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 Premiered August 22, 2003

Chapter Fourteen


The road to Tlamacas was every thing for which one could have hoped -- assuming, of course, that one was into the rough and tumble of the gusto-laden adventure routes.  There was just enough broken pavement to ensure the road would be rough even in places where it normally would have been merely dusty, curves and deceptive twists as the road meandered ever higher into the mountain's slopes, and grades which continued to put Roger's taxi to its severest test.  The idea of getting out and pushing crossed the minds of Dawn and Alex more than once.  Thoughtfully, they never verbalized their concern -- lest the verbalization result in its manifestation.  But their eyes carried the thought between them just as effectively. 

Tlamacas, itself, was a strange blend of a dirt-poor Mexican village off the beaten path and a tourist haven.  Unfortunately for the town fathers, the tourist aspects were primarily those of a jumping off spot for American climbers -- a specialized breed of NorteAmericanos who were not known as being prolific spenders.  Thus the main Cantina catered primarily to the dying-of-thirst crowd (and ignored the sophisticated big spenders who preferred to watch locals dive from cliffs into the ocean).  The Cantina had over the years developed an atmosphere of dusty floors, hot sun, smoky air (most of which came from the volcano's occasional emissions), and tequila-inspired decor. The place could easily have been a movie set for The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, and The Totally Indifferent.

Dawn and Roger sat at the best table in the house, one outside in the sidewalk cafe tradition with just enough shade and something resembling a cool breeze.  Meanwhile Alex forged off alone to inquire about any "White Lady" residing in the vicinity.  Dawn would have gone with him, but the road to Tlamacas had taken its toll, and she was experiencing her first hints of motion sickness.  She was even able to appreciate, for the moment, the Cantina and its hospitality -- albeit its primary appeal being that it was not bouncing, jerking, and/or careening occasionally toward an abyss of crumbling earth and ragged brush. 

As she began to feel better and her stomach decided it was not slated for emergency downloadings, she became aware of the subtle sexual glances and suggestive smiles from Roger.  It had initially seemed a good idea for her to have Roger sit with her -- a single woman alone in a Mexican Cantina might be generally misconstrued as to her intentions or type of employment.  But Dawn was now beginning to wonder about her plan to discourage any Mexican, would-be gigolos.  Fortunately, Alex encountered quick success, and soon returned, walking briskly and confidently.

"There's a house, one described as a 'fine and ancient estate' further up the mountain," Alex reported, the moment he approached Dawn's table.  "It's supposedly off-limits to visitors, but I figure we have to try it.  Are you game?"

Dawn smiled in total agreement.  "You bet I am!"  'Anything,' she thought, 'would be better than waiting with Roger at the local pretense of a watering hole!'  Then she asked, "How far?"

"Within walking distance," Alex replied.  "In fact, it's probably better we not use the car.  I don't want to make a big deal of our arrival.  Just sort of drop in unexpectedly, as if we didn't know any better. Driving up there would make it look too obvious that the place was our specific destination."

"Good thinking," Dawn replied.

After a quick negotiation with Roger, it was decided he would wait at the Cantina for them (for a mere few pesos in addition to the dollars already paid), while Dawn and Alex made the trek to the "White Lady's Casa".  Then as they set off, Alex asked, "You want to leave your backpack in the taxi?  I'm going to leave mine," he added, in a spur-of-the-moment attempt at low level chivalry.

Dawn didn't even hesitate.  "No thanks.  I'll keep it."

Alex accepted her decision with a shrug, turned and started walking.


The route to the house was longer than advertised by Alex's village informant.  It led through the town, and then out into a rugged, unpopulated area.  The trail was reasonably well traveled, until Alex caught a glimpse of a white hacienda just across a small rise.  The two then left the trail and made their way cross country in the direction of the house. 

Climbing up a steep slope, Dawn managed to trip on a rock and fall against another with her hand.  Both rocks, now dislodged from their precarious lodgings, promptly began rolling down the hill.  The movement caught on with numerous other rocks and a few tons of gravel, and a small landslide was soon in progress.  The rocks, gravel, dust and debris went cascading down and quickly showered the trail below them.  No one was hurt, but there was a lot of dust.

Alex looked back at Dawn and asked, "You okay?"

Sheepishly, she answered, "I'm okay."  Then she began climbing again to where Alex waited.

Deciding she was indeed alright, Alex looked down at the remnants of the landslide. For a moment it occurred to him that creating an avalanche was harder than one might imagine.  It took just the right combination of rocks and gravel, and ordinarily a simple knocking of one or two rocks down a hill did not result in the kind of conflagration he had just witnessed.  For a moment, he shuddered.  There was something about Dawn's clumsiness that mystified him: Some lack of control or rationality about it, or some reason for it that totally escaped the best efforts of his imagination.  'Phenomenal!' he thought. 

But it was time to move on.  Alex turned back to the task at hand.  Slowly, the two potential intruders continued their way in the direction of the White Lady's villa.  Then, on a small rise, giving them their best view of the homestead, they stopped.  For several moments, they simply observed the white walled and red tiled, multi-building structure.

It did indeed carry the hint of antiquity about it.  The white, red and occasional green colors were modern (possibly a result of good maintenance), but the shapes were out of sync with the standard Spanish-derived building style.  The overall effect for the architecturally sophisticated was a foreign and distinct character -- not something identifiable, but rather intriguing enough to be copied for a later, innovative design by an architect not loath to avoiding plagiarizism.  The entire area was walled in fairly typical fashion, but at least two gates stood open and inviting, each with a shape and style more Egyptian than Spanish.  And despite some flourishing greenery, there was no sign of anyone actively caring for the place, guarding it, or even enjoying its pleasant atmosphere.

Alex was studying the layout, plotting in his mind for ways to justify their entrance into the grounds when the earth began to shake under his feet.  He first noticed the effect as small rocks, followed by larger ones, began rumbling down the slopes.  A low roar, accompanied by a distant thundering began to add to the shaking ground.  Abruptly, he turned to look at Dawn, mystified.

"It's not me," Dawn replied.  She too, had dropped down to hang onto the ground.  Then she pointed to something over Alex's shoulder.  "The volcano," she said, her voice bleak and worried.

Sure enough, smoke and ash, in quantities far above normal, were spewing out of Popocatepetl.  The sight was an ominous one, even as the ground ceased its shaking, and the rocks and gravel began to find new homes -- even if temporary ones.  Alex looked at the smoke and the threat of red-hot hail falling from the direction of the volcano's peak.  Then he glanced at the hacienda.  He made a quick decision.

Leaping up and grabbing Dawn's hand, he said, "Come on!  Any port in a storm!  They can hardly turn us away now!"  With that the two ran down the weed covered and brush infested slope toward the nearer of the hacienda's two open gates.  The buildings took on a new complexion as they promised to provide a roof over the heads of unwary tourists against the imminent fall of debris from the volcano. There was also the promise of an enclosure from the smoke and gas, as well as a legitimate excuse for entry into the villa of the White Lady.  It was opportunity knocking.  Or more accurately, perhaps, it was opportunity rumbling.

As they ran, one ragged, almost thorny bush, managed to grab a piece of Dawn's pants. Not enough to tear them, but sufficient to cause her to turn abruptly as she tried to avoid the tear.  Her movement caught Alex by surprise, his hand in hers suddenly finding heavy resistance.  This threw him off balance, and he went down into the twin of the ragged bush.  Never letting go of Dawn's hand, he took her down as well, with her landing on top of him.  Their combined weight pretty well flattened the bush, but not before it took a slash against Alex's shirt, nicely ripping it.  Ironically, Dawn had managed to escape trashing her outfit.

The mind moves at great speed during moments like this.  Alex recognized instantly that: 1) the responsibility for this mishap might be shared in this case, 2) the logical extension of that point was the possibility that Alex was becoming more clumsy, 3) this in turn implyied maladroitness might be contagious, and 4) none of the first three steps of logic really mattered at the moment inasmuch as the ground was still growling and the volcano threatening to cover them with ash and red hot cinders.  His mind, therefore, ordered him to keep moving!  Dawn had gone through a similar logical analysis, but concluded more quickly that they needed to get under shelter as soon as possible.

After a two second pause, the two were up again and running again.  Alex had been right about gaining entrance in extremis.  As they ran the last few yards to the nearest gate, an old man appeared just inside the enclosure.  Without a word he gestured for them to run toward him.  They did, and as they came through the gate, he opened a door in one of the smaller buildings.  Gesturing them in, he stood to one side.  Without hesitation, they ran inside.  The old man followed them in and closed the door.  For a moment, Alex and Dawn caught their breath, preparatory to thanking the man for his hospitality.

Before they had the chance the old man offered, "Mi casa es su casa."  It was the traditional greeting of Spanish hospitality: “My house is your house”.

"Mucho Gracias," Alex quickly replied.

The old man quickly sized them up.  "Norte Americanos?"

"Si," Alex answered.  Then he added, "Yes, we are."

"You have come a long way just to witness Popocatepetl's venting of his frustration."

Alex made no comment on the old man's obviously excellent command of the English language.  Rather he said, "Our timing does seem somewhat inopportune."

"Perhaps," the old man replied.  One could get the feeling the old man did not entirely believe Alex.  Then the villa's resident looked at Dawn.  "Can I get you anything, Senorita?"

"No, thank you," Dawn replied.  She looked at the old man for several seconds, seeing a vibrant, weathered old man -- someone who carried a sense of antiquity along with profound wisdom.  He wore the trappings of a commoner, but somehow exuded the personality of an aristocrat.  His dark, wrinkled face and pure white hair spoke of age, but his eyes were far too brilliant and alive to be old.  In fact, his eyes were penetrating and deep beyond words. 

Dawn reached out with her mind to sense him, only to find such depth that there was nothing which she could grasp or identify.  He might have been allowing her inside his mind, but the territory was so alien she could gain no advantage, as if she were falling into a deep, dark void, from which there was no handhold to stabilize the intruder.  At the same time, there was the hint he could see into her mind as well.  And he seemed much more familiar with the territory.

At a decided disadvantage, Dawn dropped her probing, glanced away from the old man's eyes, and began to take stock of the room where they had sought refuge.  It was a well-appointed kitchen, large enough to provide all the necessities of an aristocratic ball or large wedding reception -- a working kitchen with everything temporarily neatly stowed in its proper place.

The old man watched Dawn for several moments, before saying, "We will be quite safe here.  The ash and smoke will only lay a gentle frost upon the valley.  A welcome covering."

"Thank you for allowing us to take refuge here," Alex interjected.  "We were on the mountain hiking, when..."

The old man turned to Alex, and with a mental wave of dismissal, said, "But you are not climbers.  You don't carry the necessities.  A single, small backpack," he continued, taking note of Dawn's purse and backpack, "would be insufficient, even foolhardy."

Alex was about to fabricate something else, when Dawn took the lead.  In a split second, she had felt an overpowering sense of increased awareness, and simultaneously, a release from fear.  Her receptivity heightened and balanced, she made a quick Judgement, one which took Alex and the old man quite by surprise.  "We came to this house," she said confidently, "hoping to gain entrance.  We're looking for someone."

Both of the men looked at Dawn: Alex in something of a state of shock, and the old man merely studying her.  "And for whom," he asked, "are you looking?"

"The White Lady," Dawn replied simply, her eyes meeting the old man's at several levels simultaneously.

"Surprising," the old man answered.  "Most look for Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, as if he had finally returned."  He smiled.  "I always send them to Tepoztlan, to search for him there."

Alex, taking advantage of the moment, asked, "Is Quetzalcoatl here?"

Without looking at Alex, the old man replied, his voice cooler, "He has returned to the home of his birth."  Then with more interest, he asked, "And who is looking for the White Lady?"

"My name is Dawn Riordan," she answered.  "And this is my companion, Alexander Dukas."

"Noble names," the old man replied.  "I am called Nanau."  For just a moment, he bowed slightly and lowered his eyes.  Straightening back up, he added, "I am the caretaker here."

Alex, deciding Dawn's initiative should be followed, asked point blank, "Is the Lady here?"

Nanau ignored him, concentrating on Dawn.  When he only smiled at her, she asked, "Isn't it a little dangerous to be here right now?  The volcano seems..." Her voice trailed off.

"I will remain," Nanau replied, "until the end times of this era.  Perhaps a few more years yet."  Then he looked at her with more intensity.  "If you believe it dangerous, why are you here?"

"It's important," Dawn replied, "to find the White Lady."  When the old man remained silent, she added, "We need her help."  Dawn had not previously thought they were seeking help from the Lady, but the moment seemed to tell her this was precisely why they were searching for her.

The old man looked into Dawn's eyes for several moments.  Then he smiled, and turned to Alex.  He became more serious as he studied the thoughts of the woman's companion.  But then the smile returned again, even if not quite with the same intensity as before.  Quietly, but with great authority, he broke the momentary silence, aiming his words directly at Dawn.  "The Lady has returned to her home on the underside of the world.  She now resides at the last bastion within the Realm of the Storm God.  You will find her near the Temple of the Three Windows."

Dawn kept her eyes on the old man, not understanding his meaning.  At the same time, however, she could feel Alex's suddenly mounting enthusiasm, as if he had understood the meaning or at least was rapidly deciphering the cryptic message.  She could sense his mind making all the right connections, finding the pieces of the puzzle falling together, and deciding their mission to Mexico had been as completely successful as he could have hoped.  Confident in her assessment of Alex's response, she smiled at the old man.  "You've been most gracious," she began.  "Is there anything we can do to thank you?  Perhaps carry a message for you to the Lady."

Nanau smiled, his white teeth breaking though for the first time.  "You may tell her: 'The frying pan is once again becoming quite warm.'"  Then he laughed, his eyes displaying his delight at his own humor -- as if it had been a long time between delights.


After almost an hour at the hacienda, enjoying the kitchen hospitality of Nanau, Alex and Dawn set out once again.  The old man assured them Popocatepetl was satiated for the moment, and he knew they would be in a hurry to be on their way.  He did, however, add in a cryptic fashion as they left, "There should be much entertainment for you in the next hours."  He then declined to say anything further.

The sun was just beginning to set when they arrived back in the environs of the Cantina.  Alex was almost bubbling over with excitement on the short hike back into town, rambling on about the Realm of the Storm God being in Peru, and the Temple of the Three Windows at Machu Picchu.  He could hardly wait to get to the airport -- after a quick stop, of course, to pick up their luggage at the hotel.

It was then Nanau's predicted adventure began.  It seemed Roger Jimenez had pursued the better part of valor and left town at the first moment of Popocatepetl's outburst.  He had also neglected to pay his small tab at the Cantina, taking advantage of the momentary confusion of the small earthquake. 

Using a local form of financial logic, the Cantina proprietor concluded that as Roger's employer, Alex could be expected to pay the tab.  Alex was angered enough to find there was no driver, and was not about to pay for the deserter's beer tab.  Dawn, on the other hand, taking the slightly longer view, agreed to pay.  As the proprietor smiled, she then cashed in her credits with him, and asked if there was another vehicle to take them into Mexico City.  The man was all apologetic -- noting that few if any of the locals even spoke English, let along had access to a vehicle.  He did, however, with the cooperation of several patrons, manage to come up with an alternative scheme:  Hitch a ride with the 'loco Norte Americanos.'

Just south of Tlamacas, it seemed, was a small group of perhaps a half-dozen people from the United States, who were doing some crazy things and for some unexplainable reasons.  Alex and Dawn's only real option was to go to these people and perhaps find a ride back to the city.  It wasn't clear why the Norte Americanos were loco, but they were, apparently, well equipped nuts.  The only flaw was their camp was an hour's walk along a little used dirt road and the sun was going down.

Alex and Dawn, deciding this was part of the adventure prophesied by Nanau, took the need for flexibility in stride, and started out.  The hike was pleasant enough, particularly once the sun had set and twilight had rendered the surrounding area quite beautiful.  The only negativity was Alex bemoaning the fact that having paid most of the money up front for the taxi, he had consequently not provided a major incentive for Roger to have stayed and waited for them.  Dawn, however, quickly put an end to the drama, insisting Alex let it go, and concentrate instead on their progress in finding the White Lady.

This worked for a while.  Until it started to get dark, and there was no sign of Norte Americanos, loco or otherwise.  The breeze began to take on a cool edge, the kind you easily find at the higher elevations around Mexico City (itself some seven thousand feet above sea level).  It was then Dawn stopped. 

When Alex paused as well to see what was wrong, she held up her hand.  For a moment, neither said anything.  Then Dawn smiled, and opened her eyes.  She turned, and looked back down the road, in the direction of Tlamacas.  Within seconds, both of them caught the first glimpse of headlights, bouncing along the road.  It wasn't exactly the Seventh Calvary, but it was a Ford Explorer, equipped and driven by a very hospitable lady from Sedona, Arizona.  Her name was Shari, and better yet, she knew Koco -- at least, by reputation.  Shari lived in what was, apparently, a better part of Sedona than Koco.

Hitching a ride, Dawn and Alex quickly became a confidante of Shari, and learned all they could have hoped to learn about her.  As the Executive Assistant Director of the Sedona ExtraTerrestrial and Alien Research Center, Shari was in the environs of Mexico City hot on the trail of extraterrestrials, which, based on a lucid dream she had had while still in Sedona, Shari had been expecting to meet face-to- face. 

"I had even dreamed," she elucidated, "of a particular star formation in the sky which would identify the mountain's location.  Then, when we arrived here, I saw the star formation in the sky and knew we were in the right place!  I knew then, it was just a matter of time!  I was so excited!"

Alex didn't mention to Dawn, assuming she probably already knew, that star formations really don't vary a lot from location to location, and especially from Sedona, Arizona to Mexico City.  He also decided it wasn't his place to pop Shari's balloon.  Which was in the process even now of being filled even further.

"Two nights ago, about two in the morning, I was walking through the brush toward Popo, with Doctor Framanud just behind me, when we both saw a strobing light roll down from the mountain peak.  That's when I got this distinct feeling, all up and down my body, that someone wanted me to go further into the bushes."  Alex suddenly grinned, but Shari seemed unaware of it.  "It was then I felt the nearby presence of an ET craft and its beings.  The telepathic message I was receiving was from two or three beings who were located very close to me.  They were very small in stature and very shy.  Dr. Framanud was still behind me and he got the same message.  I also received the message to get rid of my camera, my hat, and my glasses.  All of these items were in some way interfering with communication."

Dawn felt Alex's reaction: something to the effect of: 'Okay, so now you can't see and you can't take pictures!'  Instinctively, she sent her own signal of: 'Keep it to yourself!'  It wasn't clear she had the ability to send such a message or for Alex to receive it.  But in any case, he said nothing.

"Once I got rid of these interferences, golden shafts of light came down the mountain, across the bush.  One beam actually entered my torso, producing a very pleasant sensation.  Then, an egg shaped object in a kind of 'blue fog' appeared.  Inside it was a tall, slender, beautiful being, who was bald on top but who had long, silver-gray hair on the sides of his head."  For a moment she seemed apologetic.  "It was hard to see clearly though the fog..."  (Whereupon Alex coughed slightly.) 

"But we could still communicate telepathically.  I told the being I wanted it to become more physical, but the ET couldn't do that for fear of frightening some of the members of our team.  I can't remember any more of the session, but the other team members said Dr. Framanud and I stood there like statues for more than two hours."  Shari laughed.  "To me, it seemed more like ten minutes or so!"

"That's fascinating," Dawn replied, with something resembling sincerity.

Alex's response was less definitive.  "Incredible!"

Shari laughed, delighted at their responses.  "The second night," she eagerly charged forth, "was equally phenomenal."  When neither of the hitchhikers seemed ready to bail out of their only chance at a ride back in the night’s first darkness, Shari added, "A strobing globe of light surrounded by a cloud appeared on a nearby mountain cliff.  Our team signaled the globe with our own halogen light and suddenly, a gigantic light returned our signal.  That's when we sent the local drivers away to avoid any discomfort on their part.  I don't think they were ready for this sort of thing."

"I can imagine," Alex interjected, with considerably more sincerity than before.

Shari continued, undaunted.  "For almost two hours, the huge ET light mimicked our halogen signals as well as initiating signals of its own.  Then it changed location and split into two lights.  One of the two lights changed from the color of a candle flame to brilliant red and dimmed somewhat.  It was then we rejoined our drivers and began the drive back to our base camp.  Amazingly, the ET lights continued to remain visible during our entire drive.  Back at the camp, we climbed up to the top of the bluff above where the tents were, and then noticed something extraordinary:  The two brilliant lights were part of a huge, dome-shaped object that appeared to be one to two city blocks in length!"

It immediately struck Alex that perhaps what had been seen was one to two city blocks.  But the Explorer's driver was oblivious to his silent sarcasm. 

Smiling her broadest smile, she said, "Now you know why we're out here!"  With that she pulled off the road and quickly parked along a narrow trail leading off to the left and angling up the mountainside.  Twenty feet from their parked vehicle were six tents and as many people, all busy going about the process of cleaning up after a meal and preparing for what the night might bring.  Shari led her two new devotees over to greet the others.

The redoubtable Dr. Framanud was absent, having gone further along the trail with one of the other female team members to take up what he assumed was a good position for the evening.  Shari was miffed at his forging out with someone other than the Executive Assistant Director, but then within minutes, was apparently compensated by two lights moving erratically along the ground in the direction from whence they had just come. 

The two lights maintained a consistent distance between them and flickered almost like a strobe light -- only in a more irregular fashion.  Excitement surged in the camp, with even Alex momentarily intrigued.  At the same time Dawn caught her breath. 

But alas, the cause turned out to be two headlights, attached to an earthbound vehicle which pulled up behind Shari's Ford Explorer.  Three beings, albeit earthlings, got out of the vehicle immediately -- one woman and two men.  As the three approached Shari and her team, it became apparent the woman was in charge.

Alex was about to laugh, when Dawn grabbed his sleeve with considerable force. Turning to her and ready to be scolded for bad manners, he was surprised to see her urgently signaling him to follow her.  More intrigued than concerned, he did so, as she led him further into the bushes to the right of where Shari and her team were meeting the visitors.  When they had reached a point where they were hidden behind bushes and trees, Dawn grabbed Alex and whispered in his ear:  "Patrons!"

Alex froze and immediately tried to see her expression in the darkness.  The slight flicker of the campfire's light told him she wasn't kidding.  His mind quickly went into overdrive, as he decided what to do.  His first thought was to grab his revolver, the one in the backpack he had left in Roger Jimenez's taxi.  Then he turned to Dawn.  "Do you have your gun?"

"Yes," she answered, not sure she wanted to use it.  "Don't you?"

"It's in my backpack," Alex admitted.  "In the taxi."

"Clever," Dawn said, as she pulled her Lady Remington out of her backpack and handed it to Alex.  "I don't want to use it unless absolutely necessary."

"Don't worry," Alex replied.  "I'm no hero."

Dawn didn't argue the point as she began leading Alex through the trees, outflanking the new arrivals.  At the same time, Shari was inviting the visitors back to camp, babbling on about two other visitors she had just picked up.  Dawn could feel Anna's vibration, and yet could not pick up any indication on her part that she was aware of either Dawn or Alex.  That seemed strange.

Alex caught up with her mentally about the same time as he did physically.  Taking her arm, he whispered, "Get in their vehicle.  Back it up, and turn it around.  I'm going to grab the keys from Shari's vehicle.  Then wait for me, once you're pointed in the right direction back toward town!"

Dawn had already decided on the first part of the plan, but decided Alex's addition was a good idea.  Her concern was whether or not, Anna's vehicle had the keys in it.  This was even more important inasmuch as Anna's vehicle blocked Shari's in something of a "box canyon" scenario.

Fortunately, Dawn and Alex were on a roll that day.  Both vehicles had their driver's side facing away from the camp where Shari was already looking for Dawn and Alex.  The two desperadoes opened the doors simultaneously -- lighting the interiors of both vehicles.  Dawn leaped into the Jeep Cherokee, leading with her backpack, found the keys in the ignition, thanked the Goddess, and turned the key.  The engine started immediately -- a fact witnessed by everyone in camp.  Without hesitation, she gunned it in reverse, and in a cloud of dust went sailing backwards.  The backup lights worked just well enough to let her see she could quickly turn around in a slight widening of the trail.  She slammed on the brakes of the four-wheel drive vehicle, and then turned on the headlights.  She immediately turned the vehicle to head back down the trail, and gunned it.  Then she remembered Alex and slammed on the brakes again.  For the first time she heard the shouts from the people in the camp behind her.  For just a second, she wondered if Alex had made it. 

Abruptly the passenger side door opened and Alex tried to jump into his seat.  With one of the better examples of mind-body coordination, Dawn floored the gas petal the moment Alex opened the door -- fast enough for Alex to almost not make it into the vehicle.  Only a good grip on the door and seat back prevented him from falling back out.  For several seconds he was hanging on, the door still open. 

Dawn hit the brakes again, causing Alex to be thrown into the vehicle and against the dash and windshield.  He mumbled something about being in now, a shot was heard, a bullet careened across the hood of the Cherokee (Dawn's having hit the brakes the last time having resulted in the bullet missing the passengers).  Then, spurred by the shot across her bow, Dawn took off again in yet one more cloud of dust.  Alex's door took that moment to slam itself shut, while Alex himself managed to right himself in the seat and desperately begin wrapping himself in the seat belt.  Dawn had neglected her seat belt altogether.  But no one apparently cared about this minor infraction of pointless legality.

Another three shots were heard, but there was no sound of any near-miss bullets.  Things were beginning to look up for the dynamic duo when Alex suddenly blurted out, "Shit!  I must have dropped my gun back there!"

"Your gun?" Dawn replied, as she mentally shook her head.  Then, thinking about it, she decided it was a bad time to blame a fellow fugitive.  Instead she concentrated on her driving as she drove with reckless abandon down the road Shari had just arrived on (but in the opposite direction).  From Dawn's viewpoint there was nothing to be done about the gun, and the condition in which this particular rental vehicle would be returned had just become wonderfully unimportant.  Anna could pay for all the damages, Dawn thought, her eyes suddenly lighting up.  Then with her attention on the road, she thought of something else.  "Did you get the keys to Shari's Explorer?"

Alex's concentration was more focused on the road and Dawn's wild driving, his eyes wide and panicked.  But, after a moment's hesitation, he replied, "Yes.  But I think I dropped them too."

Dawn frowned, took out a small row of bushes alongside the road, and asked, "Do you have them in your hands?  Or are they on the floorboard?  Somewhere in the vehicle?"

Alex looked at his empty hands, and then bent over to look down at the floorboard.  After a quick glance, he found himself bounced back upright, as Dawn managed to find one of the more serious potholes in the alleged road.  Clutching the passenger side armrest with one hand, and the leading edge of the front seat with the other, he answered, "No sign of them."

Dawn stated the obvious.  "Then you dropped them."

Alex tried to be the optimist, even as the vehicle swerved from a glancing blow to a small pine tree along the road, seriously wounding the tree and hitting the upper edge of the vehicle's passenger side cab and causing a dent and major league scratch along the entire length of the cab.  "But they'll be hard to find.  There was a lot of dust back there, and I think I dropped them while trying to hang on here."

"We're not going back," she said.  And then she added, "I'm not worried."  The latter was a lie.

Alex was worried, however.  He began to check out the interior of the Cherokee, trying to feel useful, and simultaneously looking for ways to redeem himself by perhaps finding something important.  In the back seat, he hit pay dirt.  It was a small electronic unit, specifically designed to listen in on mobile telephone conversations.  Potentially illegal for individuals, and seldom talked about even in law-enforcement circles, the unit was state-of-the-art in privacy invasion.  It was also useful in the event one's quarry was into mobile telephones.  Alex, without moral compunction, grabbed the unit and opened the case.  Within moments, he had it figured out -- despite being bounced around inside the dark cab.

As the unit turned on, there was a sound of static and a low voice.  Alex found the volume control, and the voice became loud enough to be heard above the static.  The first words overhead were: "...Roy Continental." (Which Alex promptly translated as being the hotel where Dawn and he had stayed the previous night.)  "Avoid any real damage...  If possible."  (Alex swallowed, while Dawn swerved again to avoid another tree.)  "Any questions?"  ('Well yes,' Alex thought.  'Now that you mention it...')

Another voice answered.  "What about the villa?"

"It's being taken care of.  Just handle your end!  We haven't much time.  Zedek out."

The Mobile Telephone Interception Unit (soon to be offered by Radio Shack under the brand name, Empty IU, and on sale for a mere $199.95) then went silent.  Alex left it on -- just in case.  Then he turned to Dawn.  "Someone is on their way to 'the villa.'  The place we just came from?"

"Sounds reasonable," Dawn replied.  She suddenly braked as they came off the road less traveled, and approached the more traveled path between Tlamacas and, ultimately, Mexico City.

"We may be meeting their friends on the road," Alex gently suggested.  "So we probably don't want to appear we're running away from something.  You might want to slow down."

"Good idea," Dawn agreed.  Then she pulled onto the "improved" highway.

Alex then asked, with minimal aggression, "Want me to drive?"

Dawn's answer was a model of brevity.  "No," she said.

Rejected, Alex shrugged his shoulders, decided his life expectancy was not that short -- particularly after the last moments on a back road of Tlamacas -- and asked instead, "Who's Zedek?"

"Anna Zedek," Dawn answered.  "One very tough lady and someone who seems to be the right hand person for Nathan Fox."  Then, with less confidence, "Gil knew her pretty well."

"Ohhhh," Alex replied.  "That Anna."  Then, with surprise cropping up in his voice, "I seem to recall Gil had some mixed feelings about her."  Dawn swallowed silently, before refocusing her attention on driving the back roads of Mexico in the dark -- one of the more notable adventures available to the going-for-the-gusto jet set.   

Alex continued blithely on.  "Gil said this Anna gal was pretty high up in the Patrons, but that she was a potential ally.  Trouble is, he could never be sure.  She might have been using him for her own purposes."  Then he turned to Dawn.  "At least, that's what I seemed to remember from my last conversation with him."

Dawn didn't answer, giving Alex leave to fall silent.  Her thoughts kept swinging back and forth between her driving and thoughts of Anna.  Dawn couldn't understand why Anna had not picked up on her telepathically.  Going back in her mind to the chronology of events at Shari's camp, neither could Dawn recall at any point on picking up any hint of Anna's having been surprised by Dawn and Alex's abrupt appearance -- nor of their departure.  Perhaps Anna had simply not had her intuition tuned.  But then again, that didn't make sense.

There was also the question of whether or not Anna had given anyone instructions about checking for Dawn and Alex at the airport.  If she hadn't, then Anna had inexplicably left Dawn and Alex an escape route.  That would not make sense either, at least from Dawn's point of view.  Anna was not that stupid.  Of course, there was also the implied insult of Anna thinking Dawn and Alex might be equally stupid if she thought they would go back to their hotel for their luggage.

But the questions were too perplexing, and too distracting for the immediate driving demands.  The last swerve and pothole-inspired bounce had convinced Dawn of that fact.  Alex gallantly passed up the opportunity to again offer to drive.  He even avoided making any comments on her wild driving -- her driving being sufficiently wild to measure up to that of the craziest local madman.  The amazing thing, from Alex's viewpoint was that, other than some major league dents in virtually every exposed surface of the Cherokee, the vehicle was still running and carrying them with all due haste toward the airport.

As they entered the outlying districts of Mexico City, they received an extra surprise.  A cellular telephone lying dormant in the back seat of Anna's rental vehicle suddenly sprang to life.  The polite ringing sound of the telephone immediately had the same effect on both Dawn and Alex as would have an air raid siren's sudden wailing -- or the words "incoming" in the trenches of World War II.  But by the second ring, Alex's heart had restarted and he was able to retrieve the telephone from the back seat and set it down on the front seat.  He looked at it, and then at Dawn.  When she only shrugged her shoulders in silent consent, Alex took a deep breath and answered the telephone.

"Hello?"  It was his best rendition of a calm and matter-of-fact answering voice.

"Good evening, Doctor Dukas," Nathan replied, his voice buoyant and cordial.  "This is Nathan Fox.  I'm sure I need no introduction to you."

Alex could not imagine admitting to anything.  Bleakly, he asked, "Who?"

Nathan was not about to dignify the denial with an explanation.  "I trust you're enjoying your tour of the Mexican Highlands.  I understand it's quite beautiful this time of year."

Alex was still having trouble breathing normally, but managed with as little fear-based emotion as possible, "Excuse me.  Is this a crank call?"

Nathan suddenly laughed in the good humor version of a monarch about to sentence a fool to the gallows.  "Well done, Doctor Dukas.  I've always enjoyed humor under stress.  And I can appreciate that you're under a great deal of stress as of late.  Running around an unfriendly foreign country with a known felon and in a stolen vehicle...  That must truly give one pause to reflect on one's mortality and the inevitable pain of being summarily dispatched."

"Gee," Alex replied, in a pathetically cheerful voice, "I'm afraid you've gotten the wrong number.  We're born again Christians doing missionary work in Mexico."

Nathan's voice abruptly turned cold and menacing.  "One must keep in mind, Doctor Dukas, that the essential element in humor is timing.  And your second attempt is failing in that regard.  You might be better advised to direct your attention in the direction of your and Miss Riordan's ultimate fate -- particularly in the face of certain defeat.  Fortunately for you in that regard, my associates and I are always open to compromise with worthy and interesting adversaries."

"Well bless you for that my son," Alex cheerfully answered.  "But I'm afraid our batteries on the cellular are about to expire, and we're going to have to end this interesting conversation prematurely.  I’m sure you’ll understand."

"If you persist in this lunacy, Doctor Dukas, I'm afraid your expected lifetime may be shorter than those of your telephone's batteries."

"If you need a doctor," Alex thoughtfully added, "May I suggest you call nine one one."

"Negotiation," Nathan replied, his voice hardened even more, "never killed anyone.  But the failure to do so has resulted in many lost lives."

"And you have a nice day too," Alex answered, and promptly hung up the telephone.

Dawn didn't really have to ask, but did so anyway.  "Who was that?"

"Someone named Nathan Fox," Alex meekly replied.  "Anna must have told him about our cellular telephone.  Something we should have thought of before."

Neither said anything as they considered their plight, and continued along the increasingly busy streets of Mexico City.  Suddenly Alex, pointed to a relatively modern hotel.  "Stop here."  When Dawn began to pull up to the lighted curb directly in front of the hotel, Alex became more specific.  "Not here.  Up ahead, in the next block where the curb is dark." 

Dawn did as Alex had suggested.  As she pulled over and stopped, Alex added, "Leave the keys in the ignition, bring everything you want to keep, and come with me." 

The two of them got out of the vehicle, and with Alex leading began walking back to the hotel.  At the hotel's front entrance, Alex hailed a taxi which had just stopped to unload a hotel guest.  Dawn and he hopped into the taxi and Alex gave the driver their destination.  "Airport.  And pronto!  We're in a hurry."

The driver took Alex at his word and rapidly accelerated into traffic.  As they passed their abandoned vehicle, they could see two young thieves already into the Jeep Cherokee and starting it.  The Jeep then pulled out onto the street just behind the taxi.  For a moment, it followed the taxi.  Then it turned off and proceeded down a side street.  Alex turned to Dawn with a broad smile on his face.  Dawn silently acknowledged that his plan may indeed have worked.  She could only hope that the two young thieves were well on their way to the hinterlands of Mexico with their prize.


Chapter Thirteen -- The Sun

Forward to:

Chapter Fifteen -- The Star



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