The brown SUV sped over the uneven desert floor, bouncing up and down and spewing dust everywhere. The driver paid no attention to the jostling he was getting, and instead pressed harder on the gas. The vehicle flew over the ground, almost flying into the air when it hit a bump. Then suddenly he slammed on his brakes, and the vehicle slid to a stop. The headlights lit the ground in front of him, barely catching the edge of a boulder that sat to one side. He climbed out of the truck, grabbing his flashlight as he went. He approached the area cautiously, one hand on the weapon at his belt. He stepped forward slowly, peering down at the ground, waving the beam of light in his hand back and forth. Suddenly he stopped, staring down at the ground in triumph. He saw the circle-shaped crater in the ground. He moved the beam of his flashlight over the crater, toward the middle.Then he saw the footprints. Immediately he frowned, then quickly did a 360 and looked all around him. He was alone. Hand still on his gun, he cast one more look at the ground, then backed away and climbed back inside his truck. Within seconds he was turned around and heading back the way he came.
At 6AM the next morning, Liz and Maria were up helping Liz’s dad in preparing the restaurant for that day’s stream of customers. Neither of them had gotten much sleep the night before, anxiety about the new alien visitor keeping them awake. An hour later, when the restaurant opened, both girls moved almost mechanically as they worked. By the time Alex arrived, followed closely by the others, the Crashdown Café was in full swing. Liz was the first to approach their friends sitting in one of the booths. She dug out her notepad and pen, ready to take their orders. "Hey," she greeted them. "Hey," Max replied, smiling up at her. "Anybody else get practically no sleep last night?" Alex asked. The looks on their faces made it clear none of them had slept well. "We couldn’t sleep," Michael said, "So we decided to spend our time wisely and come up with a plan." "So what’s the plan?" Liz asked as Maria walked up to them. "Michael and I are going back to the desert to see if we can find anything," Max told her, "We’ll try to find a trail, something to tell us where he went." "Isn’t that risky?" Alex asked, "What if someone sees you poking around in the desert? Like Valenti?" "We’ll take the risk," Michael said, "We’ll park a ways away so no one will know where we’re at. And we’ll be careful." "You? Be careful?" Maria asked in disbelief, "Since when?" Michael rolled his eyes. The door to the restaurant opened just then, and a customer walked in. "Uh-oh," Maria said quietly, "Speaking of being careful…" Sheriff Valenti spied them almost immediately and walked right over to the group. He removed his sunglasses and looked at them all calmly, coolly. "Good morning, boys and girls," he greeted them with false hospitality. "’Morning, Sheriff," Alex said, when the others failed to respond. "I received reports of a strange-looking object falling from the sky into the desert last night," he told them, cutting right to the chase as always, "Any of you know anything about it?" They all shook their heads mutely. "So none of you saw anything?" he asked, "You didn’t happen to be outside or look out the window…?" "We were watching TV," Maria told him. He looked at her. "All of you? Together?" She nodded. Valenti nodded his head in return. "I see," he said, "Well, thank-you for your co-operation." As he was turning to leave, another customer entered the restaurant. This time someone none of them had seen before. He was young, in his early twenties, with short dark hair and a lean build. He took a few steps in, then stopped to look around, his expression revealing his amusement at the décor. Valenti pounced on him immediately. He took the few steps to the newcomer and stood in front of them, blocking his path. Liz and the others were close enough to hear them speak. "Morning, stranger," Valenti greeted him, again with feigned politeness, "I haven’t seen you around here before." "Just passing through," the stranger replied amicably. He glanced at the badge and nameplate on Valenti’s shirt, then added, "Sheriff Valenti." "Will you be staying with us a while?" Valenti asked. The young man shrugged. "Perhaps," he said, "That depends." "On what?" Valenti asked suspiciously. "On how long it takes me to find who I’m here to find." "And who are you here to find?" The man smiled. "An old acquaintance of my father’s," he said, "We have unfinished business." "And who would this acquaintance be?" Valenti asked, "If he lives around here, I might know who he is." "I doubt it," the man said, "His name’s Edward Bunn." Valenti pondered a moment, then shook his head. "Haven’t heard that name before," he admitted, "But I’ll be sure to check around." The stranger nodded. "You do that," he said. "I don’t think I quite got your name," Valenti told him. "Bates," the man replied, undaunted, "Eric Bates." The two men shook hands. "Pleasure meeting you, Mr. Bates," Valenti told him, "I hope you find your man." Eric grinned. "Thank-you, Sheriff," he said, "I’m sure I will." With a nod, Sheriff Valenti walked past Eric and out the door. Eric stood there a moment until he was gone, then frowned and turned to watch the sheriff leave. Then, without any more concern, Eric turned back and climbed into the booth right next to Max and the others. Without any hesitation, Liz grabbed the menu in Isabel’s hands and walked over to Eric. "Welcome to the Crashdown," she greeted him brightly, "Can I get you something to drink while you decide?" Eric looked up at her and grinned in return. "Do you have mineral water?" he asked. "Yes, we do," she told him. She handed him the menu. Then she walked over behind the counter and grabbed a bottle of mineral water from the mini fridge. She poured it into a glass, then returned to Eric’s table immediately to set it down in front of him. "Thank-you," he told her. She dug out her order pad and alien-pen. "Have you decided yet?" she asked. Eric hesitated, looking down at the menu. "Do you have anything on your menu that contains salt?" he asked. Her grin faltered. "Salt?" she asked. He nodded. "Um, I guess the Heavenly Hashbrowns have salt in them," she said. "I’ll take that, then," he told her, "With extra salt." "Extra salt," she repeated, "Sure thing." She took the menu, then turned and went back to place the order. She was about to return to her friends when she stopped, her eyes locked on Eric. Maria walked over to her. "What are you staring at?" she asked. Liz nodded toward Eric. Maria turned her head to where she was staring, then started staring herself. The newcomer was in the process of dumping an insane amount of salt into his mineral water. Once he was done, he swished it around, making the liquid go from clear to cloudy. Then, as the two girls watched in disgust, Eric lifted the salt-water to his mouth and took a large swig. "Ugh!" Maria exclaimed, "That is so gross!" "It’s strange," Liz added. "It’s sickening!" Maria corrected. "Hey!" The girls turned away from Eric to see Alex waving at them. "We’re hungry over here," he reminded them. "I’ll take care of it," Maria said. Maria returned to her friend’s table and prepared to take their orders. "So," she said, "How may I help you?" "You can feed us," Michael told her. "Yeah, well, just as long as I get a good tip," she told him, giving him a wink. Isabel rolled her eyes. "Oh, please." "So what were you and Liz gawking at over there?" Michael asked. "Just Salt-Boy," she replied. "Salt-Boy?" Alex asked. Maria nodded her head in Eric’s direction. "The new guy has strange taste in food," she said. "So do you," Alex pointed out. Maria glared at him. "Just because I like to eat food without any artificial flavors, colors or preservatives, does not mean I have strange taste in food," she told him. Alex held up his hands. "Sorry," he said, "My mistake." Maria looked at them all. "So are you ordering, or what?" "I’ll have the special," Max told her. "Make mine the Planet-cakes," Alex said, "With extra cosmic syrup, please." "I’ll take the Solar Sausages and the Alien Egg Omelet," Michael said. "Isabel?" Maria asked. Isabel looked skeptically at the menu. "Do you have anything not loaded with fat and grease?" she asked. "We have toast," she replied, "And bagels." "A bagel with cream cheese," she decided. Maria copied down the orders, then left to give them to Jose. She and Liz then paid a little more attention to the rest of the customers. By the time they were satisfied, both orders were ready. Maria grabbed a tray to balance her four plates, then brought them over. A moment later, Liz walked behind her, carrying Eric’s order. She placed it in front of him, then went to join the others. "So what did Salt-Boy order?" Maria asked. "Hash browns with extra salt," Liz told her. "Apparently not extra enough," Maria said, nodding toward Eric. Liz turned. They both watched as Eric grabbed the salt shaker and started dusting his meal with salt. They both made faces. Curious, Isabel leaned out of the booth to catch a glimpse of him. Soon her expression mirrored that of Maria and Liz. "That’s disgusting," she commented. "That’s what we were thinking," Liz said. Biting her lip, Maria glanced from Eric to Michael, who was liberally dumping Tabasco sauce into his OJ. She reached across the table and grabbed the small bottle out of his hand. "Hey!" he objected. Ignoring him, Maria took the bottle over to Eric’s table. "Hot sauce?" she asked, holding the bottle out to him. Eric stopped what he was doing and looked up at her blankly. His eyes shifted from her to the bottle in back. Then grinned. "No thank-you," he told her, "That stuff’s way too hot for me." Maria hesitated. "Are you sure?" she asked. He nodded. "Pretty sure." Maria shrugged and returned the bottle to its owner. Michael snatched it back quickly. "What was that all about?" Isabel asked. "Just testing a theory," Maria told her. Without another word she turned and went back to work. Liz watched her, then looked at Eric. He was happily stuffing salt-encrusted hash browns into his mouth. "Something wrong?" Max asked, noticing her expression. Liz blinked and shook her head, then smiled down at him. "No, nothing," she told him brightly. She turned and started waiting on the other occupied tables, every so often sneaking a look in Eric’s direction. She wasn’t sure why, but she got a strange feeling whenever she looked at the salt-loving stranger. Valenti pulled himself up to his desk and began typing quickly on his computer keyboard. Immediately the police databank search engine activated. Valenti typed in the name "Bunn, Edward" and started the search. Within moments he had multiple matches. He narrowed the field down to a white male, 40-55 years old living in New Mexico. Eventually he was left with only one match. He leaned forward to read the file. Edward Bunn was a professor at the University of New Mexico, only miles away. He taught from 1974 until 1989, when he suddenly and inexplicably quit, then subsequently disappeared. He left behind little family, only a brother in Montana. Two weeks after he quit at the university, his apartment was found almost completely bare, and it was deduced that he’d moved without notifying anyone, including the superintendent. His vehicle was found abandoned on the side of the road just a few miles away. No one ever heard from him since. He was presumed dead in 1996. Valenti leaned back, eyeing the information in front of him. He didn’t like it. It reminded him too much of another so-called vanisher – James Atherton. Except Atherton’s body had been found dead, killed by an alien. Bunn’s body was never found. Which meant either it was lost, or he was still alive. Valenti cleared the page and began a new search, this time typing in the name "Bates, Eric". He filled in all the necessary information, all that he could, to narrow down the field. He eventually had to resort to going through photos on file. After twenty-five minutes, Valenti leaned back once again and scratched his chin, staring at the monitor in front of him, suspicion growing ever stronger in his head. The sharp ring of the telephone sitting on his desk interrupted the sheriff from his thoughts. He reached forward to pick up the receiver. "Sheriff Valenti," he replied. His features suddenly got more serious as he listened to the speaker on the other end. "I’ll be right there," he responded shortly. Valenti replaced the receiver and stood, grabbing his hat and his keys, and hurried out of his office.
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