"Hey! Wait up!" Liz and Maria slowed their pace to allow Alex to catch up to them. Once he joined them, they picked up speed again. "Hey," he said, "Did you guys hear what happened last night?" he asked. "Don’t tell me your 'band' finally got accepted for a gig," Maria said. Alex shook his head. "No," he said, then added, "but thanks for the support." Alex took a breath before he continued. "So you didn’t hear about the murder?" he asked. Liz and Maria both frowned. "What murder?" Maria asked. "The one that happened here in Roswell last night," he told them. "I don’t mean to sound disrespectful or anything," Liz said, "but there have been murders in Roswell before. It’s not all that uncommon." "Well, there’s was nothing common about this one," he told them. "What do you mean?" "Get this," he said, "They found this guy in, like, his twenties with his head cut completely off and his chest ripped wide open." "Oh, Alex that’s disgusting," Maria said, making a face. "No kidding," he said, "This guy’s a real freak. And I heard that the exact same thing happened in Albuquerque just two nights ago." "So you’re saying that there’s a demented, twisted, possibly insane psychopath killer on the loose in Roswell?" Liz asked. Alex nodded. "That about sums it up," he said, "As far as I know, the police don’t have any leads." "That doesn’t mean they don’t," Maria said, "I mean, they don’t tell the media everything." Alex shook his head. "With Valenti on our butts all the time, I don’t know if he’ll catch this guy anytime soon," he said, scratching the back of his neck. "So that means this guy will be on the loose for an indefinite amount of time?" Maria asked, sounding a little anxious. "Well, the FBI are usually called in on cases like this," Alex said. "Oh, that’s perfect," Liz said, "All we need besides Valenti are more FBI agents snooping around." "At least they won’t be snooping after us for a change," Alex said with a shrug. Maria shivered involuntarily. "I just hope he stays on his side of town," she said. Alex snuggled in between them and put his arms around the two girls. "Have no fear, ladies," he told them in his manliest voice, "Alex is here to protect you." Maria rolled her eyes. "Now I’m really scared."
Isabel exhaled deeply in boredom as she sauntered in between the stacks of old books. Maria walked just in front of her, examining the spines of books, sometimes pulling them out in order to read the titles. Then she put them back and wiped her hands on her jeans to get the dust off. Isabel didn’t bother touching any of the books. She let Maria do all the looking. "What was that call number again?" Maria asked. "OL-356.47," Isabel replied, not even bothering to read off the scrap of paper she held in her hand. "Hmm," Maria muttered as she inspected the call number on the shelves, "I think it’s missing." Isabel rolled her eyes and crossed her arms. She wasn’t particularly keen on spending her lunch hour in the library, especially not on the old section. The older section in the library, off in its own little room, was where all the aging, outdated books went. Students rarely looked for books in that section anymore. It was just their luck that they’d been given a research topic that had only a minute amount of material covering it. They had done a search on the library’s computerized catalogue, and discovered the school had only one book on the topic, dating back to 1928. Maria sighed and stood back, shrugging helplessly. "Who else in this school could possibly be interested in The New Mexican K-POL Fringe Group of 1909?" she asked aloud. "I would, actually." Isabel and Maria turned quickly at the voice behind them to see a short, balding, gray-haired man in his late 50’s. He was dressed in an old brown 80’s style polyester suit and had a sizeable gut hanging over his belt. He grinned up at them in a very friendly manner. "I’m sorry for startling you," he apologized, "I’m Mr. Banning, the new assistant librarian. Are you looking for the book for a school project?" "Um, yeah," Maria spoke up, "It’s for our history assignment. We have to do research on the New Mexican K-POL Fringe group, but there’s only one book on it in the library." "And that book is in my possession," he told them, "Come to my office. I think I can help you." After exchanging glances, Maria moved to follow the short man. Isabel joined her, glad they were no longer in a dead end. When they reached the small, cramped office, Mr. Banning sat down behind the desk and waved at the two chairs sitting in front. The teenage girls hesitantly took a seat. Mr. Banning pulled an old, brown text out of his desk drawer that was falling apart. He placed it on the desk in front of them. "The book in mention," he told them. Maria grabbed the book and set it on her lap. "Thank-you," she said. "There weren’t a lot of writings done on the K-POLs," Banning told them, clasping his hands in front of him, "But I happen to know a little about them. Why don’t you stay a little while, and I might be able to be of some assistance." Isabel was about to object – she didn’t want to spend any more time in the office of a librarian, listening to him drone on about a boring subject -–but Maria beat her to it. "That would be great," she spoke up, "We need all the info we can get." Isabel gave her a look, which she ignored. Banning smiled widely, then reached into his desk and pulled out a paper bag. "I hope you don’t mind if I eat while we talk," he told them. He pulled out the contents of the lunch bag and placed them on his desk. Immediately Maria and Isabel frowned in puzzlement. He had a blueberry muffin, an orange soda, and a bottle of Tabasco. Before he started eating, he opened the bottle of hot sauce and began dumping the contents onto his muffin. Maria and Isabel stared. He looked up and caught them, then grinned. "I know this looks strange," he told them, then shrugged, "But to me it tastes good." "Um..uh-huh," Maria said, casting a look at Isabel. Isabel returned the look, then watched as Banning took a big bite of Tabasco-covered muffin. She swallowed, becoming more nervous. Maria also looked a little tense. Banning caught their looks. "Is something the matter, ladies?" he asked. "Matter?" Maria asked, "Uh, no, of course not." "Shall we get down to business, then?" "Of course, of course," she replied, still a bit ruffled by Banning’s lunch. Maria was about to dig out her notebook when the bell rang, signaling the end of fifth period. "Uh, I have a class now," she said. "Me too," Isabel spoke up. "Oh," Banning sat back, "Well then, I guess we won’t get a chance to talk." The two girls stood and turned to leave. Banning stood also. "If you have time, why don’t you stop by my home later this evening," he offered, writing his address on a scrap of paper, "Say around 7. I can tell you all about the K-POLs." Maria was about to object, but Isabel spoke up. "Sure," she said quickly. Banning smiled in satisfaction. "Good," he said. "Do you mind if we bring a few friends?" she continued, "There are other people working on the project too." "The more the merrier," Banning replied. Isabel nodded, then backed out of the office and walked with Maria out of the library. Once they were out in the hall, Maria turned to her, her expression one of shock. "You do realize you just got us invited to the home of a complete stranger, don’t you?" she asked. "Relax, Maria," Isabel told her, "Did you see what he was eating." Maria sobered instantly and nodded. "Yeah," she said, "He’s got the same weird taste as you do." They both looked at one another. "You don’t think…?" "I’m thinking we have to be sure," Isabel said when Maria failed to finish the question. "So you’re actually going to go?" Maria asked. "No," she replied, "We are going to go." "What about the others?" she asked, "They’re not working on our history project." "Do you want to go alone?" Isabel asked pointedly. Maria pretended to be thoughtful for a moment, then shook her head. "Neither do I." "So you think this librarian guy is one of us because he likes Tabasco sauce?" Isabel sighed at her brother’s question. "When you say it like that it sounds lame," she said. "It’s just that some humans do like hot sauce," Max told her. "Yeah, I realize that, Max," she told him insistently, "But you didn’t see him. He put hot sauce on his muffin – a lot of it. And he was old." "So you think this might be the guy from 1959?" Michael asked from the back seat. Isabel shook her head. "I don’t know," she admitted, "But it just seemed too suspicious to me to ignore. Maria and I thought it would be a good idea to at least check him out." "You and Maria agreed?" Max asked. Isabel ignored him. Michael leaned forward. "If that is the guy," he said, "then he’ll have answers for us." "If he’s the guy," Max restated, "It’s quite possibly he’s just a strange old guy who likes his food spicy." "Jeez, Max, don’t be so optimistic," Isabel teased. "I’m being realistic," he said. Max pulled the jeep in front of the Crashdown Café and they all hopped out and went inside. Both Liz and Maria were on duty that afternoon. The three aliens grabbed a booth near the back. Maria came over to them shortly. "So did you tell them?" she asked Isabel. Isabel nodded. "We have one optimist and one skeptic," she reported, then glanced at Max and amended, "I mean, realist." "So we’re all going?" Isabel glanced from Max to Michael, then nodded. "Did you talk to Liz and Alex?" she asked. "Alex wouldn’t miss it," she said. "And Liz?" Max asked. Maria hesitated, glancing back at her best friend. "Well, I’ll just let you ask her that yourself," she said. They watched as Maria turned to go get Liz. Moments later, Max’s girlfriend was standing by their booth. "Did Maria tell you about Mr. Banning?" Isabel asked. Liz nodded, her face serious. "Yeah," she said, "I’m sorry I can’t come, but my dad needs me to work tonight." Max looked slightly disappointed. Michael spoke up. "No problem," he said, "We’ll take notes." Liz smiled. "Thanks," she said, "I hope it turns out all right." She sounded sincere, but her expression betrayed her doubt. "So," she said, picking up her voice to sound bright, "Can I take your orders?" Banning lived in a small, single-story house in Maple Street that looked like it could use a new paint job, not to mention a ton of yard work. The grass looked as if it hadn’t been cut in months. Maria and the others looked at it critically. "Looks like this place could definitely use a makeover," she commented. Alex was the last to arrive of the five friends. Once he was there, Michael led the way up the walk to the front door and knocked firmly. Isabel wrapped her arms around her body, glancing uncertainly at Max, who gave her a reassuring grin. A moment later the door opened, revealing the portly senior, still in his tacky suit, but sans blazer. "Ah, the students working on the K-POL project," Banning said, greeting them with a warm smile, "Please, come in." They all filed into the small building, each of them giving it a once over. The house seemed small, with a living room to their left and kitchen off to their right. A hallway at the rear seemed to lead to the bedrooms. Banning herded them all into the living room, which was completely bare except for a long olive green sofa, two faded flower-print chair on either side, a small wooden coffee-table and a lamp sitting on the floor next to one of them. Michael took one of the chairs, while the others piled onto the sofa. "Just wait a moment while I go get some refreshments," he told them. When Banning disappeared into the kitchen, they all exchanged glances. "The inside is worse than the outside," Maria commented. They waited in tense silence for the aged man they suspected was not from earth. A few minutes later he reappeared carrying a small tray and a large bottle of orange soda. He set them down on the coffee table, then took a seat in the chair opposite Michael. There were plastic cups and a plate of store-bought cookies on the tray, as well as a bottle of hot sauce. "Help yourselves," he told them. Needing no more encouragement, Michael instantly reached forward, grabbed a cookie and the hot sauce, and began eating. The others hesitated. "I take it you want to get started right away," Banning told them. "Um, that would be fine," Maria responded slowly, glancing around at the others. Banning leaned forward. "So," he said, "Let’s start at the beginning. The K-POL Fringe Group—" "Look," Michael interrupted, leaning forward, "I didn’t come here for a history lesson. Who are you?" "Michael!" Isabel hissed. Banning regarded him a moment thoughtfully, and the others watched in apprehension. Then suddenly his face cleared, and he grinned in amusement. "Let me guess," he said, "You didn’t come here for a history lesson. You came here to find out if I’m like you." Max and Isabel exchanged glances. Michael stared straight ahead at the old man. They all remained silent. "Well," Banning continued, "You were right. I am an alien." He looked right at Michael. "I’m one of you." Liz leaned her elbows on the counter and glanced leisurely around the restaurant. It was pretty slow that evening, with only a few of the tables occupied, all by regulars. The dinner crowd had come and gone, as had the other waitresses. Only Liz and one of the cooks were left. Her father was in his office, going over paperwork. Liz stood when she saw that some of the customers were leaving. She moved to the cash register so they could pay their bills, then watched as they headed out into the night. She then turned, seeing that her only customers were a couple of aged men sitting by the window gossiping. She didn’t really think they’d be all that much trouble, since all they ordered was decaf. They’d be leaving to go home soon. Liz sighed noiselessly as she went to wipe down the tables, collect dirty dishes, and push in the chairs. She brought the dishes into the kitchen, considering letting the cook go for the night, when she heard the restaurant door open. She wiped her hands on a towel then walked out. She stopped in surprise when she saw Eric taking a seat in one of the booths. He looked up at her and smiled. She smiled back, then approached. "Hi," she said. "Hi," he replied. "Let me guess," she said, "Mineral water and something salty." He grinned broadly and nodded. "You read my mind," he said. "How about some extra salty french fries?" she suggested. "Sounds perfect," he said. Liz turned and went back behind the counter to place the order and get his mineral water. When she returned, she set it in front of him, then remained by his booth and waited. Eric immediately grabbed the salt shaker and started pouring the contents into his drink. He didn’t seem to mind her watching him. "Can I ask you a question?" she asked. "Of course," he replied. "Why is it that you like salt so much?" she asked. Eric smiled and shrugged. "Same reason why some people like chocolate so much, I guess," he said. She nodded, her question still unanswered. She watched as he finished ‘preparing’ his drink, then took a big swig. After a moment’s hesitation, she slid down into the booth across from him. He looked up at her, his expression open. "I’m Liz, by the way," she introduced herself. "Eric," he replied. She hesitated. "So, uh," she started, trying to sound casual, "I heard you’re looking for someone." Eric smiled and chuckled. "You have good hearing," he said, looking up at her pointedly. Liz looked down and grinned guiltily. "You heard right," he continued, "I’m looking for someone my father used to know." "So your father is…?" He nodded at her unfinished question. Liz’s expression turned to sympathy. "I’m sorry," she said. He grinned and shook his head. "It was a long time ago," he said, "But the man I’m looking for owed him something." "And you’re here to get it?" she asked. He nodded, taking another sip of saltwater. "So this guy you’re looking for," she said, "He lives in Roswell?" "I believe so," he said. "Where are you from?" she asked innocently. He folded his hands on the table and leaned forward. "I think we’ve talked enough about me," he said, "Let’s talk about you now." Liz smiled, well aware he had evaded her question. But she complied, nonetheless. They all sat and stared in shock at Mr. Banning’s claim. For a moment no one spoke. The only one among them who appeared calm was Banning. Max and Isabel both looked a little pale, but Michael’s expression was borderline excited. Maria glanced at him, then at Banning, her eyebrows raised in a mixture of amusement and anxiety. Alex just glanced back and forth between Banning and his friends, wondering what was going to happen next. Banning answered his silent question. "I know this is very sudden," he told them, "I’m sorry about that. I should have approached you sooner, but I wasn’t sure. Here, I’ll show you." Banning sat forward, then stretched one arm out so his hand hovered over the lamp, which was unplugged. A moment later, the bulb lit up brightly, further illuminating the room. He looked up at them with a small grin. Michael finally managed to speak up. "Did you survive the crash too?" he asked. Banning shook his head sadly. "I’m afraid I wasn’t on that ship," he told them, "I only arrived a short time ago." "So you were the one we saw landing in the desert?" Max asked. Banning’s grin faltered, but recovered quickly. "So you saw me?" he asked, "And here I thought I was being discreet." "Why are you here?" Michael asked. "I was sent here to earth on a mission," he told them, "A mission to protect it." "Protect it from who?" Max asked. Banning looked at him. "From the same being that was responsible for the crash of your ship," he told them. Max, Michael and Isabel looked at one another. "Responsible?" Max asked. Banning nodded. "We are not the only aliens in the universe," he explained, "There are others. One of them is a race we call the Shifters. We call them that because they have the ability to change their shape at will. They are an evil race, an enemy to us for thousands of years. One of them snuck aboard your ship and caused it to crash on earth. He was responsible for the deaths of the crew." "Including our parents?" Isabel asked. Banning nodded silently. Max and Isabel exchanged glances, then looked at Michael, who was trying to remain emotionless. "If he killed everyone else," he asked, "Then why didn’t he kill us?" "I imagine one of the crew managed to survive and hide your incubation pods," he replied. "It must be the same guy who met Atherton and River Dog in 1959," Maria said to the others. "So you didn’t even know about us?" Michael asked. Banning shook his head sadly. "I’m afraid not," he said, "I-We didn’t even know you had survived the crash." "So why come here now?" Alex asked, "I mean, you guys thought everyone was dead, right?" Banning hesitated. "We knew that the Shifter would survive the crash," he told them, "They are much more resilient than we are. And we knew that he would be a danger to the people of earth. Shifters are killers, carnivores." "So you decided to wait, what, fifty-some years to come and get him?" Maria asked. Banning sighed. "It’s not that easy to travel across space," he told them, "There are Shifter warships everywhere in our area of the universe. Your galaxy is a fair distance away. The other Shifters knew we’d try to go stop him, so they barricaded the borders. It was only recently that I was able to get through." "Do you think more Shifters will come to help this one?" Alex asked. Maria looked at him anxiously. Banning shook his head. "No," he said, "This one is on his own." "What does it look like?" Maria asked. Banning sat back in his chair. "Well," he said, "Since it can change form, he’s likely in human form. He could be young, old, short, tall, male or female. He can be anything he wants to be. Shifters are very good at fitting into any situation. And they can be very friendly when they want to be." "So you’re saying if we saw him, we wouldn’t be able to tell?" Michael asked. Banning nodded. "Do they, um, eat people?" Maria asked. Banning grinned slightly. "They need protein to survive," he told them, "They kill by decapitating their prey." "Wait," Alex spoke up, "There have been murders the past few days. People with their heads cut off and their chests ripped open." Banning nodded. "That would be the Shifter," he said, "For some reason he’s come back to Roswell. Perhaps he discovered his job was unfinished." "His job?" Isabel asked, "You mean…?" "Us?" Michael finished. Banning nodded again. "His species and yours are arch enemies," he told them, "If he somehow discovered you had survived, he would come back to destroy you." Isabel hugged herself tightly. Max put an arm around her, his face also sober. "Don’t worry," Banning assured them, "I’ll make sure to find him before he finds you." "I have a question," Alex spoke up, "Those bodies that were found hadn’t been eaten. If the Shifter didn’t kill them to eat them, then why?" "Most likely because of his strange taste in food," Banning replied, "Shifters are very fond of liver, which is why the victims’ chests were torn open. They also eat a lot of salt." Maria and the others frowned. "Did you say salt?" she asked. Banning nodded. "They have quite a taste for it," he told them. Maria and Isabel exchanged looks. Without even speaking, they came up with the same conclusion. Salt-Boy. Max stepped up onto the sidewalk, heading for the Crashdown. He wanted to see Liz and tell her what they’d discovered. He and the others had left Banning’s late that night after the new alien had answered more questions and warned them to be careful. He had also invited back whenever they pleased. Max was still reeling from all the information he had absorbed that evening, and he wasn’t sure what to do with it all. Isabel and Michael had been most affected by Banning. Isabel was worried about the Shifter hunting them all, and he couldn’t blame her. He’d driven her home and made sure she was safely inside before coming to see Liz. Michael, on the other hand, was more concerned with getting revenge on the Shifter for killing their parents. He didn’t seem scared, just angry. Max wasn’t sure which was worse. Max wasn’t sure what to think of it all. He was excited that they were finally getting some answers, but they were not the answers he expected. He had always thought the crash in 1947 had been an accident, not caused by an enemy he didn’t even know. And he had expected that if they ever did meet another alien like then, then it would be the one from 1959, not a whole new one come to save the people of earth from a savage killer from their mortal enemy. So Max decided he needed to see Liz. Being with her always made him feel better, and he needed a little normalcy right then. Not to mention the fact that he still missed her – they hadn’t had time to properly reunite. Besides, he wanted her to know what was going on. She was a part of their group, a big part to him, not to mention a very rational voice when situations came up. He needed to just spend some time with her. He stepped up to the restaurant, noticing the lights were still on. As he reached the window he peered in to see if he could catch her. Instantly he frowned. He saw her inside, sitting in one of the booths. Eric was sitting right across from her. They were both leaning in close, talking and laughing easily as if they were old friends. Max felt his heart sink down into his stomach. Instantly he thought of what Banning told them about the Shifter. For all he knew, Eric was the one who had killed his parents, who had killed those two people, and who was possibly here to kill him. He stepped back a little so they couldn’t see him. He decided not to go inside and interrupt, but he also knew he couldn’t leave Liz alone with Eric. So he waited more than forty minutes outside the restaurant. Finally, at almost eleven that night, Eric stepped out of the Crashdown and walked away. Max crept out from the alley and watched him go, then glanced inside. Liz was shutting the lights off. A moment later, she disappeared inside. Max watched the back of the suspected killer as he walked away, apparently at ease. Eric didn’t look like a murderer. But then again, if what Banning had said was true, he could look like anything he wanted. As soon as Eric was out of sight, Max climbed back into his jeep. It was too late to go see Liz now. Her parents might not appreciate such a late night visit, and Isabel was waiting for him at home. Besides, Max was no longer in the mood to see her right now. Seeing her have such a good time with Eric made him a little sick to his stomach.
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