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Signs and Portents

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Techado Mesa, Alamo, N.M. -- late afternoon, April 23, 1998

"The Ancient Ones fought there three days ago, calling down the lightning from their fathers, the sky gods and the earth gods." Albert Hosteen talks calmly of Spirits and ancient gods as if they're part of his everyday life. He's the only man I know who can mention Spirits and still hold the respect of my rational partner.

Sunset is turning the desert red as the steam from the afternoon shower rises from the sand in a rainbow mist. I feel at peace for the first time in months. Within minutes of greeting Albert at the airport, I could feel the tension between my shoulders accumulated from months of waiting for my masquerade begin to fall apart. I felt like a traveler coming home from a long and difficult journey.

Playing undercover cop with a bunch of terrorists terrifies me. They came to me, and like a fool, I reported it. I never expected to be told to play along and find out what they want. Now I'm in too deep. I feel dirty, soiled by association with men dedicated to overthrowing my government and destroying the freedoms I'm sworn to uphold. Deception was my father's stock in trade, not mine, but lies come easily to my lips now. I feel a part of me slip away with each new lie I'm forced to tell to worm my way into the confidence of terrorists. I'm not sure the end justifies the means, but if I don't do this, who will? My water bill has gone through the roof, as if I could ever take enough showers to wash the filth out of my soul. The cost of keeping this secret from Scully is putting a strain on our relationship, already burdened by the stresses of six years of illness, disillusionment, and the futility of chasing shadows that slip through our fingers the moment we catch up to them.

Every night for the past six months I've regretted agreeing to this insane plan. I am *not* suicidal, brief dalliances with the notion of ending it all notwithstanding. I want to live, but I'm not in control any more. This is the first time in weeks that I've dared to relax my guard.

There's probably going to be hell to pay for this interlude, but I'm almost past caring. After Skinner refused to sign off on the case, I simply took vacation time. There wasn't much he could say, although he tried. I have more than enough leave time and I've already heard rumblings about job stress. I'm not about to give anyone an excuse to force me to take leave again.

Scully turned me down flat when I suggested a little trip to the Southwest. Whatever makes her happy. I've about given up expecting that she'll ever change. Our last case is ample proof of that. Scully is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to justify her scientific rationalizations, but isn't willing to take one baby step in the direction of a paranormal explanation of events. I liked Marty. She was a survivor and a fighter who broke the chains that bound her to her father's insanity. Scully saw only a victim, or at worst a killer. Why Scully is so afraid of accepting what lies beyond the boundaries of her science is one of the constant mysteries of my life. With each case, she grows more and more distant, even angry as the evidence mounts. I'm beginning to wonder if she curses me for challenging her faith in our government as well as in her science. Maybe we just need some time apart.

So here I am staring at the setting sun sans partner, and most importantly, sans suit. While I'm not exactly travelling incognito, I just feel less conspicuous in jeans and T-shirt. Shedding the suit feels like stepping free of a load of obligations and expectations. I've almost forgotten what it feels like to be just plain old Fox Mulder. I'm not even sure he still exists. I hope he does, but I wouldn't blame him if he bailed out years ago.

Albert sounded as excited as I've ever heard him get when he called me early yesterday morning. He caught me just coming out of the shower. It must have been around 4 a.m. his time, but he sounded awake and very insistent. In his simple, blunt way, he told me to drop everything and come out to see the place where the Ancient Ones fought a great battle. Being Albert, he refused to elaborate over the phone and simply told me that the Spirits informed him that I needed to come out there. I'll argue with anyone, up to and including Janet Reno, but not Albert and his Spirits; I owe him my life.

Albert's mystery intrigues me. Not much has, lately. I'm relieved to find that I still care. Maybe I haven't drowned in my own cynical despair after all. I still want to believe, even if it ends up killing me. I can't exist in this gray limbo of hopeless disbelief any longer. I can't give up, but I'm so tired of fighting shadows; there has to be a way out of this desolate numbness I feel. right now, I'm clinging to Albert's mystery like a drowning man to a raft. The unknown apparently still has the power to excite me, to draw me half-way across the continent to investigate. I find hope in this, and hope is all I have left. Albert restored me to life once before. If anyone can restore my ability to believe, he can.

I owe Frohike big time. Operating only on the scant details I was able to give him and an impossible deadline, he managed to pull together USGS maps of the area, a few scattered news reports of a violent dry lightning storm in the desert near Socorro, New Mexico early Monday morning plus the three scant lines he could dig up on the Ancient Ones of Navaho legend. He seemed particularly intrigued by the lightning storm. He refused to elaborate, but he gave me the impression that for some reason this was significant. He and the others have their mysteries and secrets, and I have mine, so I can't blame him for not being more open.

Even with Frohike's help, there isn't much hard information to go on. I have about three pages of data, most of it highly speculative, and a map. Well, I've started with less. Whatever happened out in the desert perplexed the local weather stations. The official word is that the event was a localized thunderstorm. No one is giving any explanation of how a lightning storm could appear out of nowhere, hover over one particular mesa in the desert for a few hours, then vanish. According to Frohike, the local New Agers are already burning up the Internet talking about cosmic convergence aligning with the "vortex" that supposedly exists in the area. Even I'm not willing to buy into what some people think is out there. Ley lines I believe in. Vortexes stretch even my willingness to believe.

I have X-Files going back fifty years describing similar lightning storms, but none of them ever lasted more than a few minutes. I've never been able to correlate these lightning storms to any UFO activity, or even a known paranormal event. They don't appear to be restricted by geography. I have files describing sudden electrical phenomena occurring in the middle of large cities. There was a series of these electrical storms in New York City about thirteen years ago that coincided with the appearance of a serial killer who left the beheaded bodies of his victims scattered around the city. The killer was never found, but the killings stopped after a major lightning storm blacked out half the city. I wish I had been able to persuade Patterson that the killings needed investigating, but he was too intent on loaning me out to high profile cases so he could garner the publicity when I solved them.

"You are disturbed," Albert comments kindly, interrupting my bleak thoughts. "The men who would bind you to their dream are shadows. They have no power against your Dream, FBI Man." Albert's eyes stare into mine, plumbing my soul. I want to believe him. I want to believe that I haven't lost the man I was before doubt took over. Contrary to what Scully likes to believe, I don't easily accept the whole psychic routine -- I'm just willing to give them the benefit of the doubt -- but I've never doubted Albert's ability for a minute.

"Just tired," I hedge, fending him off with a half-truth. I am tired, right down to my soul, but it's too dangerous to confide in him, as much as I would like to. I don't want to look into Albert's eyes and see the man I used to be. That man would never have given up or considered selling his soul to the devil, as I have.

"You are still the same man, only you have believed the false dreams of the men who would deceive you. The Spirits want to help you, but they need your faith."

There's the tiniest bite of a rebuke in Albert's reply, though his sad smile is understanding. I wonder if he brought me out here to discuss this mystery, or because somehow, across a thousand miles, he sensed I was drowning. Standing here with him, I feel as if all I have to do is reach out and I will find the faith I lost and the certainty that the Truth is out there.

All I can give him in reply is a shrug and a half-smile. I want to forget the New Spartans. For one weekend, I want to be Fox Mulder, UFO-chaser and paranormal investigator extraordinaire.

"How long did the lightning storm last?" I ask trying not to prejudice Albert's answers. I already know he regards the official explanation with the amusement of a man who understands that the world is far more complex than the simple explanations we're fed by the government.

Albert smiles broadly, then turns to look up at the mesa, now red with the setting sun. His expression turns somber. "Seven ancient ones died and lightning tore the sky and earth asunder to mark each death. The dead are angry and have poisoned the dreams of the children who live in the villages nearby. The shamans of the Alamo Band have held ceremonies to placate the dead, but they remain angry."

"Nightmares? Disease?" I ask curiously. I've seen stranger things happen than psychosomatic epidemics. Yet Albert's tone indicates that whatever may be plaguing the people who live around here, it's very real to them. I'm no shaman, much less an exorcist. Other than my fascination with the phenomena, why was Albert so insistent that I come out here?

"These restless ones do not belong here. They do not hear our prayers, or honor our ceremonies of appeasement. The truth they fear. You are a truth-seeker, FBI Man. You have walked in the shadow of the Spirit world and returned. You See beyond the boundaries men have set around their world. They will fear you and the truth you would learn about them," Albert says in a stern, relentless tone. He sounds as if he's speaking ex cathedra -- from the Spirits to his lips to my ears. This idea is not comforting in the least. Albert is sending me up against ghosts in the firm belief that my penchant for digging out the truth will be enough to scare them off. I'm not sure what medicinal drug Albert is taking, but I'm strongly considering asking him for a prescription. I could use some really good mind-altering drugs right about now.

"It is late. We will return in the morning and I will show you the place where they fought. Come, I will take you to a place where you can rest in safety."

Before I can answer, Albert turns and heads back towards the jeep. I feel disappointed, but if Albert feels it's better to wait until morning, then I won't argue with him. Even I'm not foolish enough to try climbing rocks at night, although it's tempting. The Jeep, driven by Albert's son George, heads back down a washboard road at a careful pace. Wet sand baked into ruts creates a ripple effect that vibrates through the jeep until my spine rattles. I hope whatever motel Albert is taking me to has a good bed; I'm going to need solid support for my abused vertebrae tonight.

When we pull into the long curving driveway of an old hacienda, I hastily re-evaluate my prospects for the night. The neatly kept garden, the old shade trees, and the elegant trimwork all suggest that whoever owns this place is well off. And Scully says I keep unfolding. There are more layers to Albert than an artichoke. For a simple Navajo shaman, he appears to have friends in high places.

A small Native American woman emerges as I stiffly disengage myself from the jeep. I creak, but once my spine settles back into place, I can actually stretch without popping anything. I'm not sure I'd recommend a washboard road as the new therapeutic treatment for tension, but it seems to have loosened up a month's worth of stress cramps in my upper back.

"Welcome. George, you know where to take your bags. Albert, I've put your friend in the El Dorado room," she informs us briskly as she reaches out to grasp my hand. "Welcome to La Casa de los Suenos," she says warmly with just the faintest hint of a question.

"I'm Fox Mulder," I reply quickly. Apparently all Albert told her was that he was bringing someone to stay. I decide not to tell her that I'm FBI.

"Ah, yes, the FBI man Albert has been talking about. Then you are doubly welcome. I hope you don't mind carrying your own bag up to your room. It's the slow season, so my usual help isn't around. Just go up the outside stairs over there and your room is the second door on the western veranda. Rest a bit and take your time cleaning up. Dinner will be ready in one hour." Sarah gives Albert a warm smile and a light caressing brush of her fingers across his hand before she disappears back inside.

"Sarah is an old friend," was all Albert volunteers, but I could swear his voice softens just a bit.

By the time I reach my room, I realize that La Casa de los Suenos is a five-star bed and breakfast. This is way beyond my budget. I'm tempted to ask Albert if he knows of a small motel somewhere, but don't want to offend him. My window looks out over a large plaza surrounding a fountain. In the distance I can see the mountains fading against the darkening sky. The air smells fresh and sweet with the fragrance of flowers. In short, I feel as if I'm in a dream that whispers to me of sleep and relaxation. Shaking my head abruptly, I slough off the dream, albeit somewhat reluctantly, and sternly remind myself that I'm here on a case. I can sleep later. If I stop to rest, I might never get back up.

Among the growing list of things Albert neglected to tell me is that Sarah is a retired chef who maintains a fresh vegetable garden. She calls herself a plain country cook, but she could make a fortune if she opened a restaurant in D.C. Bolstered by a huge helping of what Sarah calls simple home cooking, I feel ready to tackle the New Spartans and Cancer Man. OK, perhaps that's an exaggeration, but I'd forgotten what good, solid food tastes like after months of fast food and greasy meals eaten at remote hole-in-the-wall restaurants during clandestine meetings with the New Spartans. Sarah has just claimed equal status with my favorite Chinese cook in D.C. I wistfully regret that New Mexico is just a bit out of range for carry-out.

"I need some fresh air," I announce as I push myself away from the table. I need to walk off dinner before I fall asleep. Besides, a long walk in the open will help me think. Albert nods understandingly.

"Stick to the paths and you'll be fine. Don't go wandering around in the desert. It's not for the unwary," Sarah adds.

Yeah, tell me about it, I think to myself, as I recall lying wedged fast in a narrow hole, seeing daylight, feeling the heat of the sun bake me dry as I waited for death. I nod and grab my jacket. The night is crisp, not quite cold, but the wind carries a chill bite. The stars are out in full, almost bright enough to see by. The closest town lights are about a mile away. Mindful of Sarah's warning, I stick to the winding path that leads around the hacienda and through the gardens. Gradually my mind begins to slow down as I ponder who and what the Ancient Ones are. Frohike had very little other than a few stray references and Albert is being characteristically obscure. I think he enjoys seeing me piece together the puzzle from the bits and pieces he gives me.

By the time I reach the fountain, the stress and worry of the past months has drifted away, leaving me feeling somewhat light-headed. Only now do I realize that the paths Sarah so blithely sent me on were part of a labyrinth. I wonder what Albert has guessed, or what he told her about me while I was up in my room. I want to muster up some irritation at their tactics, but it would sound foolish to object to being unstressed. I've never walked a labyrinth before, although I've read the studies on the resurgence of this ancient meditation technique. I wonder what Scully would make of one? It might do her some good, but I doubt if she'd being willing to accept that it was anything more than a physiological reaction to repetitive movement.

Sarah is nowhere in sight when I return to the hacienda. I'd seen Albert striding out into the desert as I left the garden. He waved, but didn't stop. I wonder if his Spirits called him out to talk with them. Hopefully, they'll be a little more forthcoming with information. I can work wonders on next to no evidence, but I need something solid to start with.

I'm tempted to stay up and read awhile, but the bed looks too inviting and my body is beginning to insist on sleep. For once I can expect a night's sleep without a phone call in the middle of the night calling me to a meeting in some out of the way dive or porno house. I may have an extensive collection of adult-rated flicks, but I prefer to watch them alone, not in some sleazy theater filled with the scent of desperate men seeking some sort of intimate connection. I'm not that desperate and hope I'll never reach that point. Still, porno theaters make great contact points since nobody is looking at anybody else.

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

5:00 a.m. Friday morning, April 24, 1998

Sarah's call comes early; it's still dark outside, but for the first time in months, I wake up rested. My sleep was full of dreams that slip away before I can fully remember them, but they were pleasant dreams. Maybe Albert's Spirits decided I could use some light entertainment, or maybe I just sleep better in the desert air. Sarah has cooked enough breakfast for an army, but there's surprisingly little left after Albert, George, and I are through.

The sun is barely a hand high over the horizon when we arrive back at the foot of the mesa. The washboard road actually feels good this morning, like a vigorous massage rather than a spine-rattling torture. Albert hasn't said a word beyond the usual morning pleasantries. Obviously, if his Spirits were forthcoming with more clues, he's not going to share them just yet. I have no idea what George thinks about this whole venture. He's barely spoken an entire sentence, but once or twice I've caught a resigned amusement in his eyes when I've turned quickly and caught him off guard.

As soon as the jeep pulls to a stop, Albert starts walking towards the base of the mesa. He doesn't seem to have the slightest doubt that I'll be right behind him. For the first time in months, I feel a sneaking sympathy for Scully and how she must feel when I go haring off after spooks expecting her to be right there beside me. Yet, what else can I do? I owe Albert my life. If he believes I can help, then I'll try, but I'm afraid all he has is a man who isn't sure what the truth is anymore.

"Come, I know a secret way up the mesa. My grandfather showed it to me. He told me that the Anasazi used the cavern to hide from their enemies. Coyote showed the secret way to him so that the memory would not be lost. Now I show it to you."

I'm not quite sure how to take this confidence. This is the second time Albert has reminded me that nothing dies as long as somebody is alive who remembers. He's passing on a secret to preserve the memory of a people dead long before his people came into these lands. Despite months of debilitating doubt, I feel the stirrings of curiosity. A secret path with a mystery waiting for me on top of a haunted mesa in the middle of the desert -- what more could any man ask for on a vacation?

Half an hour later, we're standing at the southwest base of the mesa. I can't see any sign of a secret path, but then I guess that's why they call them secret paths. Albert seems amused by my befuddlement.

"The Ancient Ones followed the trail. It's long, but easy to follow by night when the stars shine like the campfires of our ancestors. They would have had enough light to follow the path." Albert sounds faintly disgruntled. Somehow I think he expected more out of the Ancient Ones. I guess the sons of lightning didn't live up to their advance press.

"Over here," Albert taps my arm, pulling me out of my reverie. He gestures at a very solid-looking rock. I don't see any opening beyond a narrow cleft hidden behind a fifteen-foot slab of rock. The cleft is nothing more than a crack in the rock that ends almost before it begins.

"Follow me," he says with a smile as I stare at the rock in puzzlement. To my surprise, he flattens himself against the wall of the mesa and slithers into the cleft and disappears. Neat trick. Hoping I can fit through the crack, I press up against the mesa and follow him. A sharp left angle leads into a narrow passageway tunneling into the mesa.

"It was easier when I was a boy," Albert comments with a laugh as I wiggle free of the torturous path. I don't think I got a deep breath the entire trip. Albert's broader than I am, but he seems unaffected by the trip through the narrow passage. I never considered claustrophobia a problem, but I'm not looking forward to the return trip. Maybe I'll take the outside trail, just to make sure I've checked over all the evidence.

The flare of a match and a burst of light behind me casts my shadow across the cavern wall. In the dim light, I gaze in wonder at what must have been a place of refuge centuries ago; a hidden city buried beneath the mesa. Archaeologists would have a field day with this find. Looking up, I can see the clay walls of houses nestled in the rock forty feet above the cavern floor. For centuries this place has remained a secret, safe from the prying eyes of strangers. Our footsteps echo in the silence; our breathing sounds like the wind stirring up old memories. The age of this place is oppressive. I don't know what happened here, but it should remain undisturbed. Albert looks at me, his eyes shining in the lantern-light, and nods his understanding.

"The Old Ones haunt this place. My people have no tales to tell, but death leaves its mark. This is a place of death. Perhaps that is why the Ancient Ones chose this place for their battle. Perhaps they sought to summon the souls of the ancient dead to fight on their behalf." Albert shrugs and sets the lantern down on a large square rock well inside the cave. He goes over to one wall and pulls out a long wooden ladder from a pile of brush. With Albert in the lead, we start to climb, me with my flashlight firmly tucked in my mouth. I am *not* going to climb a shaky wooden ladder up the side of a cave wall in complete darkness. I don't trust Albert's Spirits to keep an eye on both of us.

Six ladders later, five house levels, and nearly fifteen hundred feet up, we come to a winding trail hewn out of a natural crack in the rock. It leads upwards in a gradual incline through solid rock for several thousand feet until we are standing in a large room ten feet below a hole that opens up to the sky. Hoping that this is the last ladder I'm going to have to climb, I wait expectantly for Albert to produce the ladder. Instead, he waves me over to a house and walks in, obviously expecting that I'll follow. To my surprise, a doorway in the back of the house opens onto a narrow path leading up to the surface. At last I'm standing atop the mesa staring out at a magnificent view of the desert. Visualizing the map, I check for reference points. The mesa is a large, irregular crescent moon with the tips pointing north and northeast. I have to turn around several times before I can locate the spot where the trail comes up along the northeast side of the mesa. I sure wouldn't want to climb that trail with anyone on top waiting for me.

Albert goes over to a flat rock and sits down in what little shade it offers. After taking a long drink from his canteen, he offers it to me. With a sly smile, I pull a water bottle out of my backpack. My last experience in the desert taught me how important water is. I'd rather leave my gun behind than come out here without water. As it is, I have the water and my gun, and I feel ready for just about anything.

Whoever fought up here was damn conscientious about tidying up after themselves, but bloodstains on rock are hard to erase. Aside from the blood, lightning-blast marks on the rocks testify that something deadly happened up here. Closing my eyes, I try to visualize possible scenarios. It was obviously a fight by choice, rather than ambush, or no one would have gotten up the trail along the side of the mesa. That means there were rules and somebody, or something, that enforced them. This seems an odd place for a duel, but that's the best analogy I can come up with.

Albert appears content to let me wander about, picking up scant clues, trying to put together the puzzle. Of course, for this one, I not only don't have all the pieces, I don't even have a picture to tell me what I'm looking for. I've worked with less, but not often.

A crime, or several crimes, could have been committed up here, but I don't have enough evidence to even begin creating a plausible theory. All I have is what Albert tells me his friends told him and a few bloodstained rocks. For all I can tell, people were hurt, but I've yet to find a significant pool of blood that tells me somebody died. However, I'm witnessing an oral tradition in the making. Much of what he says is filtered through his beliefs, but I can glean out the bare bones of what happened. Two groups of people met up here, fought, some died, and the victors left after sweeping up all the evidence and hiding the bodies.

After two hours of circling around a half mile area where I suspect the fight took place, I find some shade and collapse, easing my back carefully against the sun-hot rock. There's very little evidence left; just enough to tell me that people died up here, but nothing conclusive. Everything seems as it should, except for the circle of rocks enclosing part of the northeast corner of the mesa. Nature can do strange things, but I've never heard of a natural formation that resembles a Celtic warding circle. Someone wanted to create a protected area, but against what? Closing my eyes, I let my mind wander over the crime scene, visualizing it as it must have appeared four days ago. I feel my breathing slow as I slip into profiling mode. With only the barest hesitation, I relax and let my mind drift wherever it wants to go.

The rocks radiate hate. In the early morning sun, men and women face off, determined to put an end to a blood feud that stretches back generations. What can drive people to inherit hate so strongly that they'll kill, and die, for wrongs done by their great-grandfathers?

Suddenly images start to flash through my mind. I can't make sense of what I'm seeing -- it's moving too fast. The one constant is the swords, all varieties, flashing in the morning sun. One figure keeps appearing and disappearing, hauntingly familiar yet indiscernible amid the tidal wave of faces overwhelming my mind. The keening of the wind becomes the voices of the dead. Gathering all my strength, I fight back, trying to wrench order out of the chaos. For one brief moment I succeed. I see a dark, lithe man flipping a sword up from the ground with his foot as blood from a gash across his shoulder stains his shirt. There’s the quick flash of a relieved smile as he turns towards someone and then the mists close in and I lose him. The angry wails of the dead return threatening to overwhelm me. Strangely, I reach out to the man for help, but he's gone, a wisp of shadow blown away by the wind.

"Fox, come back." Albert's voice sounds a thousand miles away, but carries a command I'm compelled to obey. Guided by his voice, I pull my mind away from the whirlwind. Albert is kneeling beside me, holding my head up while trying to get me to drink from his canteen with his other hand. When I open my eyes, I see his concern turn to relief.

"Only you would seek battle with the Spirits without protection," Albert says with a resigned shake of his head. He sighs. "They have retreated. You are stronger than you look. They fear you now, and what you are. It's a beginning." Albert sounds obscurely satisfied, although why my brief descent into madness should be cause for celebration is beyond me.

"Rest now. When it is cooler, we will go back down."

"Just give me a few moments to catch my breath. You wanted me to find the truth. Then let me do my job," I protest as I struggle to sit up. Albert sits back and watches as I right myself. "These people had to have slept and eaten somewhere nearby. I read somewhere that sometimes all ghosts want is to be known for who they are. That's why you called me out here, wasn't it? To pull them out into the light?"

"Has anyone ever told you that you are a very stubborn man?" Albert asks with the beginnings of a smile.

"Often," I admit ruefully. My head has stopped aching and I'm feeling a bit more in touch with reality. I've never experienced anything quite like that before. In the past, I've gotten glimpses, more like impressions of things a suspect is doing, or even thinking, but nothing like this chaotic collage of images that I can't make sense out of. It's frustrating -- I have the information, but I don't have any way of decoding it. Maybe a bit of routine police work will ground me.

Relaxing back against the rock, I relish the feel of the hot sun and the dry breeze which blows across my face. I'm back and in one piece. One of these days not only is the abyss going to look back at me, it's going to reach out and pull me in. Days like this remind me why I gave up full-time profiling.

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

George, is taking over duty as guide and driver, after insisting that his father rest. Albert doesn't look in the least bit tired, but he smiles indulgently and allows his son to shoo him into a comfortable chair. When Sarah appears with two tall glasses of lemonade, I suspect that the chance to sit and talk with Sarah rather than a need to rest is Albert's real reason for letting his son take over guide duties. From the few tidbits I picked up, and gauging by her age, I think Albert and Sarah have been friends for a long time, perhaps since the war. Sarah strikes me as the type of person who would march up to an army recruiting station and insist on doing her duty. I didn't examine the photos on the wall too closely, but I did see one showing a small woman about Scully's height, wearing a World War II army uniform, staring out at the camera with a look of determination in her eyes.

With George's help, I list the towns within a hundred miles of the mesa that actually have motels. Using practical logic, I'll start with the closest one and work outward. I don't imagine the people who congregated here wanted to stay at the same motel. That might strain whatever code of conduct this fight operated by. The fact that Frohike couldn't dig up police reports of a running fight indicates that there were rules. I've never heard of a feud with rules, but duels, on the other hand, are rigidly orchestrated. Of course, I've never heard of duels that involved a dozen or so combatants, but this case is so full of contradictions that I'm rather glad I won't be filing an official report. Skinner would never believe it.

The Thunderbird Inn is one of those motels which can best be described as an experience and reminisced about with rueful chuckles in vacation stories. At one time it must have been close to a three-star motel, but hard times have reduced it to a one-and-a-half star motel. The manager is one of those people cops hate; the kind with almost no memory except when inspired by the introduction of Benjamin Franklin or Ulysses S. Grant into the conversation. All my badge does is move the discussion from Jackson to the lesser known denominations. Why do people out in the boondocks seem to think all government agents are over-paid?

After we set the price for a sudden recovery from amnesia, the manager was actually quite helpful. The sudden arrival of ten guests for three nights was an unexpected bounty in a slow week.

"They paid in cash with no arguments, well sorta," he admits with a half-guilty smile. Translated, that means he saw them coming and raised his rates fifty percent and they *persuaded* him to split the difference for his silence. As far as I know there isn't a federal law against gouging tourists, but the man is suddenly on the defensive. He's coming up against the hard fact of life that he's not going to be able to stay bought. I don't smile and wait silently for him to continue. Intimidation isn't one of my strong suits, except when I've lost my temper, but silence always makes people with guilty consciences very nervous. Having a psych degree comes in handy in so many ways in my job.

"It's not as if they couldn't afford it. They come piling in here in their fancy SUVs so I figure they wouldn't miss a few extra dollars," he confesses with a shrug and an attempt to look righteous, but I can see the cringing in his eyes. I hate this, but sometimes it's the only way to pry information out of toads like him. Obsequiousness looks ridiculous on his linebacker frame, but his muddy blue eyes are broadcasting a guilty conscience. I wonder what petty crimes he's committed that are now coming out to haunt him.

"Can you describe them?" I ask in a deadly tone, implying that he unwittingly played host to a bunch of international terrorists and if he doesn't want to 'come downtown' with me, he'll remember everything he can about them.

"I only saw a couple of them; the ones who came to the office to pick up the keys," he offers cautiously. Getting descriptions is going to be like pulling teeth, but I have plenty of time. I give him a bored look that implies that unless this conversation starts getting interesting, he's going to take a little trip. Thank God he doesn't realize that I'm out here without any authority to take him anywhere. I shouldn't even be asking him questions, but this wouldn't be the first time I've ignored the rules. I think Skinner would die of shock if I didn't break at least three rules of procedure during every case.

He swallows heavily and starts talking. "The one I remember best was a fierce-looking Irish lady with eyes that could freeze a man's balls off or send him up in flames. She seemed to be mad and I didn't want to know why. I saw a tall, muscle-man who might have been her bodyguard; he stuck pretty close to her. I thought at first maybe he was her boyfriend, but they never touched. He looked as if he was just looking for an excuse to kill somebody. I don't know what these people have done, but all I did was rent them rooms," the manager hastily explains, tripping over his words as he tries to convince me he isn't involved with them. "If they were IRA, I didn't know," he pleads awkwardly. He does not appear to be a man used to being put on the defensive, which might work to my advantage if I ask the right questions.

"Go on. You haven't given me much in the way of a useful description. You know the routine -- height, eye color, general appearance," I remind him sternly. He nods and takes a deep breath. His expression tells me that he's all too familiar with this, and other, police routines. I wouldn't be surprised to find that he has a string of petty offenses on his record. This is the closest he's come to the big time and I don't think it's quite as glamorous as he thought it would be.

"The lady was tall, maybe a little over five-ten, kinda young, but not too young, ya know?" I nod and make a guess that the lady was somewhere in her mid-to-late twenties. "She had brown hair. . . . long, that's right, it was tied in some sort of braid that hung down over her back. Nice figure, but a bit scrawny."

I nod encouragingly. Now we're getting somewhere.

"The man was dark and built like a running back. He moved like those kung-fu fighters you see on TV -- kinda soft-footed as if he could turn on a dime. He had a pony tail, but I don't think he was a fag."

"You've described two people. I believe you said there were ten?" I'm having to fight to keep from laughing at the frantic expression on the manager's face. He probably always fancied himself as a big-time operator forced by circumstance to exist in a second-rate world. Now he's facing a fibbie with an attitude and he's nearly pissing in his pants with eagerness to disassociate himself from anything even remotely criminal.

"Yeah, but I only got a good look at five of them," he protests. I have to give him this much credit, he's trying to stay bought.

"Well, you've given me two. Last time I checked, that leaves three more good descriptions you owe me."

"Sure... um.... Yeah, right, hold your horses, I did see someone else. There was this real tall black bitch... er, I mean woman," he amends in response to a cold glare from me. He resents me calling him on his language, but he's not willing to take on a government agent who happens to have a very big Navajo driver as backup. Although he's out of earshot, George must have read something in my body language because he suddenly gives the manager a very dangerous smile. I think he's enjoying the chance to pay back years of subtle, and not so subtle, insults from men like this manager.

I almost feel sorry for this poor bastard but I think I'm sweating a lifetime of petty racism and crimes out of him so I'll look on this experience as a morally redeeming one for him. I bet no one has ever dared challenge his attitude before. His size alone would ensure that he could spout whatever garbage he wanted without too much opposition. However, it's time to be 'good cop' before I antagonize him into sullen silence, so I relax my stance, inviting him to talk freely.

"I'm not a racist, but she had no call to glare at me just because I was looking," he adds in an aggrieved tone. Apparently the lady in question did not appreciate being leered at. I don't blame her, but right now I need to keep the man talking. Not trusting my voice to mimic sympathy without retching, I give him an understanding nod. I've learned the art of deception well these past few months, but I still can't control the urge to retch every time I play up to a racist SOB.

"She was a beauty, though. One of those long-limbed African types who look like they could run a cheetah into the ground." He's not exactly salivating, but I catch the distinct impression that he is definitely harboring lust in his heart. I keep my expression neutral, but shift position ever so slightly to indicate that I'm beginning to get impatient.

"I didn't see who she shared a room with, honest. All I caught was a glimpse of his back as he went in the room. He was shorter than her and blond, but honest, I didn't get a look at him." After an infinitesimal pause he continued, "He walked in proud like, you know, like some fancy stallion showing off in front of his mares."

"That's four," I prompt. It's going to be dinner time before I manage to pull descriptions out of this man. I have a feeling that these people paid him very well not to pay attention.

"Sure, sure, just give me a moment." He pauses and screws up his face as if thinking is a painful process -- it probably is. "I really don't know how to describe the next couple except that the man looked like fury on two legs. Irish was mad, but this man looked like he'd fight a mountain if it got in his way. From the size of him, he might win. Mean bastard. Roomed with a little lady about half his size. Cute blonde babe. She tried to hide it behind those dainty looks, but I could tell she was a mover, if you know what I mean," he says with a snigger. Great, we've passed through the intimidation phase of this interview and we're now entering the male bonding, dirty joke, phase. Oh happy day, I comment sarcastically to myself.

"Description -- hair color, height, eye color...." I prompt again, hoping to get something a little more definite than a walking temper. I pity the local cops if this guy is ever a witness to a crime.

"He looked like a bulldog, all muscle, but short and nasty with red hair and a temper to match. The girl he was with talked like one of those smooth Southern belles, but she looked like she was ready to spit nails. Jesus, she was mad. The whole fucking bunch of them were like dynamite waiting to go off."

"Height might be useful," I remind him. He's starting to look desperate as he realizes that I'm just not going to go away like a bad dream. It's rather enjoyable being someone else's nightmare, even for a few minutes.

"The man was medium height, you know, not too tall, not exactly short."

I growl softly under my breath to encourage his wayward memory.

"OK, I'd guess he was about five-ten or so. The lady was real short. I'd say she couldn't have been over four-ten, maybe less. She looked like a kid among the others."

I nod my satisfaction and gesture for him to continue. I don't have much to go on, but each small piece helps. If I learned anything in profiling, it's that every piece of information counts, no matter how small or insignificant it appears at first.

"I didn't get a look at the guys who shared room twelve. All I know is that there were three of them. They kept to themselves. Maybe they were afraid I'd recognize them. I watch 'America's Most Wanted' religiously," he adds proudly. I wonder how many innocent tourists get a visit from the local cops when this man's imagination starts seeing fleeing criminals.

Interesting group. Sifting through the subjective slant the manager gives me with the descriptions, I think I have a fair idea of some of the participants in the fight. As I run over the descriptions, I realize I'm one short of the ten he mentioned.

"You said there were ten. You seem to be missing someone." I turn my tone cold again, figuring it's time to slip back into intimidation mode before the manager starts getting too comfortable.

He looks puzzled, then proceeds to slowly count to nine on his fingers. When he's done, he stares at the tenth finger accusingly. I can practically see the sweat forming on his brow as he tries to remember the tenth member of the gang.

"To be honest, sir, I don't remember much about him. He stayed pretty much out of the way." A pause then the light literally dawns in his eyes. "That's it. He stayed in the same room with the Irish lady and her bodyguard, but I don't remember getting a good look at him. Maybe he had something to hide," he offers with a flicker of excitement.

"Possible. Then anything you can tell me about him would help. Was he tall, short, fat, thin, old, young....?"

"Tall, but thin. I remember now, he looked out of place with all the others. They all had the look of kick-ass fighters. He looked like one of those geeky librarian types, ya know? Now that I think about it, he was the only one who didn't look mad as hell," he pauses for a moment and then looks up with the morbid excitement of a gawker at a gruesome accident. "He turned once and I saw his eyes, they were as cold as ice. When he caught me looking at him, he sorta changed, closed off, though I had a feeling that he'd have killed me without a second thought if it suited him. It's like that Bundy fellow, you know, the one who killed all those women -- nice on the outside, but a cold-blooded killer on the inside." The manager seems excited by the fact that he might have come in close contact with a hit-man. I don't feel like disillusioning him about the decidedly unromantic characteristics of serial killers, especially those who kill for pay.

"Do you have the register they signed?" I ask hopefully. My instincts tell me that even if I do get names, they'll end up being dead ends. These people don't sound like amateurs.

"They paid in cash," the manager whined. He knows damn well that he's supposed to get names and license plate numbers, but it's not the first time motel managers have taken a little extra on the side to forget all the legal niceties. I glare at him just to make sure he's telling the truth. Reluctantly he pulls out the ledger and points to the names. I have a feeling that they're false names, but sometimes people can slip up so I dutifully copy the names and the license numbers. Langly loves tracking down shit like this. I'll consider it an early birthday present.

"Can I see the rooms they used?" This is probably a futile effort, but the manager doesn't strike me as the overly tidy type and maybe, just maybe, somebody got careless. I doubt it. These people seem way too professional, but accidents can happen. If they didn't, there would be a lot fewer criminals behind bars.

"The maids have already cleaned them, but sure, you can take a look. Here's the master key. I gotta get back to work. Just drop off the key when you're done." He sees a chance to get away from me and is grabbing it for all it's worth.

Not so fast. I don't have anything else to ask, but I don't want him feeling the warm rush of relief, just yet.

"Well, it's not much, but I've built solid cases on less evidence. If we need you in court, I'll let you know," I say with a certain relish as the manager's face turns pale. Snitching is one thing; testifying in court is a lot more than he bargained for. It's petty, I know, but I detest dead-ends and feel just a bit vindictive. It might do this man's conscience some good if he starts worrying about what the people who bribed him might do if they learned he was talking to me. "If you happen to remember anything else, here's my card." He handles my card as if it were a bomb waiting to go off. I don't expect to hear from him, but he's considering the possibility that his brief brush with notoriety might have gotten him in deeper than he wanted.

"Yeah, sure, no problem," he assures me eagerly. I sense that all he really wants right now is for me to go away and leave him alone. He's too spooked to toss my card in the trash, but I'm willing to bet it gets buried in a drawer.

The rooms are surprisingly clean. I hate efficient maids. Any evidence has long since been dusted, swept, and washed away. Despite the motel's sagging exterior, the rooms are large and comfortable. The beds are so-so, but not bad. I've slept in worst places. Considering that there's a new Red Roof Inn just off the main highway about twenty miles from here, I find the choice of motels rather interesting. Someone in this group knows this area, although I suspect that their information was a few years out of date, say about twenty years. It's taken that long for the shabbiness to settle in.

Struck by an idea, I pick up the phone and dial the front desk.

"Manager," he answers gruffly. No doubt he's wondering 'what now?'

"Is there any place to eat around here?"

"Not since the Arrowhead Cafe burned down about ten years ago. You can still see the foundation stones down the road 'bout a mile. Nowadays, folks usually head into Magdalena or back to the highway. Katy is sure missed. She made the best biscuits in five counties. Won prizes at the state fair. It's a real shame," he offers. He feels he's on safe ground and his natural expansiveness is coming through. If I had been interested in local gossip, he'd probably still be talking to me.

"Good cook?" I ask, gently prompting him for more information.

"One of the best. Gave credit when times were hard. Just a general all-round good person. Wasn't right her dying in that fire. T'weren't right at all," he adds in an aggrieved tone.

"Thanks." So, they came here expecting a good motel with fine food -- a place to rest and gather their energies for the fight. Instead they find a motel sinking into terminal shabbiness, run by a sleazy manager and no food closer than the shabby cafe I saw in Magdalena or the Chili's sitting next to the Comfort Inn on the main highway. Somehow I don't think that state of affairs did anything to improve their mood. Wonder how much of their frustration got taken out on their opponents?

For some reason, I'm amused by the fact that these people were within two hours of a fantastic cook and never knew it. Suddenly it makes them less intimidating, not quite so calculating and professional, and gives them a human side. If they can make mistakes, then they can be profiled, or could be if I had a case. As it is, this is just idle speculation; a way to keep my mind off the walls closing in on me back in DC. I don't regret giving up profiling, but at least the options were deadly simple -- succeed and stop the killing, fail and know that every death stands as a testament to your failure. Now I don't even know what the options are, much less how to gauge whether I'm ahead, or falling behind.

As I head back to the car, another thought occurs to me and I step into the office to pay the manager one last visit. He looks up warily, no doubt wondering what new tangent I'm off on.

"One last question, no make that two -- were any of the party missing the second night?" Something is niggling in the back of my mind about the deaths Albert mentioned. There wasn't enough blood up on top of the mesa to justify a ruling of multiple deaths, but Albert seems very sure people died. I suspect his information comes from sources that don't rely on forensic evidence.

"Not that I saw. There were three vehicles in the lot that night and they were all gone in the morning. Don't know if that means anything...." he offers hopefully. I nod as if it explained everything, but inside I'm cursing the addition of more pieces to the jumbled mess. Bodies might be relatively simple to hide in the desert, as I know only too well, but cars are another matter.

"Did they throw a party the last night?" Once again, I'm not sure why this question is important, but it might be useful. One thing I learned early in my profiling career is that no question is totally irrelevant. Eventually, even the most off-the-wall question provides some clue, often an important one. I drove Patterson crazy asking these kind of questions when he wanted me to zero in on the important stuff. However, a good portion of my cases were solved because I picked up some clue that seemed absolutely useless at the time, but which proved to be the linchpin in the case.

"Nah. They were a quiet bunch. As I said, I didn't see much of them, but I didn't hear anything that sounded like a party. They came in, shut the doors, and left the next morning around dawn," he adds with a shrug.

"Thank you. You've been most helpful." Actually he has, although he may not realize exactly how helpful he's been. My mind is churning over the new tidbits of information and I'm beginning to get the hazy outline of an idea.

"Where to now?" George asks as I climb into the Jeep.

"Back to town. I need to make a few phone calls."

George nods and leaves me to consider the information I've gathered in silence. I need information on the other side of this fight, but I don't want to waste time driving around to the various motels. Something tells me that finding out where they stayed is going to be a lot harder. Time is growing short. I fly out of here Sunday afternoon and if my hazy idea is right, I don't have time to waste.

The luxury of having somebody else drive allows me to cast my mind adrift and try to fit the scant pieces of the puzzle together. All I have is a vague outline and a few of the center pieces, but there are a lot of pieces missing. Sarah's mission-house home is on the other side of town, so I take the opportunity to look around as we pass through and wonder what brought a feud to this spot. Then there's the mystery of why Albert keeps referring to these people as Ancient Ones, other than to send my curiosity into hyper-drive. Sarah's house is an oasis of greenery and soft brown adobe walls that suggest that this house was here long before the town was.

"You have the look of a man who has learned secrets," Albert says with a smile as I relax with a sigh in the cool garden. It's only April, but the desert is revving up for a long, hot summer. Startled into a sheepish smile, I nod. I didn't think I was that obvious, but Albert would have made a hell of a profiler.

"I need to make a few phone calls, but yes, I think I'm closing in on the problem," I reply. "Sarah, may I borrow your phone?" I ask with my best smile. "I also need to know how much I owe you for the room." I hope my credit card can cover the charges. Sarah's place looks like one of those hundred-fifty-dollar a night places and my budget is pretty well tapped for the month. Maintaining a double-life is a lot more expensive than people realize.

"You're a friend of Albert's," she pauses to give Albert a slightly exasperated look. "I thought he explained. I'm giving you special rates," Sarah says. At my look of surprise, she grins.

"I have very special rates for friends of friends, then there's the discount for underpaid government workers, so you can stay here for the modest sum of fifty dollars a night. Of course, that includes dinner and breakfast." Sarah chuckles at what must be a dumbfounded expression on my face. "To put it in more practical terms, I don't have any bookings until late next week. Now that the Easter rush is over, this is a slow time. I'd just as soon have company as try to cook for just one. Besides, Albert and George will be staying as well." Sarah gives me a stern look and I raise my hands in surrender. I may not always admit it, but I usually know when I'm outgunned and outmaneuvered.

"Thank you. Now, is there a phone I can use?"

"In the library," she says, pointing to a small hallway leading off from the rear of the garden. "If you don't have a calling card, I'll have to bill you for any long distance charges, but local ones are free."

Nodding agreement to her terms, I head off to the library. Half an hour later, I finally track down a motel, an all-suites hotel actually, on the outskirts of Albuquerque that had a party of nine arrive and sign for three suites. They arrived almost a week before the fight and closed out their bill by auto-checkout the day after. Sounds like they planned to scout out the area before the fight, then clear the hell out. Why did the other party decide to stay for just three nights? Little mysteries like these keep me awake at night.

These people were even more circumspect than the group at the Thunderbird Inn, but the staff at the Hampton Suites Inn was much more interested in cooperating. The desk clerk I talked with remembered the group. Apparently there was a great deal of speculation among the staff about these people. Three men showed up on the morning of the fifteenth. The man who signed the register was in his late forties, rather sleek and pampered looking. The clerk said he reminded her of a very young George Hamilton, definitely a playboy type with the kind of polished charm that could be turned on and off like a light switch. I get the feeling that he gave the girl the creeps despite his good looks. He paid cash, in advance. Just once I wish the bad guys would remember that we live in a plastic society. It would make my life so much easier.

According to my very loquacious informant, the two men accompanying Mr. Playboy were arrogant asses. Tiffany said that one of them could have posed for a Nazi propaganda poster while the other reminded her of the evil preacher in Poltergeist II. Not very good descriptions, but somehow I have a feeling that they're more accurate than a straight physical description would be. Unfortunately, the FBI database doesn't appreciate vague terms like demonic preachers and Nazi look-alikes, however psychologically appropriate they are.

Two more men arrived a little later, followed by a man and a woman late in the afternoon. Two more women arrived the next day bringing the total up to nine. Tiffany had very little to say about the women other than to call them high-class bitches, although she did say that one of them couldn't have been much over fifteen. She especially remembered one man, the gentleman who arrived late on the fifteenth. She said that he was very ordinary looking, tanned with a lot of freckles and medium brown hair. She added that he sounded British, or Australian maybe. She remembered him because he was so polite and he smiled at her. She said he reminded her a bit of Mel Gibson, although better looking.

After putting me on hold for a few minutes, she came back and said that she asked around and the general impression everyone got was that the group acted weird, kind of tense and angry. Apparently the going rumor among the staff was that they were an international cartel conducting either a major drug deal or were plotting a hostile corporate takeover. The Australian was the only one she saw the last night, April 20. She noticed him because he seemed so sad, although he'd smiled politely when she'd asked if he needed anything.

After thanking Tiffany, I had her connect me to Room Service. The manager for Room Service remembers them because one of them chewed her out over the wine list. Apparently the woman was quite upset and made her displeasure crystal clear in rather profane Italian and English. To add insult to injury, she under-tipped, badly. In fact, the manager said, only one room tipped decently at all and it was always the same man, the Australian from the description. The waiter I talked to said that he always smiled and said thank you, and the lowest tip he gave was a twenty. The other waiters were lucky to get five dollars for their trouble. Competition for the good tipper got fairly intense I gathered.

After confessing that he thought the group was an international drug cartel, the waiter hemmed and hawed for a moment, then admitted that he'd kept the wine bottles they used on Sunday night when they gathered in one room for a party. He'd considered giving them to the police, but as far as he could tell the people had done nothing wrong. He offered to send them to me and I gave him Frohike's cover address, the one I have all my best tapes sent to. It'll probably turn out to be a dead end, but my curiosity is awake now and I want some answers.

I tell him he's been a big help and literally hear him purr. Payback is a bitch and this waiter is enjoying skewering the people who stiffed him and his friends. I love arrogant suspects who leave a trail of disgruntled service people in their wake. It's interesting that the one person the hotel staff commented on as being polite is the one who survived the fight. His survival muddies the waters. When does a blood feud leave survivors on the other side?

After hanging up, I lean back in the chair and try to clear my mind of everything before slowly taking out each piece of the puzzle and examining it. My body relaxes as my mind begins to drift aimlessly among the clues. I keep seeing the high-speed flashes with an occasional frozen moment that makes no sense because I can't put it into context. The only image that stands out is the one of the man on his knees, holding onto a sword as his blood drips onto the sand. For some reason this is important, but I can't figure out why.

Thinking slips into napping while my subconscious sorts things out. When I come to about an hour later, I realize that I need to go back to the mesa. I could just trust my instincts, but I need to make sure.

Albert is still in the garden meditating, or napping if you will. With his brilliant, curious eyes closed, he looks old. For some reason, I never think of him as being that old, but I suppose he must be somewhere in his seventies if he was a Code Talker during World War II.

"Albert," I say softly, hesitating to disturb him, but this is important. He called me out here to do a job and I think I know how to do it.

"You have answers," he says confidently, looking awake and eager.

"I think so. We need to go back to the mesa, to your secret way. I believe part of the answer can be found there," I reply more confidently than I feel. If hope can tweak an answer out of speculation and guesswork, then yes, I have found the answer to the haunting.

Albert gives me a long steady look, as if rooting about inside my head for the truth. Then he smiles and nods. "It will be dark soon. The morning will be time enough. At night, the restless ones are strong. In the daylight, they will be asleep. Then their secrets will be easier to uncover."

I start to argue, but fall silent as he raises his hand to still my protests. "You have the impatience of youth, Fox, but we will wait for daylight. I will pray this night and prepare the way we must walk. I know that you do not follow the Spirit Path, but I will ask the Spirits to grant you sleep without dreams to give you strength."

How does Albert know that sleep and I have almost become strangers in the past few weeks as my deception carries me deeper into the New Spartans' insane world and farther away from Scully? I don't normally have nightmares, but they've become regular visitors lately. Last night was the first time I've slept without my subconscious presenting me with all the probable outcomes of my dalliance with undercover work.

Dinner is a quiet affair. Albert is off somewhere fasting and chanting, George tells me with a calm acceptance of his father's beliefs. I have a feeling he doesn't entirely share them, but accepts them as simply part of who his father is. After pacing restlessly for awhile outside, I finally decide to turn in and at least rest, if not sleep. To my surprise, I'm asleep almost before my head hits the pillow. Albert was wrong. I do dream, but they are dreams of a starfield and a timeless sense of peace.

 

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=
Saturday morning, April 25

 

Albert eats a hearty breakfast with us, but he looks tired. I gather that he stayed awake all night preparing himself for the confrontation with the disturbed ghosts he's anticipating. I feel more rested than I have in weeks. With the addition of Sarah's breakfast, I think I'm ready to face whatever is waiting for us inside the mesa. I'm expecting to find a few bodies, but I'm not entirely ignoring the possibility that there may be an angry ghost or two. That's Albert's department. I just hunt ghosts. Getting rid of them is not in my job description.

As we walk to the car, I finally ask the question that's been nagging me. "Why do you keep referring to these people as Ancient Ones?"

Albert smiles mysteriously and remains silent during the ride to the base of the mesa. George will wait with the car while we go tackle angry ghosts. For just a moment, I envy him. It's fairly obvious that he doesn't entirely believe in his father's Spirits, but he isn't about to take any chances. As I wiggle my way through the narrow entranceway, I wonder if Albert has forgotten my question. He didn't act as if I had broached a taboo subject.

Albert's lantern casts flickering shadows across the walls of the hidden city. Memories of a people long dead watch us from the shadows. I'm not psychic, but I feel uneasy, as if some malevolent force stalked these sad ghosts of the city builders. I look at Albert who nods understanding. Albert's voice takes on a sing-song rhythm as if he's reciting a tale old before his grandfather's time.

"The Ancient Ones are legends, sons of Lightning who were cast out of the Spirit World. They have taken the shape of men to move among us. Some are good and help man in his struggle to learn and grow. Others are evil, seeing men as nothing more than animals. They cannot die, except at the hands of their brethren. When they die, their souls rise up as lightning, reaching up to the sky, asking to be allowed to return home." Albert pauses and shifts back into his normal voice. "Perhaps the ones who died in this place are lost and cannot find their way back to the Sky." Albert manages to look stern and sad at the same time.

I haven't heard this legend before and it intrigues me. It certainly wasn't part of the legends the Gunmen dug up, but I gather what they picked up came from Spanish colonial records that talked about demons who could call the lightning down and couldn't die except at the hands of a holy inquisitor. I'm not sure how much of any of it to believe. All myths are built around a fragment of truth, even if the truth is on the extreme end of possibilities. The idea that there are immortals among us isn't any more fantastic than the reality that aliens and their clones are masquerading as humans in preparation for invasion. It would explain quite a few myths about demi-gods and the mating habits of several of the Greek deities. The only problem is that Albert is talking about them in the present tense and the evidence of a battle on top of the mesa seems to confirm that this isn't a history lesson. Why am I always the one to run into these anomalies? Maybe I should take up writing science fiction; it would probably sell better than my official reports do with Skinner.

Scaling a series of ladders, we reach the top level of houses. Albert's method seems like the most practical approach -- start at the top and work our way down. Even if the victors knew about this underground city, I doubt if they knew about Albert's ladders. Logically, anything they wanted to hide would be on the top level. I don't smell any decaying bodies, but the air in here is so dry that perhaps putrefaction has been replaced by mummification.

The engineering skills of the people who built this city amaze me. The houses are still in excellent shape. Whoever lived here cleaned up before they left. I don't see any evidence of a massacre. There are bowls and pottery carefully stacked by what appears to be a small oven in each house. Any fiber material has long since rotted away, but I think I can guess at the places where bedrolls would have been laid out. Everything looks as if the people simply packed up and left, expecting to return. Albert's expression is sad. I have a feeling that some great tragedy struck these people and to keep them from returning to their hidden city.

Aside from the skeletons of a few bats, we find nothing until we enter the eighth house. Expecting to find bodies, I stare at the pile of swords in complete amazement. I was wrong, way wrong. It's not the first time, but every time it happens I find myself in free-fall as my mind frantically tries to switch gears. Right now it seems stuck in neutral. Swords? Albert follows me in, but keeps a wary distance between himself and the swords. He's muttering something in Navajo, prayers perhaps? I think we've found our problem.

Squatting down next to the swords, I scan my memory for legends concerning swords, ghosts, evil spirits, the like. A photographic memory might not help me find my keys in the morning, but it's very useful for recalling the contents of books I've read. There are stories that imbue swords with mystical power and others that tell of swords that bond to certain men so strongly that they seem to carry part of that man's soul even after he dies. We may not be dealing with actual ghosts, but simply a non-sentient part of the souls of the dead that lives on in these swords.

There are eight swords here. There were nine people who stayed together at the Hampton Suites the night before the fight, and one man returned. I think I've accounted for one side. What I don't understand is why swords? I've found that a 9mm high-velocity round is much more effective and a hell of a lot easier than waving a heavy sword around. Maybe it's custom, maybe they can only be killed by steel. I'm missing something here, but I can't seem to pin it down. A stray memory skitters past and I pounce on it before it disappears. Steel, or iron, was death to the fairie folk of England. Maybe like vampires and wooden stakes, these 'Ancient Ones' can only be killed by certain metal weapons. It's a working theory, probably wrong, but just accepting it for now gives me something to build on.

There are swords of every type and range in quality from very good to poor, even to my untrained eye. I couldn't name of most of them, but they look well-used and deadly. Using the end of my flashlight, I gently push the swords apart to get a better look. Albert helpfully places the lantern nearby before retreating again. He seems confident that I'm not in any danger, but he is keeping well away. If he's at all sensitive, being this close to the source of the poisoning may be uncomfortable for him.

Once the pile is separated, I can see that there are two exceptionally fine swords in the bunch, along with three swords that look as if they've been well cared for, a battered short sword now in two pieces, plus a couple of machetes. It looks like a couple of the fighters went for the brutal power of a machete over the elegance of a sword. I've seen far too much evidence of how nasty machetes can be on too many dismembered bodies to doubt their effectiveness as weapons.

Two of the swords catch my eye and I bend over to get a better look at them. Both have the look of museum-quality swords. One of them has a long blade and a hilt decorated with cabochon gemstones. The blade is stained with blood, as is the hilt. Whoever owned this sword got in one good hit, but I doubt that it did him any good since his sword is here with the others. Reaching down, I touch the dried blood on the blade. My fingers tingle as if I'd just touched a live wire. Emotions flash across my mind in a chaotic jumble. Flash images burn brightly then fade an instant later. I sense that the man whose blood stained this blade is a man of secrets and a master of plans within plans. He's the Queen's bishop held in reserve for just this moment by a master strategist. I touch his mind for just an instant -- it's cold and pitiless against the enemy. I see swords flashing in the morning sun in parry and thrust and feel the pressure of a desperate fight. Blinded by the sun's reflection off the blades, I cover my eyes. Like the faint, distant rumble of thunder, I feel an odd sense of exultation, as if something deep within me has been sleeping and now fights to awaken.

Breathing hard, I try to pull back. This is not like any profiling I've ever done. As I start to take deep calming breaths my balance shifts and my fingers touch the hilt of the sword as I reach out to steady myself. All hell breaks loose. An undertow of fury and thwarted frustration drags me under and into a nightmare. A maelstrom of conflicting emotions surges over and around me, rolling me under like a pebble on a storm wracked beach. I am touching a mind so corroded by evil that it's no longer sane. Even in the minds of the worst killers, there's always some reservoir of humanity I can touch. I'm not sure this mind has been human in a very long time.

Carefully laid plans, generations in the making, crumble into nothingness, fury howling in frustration as a prize confidently expected is snatched out of reach, hate burning so hot that it forges itself into the sword falling uselessly from a numb hand, and shock that death has come at last, then a long fall into darkness. The dark man is back, driving away the madness. I feel the familiar pain of a wound that is already healing, the acrid taste of relief that the cost of victory was not higher, cold satisfaction in bringing down an enemy, and a grim amusement at the enemy's choice of tactics. For some reason I feel an eerie connection to this man.

I've gone mad and it's worse than I ever anticipated. Time has no meaning. I'm caught in the instant between defeat and victory, life and death. The clash of metal against metal is deafening, but the kaleidoscopic rush of images is drowning me. Men, women wielding swords clash, heads fall and lightning erupts violently towards the sky. As I fall deeper into the whirlwind, I feel something rip inside my mind and then there is silence except for the pounding of my own heart. In the distance, I hear myself shout before I collapse into the dark stormy sea, feeling the tide pulling me farther and farther from shore.

Then, the waves subside and I hang suspended in a vast sea of stars drifting among dreams that will fade the moment I awaken, hearing voices speak in unknown languages, and listening to a half-remembered silver-toned voice telling me to be at peace, to relax and let the sea return me to the shore. Gradually my breathing slows and I feel myself being drawn back to life.

I come back to myself on my knees gasping for breath. The voice is gone, but I'm safe, as it promised. I realize that Albert is holding me against his chest and chanting. That wasn't his voice I heard, but the other one is fading past remembering. These ghosts pack a mean punch, I think cautiously as I consider whether I've gone insane or not.

"Fox, come back," Albert commands when he sees that I'm more or less conscious. His voice closes the door I accidentally opened and I feel myself settle back into reality with a solid thump. I nod to let him know I'm OK and he lets me slide down on my rump. Shit, that was a bad one. I don't know what's in that sword, but I'd rather shake hands with Tooms than touch that sword again. Just being near it is making me nervous. Taking in deep, gasping breaths, I file away the memories my dalliance with madness produced until I can deal with them in small manageable chunks. At least I don't have to confront them now, as I usually did when I pulled this stunt profiling. No lives depend on my reliving the memories until I can piece together a pattern. I feel almost giddy with relief, accompanied by a strange sense of disappointment and grief. I really need a vacation.

It takes a second to remember that I'm not here to psychoanalyze myself, I straighten up and bring my attention back to the matter at hand. Staying at a safe distance, I look at the other sword. I don't recognize what it is, but it looks nasty. There's a cross emblazoned on the pommel-stone and something in the hilt sparkles. Not wanting a repeat of what I just went through, I carefully aim my flashlight at the hilt without going near the sword itself. Embedded in the hilt is a crystal oval. Inside the crystal is a tiny sliver of wood. It's a wild guess, but I think this is a relic, perhaps one of the hundreds of thousands of pieces of the True Cross sold to unwary crusaders and gullible men-at-arms looking for any kind of edge in a fight.

"These are what's poisoning your dreams," I say with absolute certainty. If anything has the power to disturb the spirit world, these swords qualify, in spades. The sword I touched is probably responsible for some really gruesome nightmares all by itself. I can't imagine that a crusader's sword makes the local Spirits any too happy, either. For that matter, I recall that in the process of looking for gold, the Spanish made a rather brutal sweep through this area in their own Crusade against the heathen. Ancestral memories might run deep among sensitive people, especially children, whose ancestors suffered at the hands of men who carried swords like this one.

"We must bury them and seal them away where no man can disturb their rest." Albert sounds a bit doubtful. Why do I have this feeling that none of the rituals he knows cover something like this?

"I don't think burying them is going to do the trick. Think of the swords as being highly radioactive. Burying them will only poison the land. A circle of protection might contain the radiation, along with a very sound blessing." I stare at the swords for a few moments. "Do you know a priest who could perform a blessing?" I ask as I try to recall various rituals for containing items contaminated by evil.

Albert looks doubtful and I realize he's hesitant to reveal this secret city to an outsider.

"I'm not suggesting you bring him in here. A blessing of the ground where the fight took place on top of the mesa should be sufficient to cleanse the area where the owners of these swords died."

"I know of such a priest. He will come if I ask," Albert says confidently. "He believes in ghosts," he says with a smile. Albert's network of friends and associates rivals mine. I'm amazed he even needed to call me out here. Albert moves in mysterious ways and I doubt if I'd get a straight answer if I asked.

"Good. Once the blessing has been performed, we'll need to carry rocks down from the blessed area and build a mound over the swords. That should be enough to contain the evil." It's a long shot, but it's the best I can think of, other than bringing the house down over the cairn, and that might be a bit drastic for Albert's taste.

"Then we have much to do," Albert prompts as he offers me a hand up. With a groan, I allow him to help me stand. This time we take the outside trail. I think Albert isn't certain my balance is steady enough to traverse the ladders. He's probably right. The hike to the trailhead helps clear my head, but I feel as if at any moment I'm going to slip through a hole in time and start seeing what happened here, three days ago, and three hundred years ago. The trail is rough going, but the exercise is good for me and I'm feeling better by the time we hit the desert floor.

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

Two hours later, I have come to a new appreciation of Albert's ability to get things moving when he puts his mind to it. Father Avery is a small, wiry man in his early forties, a lot younger than I expected. His long curly gray hair makes him look like a disheveled scholar, but he has the weathered look of a man who's spent a lifetime outdoors. He's definitely in better shape than I am; the winding trail doesn't even seem to phase him. He accepts Albert's refusal to go into detail, but he's obviously curious. His slate blue eyes are full of questions, but he merely nods and accepts that he's not going to get answers just yet. I'm simply along for the ride and Albert makes no attempt to explain who or what I am. Aside from some gentle probing at the beginning of our hike, Father Avery doesn't ask me too many questions. He seems to regard the expedition as a bit of a lark and this worries me. The last thing we need is somebody who doesn't take ghosts seriously coming face-to-face with ones who are seriously pissed-off.

When we finally reach the top, I hunt down the closest shade and collapse. Father Avery takes a couple of deep breaths and all traces of the eager adventurer are gone. His entire demeanor changes as he puts on his collar and stole. He assumes the authority of his office like a mantle. After pacing the perimeter of the area where I think most of the fights took place, he begins to chant in Latin. Walking slowly from the outward rim toward the center in a spiral, he swings a censor in a counter-rhythm to the tempo of his chant, while sprinkling holy water in a great arc. The ceremony he's using is hauntingly familiar, but I can't put my finger on why. Albert is staying well out of the way, but he's watching the ceremony with intense professional curiosity. I retreat back to the edge of the trail and leave these experts to do their jobs. I'm simply along to provide muscle for rock-moving later.

Father Avery halts only once, near the Celtic circle I noticed on my previous trip up here. After staring intently at the area for several minutes, he nods and makes a very careful detour around it before continuing with his blessing ritual. I was right. That circle didn't happen by accident and whoever cast it had power. Magic, ghosts, haunted swords -- Scully would be having a fit trying to fit all of this into one of her neat, narrow scientific explanations.

Eventually, Father Avery stops chanting, sighs deeply, and the priest retreats behind his scholar facade. "I don't know what happened up here and I don't want to know, but I haven't felt so many restless souls since I hiked across the battlefield at Shiloh a few years ago. Someone cast a circle of protection in a pattern I've only read about. Fascinating," he adds with a boyish grin through cracked and dry lips. Albert silently hands him a large canteen which Father Avery sips from as he continues. "I don't know what's haunting this place, but I think I'll put this entire episode under the seal of the confessional for my own peace of mind," he comments dryly as he slumps back onto a convenient rock, still breathing hard. I hadn't realized that a simple blessing was such hard work, but then the answer hits me -- he was literally driving the devil out of the area. Not precisely an exorcism, but I think this was a blessing ceremony typically used to reverse the effects of a desecration. What in hell did he sense up here?

Albert walks around the area for a few minutes and then gives me a firm nod. OK, the ghosts haunting the swords have been neutralized, for the moment at least. Now to get Father Avery back to his church and then get back here and bury those swords under a big pile of blessed rocks. My stomach growls a reminder that I better be planning to include lunch in my busy schedule.

"Now, I believe you said that lunch at Sarah's was my payment for this little dalliance with heresy?" Father Avery asks with a conspiratorial smile. He doesn't seem at all distressed. In fact, I think he rather enjoyed pitting himself against restless ghosts for a change. He strikes me as a man who respects the dangers, but just can't help enjoying a good fight. I wonder how many discussions he and Albert have had over comparative theology -- and who's ahead.

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

Sarah has outdone herself. I never thought much of Southwestern cooking until now. Fajitas have taken on a whole new meaning. The conversation at lunch ranges over a wide range of topics. To my surprise, and slight dismay, Father Avery has heard of me. When Sarah addresses me as Mr. Mulder, I see his eyes light up. His interest in the paranormal is genuine and nearly as extensive as mine. I may not believe in aliens any more, but there is more out there that can't be explained by rational, scientific theories than just aliens. I've clung to my belief in the paranormal as a life preserver, using it to keep from drowning in my own cynicism.

Albert occasionally contributes a word or two, but generally lets Father Avery and me debate the paranormal and religion. I try to be polite, but quickly learn that Father Avery is more than able to hold his own and isn't disturbed by my rather blatant agnosticism. It's a rare pleasure to argue with someone who doesn't reject my theories out of hand, but instead probes and questions and challenges me to consider alternate explanations. Scully considers her religion out of bounds for my theorizing, so I have learned to avoid the topic unless it's vital to the case.

For some reason, he seems more amused than offended by my attempts to refute a divine origin of many miracles. Once, I catch him exchanging a knowing look with Albert before he begins to fillet some of my more obnoxious criticisms. I think the debate is a draw. I concede more points than I would have liked to, but Father Avery also admits to a strong belief in some rather heretical points, such as acknowledging that Albert's Spirits exist and accepting that the ceremonies of the Navajo are about as effective as his prayers. I've not met many priests I can get along with, but I think Father Avery is a man who accepts that there are mysteries his Church doesn't, or can't, explain.

Around mid-afternoon, Father Avery heads back to his church, while George drives Albert and me back to the mesa. Apparently Albert is more concerned about completing the warding over the swords than about any stray night Spirits. I wish I had his confidence. What I picked up from that one sword I touched speaks of hatred nurtured for centuries and evil deeds I don't want to see clearly; just the hint is enough to make me look hard at every shifting shadow.

I would be willing to swear an oath that the passageway has gotten narrower since morning. Another meal from Sarah and I'll never make it through the cleft and into the hidden city. Albert literally has to exhale every bit of air in his lungs before he can work loose from a nasty spot. I'm in no position to help him. I can't move back without leaving a good portion of skin and flesh on the rocks. If he can't move forward we're in big trouble. Just as I'm about to consider whether I really need the skin on my chest and stomach, he wiggles free and disappears into the darkness. Trying to think small, I slither after him. It's a mystery how the ancient people who used this place as a refuge ever managed to get through that passage with provisions.

I'm almost to the ladder when I hear Albert start chanting in a low, sonorous voice behind me. Looking back, in the faint light filtering in from the doorway, I see him standing in the middle of the cavern, his head thrown back and his arms raised towards the invisible roof of this place. The echoes send chills down my spine. It sounds, for a moment, as if the spirits of the dead are answering him. I'm not psychic. I've been in documented haunted houses and never felt a twinge or a cold spot or even seen a ghost, but right now I sense that the spirits of those Indians who fled here for safety are watching us. Scully would laugh at the idea, but my belief in the paranormal is based on rational consideration of all the evidence, as much as a willingness to include some very unorthodox evidence into the mix. However, right now, rationality is ready to bolt in favor of raw superstition. Abruptly Albert ends the chant and the echoes repeat the closing lines until the sound disappears into the shadows above us.

"You hear them," Albert says as if standing in the dark listening to the ghostly echoes of a medicine song is commonplace. I wish I could be certain he was referring to the echoes and not the nagging suspicion that I'm hearing other voices reply to his chant. I nod, not wanting to add another voice to the echoes in here. Albert smiles and strides past me to the ladder. Shaking myself free of the spell he cast, I follow. Albert is a very dangerous man. I'm glad he's on my side, or I'm on his -- whatever.

Someday I'm going to have to have a long talk with myself about these bright ideas I come up with. Carting rocks down a long, winding path in the dark to build a cairn is hard work. Albert insists on helping and I'm spending half my energy watching him for signs of strain.

"Albert, you have far more experience in these matters than I do. Why don't you stay down here and bury these swords while I fetch the rocks?" I finally suggest, hoping I'm not offending him. He looks OK, but he's breathing a lot harder than I like.

"I'm not that old, Fox," he replies seriously, before giving me an understanding smile. "You worry too much. It is not my time. Still, the Spirits of this place are uneasy; the battle of the Ancient Ones woke them from their sleep. I will stay here and sing the old songs until they sleep again," he says as he hands me the lantern. Effortlessly he sits down cross-legged on the floor and begins to chant. Once again the echoes magnify his song until the entire city seems to be singing with him.

Placing the lantern about halfway up the tunnel to shield the light, I go back to collecting rocks. It's full dark by the time I bring the last rock down and carefully lay it on top of the cairn. Rather than try to be fancy, I simply piled the rocks on top of the swords, burying them under a mound of blessed earth and stone. It's crude, but Albert seems satisfied. My eyes have grown used to the half light and I see him smile with relief.

"The restless ones are gone; I no longer sense the evil that poisoned this place. The ancestors are at peace once more and my people can dream again without nightmares," he says as he slowly rises to his feet. He looks as tired as I feel. Apparently singing the uneasy ghosts of his ancestors back to sleep is as exhausting as hauling a ton of rocks down from the top of the mesa. We both move like old men as we start back down the chain of ladders in the dwindling light of the lantern. By the time we reach the floor of the cavern, I can almost discern the starlight outside the entrance.

"Thank you." Albert lays one hand on my chest, as if in benediction, when we finally reach the cavern floor. Too tired to answer, I simply nod. I want a shower and food in that order. I hope Sarah has some leftovers handy.

The starlight is bright after spending so long in near darkness and I have to shut my eyes until they adjust. I lean against the base of the mesa and let the tension run out of my shoulders while Albert maneuvers his way out of the passageway. Part of me doesn't want to leave. I died out here, once, and I think I left part of my soul in the desert, in a remote hogan that served as a bridge between life and death. This is one of the few places where I feel at peace. I guess dying can make a place special, I think with a determined effort to make light of the odd sense of belonging the desert evokes in me.

"You worry too much. The Spirits brought you here and they will protect you, if you let them," Albert replies with just a hint of a reproof in his voice. I shrug an apology, still reluctant to open my eyes and begin the slow journey back to my double life.

"You are on a dark road, FBI Man, but the Spirits have a purpose for you; they will not abandon you." Albert sounds so very certain, but I doubt if his Spirits are a match for the New Spartans and the trap that's closing in around me. Still, I can't refuse Albert's gesture of hope so I smile and nod.

"You are a very stubborn man, but the Spirits are more stubborn." Albert isn't quite laughing, but he's close to it. I wish I had his faith. I seem to have mislaid mine somewhere.

As we climb into the Jeep, I look back at the mesa looming against the night sky and try to visualize how it must have looked with lightning crashing down on its summit as people fought to the death over some ancient quarrel. I sense that I'm missing most of the pieces of this puzzle, but whoever fought here has gone and now even the lingering nightmares of their passing will fade, leaving no memory to keep them alive. Well, except for one very vivid image of a man on his knees grasping a sword. I have a feeling I will remember that man in my dreams for quite some time. He's a mystery I can't solve, but the image is too strong to forget.

George is talking on a cell-phone as we approach the Jeep. "Sarah says to tell you she'll have dinner ready for you when you get back," he says as he puts away the phone. As George helps his father climb stiffly into the jeep, I pull myself into the back seat with a quiet groan. I've used muscles I'd forgotten existed today. I may just sleep in tomorrow. My flight doesn't take off until mid-afternoon. That gives me plenty of time to grab some sleep and find a few moments of peace before returning to whatever waits for me in the tangled web I call my life right now.

As we head back to Sarah's, I ponder why Albert's Spirits are taking an interest in me. Albert is dozing, or maybe meditating, in the front seat, and I decide to try to relax. I've just spent several hours moving rocks and my muscles are organizing a protest movement. As I half-doze, I mentally compose the report that I'll slip into the X-Files on Monday. I know very little, and most of what I do know is based on supposition and legend, but something unusual happened out here. What I can't shake is the feeling that I'm standing at a crossroads, and that coming out here is going to change my life in ways I can't begin to understand. Just what I need, another mystery in my life.

The End