in his arms. He wasn't as strong as Goliath, but then, who was? He held her for maybe a heartbeat too long before setting her securely on her feet. "There you go." "I don't need this," she muttered under her breath. "What?" "Nothing. Which way did Bronx go?" They caught up with Bronx at the bottom of a rise. He was sniffing around in a big circle, making inquisitive whines and rumbles in the back of his throat. "Uh-oh," Elisa said. "I think he lost the trail." Bronx glanced in their direction, sniffed some more, then started up the rise. When he reached the top, he looked down, looked back at Elisa, and said, "Hrrrf!" "Guess he didn't." She climbed up, Rick right behind her, determined not to slip again because she was sure that under the guise of being helpful he'd put a hand on her butt to help her along. "Oh, come on, Bronx, you've got to be kidding!" On the other side of the rise was a deep gulley, filled with the most vicious tangle of dead splintery branches and thornbushes Elisa had ever seen. "If he fell in there, you'd think it would show somewhere," Rick said, scanning it with the flashlight. "A freshly-broken place, cloth caught on the thorns, blood, something." "Matt!" Elisa called. No answer, not that she was expecting one. She looked at Bronx. "Okay, what now?" Bronx whined and poked his nose toward the gulley. "No way. I am not crawling around in there." She kicked a rock and heard it clatter. "I'd be so full of holes you could use me for a showerhead." "Hey, that's weird," Rick murmured. "What?" "The rock. Where'd it go?" "Down into the thorns, where else would it go?" "Yeah, but I didn't see it." "Do you want me to do it again so you can watch?" Elisa asked, slightly exasperated. "Sure." Sighing, she hunted around and found a nice big chunk of stone, and shotputted it neatly into the gulley. Rick followed it with the light. Kritch! was what they heard as it snapped branches, but what they saw was another matter entirely. They saw the stone go through as if it was dropped into a pool of opaque water, and vanish without a ripple. They looked at each other, neither wanting to be the first to say anything. Bronx broke the weird silence by galumphing down. Elisa winced, waiting for his yowls of pain as the thorns bit his tough gargoyle-hide, but all the heard was the godawful crunching and crashing of his passage. He went through and was gone, with no burst of broken bits, no Bronx-shaped hole. Just the tangle, unmarked. And from somewhere within, his surprised "murf!" "Bronx!" Elisa cried. Bronx stuck his head out. A branch seemed to pass cleanly through his neck, but he was completely unhurt. "It's a ... hologram or something ... isn't it?" Rick said. "I'm going down there," Elisa declared. Before she could have second thoughts, she swung her legs down and felt for a sturdy-looking piece of wood. "Puh-leez, B'rer Fox, don' throw me inna briar patch!" Rick chuckled. "Shut up." Her eyes told her she was touching it, but her foot felt nothing. As she pushed it further down, she saw her shoe swallowed by a branch, and still felt nothing. She slid further down, steeling herself as the sharp thorns neared her legs, but there was no piercing bite, nothing at all. Branches snapped and crackled and popped like a giant's bowl of Rice Krispies, but Elisa was untouched. She passed through, losing her balance because one foot came down on the big rock she'd dropped, and landed next to Bronx. He eagerly butted his head into her side, proud of himself. "Are you okay, Elisa?" "Fine! It's -- oh, my God!" Her mouth fell open as Bronx moved and she got a good look at her new surroundings. A greyish dome crisscrossed with paler lines curved overhead, the underside of the thorn patch. She couldn't see the flashlight from down here, but the place was far from dark. Something pulsed green- gold-red, something that hung easily and effortlessly a few inches off the dry ground and emitted a gently cycling hum. * * MANHATTAN. 8:00 PM THURSDAY. "There's got to be an explanation," L said. J (known in some circles as Williams or a variety of other aliases) set a cup of coffee beside her and sipped from his own. "These thirty-seven hour days, damn, I don't know if I'll ever get used to it." He dropped his voice to mimic Zed. "Or else I'll have a psychotic episode." "You could be helping me out here. What are we going to do about that guy?" Sirius, who had been snoozing under J's desk, suddenly sprang up. The only resemblance between the afghan hound that had accompanied them to Vermont and the creature that now raced across headquarters was the long, pointed muzzle. She was a thing of beauty as she ran, looking like a cross between a Chinese dragon and a greyhound, with a sleek serpentine body, long legs, and fine iridescent scales. A spiky mane, shimmering with all the colors of the rainbow, surrounded her head and extended in a line along her back to form a banner of a tail. "Hello, Sirius, there's my girl!" a man said as she frisked around his black-suited legs. He scratched her mane. "Miss me?" "Hey, B, how was the conference?" J called. He rolled his eyes. "Ever been trapped in a room full of Mimasites and Ionians? In Topeka, Kansas, no less? I started wondering if it was clinically possible to die of boredom. The only time things got lively was when Prince Txlpp of Mimas called the Ionian Grand Admiral a sour gasbag." "Well, he is," L remarked distractedly. "Yes, but we don't comment on it in public." B sat down and stretched out his legs. "Good to be home. Anything go on while I was away?" "Yeah, we've got kind of a situation here," J said. "Ever run into anybody immune to the flashie thing?" B straighened up. "Immune to the neuralyzer?" His voice was loud enough to catch Zed's attention, and the bearded boss man came scowling over to their desks. "The subject was human, wasn't he?" "His bioscan comes up pure human," L said, bristling at Zed's I'm-dealing-with-kids tone. J nodded. "_And_ the thing is in perfect working order. Had it checked out first thing. But this guy, it just didn't faze him. I flashed it, he blinks for a minute then says, 'and what the hell is that supposed to be?' I tried it again, still zip, so L nailed him with a stasis dart." "Lucky I had one with me," she added. "We didn't know what else to do with him, so we stuck him in the back seat and brought him home with us. Left his car in a parking garage. We couldn't leave him; he knew too much." "So what do you think, B, Zed? You know I don't like using that damn flashie thing, going to fry someone's head or give them cancer, but --" "We rely on it in the field," L finished. "We all do," Zed frowned. "We've never run into an immune human before --" "Excuse me, Zed?" B broke in. "Actually, we have, and I can tell you why it happened." "Go ahead, B." He swiveled L's computer around and started typing. An image came up of a famous and instantly recognizeable university. "Back in the early sixties, a professor named Gustav Sevarius was conducting experiments with memory. He was trying to create eidetics." "Eidetics, hmm, interesting," J mused thoughtfully, stroking his chin. L poked him in the side. "People with perfect photographic memory, fuzzbrain." He winked at her and snapped his teeth playfully, but then saw how Zed was glowering at him and subsided. He knew it bugged Zed no end that he and L spiced up their partnership with the occasional extra- curricular activity. But then, it still bugged Zed that L was here at all. The old boys' network was falling apart as the originals retired, and the ranks were filled with increasingly younger and more with-it people. L was the first woman to wear the suit, but J doubted that she'd be the last. B cleared his throat. "Sevarius enlisted students from the university's Ed/Psych program to participate in the project, offering them $250 each. Plus, if the experiment worked ... well, photographic memory to a student, think about it." "Read a book once and it's imprinted forever," L said. "I can see the attraction." "So what happened?" J asked. "Was the mad doctor successful?" "The Mad Doctor was what they called Sevarius' colleague, Dr. Wanless," B corrected. "Wanless ... He was associated with the Shop, wasn't he?" Zed asked. "The Shop." J shuddered extravagantly, not entirely kidding. "Those guys give me a major case of the creeps. I'd almost rather face another Bug." "Now, now," Zed chided, tapping his eye-and-pyramid lapel pin. "We're all part of the same big happy family." "Yeah, like that family on Dynasty," L muttered. "Everyone trying to backstab each other, nobody knowing what the others are up to." "That's another problem," J said. "Check this out." He passed Zed an object only slightly large than a credit card, its surface a deep glossy black. On one side was an outline of a thumb-shape in streaky reds and blues like aura photography, and on the other was a gold triangular outline with a hologramatic eye floating in the middle. Zed made a disgusted sound. "Wonderful. He's with the main office." "Could they be responsible for his immunity?" L wondered. "No," Zed said firmly. "B, excuse the interruption, what were you saying?" "Thank you, Zed," B said impatiently. "There were a dozen students in Sevarius' final project. The possible side-effects -- high blood pressure, akasthesia, mental aberrations -- all seemed like acceptable risks." "Don't keep us in suspense. What happened?" L asked. "Four of the students died in the lab," B said flatly. "Complications from the drug. Three others committed suicide within the next year because they remembered _everything_ and they couldn't deal with it. The remaining five had varying degrees of success. Several years later, one of them was exposed to the neuralyzer, without effect." "What happened to the guy?" J asked. "We had to give him a job," Zed said, laughing and clapping B on the shoulder. "That can't be what happened to this guy, though," L said. "He's too young. Unless they've continued these projects?" "Sevarius left the university shortly after," B said. "He may have started up somewhere else, but he'd have to be almost eighty by now. If he's still alive." "Damn," L sighed. "So that still doesn't explain our friend Detective Bluestone." J looked at B. "You okay? You just jumped like the devil tweaked your nuts." Zed's face bespoke sudden comprehension. "Of course! I should have realized --" "Realized what?" J asked. "He's my son," B said. * * LOST DOG WOODS, VERMONT. 8:10 PM THURSDAY. "Jalapena," Elisa said. "I owe Matt an apology." "He's really found something this time," Rick agreed, unable to take his eyes off the device. "That is not of this world." They were crouched in the crater, the sketchy dome that formed the underside of the illusory thorn brambles curving overhead. She shook her head. "Matt's message said he had an artifact in the trunk of his car. If this is the same one, that means somebody had to put it back." "Our friends in the black car." "That'd be my first guess. How'd they _know_, though? Either they're keeping the area under surveillance, or there's some sort of alarm hooked up to that thing." "And what is it, anyway?" "Right now, all I want to do is get out of here and find Matt. I don't want to move that thing, or even touch it." "Yeah, but if it _is_ hooked up to an alarm, triggering it might be the only way to find the people in the black car." "No way," Elisa said firmly. "Then we'd just have three cops missing, and nobody left crazy enough to believe any of it." "So what are we going to do?" "Until we get some other leads, I don't think there's anything we _can_ do." She stood and brushed the dirt from the seat of her jeans. "Except make sure Edie's okay, and see if we can turn up Matt's car." "You mean, just walk away? An alien device right here in front of us, and you want to forget all about it?" "I wish I could," she said. "There's enough weirdness in my life already, thank you very much." * * MANHATTAN. 9:25 PM THURSDAY. " ... lightshow didn't impress me, so what do you think _that's_ going to do?" Matt finished, and then realized that he wasn't where he thought he was. Instead of the slushy twilight streets of Little Hollow, he was looking at a stark room with white walls, a large mirror, tiles so shiny that Mr. Clean would be proud, and no furnishings except for the dentist's style recliner he was in and a plain grey chair that brought computer workstations to mind. He cast a quick glance around for trays of surgical tools and alien probes, saw nothing, and only relaxed a fraction. He was in the same clothes, but a check turned up his wallet and badge both missing. "Okay, game's over!" he snapped, because they were watching and listening, sure they were. He got out of the chair and walked over to the mirror, tapping on the glass like a kid trying to annoy fish in a tank. He heard the clicking of an electronic lock and turned toward the only door, ready to fly into a righteously indignant tirade. A man in a black suit stepped in. "Hello, Matt." Everything he'd been about to say flew out of his mind, but that was okay because he didn't trust his mouth to form coherent speech. "You're looking well," the man said. "You're going to be a grandfather," Matt heard himself say, and then everything clicked back into reality so hard it almost hurt. He didn't doubt, didn't question, not for an instant. He advanced, and the man opened his arms as if anticipating a hug, and Matt slugged him square in the jaw. There was a brief stir behind the glass as John Bluestone stumbled backward, tripped over the computer chair, and fell into it, rolling back to bump into the wall. He raised one incredulous hand to his jaw and blinked at his son. "Damn you!" Matt roared so loud that it would have done credit to Goliath. "Fifteen years! You left us for fifteen years! Maybe it was easier for Mom, thinking you were dead, but I wanted the truth!" The door hissed open again, and the guy called Williams and his partner rushed in. John Bluestone waved them back. They went, but warily. "Matt, you don't understand --" "Yes, I do," and now his voice was arctic. "You ditched us to become a goverment agent, chasing UFOs and covering up the truth from the feeble-minded public." "I had no choice." "Yeah, right, file that one next to 'I was just following orders.'" "As an Illuminatus, you should know better than that." Matt started to come back sharply, but fell into a heated, frustrated silence. Had him there, actually. Once the Illuminati chose you, there was no way out. John Bluestone's eyes captured and held his son's. "The men who work for this organization were tracking that craft, but it changed course at the last moment before the crash. They weren't able to reach the site before your uncle and cousin and I did. We'd already seen too much. Thanks to one of these --" he held up the tire-pressure thing Williams had flashed at him "-- they were able to wipe Ray and Ray Jr.'s memories. It didn't work on me. They didn't realize it right away, but once they did, they only had two options. Kill me, or recruit me." "So you faked your own death," Matt said bitterly. "I had to, because the moment I accepted, John Bluestone ceased to exist. It was easier that way, for you and your mother." "You don't know squat about what was easy for us!" "Yes, I do! I've kept an eye on you both, even though I'm not supposed to. It's one of the more frequently bent rules around here, but we generally look the other way. I know you had some hard times, but imagine how it would have been for your mother to think I'd walked out on her." "We could have kept quiet." "That's not the way it works, Matt." "If you wanted to keep it a secret so bad, why did you leave your photos in the attic? You must have known that someone would find them." "I hid them up there before I got the job offer, and then everything moved so fast there wasn't time to mention them. I figured they'd go unnoticed. Your uncle never went up there more than was necessary, and even if he had found them, he would have thought they were phonies. I knew you didn't care for the home place, so I didn't think you'd ever go poking around the attic." "If you have been keeping tabs on us, you must have known that I could be trusted," Matt said. "Until a few years ago, you were a conspiracy hound," his father pointed out. "Everybody who knew you also knew that you were on a crusade to expose secret societies and government cover-ups. You weren't in the habit of keeping your mouth shut, Matty." He flushed, feeling regressed to about age ten. No matter how clever young Matt had thought he was being, his dad could always see right through him. "I suppose you expect me to forgive you." "It'd be nice, but no, I don't really expect it. You needed a father, and I wasn't there. It doesn't matter why I wasn't. You lost a big chunk of your trust that summer. You were always a suspicious child. I think it was partly because of how your cousins used to gang up on you, and partly because we moved back and forth so much. But after that summer, you turned paranoid." "I did not!" Matt protested. "Well, maybe a little ... but, damn it, everything I thought was going on really _was_! Martin knew it all along, and he let me blunder around like a moron. Now you're in on it, too. Thanks a lot, Dad! I guess all that really matters is what happens now. You can't use that flashie thing to zap my brain, can you?" "No," he admitted. "You're immune, same as I am. I guess you inherited something more than my hair and your mother's eyes." "So you've got to kill me." "I'm appalled that you'd think I was capable of it." "I didn't mean you personally," Matt said scornfully. "This outfit probably has its own goon squad for these situations." "We're not killers. We're trying to help people." "Uh-huh. By keeping them in the dark, hiding the truth, raping their memories, yeah, big help! You and your buddies put yourselves in charge of deciding what the rest of us can and can't handle --" "I'm not going to get baited into an argument with you, Matthew. You're being deliberately antagonistic." "Then what are you going to do? Recruit me? Fat chance. If you think I'm going to abandon my family like you did -- hell, no! Screw that!" "There's no need to be vulgar." Matt glowered. "The fuck there isn't! What are you going to do? Wash my mouth out with soap? Take the strop to me the way Uncle Ray used to do? In case you haven't noticed, I'm not a kid anymore!" "The petulant attitude makes it hard to tell. I'm trying to make you a serious job offer, and you're making it extremely difficult." "Don't bother. I've got a job. Maybe you could make me disappear in a way that would fool Mom and Edie, but you haven't met my partner." "Would you at least let me show you around? Maybe once you've seen what we do here ..." "It's not going to happen, Dad. Or am I allowed to call you that?" "I'm called B," he said absently. "Come on, I'll buy you a cup of coffee." "I don't want a cup of coffee. What I want is to get out of here and home before Edie and Mom call in the National Guard." He looked at his watch and did a double take. "Thursday? It's Thursday night? Son of a bitch!" John Bluestone -- or B -- opened the door. "Since you're late already, might as well have that coffee." * * THE AERIE BUILDING, MANHATTAN. 7:10 PM SATURDAY. "Thanks for lending us Bronx." Elisa sighed as she rested her forehead against Goliath's chest. "He was a big help." "You look tired, Elisa," Angela observed. "So does Bronx," Lexington added, noting that the big blue beast barely had the strength to leap up on Hudson with his typical vigor. "He should be," Rick Alvarez said. "He tromped over half of Vermont the past couple of nights." "No sign of Matt, though?" Brooklyn asked. "No." Elisa looked over at David Xanatos, who stood just outside the warm circle of the clan, listening intently. "Don't suppose you have anything to contribute to the discussion?" He raised a surprised eyebrow. "Me?" "Don't give me that," she said. "Last time Matt went missing, you knew all about it. So I'd appreciate it if you'd spill the beans." "Honestly, detective, this time I am in the dark. I've spoken to the Grandmaster, and he doesn't know where to find Bluestone either." He looked as innocent as a Xanatos could, without the furtive smirking glint of falsehood that Elisa had come to recognize. "Maybe I'm more tired than I thought, but I actually believe you. Edie's going to stay with Matt's family a while longer. I don't envy her! I'd rather visit Aunt Agnes than spend another night listening to Matt's uncle recite all the least tolerant verses in the Bible." "We've put Matt's car on the hot sheets; maybe that will turn up something." Rick yawned. "Sorry. I'm pretty worn out myself." "So you didn't find out _anything_?" Lex asked. "What about the message he left you? The alien artifact?" "It turned out to be an experimental weather sensor," Matt Bluestone said, coming into the courtyard. "Not extraterrestrial after all." A brief, stunned silence was broken by many voices human and gargoyle alike, and they crowded toward him. "Where'd you come from?" Brooklyn asked when the hubub settled. "Burnett let me in. Elisa, Rick, can I talk to you for a minute?" "Yeah, you'd better talk to us!" Elisa said. "Where have you been? We've been going crazy trying to find you!" "I can explain everything." He glanced apologetically at the gargoyles. "Can you give us a second or two? It's kind of police business." "Sure," Lex said, sounding a bit hurt. "Wonder what the big deal is?" Brooklyn murmured as Matt led Elisa and Rick inside. "What was that?" Angela cocked her head curiously to the side. "Did you see something?" "What, lass?" "It looked like a red flashbulb." * * EPILOGUE: MANHATTAN. 8:55 PM SATURDAY. "Here." Matt all but flung the slender device at the man in the black suit. "I _never_ want to see that again, let alone use it!" "Did you have any problems?" B asked. "Besides shooting my friends' brains full of God-knows- what?" he said bitterly. "They won't remember anything about glowing crystals or hologramatic stickerbushes. As for the others, I told them what you wanted me to tell them, that I'd stumbled onto a terrorist plot and had to help the FBI. They bought it. At least, the gargoyles did. Never can tell with Xanatos." "You did a fine job, Matt. Sure you won't reconsider? We'd make a great team." Matt curled his fist in front of his mouth, exhaled rustily through it, and intoned deeply, "Rule the galaxy as father and son?" Reverting to normal, he shook his head. "Sorry, Dad. I've got a partner. See you around." B tucked the neuralyzer into his jacket. "Yes, you will. * * The End.

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Flashie Thing / Page Copyright 1997 by Christine Morgan / vecna@eskimo.com