Liz stepped down the stairs from her home to the back room of the Crashdown and saw Maria standing in front of the mirror, adjusting her alien antennae. She hesitated, then went over to stand behind her, making eye contact through the mirror. Maria's expression was slightly guarded. "Hey," Liz said. "Hey." They glanced at one another uncertainly. Then Liz spoke up. "Um, Maria," she said, "I owe you and Michael an apology for the other day. I was out of line, defending Eric against him." Maria turned to her and smiled. "That's OK," she said, moving in for a hug, "I shouldn't have been so hard on you." The two girls embraced, reconciling their friendship. Liz grinned widely as they parted. "I've just been so paranoid," Maria continued, "What with the new alien, and the Shifter, and all this chaos going on. It just seems so bizarre, like some sci-fi horror movie you see on late-night TV. Sometimes I don't know what to think." Liz nodded in agreement. "I've been feeling the same way," she admitted, "It's hard to know exactly what's been going on, because it's all been such a blur." "Tell me about it," Maria agreed, "I'm beginning to wonder if the past week even occurred." Liz sighed. "Unfortunately," she said, "I think it did." "Bummer." Liz looked at her friend, then smiled mysteriously. Maria instantly caught on to her. "What?" she asked, getting a little excited. "What do you mean?" Liz asked. Maria grinned and looked her square in the face. "Oh, don't even try to fool me," she told her, "I know that look. You've got something juicy, don't you?" Liz just smiled deeper in response. Maria pounced. "Tell me!" she begged, "Please-please-please! I need some uplifting information right now." Liz broke down and told her. "OK," she said, "But no one else can know this, especially my parents." Maria immediately crossed her fingers. "Spill it," she ordered. Liz smiled, turning shy. She glanced around to make sure no one was listening. Then she leaned in to whisper in Maria's ear. "I slept with Max last night." Instantly Maria shrieked noisily, causing Liz to jump back in alarm. "You slept with Max!?" Maria cried. Liz put a hand over her mouth, half-amused, half-afraid someone heard. She laughed at her friend's shock. "A little louder, Maria," she told her friend, "I don't think they heard you in Albuquerque." Maria took a few deep breaths to lower her voice before she spoke again. "So did you…?" Liz shook her head. "Not even," she said, "We didn't even sleep in the same bed. Just in the same room." "His room?" Liz nodded. "And nothing?" Liz smiled shyly. "Well…" Again, Maria swooped down on her. "Well? Well what?" she demanded. Liz was about to reply when one of the kitchen staff entered the back room. Both girls were tight lipped as he passed on his way to the staff's restroom. When he was gone, Liz turned back to Maria. "I'll tell you all about it later," she told her. "And you better not leave out a single detail," Maria warned. Liz turned and adjusted her alien-antennae headband in the mirror. Then she and Maria stepped out into the restaurant. They stopped short after taking only two steps. "Now why can't he get his salt elsewhere?" Maria wondered aloud. The girls watched as Eric took his regular seat in a booth and looked up to smile at them congenially. Maria wrinkled her nose. "Too bad he's a crazed alien killer," she said, "He's kinda cute." Liz frowned. "Why do you think Eric comes here every morning to get salt, when he feeds the night before on salt-enriched…um, food?" Maria shrugged. "Maybe he needs a lot of salt?" she suggested. "Maybe," Liz repeated under her breath. Maria straightened her shoulders. "I think I'll ask Agnes to take his table," she said. Liz watched as Maria walked away, then turned back to Eric. He caught her eye and gave her a brief half-grin, as if letting her know she wasn't supposed to be his friend. She returned the gesture, then went to work.
Liz walked up the weed-ridden front walk and approached the front door of the old home. It didn't appear to be inhabited, since there was no car in the driveway and no curtains in the windows. But she knew from Maria's descriptions that it must be the place. So she raised her hand and knocked on the door. She received no reply. After knocking again and being returned with only silence still, Liz tried the doorknob. It turned easily in her hand. She quickly glanced behind her to make sure no one noticed she was sneaking into someone else's home. No one was on the street. Liz walked into the house slowly, shutting the door after her. She then glanced around. She wasn't surprised to find the sparse furnishings. Maria had told her about Banning's lifestyle. Not only that, but Banning was new to town, so it was to be expected he didn't have much furniture yet. "Mr. Banning!" Liz called out. Again, no reply. Obviously the librarian who claimed to be of Max's people was out. Giving Liz the perfect opportunity to do what she'd come there for. To search. Quickly and quietly she inspected every square inch of the floor and walls, looking for anything out of the ordinary. The living room seemed clean, except for the dust on the floor. There was no real place to hide anyway. What he might be hiding, Liz wasn't too sure. But she knew she had to find something. She ventured into the kitchen, her next target. Besides the regular appliances, a rickety table with two plastic chairs, and a large garbage can in one corner, the kitchen was empty. No dishes, clean or dirty, lay on the counter. No food could be seen anywhere. Liz stepped over to the cupboards to open them. Inside she found little food - nothing except a few rust-caked cans of beans that looked like they must have expired long ago. There were no dishes in any of the cupboards either. Liz took a step back, then felt something sticky underneath her foot. It made a squelching noise when she lifted her shoe. She looked down to see what it was, and noticed a dark substance on the floor. When she bent down to look closer, she saw that it was a dark red liquid, half-dried. Her eyes widened when she realized it was blood. She stood and took a step back from it. Liz turned her gaze to the refrigerator. It was a small, old-fashioned unit in faded off-white. It was humming noisily - the only noise in the entire house. She walked over to it and grabbed the handle. She had to pull hard to get it open. She pulled open the door a little, then realized the inside light was burnt out. So she opened it all the way until the sunlight pouring in through the window lit up the contents of the fridge. Then her mouth dropped. The fridge was filled to the brim with meat. Each shelf contained large chunks of red beef, all of it oozing blood, and none of it contained or packaged. Droplets of blood from the meat dripped down to the bottom shelf, which was completely covered with the red liquid. Liz didn't even need to check the crisper bins to find out what was inside them. Pinching her nose at the smell, Liz closed the door quickly, then reached up and opened the freezer. It, too, was filled with frozen pieces of red meat, all loose. She closed the door immediately, nauseated by both the image of the meat and the smell coming from it. The meat in the fridge had obviously been there more than a week. It was overpowering. Liz walked quickly out of the kitchen back into the living room. She was just about to reach out and grasp the door handle to leave, when a hand suddenly landed on her shoulder. Liz gasped and whirled around. Mr. Banning held his hands up quickly to show her he meant her no harm. "I didn't mean to startle you," he told her, looking at her curiously, "You must be Liz." Liz nodded, trying to get words to come out of her mouth. Eventually she succeeded. "Mr. Banning," she said, "I'm sorry for barging in like this without your permission." He smiled and shook his head. "That's quite all right," he assured her, "I've been looking forward to meeting you." Liz swallowed and forced a smile. "Um, yeah," she said, "I'm sorry for not coming before." "Think nothing of it," he replied, "I know you've been under a lot of pressure lately. I'm glad you finally decided to come see me." Liz nodded, trying to figure out how she would escape. Banning took a step closer to her. Liz looked up at him warily. "I know about Eric," he told her, his expression and voice serious, "Keep away from him. It is for your own good. He is a dangerous being, capable of anything." Liz took a breath. "Was he responsible for the killings?" she asked. Banning narrowed his eyes at her. "I think you already know the answer to that," he told her cryptically. Liz nodded slowly, then took a step back. "I, um, I better go," she told him, "I have to work tonight." "That's right," Banning said, "You and your friend Maria work at that café across town, don't you? The Crashdown Café?" Liz nodded. Banning smiled. "Maybe I should stop by some time," he suggested. Liz nodded again, slower this time. She forced another smile as she opened the door. "Bye, Mr. Banning," she said. "Bye, Liz." Liz closed the door behind her as she left. As soon as she was back on the street and out of sight of Banning's house, she let out a big shiver to shake off the ugly feeling she'd had ever since entering Banning's home. Liz, Maria and Alex were all sitting at the counter, sipping milkshakes and talking silently when Michael walked into the restaurant. Before he could reach them, Liz immediately stood and went over to him to block his path. He looked down at her, and she returned his gaze. "Michael," she said, "I need to apologize to you, for the other day with Eric." Michael shrugged. "Don't be sorry," he said, "I should be thanking you for not letting me blow my cover." Liz nodded. "But still," she said, "It may have seemed like I was taking Eric's side, but…I didn't mean to." Michael gave her one of his half-smiles. "I know," he said. Liz smiled. Michael spoke up again quickly. "And I'll forgive you entirely if you make me one of those milkshakes," he said. Her smile widened. "Coming right up," she said. Liz went back to fix Michael's drink, while he went to sit next to Alex. Maria stood at the counter across from him. She gave him a knowing smile, but he just shook his head at her, grinning nonetheless. Alex ignored them, concentrating his full attention on sucking in his chocolate-ice-cream drink in one breath. Max and Isabel entered as Liz was handing Michael his milkshake. He immediately began pouring Tabasco sauce into the icy mixture. "None for us?" Max asked, half-jokingly. Liz glanced up at him and smiled. He smiled back warmly. Isabel glanced at them both, rolled her eyes, and took a seat next to Alex. "Do you want one, Isabel?" Liz asked. "Strawberry," she replied. While Liz went to make the other two drinks, Max leaned against the counter. "So what's this meeting about?" Michael asked, his straw still in his mouth. "It's about our next move," Max said. "Which would be?" Isabel asked. Alex suddenly released his straw from his mouth and noisily took in a deep breath of air. He pushed aside his empty glass. "I say we sit tight and let the Shifter-hunter take care of things," he said. "I agree," Isabel said. "Me three," Maria added, putting her hand up to vote. Liz returned with the two drinks. "What are we voting on?" she asked. "On whether or not we actually do something about what's going on," Alex told her. "So what's the score?" "3-yes, 3-unspoken," Maria replied. "Well I say we do something," Michael spoke up. "Like what?" Isabel asked, "Help him catch Eric?" "Well we gotta do something," Michael insisted. "Who says?" Maria asked. Michael rolled his eyes. "Well I for one just can't sit here while the person who killed my parents is right under my nose," he said. "And I'm not just gonna sit here and watch you get yourself killed too," Maria told him. Michael looked at her, opened his mouth to reply, hesitated, then looked down mutely. Maria also looked away. Liz glanced at them both, then spoke up. "Well, I agree we shouldn't do anything, yet," she said, "There's still so much more we need to know about this whole situation." "You haven't even met Banning yet," Alex added. Liz glanced at him, then at Max. "Actually…" Max looked at her, eyebrows raised. "You talked to him?" he asked. Liz nodded. "I went to go see him this afternoon," she admitted. "By yourself?" Isabel asked, a little surprised. Liz nodded. Max looked at her eagerly. "What did you think?" he asked. Liz hesitated. Before she could answer, Maria spoke up. "Banning's not who we should be worrying about," she said, "It's Eric that's the one who's killing everyone. There has been a murder every night since he got to town, and it's really starting to freak me out when he comes in here every morning to get his salt fix. It's like he's stalking us or something." Alex spoke up. "Have no fear," Alex told them chivalrously, "We men are here to protect you." Isabel laughed. But her smile shortly turned to a frown. "What about what Banning said," she asked, "About Eric wanting to kill us?" Liz frowned. Max glanced at his sister with a look of determination. "We won't let him," he promised. "Yeah," Michael added, "He's not getting anymore of us. We'll use our powers if we have to." Maria looked at him and grinned a little, then glanced over at the window. Instantly her smile dropped and her face paled. "You guys say you want to protect us?" she said, "Well, here's your chance." They all looked toward the front windows of the restaurant to see a figure crossing the street and walking toward them. It was Eric. And he was staring right at them. Maria let out a small whimper as she saw the alien killer approaching. Michael stood, as did the others. He moved a few steps to stand in front of Maria protectively. Max and Alex did the same. They all watched Eric walk up to the Crashdown apprehensively. Eric reached out and opened the door easily. "I, um, guess I should have locked that," Liz said. Eric let the door shut behind him, then approached them slowly, never dropping his eyes from them. He looked serious. Cowering behind Michael, Maria grabbed his arm with one of her hands tightly. When she moved her other arm from off the counter, her elbow bumped into something. She glanced over to see the open bottle of Tabasco sauce sitting right there. She then remembered how Eric had told her he couldn't eat hot sauce. Getting an idea, Maria slowly slid her hand around the small bottle and lifted it. Then she looked at Eric. He stopped his advance just a few feet away from them. Max, Michael and Alex blocked the three girls protectively. At first no one said anything. Then Eric abruptly took another step, and suddenly Maria dashed out from behind Michael bravely, wielding the bottle of hot sauce. She flung the contents at Eric. "Take that!" she cried. The red liquid splattered over Eric's face and chest. He didn't even flinch. He frowned, looked down at the sauce, then looked back up at Maria with a mixture of amusement and puzzlement. "I thought I mentioned I didn't like hot sauce," he told her. Then, before their eyes, the Tabasco sauce disappeared from Eric's face and clothes, without him even lifting a hand. Maria stared at him for a moment, then dropped the bottle on the floor and went back to cower behind Michael. "Why are you here?" Michael demanded. "I think you know why," Eric told him. Maria suddenly whined. "You're not here to take our livers, are you?" she asked. Eric frowned at her in confusion. "Why would I want to do that?" he asked. "Because Shifters like human livers," Michael said. Eric looked a little surprised. "You know about that?" he asked. "We know a lot of things," Michael replied, crossing his arms. Eric's face cleared in understanding. "I guess you were told I was the Shifter," he said. "You guessed right," Michael said. None of the others volunteered to speak up. Max glared at Eric in distrust. Isabel and Maria both looked scared. Alex was also apprehensive, but working hard not to show it. Liz looked indecisive, as if she wanted to say something, but wasn't sure if she should or not. Michael just looked mad. Eric replied. "I'm not the Shifter," he told them, "The one who's been informing you is the one you should be worried about." "If Banning were the Shifter, then why hasn't he killed us by now?" Michael asked. "Why haven't I?" Eric told him. Liz stepped forward. "Look, you guys," she told them, "When I went to Banning's, I found something strange there. He had all this red meat in his fridge and nothing else. And there was blood on the floor." "He could just be high on protein, or maybe he went deer-hunting," Maria said, "It could be anything." Liz looked from her to Max. He looked back down at her, doubts in his eyes. He then turned to Eric. "You should leave," he said. Eric returned his look. "You should listen to her, Max," he told him. Max just looked at him in mistrust. Michael opened his mouth, about to speak up, but suddenly went silent as he glanced behind Eric. The door to the Crashdown opened just then, and Sheriff Valenti walked inside. They all turned to see him, including Eric. Valenti sauntered over to them casually, a smug expression on his face. "Well well, what have we here?" he asked. He turned to the teenagers. "You kids do realize it's eight minutes until curfew?" he told them. None of them replied. Valenti turned to Eric. "Mr. Bates," he said, "I was hoping to find you tonight. You're under arrest." Valenti pulled a pair of handcuffs out of his pocket and proceeded to cuff Eric. Eric made no objections. "And why would you be arresting me?" he asked. Valenti finished cuffing him and gripped his arm firmly. "First degree murder," he said. Valenti turned back to the teens. "You kids go on home," he told them, "Or I'll come back and arrest you too." Then they watched as Valenti escorted Eric outside. As soon as they were gone, Maria, Isabel and Alex all breathed deep sighs of relief. The others relaxed as well. Maria still hung on to Michael. "I never thought I'd actually be relieved to see Sheriff Valenti," Maria said. Immediately Michael moved away from her toward the exit. Maria took a few steps after him. "Where are you going?" she asked. He glanced back at her. "I'm going to follow them," he said. "Are you insane?" Isabel asked. "It's too dangerous," Max added. Michael turned to them. "I just want to see what happens," he said, "I'll be careful. I promise." He glanced again at Maria, then turned and left the restaurant. Maria looked poised to go after him. Isabel stepped forward. "We should get home," she said, "Mom will worry if we're late." Max nodded. He turned to Maria and Alex. "We'll give you guys a ride home," he offered. Alex nodded. "Thanks," he said. Maria just stared out the window. Michael had already disappeared. Max turned to Liz and walked up to her. She looked up at him. "Promise me you'll stay away from Eric," he told her, "For now?" She hesitated. "Please?" he added. Liz finally nodded. He gave her a small grin. Then he leaned down and kissed her briefly, both of them aware of his sister, Alex and Maria standing not far away. They smiled at each other when they parted. "G'night," he said, backing away. "Good-night," she replied. Liz watched as they all left the café. As soon as they were outside, Max turned to look at her through the glass door. She walked up to it and locked it, then pulled out the keys. He smiled at her, then turned and left. Liz smiled too, but then let it fall as she watched them drive away. Then, sighing to herself, Liz went to clean up and go to bed. Valenti led Eric into the jail area. They walked over to an open cell, where Valenti uncuffed him and herded him in. He shut the cell door firmly. Eric turned to look at him. Valenti just gazed back, totally unafraid. He turned and went to sit down in a nearby chair, facing Eric. He leaned back and casually crossed his legs, meeting the gaze of his captive. "So what are you planning on doing with me?" Eric asked, "You don't have any proof I committed those murders." Valenti looked at him smugly. "I'll just keep you overnight," he said, "Then first thing in the morning I'll have a blood test done. I'm sure the results will prove quite interesting." Eric narrowed his eyes at the man. "And just what are you hoping to find?" he asked. Valenti looked at him with a self-satisfied expression. Eric crossed his arms, gazing out at him through the bars. "Are you going to sit there all night?" he asked. Valenti grinned. "That's right," he said, "I'm keeping my eye on you." "I'd be careful if I were you, Sheriff," Eric told him, "You're stepping into something very dangerous." Valenti gazed at him evenly. "Is that a threat?" he asked. "A warning," Eric replied. The sheriff looked unperturbed. "I'll keep that in mind," he said. Eric suddenly grinned. "You do that." Michael ducked into the alley across from the police station. Valenti had entered with Eric only twenty minutes before. At least, that was his guess. He had followed them on foot, so he hadn't actually seen them go in. But Valenti's truck was parked just outside, so he knew they were in there. In fact from the looks of the near-empty parking lot, it seemed like they were the only ones in there. Michael was just about to move from his hiding spot and approach the building when he suddenly stopped. The front door to the station opened and Eric casually strolled out, alone. Michael watched him step onto the sidewalk and walk away. He glanced back at the police station, but Valenti wasn't following him. So Michael did, wondering how Eric escaped. Wondering if Valenti escaped. He followed at a safe distance, not wanting to alert Eric to his presence. Eric didn't seem to notice him. He headed east, to a poorer section of town, not too far away from his own home. After several minutes of walking, they finally turned onto a residential street called Shadow drive. Eric walked up to a large, white, peeling house and stepped inside the unlocked front door. Michael watched him, waited for a few moments, then turned and left after seeing no further activity. Maria pulled the long-sleeved T-shirt over her head, mussing up her hair. She ran both hands through it a few times before deciding she didn't care how it looked. She was going to bed anyway. But she knew before she even sat heavily down onto her mattress that she wouldn't be sleeping well. Not with Michael chasing after the Shifter. She couldn't help but worry about his welfare. There was an abrupt knock at her window, and Maria shrieked and jumped from her bed. She was relieved to see Michael through the narrow opening her curtains left. She immediately went and opened the window for him. Michael climbed in expertly. "Are you OK?" she asked, "What happened?" Michael faced her. Valenti took Eric to the police station," he told her, "But somehow Eric got away. I followed him-" "You followed him?" she interrupted in shock. Michael nodded. "Yeah," he said, "Turns out he lives in this big white house on Shadow drive." "So he went home?" she asked. "I guess so," he said. She nodded, glancing up at him curiously. "So why did you come here?" she asked. He shrugged uncomfortably. "I just wanted to, um, to let you know I was, you know, that I was OK." She let a slow smile creep over her face. "Well I'm glad you came," she said. He looked at her, nodded, and smiled. There was an awkward silence, and Maria glanced around her room nervously. It was a disorganized disaster area as usual. Michael let out a short couch. "Well, uh, I better go," he said. He turned to go back out the window, but Maria stepped forward and grabbed his arm. "Wait," she said. He turned back to her. She hesitated. "Uh, it's late," she told him, "And it's dangerous out there." He stared at her. "What are you suggesting?" he asked. She shrugged. "Just that maybe you should stay here tonight," she said, looking at anything but him. He released a small grin. "You mean here?" he asked, "In your room?" She nodded wordlessly. His grin grew a little. "Uh, sure," he said, "That would, that would be good." She smiled and glanced up at him. They gazed at each other mutely for a moment, when she shyly looked away. She moved over to her closet. "Um, I think I have a sleeping bag in here somewhere," she told him. Michael slipped off his jacket and shoes while Maria dug the sleeping bag out of her closet. When she walked back over to him, he looked critically at the sleeping bag. It was white, with multicolored stars on it and a big unicorn in the middle. He looked at her, and she grinned with embarrassment. "I, uh, used to like unicorns when I was a kid," she admitted. "I can see that," he said. She laid the sleeping bag out on the floor next to her bed. Then she grabbed a pillow off her bed and handed it to him. "Thanks," he said. She nodded and smiled. They stood there, facing each other awkwardly. Then he spoke up. "Well, good-night, I guess," he said. She nodded. "Yeah. Good-night." After a moment's hesitation, Maria quickly reached up and kissed him briefly on the lips. Then she went over to her bed and sat down before he could respond. He smiled a little, then lowered himself onto the sleeping bag, lying his head on the pillow. Maria shut the light off and crawled underneath her covers. When she closed her eyes, a huge smile covered her face.
On to Chapter 7
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