The phone rang.
"She contacted me, just like you said."
"So you're meeting her?"
"Yeah, tonight at seven. The cafe on Rue Montcalme."
"Hmm. Is there a church nearby?"
"A church -- cathedral, chapel, shrine. Is there one near this cafe?"
"I don't know."
"What about a cemetery?"
"How would I know? There's churches all over Paris!"
"Hold on a moment while I find a map."
"Mr. Black . . . are you there?"
"Ah, yes, the cafe on Rue Montcalme will be fine. Keep her there at least fifteen minutes. You'll get your payment later."
The phone clicked.
"Duncan?" Amanda's voice floated back from the barge's cramped kitchen area.
"Yeah?" MacLeod didn't glance up from the mail he was sorting.
"I thought you hated asparagus."
"Then why did you buy some?"
"What?" Duncan rose and crossed to her side. "I didn't buy any asparagus."
"Then what's this doing in the bag you just brought home?"
Duncan blinked at the bundle of greens Amanda waved at him. "I don't remember buying that," he repeated.
"Ah, well, the memory often starts to go after four hundred years," she said sadly.
"Amanda . . ."
"Just kidding." Amanda tossed the asparagus onto the counter. "You probably just grabbed the wrong package or something."
Duncan stood staring absently into the bag of food.
"Duncan?" Amanda sighed and shook her head. She had seen that vacant stare before, and knew what it meant. She continued putting food away until Duncan came back to himself with a start. "Remembering something?" she asked.
"Hmm? Oh, yes, I guess so." Duncan moved back to the table and contemplated the mail.
"Should I throw this away?"
"Oh, no, you can have it."
"Duncan. You know I hate asparagus too."
"Oh, right. Then throw it out. Whatever you want." Duncan rubbed at his neck. "I'm going up on deck, Amanda."
"Right, well, it's time for me to leave anyway. I'm meeting someone. I'll be back here at eight for dinner."
Duncan turned. "Meeting someone? About what?"
"Business," Amanda said airily.
Duncan put his hands on his hips. "Is he a fence? A buyer? Or a potential partner?"
"Duncan! I told you I'd given that up!"
"Yes, you told me. Several times over the past two and a half centuries, as I recall. And you haven't given it up yet."
"Well, now I have. Anyway, you know I would never start working with another partner when I have you."
"Oh, that makes me feel better!" Laughing, Duncan led the way up onto the deck of the barge. The smile slid from his face as he paused and looked at the water of the Seine, flowing by.
Amanda laid a hand on his shoulder. "Are you all right, Duncan? Do you still feel bad about what happened with Kalas?"
"No," said Duncan slowly. "Not Kalas . . . I guess I just need to think for a while."
"Well, you sit down here and think, dear," Amanda said, placing her hands on his shoulders, "and I'll be off to my meeting." She gave him a quick kiss.
For a moment, Duncan stared at her as if she were a stranger. Then he blinked and kissed her back. "Fine. I'll expect you at eight, then."
A man in a long black coat paused on the roughly cobbled street, gazing down the hill towards a cafe. He pulled a diminutive pair of binoculars from his pocket and raised them to his eyes.
A man and a woman sat at a table in front of the cafe, talking. The man looked nervous, the woman annoyed. She gestured quickly, leaning across the table. Her finger stabbed at the man's chest.
The observer lowered his binoculars and smiled. He walked down the hill slowly, pausing every few feet to study the two at the cafe.
Suddenly the woman broke off her tirade in mid-word. Her head swiveled, searching for something. She looked up the hill. The observer moved behind a small truck parked at the side of the street.
The woman, no longer angry, got to her feet, spoke a few hasty words to her companion, and left the cafe. She hurried down the street, looked about anxiously at the intersection, and continued on.
The observer didn't follow. His lips curved upward as he returned the binoculars to his pocket, but there was no smile in his eyes.
Amanda returned to the barge to find Duncan presiding over a collection of bubbling pots, singing softly to himself. Amanda raised her brows and squeezed into the kitchen for a better look, tossing her raincoat onto the couch.
"What are you making?" she asked.
"Boeuf bourguignon," Duncan replied, gesturing to some of the pots.
"And this one?" Amanda raised the lid to sniff and recoiled. "Eugh! I thought you were going to throw out the asparagus!"
Duncan paused, frowning. "I thought it might not be so bad steamed and served with a hollandaise sauce."
"Well. I hope you enjoy it."
Duncan stirred the sauce. "I used Fitz's recipe for the hollandaise," he said softly. There was a sad light in his eyes and a nostalgic smile tugging at his lips.
"Well, in that case I might try a bite," Amanda conceded, "but don't expect applause." She left the kitchen to Duncan's care. "What was the song you were singing when I came in?"
"Yeah, you know -- la, dum, da-dee . . . " Amanda waved her hands vaguely, trying to capture the melody that had stuck in her mind.
"Oh, that's an old, uh, Italian love song."
Amanda cocked a brow at Duncan's telltale hesistation. "How old?" she asked, coming up behind him and placing her hands on his hips. "Is it . . . dirty?"
"Very old, and no," said Duncan firmly, twitching free of her hands. "I learned it, er -- I guess I must have learned it in the seventeenth century, when I was in Verona. That's where I met Macleod."
"Verona. That's where you met Fitzcairn."
"That's what I said."
"No, you said you met Macleod in Verona."
Amanda chuckled. "You really are getting senile, my dear."
"Well, you're more than twice my age," Duncan retorted, "so you should really be worrying." He cleared his throat. "How did your, ah, meeting go?"
"What? Oh, the meeting! I don't think the guy really had the connections he said he did."
"Was he trying to set you up?"
Amanda bit her lip and considered whether to mention that she had sensed another Immortal during the meeting. "No," she said casually, "more likely he was just trying to get my money. I'll keep an eye out for trouble, though."
"All right, the food's ready. Get the plates out, will you? There's a nice burgundy around somewhere that should go with this."
Amanda shook her head and went to get the plates. There was no point in bothering Macleod with a matter neither of them could do anything about.
Macleod looked up, startled, to where Amanda sprawled on the couch with a book. "What?"
"Are you planning to sharpen that sword until you wear it away to nothing?"
Duncan looked down. He didn't even remember picking the sword up. Sometimes tending to weapons could become so reflexive that it was almost hypnotic, but usually he at least recalled starting the process. "I haven't been at it that long," he said with a nervous laugh.
"Only about half an hour. I've read two chapters while you were standing there."
Duncan ran the oiled rag along his katana one more time, and found it razor-sharp. All the nicks from his battle with Kalas on the Eiffel Tower had been smoothed away. He lifted the weapon and felt its balance, at once natural and strangely unfamiliar.
"Would you like to play some chess or go for a walk, or something?"
Duncan looked up. Amanda had one leg curled underneath her and a book held in front of her face. She wasn't even watching Duncan. The shirt she was wearing had an open neck that left her smooth throat exposed and vulnerable. Her coat, and the sword that nestled inside it, were more than ten feet away.
He was suddenly acutely aware of Amanda's presence. Usually, after the first shock of meeting, another Immortal's buzz faded quickly into the background. But Amanda's proximity was like the whine of an unpleasant insect in Duncan's ears. He found his wrist moving, swinging the sword easily back and forth in the limited space of the barge. He took one step forward, his weight low and balanced.
Amanda lowered the book. "Duncan?"
Duncan turned his unplanned movements into an exercise, pivoting away from Amanda and bringing the sword down in a neat arc that cleaved only air. Then he forced himself to straighten and set the sword aside. "No, I don't really feel like chess right now."
Amanda put the book down and got to her feet. "Are you feeling all right?"
Duncan touched the hilt of the sword, then clenched his hands and stepped back. "I'm fine."
"You don't look fine. You look worried." Amanda came toward him.
Duncan moved away as the buzz grew louder. Now Amanda was between him and his sword. Duncan shoved his hands into his pockets. "I said, I'm fine."
Amanda raised her mobile brows at his vehemence. "Well then," she said, catching the front of his shirt playfully, "maybe we could think of something better to do than playing chess."
"Not right now, Amanda." Duncan disengaged her hands and turned away to pace the barge, not looking at Amanda or the katana. "I guess I'm just a little on edge." He sat down at the table, then realized that Amanda's coat and sword were just an arm's length away. He got up and began to pace again.
"On edge," Amanda repeated, watching him make a circuit of the room. "No . . . special reason?"
"No. No reason at all." Duncan forced himself to stand still and smile at her. "Listen, Amanda, maybe you shouldn't stay here tonight."
"I mean, it might be better if you went somewhere else. Just for a little while."
Amanda stared at him. "Are you . . . expecting company? Someone you don't want me to meet?"
"No, I'm not expecting anyone, I'd just -- rather be alone right now, that's all."
"Alone. Really." Amanda crossed her arms. "This wouldn't have anything to do with another Immortal being in town, would it?"
"Someone's after your head, and you want me out of the way, right? Three's a crowd, especially three Immortals. Who is it?"
"No one. I told you, nobody's coming!"
"If it's not another woman, and not another Immortal, why are you sending me away? Maybe you're just tired of me?"
"That's not why I asked you to leave, Amanda --"
"Isn't it? The high and mighty Duncan Macleod: always faces his enemies alone, doesn't tell his friends and -- and lovers when he's heading off to some new danger. I'm surprised you even let us stand and watch when you met Kalas. But then, that wasn't just your fight, was it?"
"No one is after me, Amanda!" Duncan found his katana in his hand again. He slammed it down hard on the table.
Amanda stared at him. "Fine," she said, biting her lip. "Fine. Don't tell me, then." She crossed the room to snatch up her coat, stuffing her broadsword into concealment as her heels clicked a path to the door.
Duncan stood with his head bowed, his hand pressed flat on the table beside his sword.
Amanda paused on the steps. "You know," she said, "I might not be able to help you in a fight, but I wish you'd realize that you don't have to push everyone away. I wish you'd let someone stand with you, just once. I mean, that's what friends are for. That's what love is all about. Right?"
Duncan didn't answer.
Amanda slammed the door on her way out. Her buzz faded into the distance.
Duncan slumped on the couch and stared at his katana, wondering what was wrong with him.
Amanda mounted the steps from the quai and turned westward. After a few steps she paused, glancing about thoughtfully. She couldn't feel Duncan's presence from here, which meant that he couldn't sense her either. She found a shadowed spot on the parapet overlooking the quai and settled down to wait.
She grew bored in fairly short order. It was too dark to read by the streelights. A few low-lifes came to sit beside her and try to strike up conversation, but she sent each one away with a scornful gaze and a few acid words. It was pleasant to find an outlet for her annoyance, but she wasn't about to forget that Duncan was the true cause of her anger. She watched the barge intently for any movement or change.
Amanda sat bolt upright as a whisper brushed across her senses. It grew to a whining crescendo, and she swallowed hard. Her eyes darted both ways along the quai, the street, the river, and saw no one. The other Immortal had paused just near enough that his presence was unmistakable, but not within sight. The aura was heavy with power and menace. She had sensed it earlier this evening, and been alarmed then. Feeling it a second time, she wondered if someone was stalking her. Her -- or Duncan?
She had no desire to meet this unknown Immortal unless she was in a position of strength. For a moment she considered slipping back down to the quai and the safety of the barge, but she was still too annoyed at Duncan to accept his protection. She would do better to head for one of the nearby churches that crowded the streets of Paris. In doing so, she would also lead the stranger away from Duncan, and have the satisfaction of offering Macleod her protection.
Amanda got to her feet and walked slowly down the street away from the direction she thought the buzz was coming from. The stranger's presence faded to a gentle hum, then strengthened again. She was being followed. She picked up her pace gradually, like someone trying not to panic. She turned her head repeatedly, crossed the street during a meager gap in the traffic, tried to project nervousness. It was working; the stranger was getting closer. Now she had to decide where to go. St. Sulpice was not the closest holy ground, but it lay in the winding streets of the Quartier Latin, which might give her an opportunity to turn the hunt around and catch a glimpse of her pursuer. She hurried across the Boulevard St. Germain.
The other Immortal was gaining on her, the buzz growing louder by the second. She had been successful at being chased, now she had to avoid getting caught. With a predatory grin, Amanda began to run. She doubled back through the cramped streets, trying to remember which ones were short cuts and which were dead ends. The stranger's buzz faded, grew stronger, faded again . . . and died.
Amanda stopped, panting. It seemed she had confused her pursuer. She began to work her way back eastward through the cobbled streets, hoping to turn the tables on the stranger.
The buzz came again like the clash of cymbals, roaring in her ears. With an involuntary gasp Amanda broke into a run again, throwing herself around the next corner at top speed --
-- and ran directly into the other Immortal.
They both fell to the street. Amanda rolled and leaped to her feet at once, but the strange man had grabbed her arm. He was reaching into his coat. Amanda brought her hand down in a sharp chop to his wrist. He pulled his hand out of the way, weaponless, and caught her strike on his palm.
Now gripping her by one arm and the opposite hand, the Immortal chuckled and pulled her hard against him. "Well, if it isn't Amanda," said an accented voice. "What a pleasant surprise."
"Connor?" said Amanda uncertainly.
"That's right. Now, how long has it been? A few centuries, at least. The last time I saw you, you were at the back of the crowd that came to witness my hanging. I wasn't sure I would wake up with my head attached."
"I swear, I didn't tell the magistrate!" she gasped. "I wasn't the one who informed on you!"
"No, but you were the one who robbed the earl, and got away with all the goods, and never shared a farthing with me."
"You know I didn't mean for you to be caught! What was I supposed to do, give myself up?"
Connor shook his head, chuckling. "You haven't changed at all," he said, releasing her.
Amanda pulled away and tugged her swordhilt free of her coat.
Connor held up his hand. "I'm not here to fight you. That grudge is a little stale, after two hundred and forty years. What are you doing in Paris?"
Amanda straightened her coat uncertainly, settling the sword back in place. "Oh, uh, business," she said lightly.
"Robbing the national treasures, eh?" Connor glanced around. "Have you met up with Duncan? I heard he was having some trouble with Kalas."
"Yeah, but that's all over now."
Connor rolled his eyes. "Don't tell me that was the power surge that blacked out half of Paris."
"All right, I won't tell you. Did you come here because of Kalas?"
"To visit Duncan, then?"
"Not exactly. I've been thinking about it, though. He has a barge on the Seine, right?"
"Yes, on Quai de la Tournelle near the Ile de la Cite." Amanda frowned. "But if you knew he was there, why were you following me?"
"From the quai. That was you, wasn't it?"
"I haven't been near Quai de la Tournelle all night."
"Oh, no." Amanda's hand went to her mouth. "So that really was someone else?"
"There was another Immortal around. I thought he was after Duncan, or maybe me. Duncan was expecting him, I think. I tried to lead him away from the barge. I'd just lost him when I ran into you."
"Connor, what if he went back to the barge? What if he went back for Duncan?" Amanda turned downhill toward the river, walking quickly.
Connor followed. "What if he did? Why are you worried about Duncan? He can take care of himself."
"I know, but -- he's been strange, lately."
Connor stopped in his tracks. "Strange how?" he said in a tight voice.
"Just . . . distracted, short-tempered -- you know. Come on!"
They started walking again. "How long has he been like this?"
"A few days. Ever since he fought Kalas."
Connor grabbed Amanda's arm and pulled her to face him. "Amanda, are you sure it was a stranger you sensed on the quai?"
"Well, I didn't actually see him, but -- yes, I'm certain it was a stranger."
"It couldn't have been Duncan?"
"I was watching the barge the whole time! He never came out. And I couldn't have sensed him from inside, I was out of range."
"Can we go now?" Amanda tugged her arm free and started down the steps to the quai. She caught her breath with relief when she saw the barge. The lights were on, and everything seemed peaceful. "I think it was someone older, anyway."
"How could you tell?"
"Just -- the power of his Quickening. It felt like he was older than I am. Certainly older than Duncan."
Amanda paused at the foot of the ramp. "He's not here. Where did he go?" She ran onto the deck of the barge. "Duncan?"
Connor glanced around curiously. "Does he usually leave the lights on when he goes out?"
"No." Amanda opened the door. "He usually locks the door, too." She clattered down the steps to the interior of the barge.
Duncan was nowhere to be found.
"So," Connor remarked, swirling the Scotch in his glass, "the disk was destroyed by Kalas' Quickening?"
"That's right," said Amanda, tossing the blackened piece of scrap metal onto the table. "It blew out his computer, too."
"Along with half the appliances in the city," Connor commented sardonically.
"Well, yes, but great deeds have their price."
"Hmm. And ever since then, Duncan hasn't been himself?"
"I wouldn't put it that way. He's just depressed. You know how he gets after a fight."
"And he's lost a lot of friends in the past few years."
"We all have," Connor pointed out.
"Duncan was pretty upset about Fitz."
Connor raised his head. "Fitzcairn?"
"Yes. Kalas killed him. You hadn't heard?"
"No. When was this?"
"Just over a month ago. Duncan was there, but he couldn't prevent it."
Connor punched his thigh, his mouth twisting.
"Were you very close to him?"
"No, I'm just tired of hearing bad news." Connor reflected. "He and Duncan were good friends, though. In fact, the first time I got involved with Fitzcairn, it was because of Duncan . . . "
"Is there a blacksmith in the area?"
"Yes, sir, that there is. I can have the boy take your mare to him, if you'd like."
"You do that, then," Connor said, handing the ostler enough money to pay the blacksmith and a generous tip besides. Then he headed for the inn, thirstily envisioning a frothing pint of ale. He stopped with his foot on the doorstep as a familiar tingle jarred his senses. There was another Immortal here.
Unless he wanted to steal a horse, Connor was stuck here until his mare had been re-shod. With a muttered curse, he circled around to a quiet area behind the stables, as if he were answering a call of nature. He loosened his sword in its sheath.
In a few minutes another man stepped around the corner of the stable and gave him a stiff nod. Connor sized up his opponent: a dandyish fellow, and rather short, but seeming fairly sure of himself without being brash. Taking a puff from his pipe, the shorter man pulled his sword out and saluted Connor. "Hugh Fitzcairn," he said crisply.
Connor returned the gesture. "I'm Connor Macleod of the clan Macleod."
Fitzcairn's brows rose and he circled around slowly. "Indeed? Would you be any connection of one Duncan Macleod?"
"We're clansmen," said Connor. "You know Duncan?"
"I've met him."
"As a friend, or an enemy?"
"I might ask the same of you, good sir," Hugh responded with dignity.
"I'm an old friend of Duncan's," said Connor. "In fact, I taught him everything he knows."
"Everything?" Hugh was impressed. "Did you teach him this?" He feinted quickly and then lunged at Connor.
Connor ignored the feint, parried, and thrust home in Fitzcairn's breast.
"I see you did," gasped Hugh, sinking to one knee. His pipe fell to the ground.
Connor held his sword at the wounded man's throat. "Now," he said firmly, "are you friend or enemy to Duncan?"
"Oh, friend, most definitely," Hugh wheezed.
"You expect me to believe that?"
"Perhaps not," Hugh admitted. "But if you take my head, you'll never see your clansman again."
"Is that a threat?" Connor growled.
Fitzcairn sank oblivious to the ground.
Connor bought himself two pints of the inn's best ale and downed them both before returning to the back of the stables to await Fitzcairn's revival. Soon enough, the other Immortal opened his eyes and turned his head with a start.
"I hardly dared to hope that you would believe me," Hugh mumbled.
"I didn't," said Connor, "but I thought I should make sure before taking your head. What do you know about Duncan?"
"He's in great danger."
Connor frowned. "That's nonsense. He's in the Orient."
"He just returned last year. Now he's gone to France to try to free an aristocrat from the mobs, but I think he may have been taken prisoner himself."
"Duncan wouldn't be such a fool. They're cutting off heads over there!"
"Precisely what I told him," said Hugh, sitting up and patting at his disordered curls. "But you see, there's this Comtesse --"
"A woman," Connor muttered. "I should have known."
"Her husband was killed, she barely escaped with her life, and she's most distraught over the probable fate of her father, the Duc de Givagny, and her brother, the Vicomte de Tourennes. She begged Duncan to help them. So . . . he did." Hugh retrieved his pipe, dusted it off, and began to knock out the old ashes.
"Why didn't you go with him?"
Hugh cleared his throat. "Well, someone had to stay and comfort the poor woman . . ."
"How do I know you're telling the truth?"
"Speak to the Comtesse de Roulembert, if you like! She'll say just as I did. But first you must let me change these clothes. It simply wouldn't do to appear in a lady's presence like this." He gestured at his bloodied shirtfront. "You might consider a bath and a shave yourself, my dear fellow."
Connor just glared. "What makes you think Duncan has been taken prisoner?"
Hugh shrugged. "I don't know, of course, but if all had gone well he should have been back here three days ago. If he had minor trouble, he should have returned no later than yesterday. I believe he must have been detained."
Connor paced the length of the stables once, twice. "We're going to France," he snapped at last.
"You and I. You can show me where Duncan was going."
"My dear fellow, be sensible! As you yourself pointed out, they're chopping off heads over there!"
"And your head will be one of them if I think you're lying to me about Duncan. Go get your things. We can be in Portsmouth by tonight."
"I beg you to reconsider. You distrust me, that's plain to see. Why would you wish to keep me with you, when a word from me could have you denounced as spy or an aristo?"
"Because you know where Duncan is. And I can denounce you just as easily, if you give me trouble." Connor stalked off to see if his mare was ready yet.
Hugh Fitzcairn rolled his eyes. "I can see that this will be a very trying journey."
"So you went to look for him," Amanda concluded. "Did you find him?"
"Eventually." Connor's mouth quirked. "It wasn't easy."
"Nothing's ever easy, with Duncan." Amanda stood up and began to pace the floor, looking out the small windows of the barge. "Do you think we should go look for him now?"
"Give him a little time. Maybe he just wants to be alone and think."
There was music running endlessly through Duncan's head. Every time he managed to banish one tune from his consciousness, another would start up. Half the time he didn't even recognize what he was humming.
It was the same with the memories. He had been having momentary flashbacks for the past few days: flashes of violent images, especially duels and beheadings. But the duels were not ones that he recognized, and sometimes he was on the receiving end of the fatal stroke.
It wasn't unusual to have a few false memories after he had taken a quickening, but usually they passed off within a few hours. These images came so fast and furious that he hardly had time to sort out which ones were his own, which were alien, and which were completely imaginary. A moment ago, on the barge, Duncan had had a frighteningly detailed vision of his own katana cleaving Amanda's neck.
Now he was walking, his shoulders hunched and his hands in the pockets of his black trenchcoat. He was trying to wear himself out so that he could sleep, or perhaps he hoped to avoid Amanda if she should return. Or perhaps he wanted to outrun these persistent visions.
He closed his eyes against the memory of Fitz's head coming off, but the image was merely sharper against the insides of his eyelids. He recognized the music in the back of his mind now: Siegfried's funeral from Gotterdammerung.
Dizzily, he sat down on a bench for a moment to try to gather control of his thoughts. But a flash of Xavier St. Cloud delivering a fatal blow drove Duncan to his feet again. He scrubbed at his eyes, trying to wipe the image away, and went back to pacing the cobbled streets of Paris.
A whisper in the back of his mind warned of some danger -- real, not imagined. He welcomed the distraction from his losing inward struggle and began to pay closer attention to his surroundings. Footsteps tapped behind him, pacing him. Was someone following him? He made two quick turns away from the more populated streets with their cafes and late diners. He slowed his speed, increased it, ducked around a corner and waited.
A few seconds later, a man followed him around the corner -- the same man who had sat on a nearby wall when Duncan stopped at the park bench, and who had gotten up when Duncan started walking again, who had slowed and speeded when he did. Before he could react, Duncan had him pinned to the wall with one hand under his chin.
"Who are you?" he demanded.
The man gaped at him, moved his lips soundlessly.
With his free hand, Duncan grabbed the man's left wrist and forced back his sleeve. There was the Watchers' symbol, half hidden by a watchband. "Who do you work for? Hunters?"
The Watcher gurgled.
He nodded vehemently.
Duncan leaned close to hiss in the man's ear. "I don't like being spied on. If you're going to follow me, do it where I can't see."
The man was beginning to turn a dusky purple.
Duncan knew he was pressing too hard on the Watcher's neck. An unexpected flood of anger seemed to have clamped his muscles. He realized that there was something familiar in the man's look -- just so had Alfred Cahill's victims stared up at him.
Appalled, Duncan pulled his hand away and caught the Watcher by the shoulders as he slumped. Choked with rage and fear, he gave the man one sharp bounce against the wall. "Just stay out of my sight," he growled, and stepped back out into the street. He paused for a moment, breathing heavily, trying to get a grip on himself.
He remembered kneeling on a hill of sulfur, staring incredulously as his adversary cut open his stomach, then his arm, then aimed one final blow at his neck --
The Watcher leaned back gasping against the wall where Duncan had left him, feeling gingerly at his bruised throat. When he had his breath back, he pulled out a cell phone and placed a call with shaking hands. He didn't follow Duncan into the street, so he didn't see the Immortal fall to his knees, fists clenched at his temples and mouth open in a silent scream. He didn't see the way the pedestrians separated around the crazy man, or crossed to the other side of the street. He didn't see him slowly straighten, climb to his feet, and look about with a stranger's eyes.
He didn't see the man in the black trenchcoat who followed him when he left the alley.
Amanda slammed the phone down onto the table. "I can't get through to Joe Dawson."
Connor looked up. "He's in Paris?"
"Yes. He probably knows where Duncan is right now, but he's not answering his phone." Amanda reached a decision. "I'm going to go out and look for him."
Connor stood up. "No, don't."
Amanda froze. "What?"
"It could be dangerous for you out there."
She frowned. "You mean the other Immortal I sensed?"
"But you've been saying all along that Duncan was in no danger."
Connor wouldn't meet her eyes. "If it's -- who I think it is," he said slowly, "he'd be more likely to come after you than Duncan."
Amanda leaned towards him, trying to catch his gaze. "Who do you think it is?"
Connor shrugged. "I followed a man to Paris -- an Immortal with a special taste for women's quickenings."
"Why didn't you mention this before?"
"I'm not sure it's him. And I wanted to tell Duncan about it at the same time."
Amanda crossed her arms. "Well, I'm going to go out and look for Duncan. If you're so worried about my safety, you're welcome to come with me."
Connor sighed and picked up his coat, checking to see that his katana was securely concealed in its folds. He wasn't about to abandon a lady in distress, but he knew from past experience that hunting for Duncan could lead to trouble.
"This is the most appalling get-up I have ever been forced to wear," said Hugh Fitzcairn disgustedly. He brushed at the shabby, ill-fitting black coat Connor had found for him.
Connor settled a floppy hat over his hair and glared at his companion. "You said you'd been in the Crusades. If you're that old, you must have gone in disguise before."
"Certainly I have. I despised every minute of it, and I made a vow that the next time I had occasion to disguise myself, it would be as a rich man." Hugh sighed and picked up the saddle at his feet. "I suppose we had better get on with this," he conceded, shifting the door of the makeshift stall where they had put their horses.
"We're not riding," Connor declared. "How many peasants have you seen with horses like these?"
"But we've still three miles to go!" Hugh protested. "With these vile boots you've given me, I'll have more blisters than toes by the time we reach the estate."
"Too bad," said Connor shortly, holding open the door to the shed. "After you." He bowed with a sardonic flourish.
Grumbling, Hugh led the way out of the shed and back to the road leading to Givagny, where they hoped to find news of Duncan.
Connor insisted on making a thorough search of the ruins of the burned-out chateau at Givagny, but though they found a few blackened bodies amid the rubble, none of them was Duncan's. They felt not the slightest hint of a buzz as they tramped over the ashes.
Next Connor sought out the nearest auberge so they could pick the brains of the locals. Hugh complained and limped for the whole of the additional distance.
"We saw a burned chateau a few miles back," Connor said conversationally to the barmaid who served them a rather second-rate beer. "Did you catch any aristos?"
"But certainly we did, citizens," she replied with a flirtatious glance at Hugh. "Two of them, the infamous Duc de Givagny and his son."
"Did the fire flush them out or did they burn inside?" Connor asked.
"Oh, they came right out into our arms," the girl exclaimed with a glow in her cheeks. "That was a week ago, and we haven't had anything nearly so exciting happen since then."
"A week ago?" Connor mused. "Then I suppose we are too late to see them guillotined."
"Not at all, they were taken to Paris." The girl took a seat at their table, looking crestfallen. "We don't have a guillotine of our own, and it will be some months before we get one. But in Paris there are so many aristos lined up for an improving haircut that it will be another week before the Duc gets what's coming to him." She smiled again at Hugh. "The baker's son offered to take me in to Paris to see the beheadings, but his father will not let him go."
"Whyever not? We may be heading that way ourselves," Hugh began cheerfully, then broke off at a black glance from Connor.
"Two of them taken from here, you say?" Connor asked again. "That's quite a record, for such a small town."
"Actually, there were three!" the girl boasted.
"Yes, there was a third taken with them," a new voice rumbled from behind Connor. A large man had moved closer to join the conversation.
Connor turned slowly, a polite smile on his lips. "Is that so? Who was the third?"
The large man bent forward menacingly. "He was an English spy who tried to defend them. He'll be getting just what he deserves."
"I don't doubt it," Connor replied.
"The funny thing is, this fellow had an accent just like yours."
"What do you have to say to that?" said another man, advancing upon them. The barmaid pushed her chair back from the table and slipped out of the way.
Hugh looked from one threatening face to the other and laughed incredulously. "Surely you don't think we're English!" he exclaimed. "Can't you tell a Scottish accent when you hear one?"
The first man looked baffled. "You mean you're Scottish?"
"Am I Scottish?" Hugh barked back at him. "Why, my grandfather died at Culloden field! And my other grandfather was wounded there. My father was hounded out of the country by those bloodthirsty Englishmen, and that's how I come to be in France. I assure you, we have no loyalty to the Hanoverian tyrant on the throne of England."
Connor's lips thinned, but he didn't so much as glance at his companion, who up until a few hours ago had been the very epitome of an English gentleman.
"You may hate the Hanoverians," said the first man, "but what do you say to the Bourbons?" There was a rumble of agreement from the other men who had gathered around.
"Why, I say, good riddance to them! Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, that's the way to go!"
"You know what I say?" said the second man. "I say the Stuart prince got his support from filthy aristos here in France, not from the French citizens. And if there's anything worse than an English spy, it's a Scottish one!" This time, the cries of agreement were much louder.
A little space had cleared in front of Connor as the heavies clustered around Hugh, and he took advantage of the room to leap to his feet and pull out the sword he had hidden under his peasant's coat. The Frenchmen fell back amid cries of "He's one of them!" and "Aristos!"
"Oh dear," muttered Hugh faintly in English. "I wish you hadn't done that."
"All your talk wasn't doing much good," Connor pointed out.
"Get them!" cried the largest of the heavies, but no one made a move.
Connor waved his sword in the face of the bar patrons. "Stay back," he cried, "unless you want a foot of steel in your gullet!" With threatening jabs and a couple of disabling kicks, he began to clear a path to the door.
By bluster and intimidation, they made it as far as the courtyard, but then the Frenchmen began to throw stones. They stood in a ring just out of reach of Connor's sword, and their aim was wickedly accurate. A heavy rock struck Connor's head and made him stagger.
At last Hugh pulled out his own sword, surprising the men nearest him and making them pull away a little. He rushed forward, forcing an opening in the ring of attackers, and made himself a path to freedom. Connor, struggling with a man twice his size who had grabbed his swordarm, was unable to follow. He managed to keep his grip on his sword, and a few of his attackers screeched as he made use of it, but he was badly outnumbered. With his back undefended, he couldn't hold them off for long. Kicks and blows rained down on him, and he cursed himself for ever trusting an English fop.
Then a new sound entered the mix of angry shouts and howls of pain. Hoofbeats thundered, a shrill neigh pierced the air, and the crowd around Connor parted as a huge grey form shouldered in. Connor looked up to find Hugh straddling a hefty farm horse bareback.
"Come on!" the Englishman cried, stabbing at the front rank of the mob. "Get up behind me!"
Connor grabbed Fitzcairn's waist and pulled himself up to the horse's high back by main force. Hugh swayed and grabbed the animal's mane as he tried to kick it to a faster gait. The staid plow horse had probably never achieved a gallop since it was a yearling, but it was fast enough to outdistance men on foot, and strong enough to bear two men on its back with ease. Soon the angry cries of the mob faded into the distance.
"Thanks," Connor gasped when he got his breath back. "I thought you had run out on me." He dabbed at the blood running from his forehead.
"You Scots!" Hugh exclaimed. "Always suspicious. You're just like Duncan, has anyone ever told you that?"
"No," said Connor doubtfully.
"Well, you are. Almost the first thing he did when we met was to stab me to death, just like you. He had a better reason for it, though."
Hugh guided the horse, now more interested in stopping to graze than in running away from noisy mobs, to the shed where they had left their own horses stabled. He sent the old gelding on its way with a smack on the rump, and they quickly saddled the other two horses.
"So, is it to be Paris next?" Hugh asked.
Connor nodded. "If that's where Duncan is. I wish we had caught up with him while he was still here, though. Even if we break him out of prison before he's taken to the guillotine, it won't be so easy to escape from Paris."
Hugh smiled as they mounted up and trotted onto the road in the deepening twilight. "I think I know someone who might be able to help."
Duncan awoke with a start. He was sitting at a table before a cafe. He didn't recognize the street he was facing. It was daylight -- midmorning, from the angle of the sunlight -- and he had no memory of anything since late the night before.
The other tables of the cafe were empty. A waiter stood up from cleaning one of them and turned to Duncan. "Would monsieur like another bourbon?" he asked, his lips tight with disapproval.
Duncan blinked at the empty glass in front of him and raised it to his nose for a sniff. Bourbon, indeed. No wonder the waiter looked disapproving. But who had been drinking it? "No, ah -- how about a cafe au lait?"
When the man had left, Duncan put his head in his hands and struggled to remember anything from the night before. He had not been drunk -- had he? Certainly no one had hit him over the head. So why couldn't he remember? There had been those strange visions that flashed into his mind, then the excessive anger at the Watcher who had followed him, then . . . nothing.
"I really am going crazy," he whispered to himself, and winced as he recalled Michael Moore. The thought dredged up another foreign image: looking into a mirror, seeing Michael's face, and realizing that he had no memory of the past five hours. "Oh . . . no . . ." Duncan breathed, clutching his head.
"Mac?" said a voice.
Duncan's head snapped up and he felt for the sword under his coat.
"Mac, it's me, Joe. Are you all right?" Dawson laid a hand on his friend's wrist.
"Yeah." He pulled back a chair and eased himself into it, leaning his cane against the table. "Are you okay? You look kind of -- stressed."
Duncan laughed humorlessly. "Stressed, yeah," he muttered, not meeting Dawson's gaze.
The waiter reappeared with a steaming cafe au lait. Duncan gulped it down and asked for the check. He didn't ask if Joe wanted anything. With one eloquent twitch of his eyebrow, the waiter departed again.
Joe was still watching Duncan with concern. "Amanda and Connor were looking for you all night," he said.
"He arrived last night. You just missed him. I'm not sure why he's in Paris."
Duncan rubbed his eyes. He didn't want to deal with Connor now. Not when he couldn't even trust himself around Amanda. Not when he didn't know what was going wrong.
"What's the matter, Duncan?" Joe asked.
Duncan shook his head. He couldn't put this into words. It was too . . . crazy. Instead, he asked, "How long have you been watching me, Joe?"
"What?" Dawson was taken aback. "Nearly twenty years. You know that."
"That's not what I meant. Last night. Were you watching me last night?"
Joe sat back, his face shuttering. "No."
"But someone else was, right?"
"For a while. After you -- asked him to cease and desist, he went home."
Duncan's jaw worked. No one could tell him where he had been last night. "How did you find me here?" he asked suddenly.
Joe lifted his brows. "I was just on my way to the barge, to see if Connor and Amanda had managed to track you down. Then I saw you sitting out here."
Duncan followed the line of Joe's waving hand and realized that the major street a block away was the Boulevard St. Germain. He sighed with relief; he had not wandered so far after all.
"Francois said you were pretty hard on him last night," Joe said softly. "What was that all about?"
Duncan wanted to give Dawson some explanation for his treatment of the Watcher, but he couldn't explain what he didn't understand himself. "I can't really say." He shook his head. "Introduce me to him," he said suddenly.
"Introduce me to this Watcher. I'd like to -- apologize to him. In person."
"Mac, you know I'm not supposed to --"
"I've already met him. You don't have to tell me his name, rank, and serial number. I just want a chance to, to talk to him." He looked at Joe closely. "You would be sending him away in any case, wouldn't you, now that I've seen him?"
Joe pursed his lips, but he said nothing. He rarely confirmed or denied Duncan's guesses about the organization of the Watchers. "You want to meet him?" He gazed down the street, weighing the disadvantages. "All right. Come on, then."
Duncan tossed some money on the table, then paused, looking thoughtfully at the empty bourbon glass. He added a few more francs to the pile and followed Joe down the street.
"Is this where we're going?" Duncan asked as they paused before a small Latin Quarter hotel. At Joe's nod, Duncan looked about and pronounced grimly, "This doesn't look good."
The area in front of the hotel was crowded with police cars. The building itself was cordoned off.
"No, it doesn't," Joe agreed. "Let me make some calls." He pulled a portable phone from his pocket and crossed to the quieter side of the street, his eyes flicking over the activity around the hotel.
Duncan waded into the crowd of onlookers, hoping to overhear something of use. As he drew near the front of the crowd, he recognized one of the police officials conferring at the door of the hotel. He pulled back quickly to the fringes, but it was too late; he had been seen. One of the figures broke away from the discussion and hurried toward him.
Duncan dug up a smile from somewhere and pasted it on his face. "Inspector LeBrun," he said flatly as the other man approached. "It's been such a long time."
"Too bad it couldn't have been longer," said the inspector sourly.
Duncan lifted his hands. "I'll get out of your way right now, if you want," he said quickly.
"No, I want to talk to you." LeBrun glanced around. "Come in here." He led the way to a service entrance and urged Duncan inside the hotel.
They paused just inside the doorway, and LeBrun fixed Duncan with an accusing look. "What do you know about what happened here?" he demanded, gesturing at the hotel around them with his left arm. His right arm, partly crippled years ago by a bullet aimed at Duncan, stayed curled against his ribs.
"Nothing at all," said Duncan with his best innocent look. "I was just passing by and saw the crowd, that's all. Has someone been murdered?"
"How did you know that?"
"I guessed. Why else would you be here? Who was the victim?"
LeBrun regarded Duncan suspiciously. "One Francois Duhamel," he supplied at last. "Do you know him?"
"Not . . . by that name. Did he have a tattoo on his wrist?"
"Yes, dammit, you know he did!"
Duncan was surprised at the Inspector's vehemence, but a more immediate concern troubled him. "He wasn't . . . strangled, was he?" Duncan breathed. Could he have damaged the man's throat somehow, in that brief encounter last night?
"Of course he wasn't strangled! Stop playing games with me!" LeBrun exclaimed.
"I don't know what you're talking about. How did he die?"
"He was decapitated!" LeBrun spat. "With a sword. The signature method of you and your organization."
Duncan was stunned. "But why would anyone . . . what organization?"
LeBrun leaned toward Duncan's face as if trying to push him into the wall by sheer force of dislike. "You would know that better than I would. All I know is that we've gotten orders from someone very high up to stay away from you and any of your activities."
"I know you're not the only one, Macleod. Other killings have happened here in Paris while you were on the other side of the world. I don't know how big your organization is, or what it does, but you tell your superiors this." He braced his good hand on the wall above Duncan's shoulder. "I don't care how many lives you've saved, I don't care how many times you've made the world safe for democracy or whatever it is you characters do, but you have no business bringing innocent bystanders into your affairs. Do you realize how many lives were endangered by that power outage four days ago? Do you realize how hard it is to keep this out of the media? If I find out --" he jabbed Duncan's chest "-- that Francois Duhamel was just the ordinary citizen he seems to be, your friends in high places won't be able to protect you anymore. When the sheepdogs start preying on the lambs, they get the same treatment as the wolves."
Duncan's mouth was open in shock. Someone in high places had been keeping the police away from the affairs of Immortals? Officials suspected that he was involved in Friday's power outage? What was going on, and who had beheaded the Watcher?
"LeBrun, I -- I don't belong to any organization," he began.
LeBrun spun away with a snarl. "Fine! Deny everything, if you want. You know we have no proof. But I'm no idiot, Macleod. I can see what's in front of my face. Other people can, too. It's about time you learned to cover your own tracks." He pushed open the door and stalked out into the street.
It took Duncan a few minutes to gather his wits enough to follow. It seemed he was not the only one going crazy -- the rest of the world was turning upside down too. At last he pushed his way out past a startled police guard and headed away from the hotel.
Joe Dawson stepped in alongside him as he walked down the street. Duncan slowed his pace to accommodate Joe's hampered gait.
"It was Francois," Joe said in a low voice. "Somebody found out about him and cut off his head -- probably to send us a warning."
"I know," Duncan replied. Hesitantly, he told Dawson about the encounter with LeBrun.
Joe's only reaction was a thoughtful frown.
"What do you know about this?" Duncan demanded. "Who's keeping the police off my back?"
"This is the first I've heard of such a thing directly," Joe said. "We did realize that law enforcers just about everywhere have held back on investigating Immortals almost since the beginning of the Gathering. Did you notice that all the detectives who began to be suspicious of you were reassigned or promoted soon after?"
"I noticed that they stopped even getting suspicious just about the time I met you," Duncan said pointedly.
"You think I had something to do with this?" Joe chuckled. "Do I look like someone 'very high up'?"
"You might know someone who is," Duncan pointed out. "I don't belong to any secret organization, but you do."
"Immortals are a secret society, even if you aren't exactly organized. Older Immortals have the kind of knowledge and experience it takes to acquire plenty of power, and one of them would have a vested interest in concealing the Gathering."
"You're not being straight with me, Joseph."
Joe sighed and came to a stop, leaning on his cane. "Well, then, the answer is no. I don't know who's behind this. I don't believe it could be a Watcher, though. Interference is against all our rules."
"Those rules have been broken before. You break them."
Joe scratched at his beard. "The ones who break the rules are usually more interested in stopping the Gathering, or making things more difficult for Immortals. Why would they grease the wheels for you?"
Duncan grimaced, but he had to concede the logic of the point. They continued down the steps to the quai. Duncan stopped short a few feet from the ramp of the barge.
"What is it?" Joe asked.
Duncan took a deep breath. "It's Connor, I guess. His quickening is still -- very strange." And Duncan was still very sensitive to the buzz. He straightened his shoulders with an effort and led the way onto the barge.
Connor stood up as they entered the barge, his eyes fixed intently on Duncan and a shadow of a smile on his lips. "Good to see you again," he said softly.
Duncan nodded. "You too." He removed his coat and hung it up, then deliberately distanced himself from it and the sword hidden inside it. He glanced at Amanda, but she was not meeting his gaze. The set of her shoulders showed distinct annoyance. "You look good," he said to Connor.
"Well, at least now I have some hair," Connor said, brushing his short-cropped head. "So where were you last night?"
Duncan shrugged to conceal his sudden tension. "Walking around. I had a lot to think about."
"Did you meet any other Immortals?"
Duncan was surprised. "Should I have?"
"I think Melander's in town."
"But he's dead. Carlo Sendaro killed him."
"No, that fight ended in a draw."
Duncan's jaw tightened, and he took a few steps down the room. "Do you have any idea who he's after?"
Connor's eyes slid to Amanda.
"I can take care of myself," she said sternly, but there was uncertainty in her eyes.
"Wait a minute," said Joe. "Could somebody explain this to me? Who's Melander?"
"He's a very old Immortal," Duncan said. "About two thousand years old, I think. He'll fight anyone if he has to, but for some reason, he prefers to take the quickenings of women."
Joe nodded. "Yes, I think I have heard of him. It must have been under another name, though."
"He uses a lot of different names," Duncan confirmed. "They usually all mean the same thing, in one language or another."
"You know there aren't as many women Immortals as men," Connor added, "because they usually don't survive as long." He flicked an apologetic look at Amanda. "By himself, Melander is probably responsible for half those deaths." His eyes were flinty.
Duncan took up the thread again. "A while ago he tried to go after Grace Chandelle, but that was when she was with Sendaro. I thought he had taken care of it."
Connor swallowed. "Duncan . . . Melander came after Grace again."
Duncan's face stilled. "What?"
"He heard that Sendaro was dead."
Duncan's eyes bored into his kinsman's. "But you were there, right?"
Connor's gaze dropped. "I should have been."
"No . . . "
Connor laid a hand on Duncan's shoulder. "Grace is dead, Duncan. I was too late to save her."
Duncan turned away, his fist pressed to his mouth.
"There's more," Connor continued, his voice gravelly. "Grace and I were both working with Cassandra, in Africa. He killed her too."
Joe took a quick breath.
Connor glanced at the Watcher. "You've heard of her?"
"I think so. Some of the stories about her are pretty wild."
"She was an old friend of Ramirez'. They taught each other a lot. Ramirez mentioned her to me a few times." Connor sat heavily on the couch across from Amanda. "After -- what happened when I came to Seattle, I thought I should look for Cassandra. Maybe she could teach me some of the things Ramirez never got a chance to. So I sold the shop in New York." He sighed. "With the Gathering upon us, I'll probably never go back there again."
"How is Rachel?" Joe asked softly.
Connor was unsurprised by the question. "Weak. The chemotherapy didn't work. She didn't want me to stay. I did what I could for her, and I've kept in touch. It shouldn't be much longer now."
Joe nodded sadly.
Duncan looked up, drawn briefly out of his reverie. Rachel had been Connor's Watcher for decades, he knew, but he hadn't told his clansman that when they met last. He gave Joe a hard look, wanting the truth to come out now.
Connor caught the exchange of glances. "She told me," he said hoarsely. "I know she was a Watcher. We had a long talk about it." A faint amusement flickered across his grim expression. "She helped me get out of the country and lose the Watcher who was assigned to me."
"I know," said Joe drily. "We lost track of you for a while there."
"I did meet some Watchers assigned to Cassandra, or maybe Grace, but they died." Connor grimaced. "We were hanging around some pretty lethal areas. Grace and Cassandra were both healers. They went to Uganda and Zaire to try to deal with some of the new outbreaks of disease there. Between Grace's experience and Cassandra's . . . special skills, they saved a lot of lives."
"Special skills? So those weren't just stories?" Joe asked.
Connor shook his head. "Cassandra could do some pretty amazing things. She taught me more about the quickening in the past two months than I'd learned in over four hundred years."
"Taught you what about the quickening?" Amanda asked, becoming interested.
"Well, how to use it," Connor said. "Most Immortals don't use a fraction of its potential, except to warn them when other Immortals are around, or maybe to identify Holy Ground."
"What else is it good for?" Amanda pressed.
"Cassandra used it mostly for healing." Connor turned to Duncan, who stood as if he had been carved from granite. "With her help, I could really have grown my arm back, even without Miranda Kelly's interference."
"And she could use this ability to help mortals?" Joe asked in astonishment.
"Yes, but the effects weren't quite so spectacular as with Immortals." Connor sat back a little, warming to his story. "Cassandra was a Seer among her people, when she was young. I don't know if you'd call it telepathy, or a blessing, or what -- her people thought it was a curse. But there was something special about her even before her first death. When one of her predictions turned out badly, her people put her eyes out and then killed her."
Amanda's breathed hissed in between her teeth.
"She was blind for the first four centuries of her Immortality. Between that and the abilities she started with, she learned to use the Quickening for all sorts of things most of us never dreamed of. When she learned to heal, she started with her own eyes."
"And she taught you how to do this?" Amanda asked.
Connor shrugged. "A little. I didn't know her long enough to learn that much. Mostly what she taught me was about sensing other Immortals. Once you learn how to listen to the buzz, it can tell you not only that someone is near, but who they are and where they are."
"That's ridiculous!" Amanda snorted. "Nobody can do that. The buzz changes all the time. You can't predict what it will sound like next."
"Yes, you can. There are a lot of factors involved, but once you learn to read them . . . It's like --" Connor groped for a metaphor. "Like listening to someone's footsteps. If you don't pay much attention, all you know is that there's someone nearby, either approaching or leaving. If you listen more closely, you can tell pretty well where they are. If you know someone well, you can recognize his footsteps -- but it changes if he's wearing different shoes, or carrying something, or tired, or walking on a carpet. The buzz you get from the quickening can be like that, only it's tougher to read. It changes with a person's mood and the number of heads he's taken, but once you learn to recognize that, you can learn a lot."
"Wait, you mean to say you can read my mind from my quickening?"
"No. I can tell what mood you're in, but not so well as I could tell from looking at you, or the tone of your voice. Like I said, I didn't have time to learn very much. Cassandra was trying to teach me to fight blindfolded."
Amanda's eyebrows rose in disbelief.
Connor looked toward Duncan, hunched and silent in the background. "She taught me something else. Some of it I picked up from Ramirez, and I learned more from that incident with Miranda Kelly, but she showed me how to put it together. It is possible to access the memories and knowledge of the people whose quickenings you hold."
"But only the winner of the Prize can do that!" Amanda protested.
Connor shook his head. "Wrong. Any Immortal can do it. You just have to know how. In fact, I think we've been asking for trouble by not learning how to deal with this. That's how you get people like Darius, changed forever by taking a single head. That's why some Immortals go mad. If the last Immortal on Earth doesn't know how to use the quickening properly, I'm not sure he'll even be able to use the Prize."
Silence fell for a space. Amanda and Joe were stunned by this news, trying to fit it into their view of the world. Connor drained the last of his glass of beer, parched after his unaccustomed lecture.
Duncan gave his chin a sudden jerk. "Why would anyone want other peoples' memories?" he said bitterly.
Connor met his clansman's gaze. "Since we have to carry them anyway, we should learn how to deal with them."
"Well, it sounds pretty far-fetched to me."
Joe's jaw dropped in surprise. He rarely heard Duncan use such a tone of contempt with anyone, much less his old friend and mentor.
Duncan's head jerked again. "I need some air," he said abruptly. "You folks go on talking." With quick strides he crossed to the entryway, paused, snatched his coat from the rack, and took the steps up to the door two at a time.
Joe watched his friend's departure with puzzlement, then turned to ask Connor something and surprised a look of deep suspicion on the other Immortal's face.
Duncan retreated to the far corner of the barge deck, until the nagging sense of Immortal presences had dwindled to a mosquito whine. He had heard little of what Connor said after the news of Grace's death. Something deep within him had begun to rage with a terrible fury, and it had taken all his willpower to contain it. Images of Grace had flashed in his thoughts: her smile, the scent of her hair, the sound of her laughter. They might have been his own memories, for he had been very close to her at one time -- but they were accompanied by a deep sense of possessiveness and a desperate need that Duncan had never felt for Grace.
And at the end, as he had stood frozen, struggling with every fiber of his being to remain Duncan Macleod and not Carlo Sendaro, a new thought had made its way to the surface of his mind -- a thought that should have occurred to him hours ago. Duncan had no knowledge of where he had been last night or what he had been doing when Francois Duhamel was killed.
Now, with unsteady hands, he unfolded the coat he had laid across his lap and pulled out the katana wrapped inside.
The blade was clean, unbloodied, and as sharp as a razor.
Duncan closed his eyes in relief, shocked to realize how much of him had expected to find incriminating evidence. But a lack of evidence did not prove his innocence. He might never be able to do that; negatives are too hard to prove. The best he could do was try to find out who had killed Duhamel, and hope that the trail didn't lead back to himself.
Duncan stiffened and opened his eyes as one of the presences tickling the back of his consciousness began to grow stronger. Connor's head appeared in the doorway, and he walked over to join his clansman. Duncan's hand tightened for a moment around the hilt of his katana before he forced himself to wrap it once more in the coat and set it aside.
Connor pulled up a chair and sat on it backwards, facing him. "Donnchadh, are you well?" he asked very seriously in Gaelic.
Tears pricked Duncan's eyes at the sound of the old language. He looked away without answering the question. "You're hunting Melander, aren't you?" he said in English.
Connor sighed. "That's right. He'll never take another woman's head if I can help it." He leaned his head back against the wall of the pilothouse. "I still can't believe he killed Cassandra. Grace was no fighter, you know -- it was against her principles. But no one ever did anything to Cassandra without her consent. I don't know how he tricked her, but he must have gotten to her somehow. He lured me away with a false message, and by the time I got back it was over. It took me a few weeks to catch up with him, but I'm sure he's in Paris now."
"Will you keep an eye on Amanda?"
Connor looked up sharply. "Won't you be doing that?"
"I have some other business to take care of, just now."
"Duncan --" Connor bit off his words, then finished, "can I do anything to help you?"
"I don't think so." Duncan bowed his head. "This is something I have to work out for myself."
"Mac, wait!" Dawson called as he crabbed down the ramp from the barge.
Duncan paused on the quai, looking back.
"Where are you going?"
"Out," said Duncan shortly.
Joe hesitated at the icy tone in his voice. "Duncan, we've got more to think about than getting revenge for Grace Chandelle."
"I know that."
"We have to find out who killed Francois."
"That's what I'm doing. Now, if you'll excuse me . . ." Duncan turned to go.
Joe followed. "Where are you going to start?"
Duncan sighed. "The hotel would be the obvious place."
"I'll come with you."
"I'd rather do this alone, Joseph."
Dawson was getting exasperated. "Why? Duncan, what is wrong with you? You've been as prickly as a hedgehog for days, and the way you turned on Francois last night --" He broke off.
Duncan stopped in his tracks, conscious of Joe's increasing tension. "What?" he snapped.
"Macleod . . . where were you last night?"
"That's my business."
"Did you go to the hotel? Mac? Did you -- you didn't kill Francois."
Duncan said nothing.
Joe would have believed Duncan instantly if he had said he wasn't there, but this refusal to answer shook him to the core. "You didn't," he repeated. "Did you?"
Duncan swallowed hard and bowed his head.
"But why? My God, Duncan, what is happening to you? Connor's been treating you like a mad dog --"
With a cry that seemed to have been wrenched from his soul, Duncan spun toward Joe. His katana was in his hands, and it was descending. Joe had no time to do more than step back a pace and lift a hand in unthinking protest.
The razor-sharp blade whisked a few hairs from Joe's head. Half of his wooden cane fell to the ground, neatly severed. The handle still wavered in his upraised hand.
White showed all around the edges of Duncan's eyes. His nostrils flared, and his mouth worked. "Joe, I --" The katana clattered to the cobbles of the quai. Duncan turned and ran.
Joe watched him go, frozen with shock, a sword and two halves of a cane lying at his feet.
"Look," Amanda was saying as Joe entered the barge. "I don't care what Duncan said to you. I'm older than the two of you put together, and I can handle myself. I'll help you hunt for this Melander if you want, but right now I'm more worried about --" She stared at Dawson. "Joe? What happened? You're white as a sheet."
Joe set Duncan's katana and the fragments of his cane on the table, pulled back a chair, and collapsed into it. At least he only had one knee to tremble, he reflected humorously.
Connor was leaning over him in an instant. "Where's Duncan?" he demanded.
"Gone," Joe said. "He left."
"Without his sword?"
"He -- took a swing at me. Out of nowhere. In the middle of the quai. Then he just -- ran away."
"Which way?" Connor reached for his coat.
"West along the quai, but you won't catch him. It was a few minutes ago. I have no idea where he was headed. I don't even know if he was thinking straight."
"Damn!" Connor exclaimed.
"Wait," Amanda objected. "Why would Duncan do a thing like that?"
"I don't know. He's been acting strange lately. I . . . asked him what was wrong, but he wouldn't tell me." Joe leaned his elbows on the table and massaged his temples. His mind was beginning to clear a little. "Connor, you seem to know something about this. Can you tell what's wrong with Duncan?"
Connor looked grim. "I'm not completely sure, but I've seen this sort of thing before. After a while, it just gets to be too much, absorbing all those quickenings. You begin to lose touch. Some get over it, some -- go crazy."
"Not Duncan!" Amanda said. "He has too much experience, too much willpower. He can stand up to it. He's done it before."
"Ordinarily, I would agree," Connor said. "But times are different for us now. The Gathering is here, and everything is changing." He turned to Joe. "How many heads has Duncan taken in the past three years, since Slan Quince?"
"Thirty-two," Joe answered without stopping to think.
"And before that?"
Joe lifted a hand to his mouth. "I wasn't watching him that long. Obviously."
"But you've read the chronicles."
The Watcher sighed. "All right. From the time he was identified in the seventeenth century to 1992, Macleod took twenty-four heads that we know about. A few more are suspected."
Connor nodded and looked at Amanda again. "You see? We're all used to having plenty of time to adjust, after we've taken someone's quickening, but these days there is no time. Duncan's taken more heads in the past three and a half years than in the three and a half centuries before that. And all of them were evil, or mad -- people who gave him no choice but to fight." He shook his head. "I got pretty strange myself for a while, after I killed the Kurgan. And the past few years . . . that's why I went to Cassandra. I thought she could teach me how to deal with it better. And she did. If I can just find Duncan, maybe I can help him too."
"I'm not sure Duncan's in any state to learn new tricks right now, Connor," Joe replied.
"I'll get through to him somehow," Connor said grimly.
"Well, first you have to find out where he is."
"You'll do that."
"You're supposed to be the expert on spying."
"Now, wait --"
"And you know more about his recent contacts than I do."
Joe subsided reluctantly.
"What will you be doing?" Amanda asked.
Connor picked up his coat. "I'm hunting Melander. That's what I came here for."
"There's more at stake right now than your precious vengeance! I think Duncan is more important --"
"Exactly," Connor interrupted, leaning toward her for emphasis. "I'm doing this for Duncan, as much as for Grace and Cassandra. Don't you see? Melander holds Cassandra's quickening -- all her knowledge and power. If I can tap into that, maybe I can find out how to help Duncan."
"What about you, Amanda?" asked Joe. "Do you want to help out Connor, or me?"
Amanda's teeth plucked at her lower lip as she considered.
"You'll be safer with him," Connor said.
Her brows rose. "Will I? You can protect me better, if I'm with you."
"That's true," Connor conceded.
Joe stared at Amanda.
"And we stand a better chance of catching Melander if we work as a team." Amanda gave Joe a bright smile. "It sounds like I'd better go with Connor."
"How are you going to find him?"
"We'll have to draw him out somehow," Connor said slowly.
"I'll be the bait," Amanda said.
"No," Connor declared.
She glared at him. "I told you, Highlander, I am no infant. He's been stalking me anyway -- we can use that against him."
"He's stalking you?" Joe exclaimed.
"He's been making his presence known, just trying to rattle me, so far. Once last night, just before I met Connor, and once --"
"We're not sure that was Melander," Connor interrupted.
"It wasn't Duncan!"
Connor held his hands up in surrender. "Fine. It wasn't Duncan." He didn't look entirely convinced. "That still doesn't help us."
Amanda nibbled at a fingernail, her brow puckered. "Actually, I think I may know a way to bring him to us."
"She called me again."
"She wishes to arrange another meeting. She said she was sorry the first one was cut short."
"How very interesting. Is it the same place?"
"No, I suggested the square in front of Notre Dame this time."
"Because it is near a cathedral. Did I do right? You said--"
"Yes, yes. I suppose it will serve well enough. When is this to happen?"
"This evening at ten o'clock."
"Very well. Just try to keep her occupied for a while."
"So who is this man?" Connor asked.
"He's a fence." Amanda scanned the crowds passing before the floodlit cathedral.
"Duncan told me you gave up burglary."
"I did!" Amanda stamped for emphasis. "This is old merchandise. I stole it years ago, but it was too hot to sell at the time. I've been holding on to it. Now I'm ready to look for a buyer. This fellow told me he has connections. I'm not sure if I believe him, though."
"But you do think he has a connection to Melander."
"Well, that was the first place Melander showed up. Something of a coincidence, considering it was the first time in a while that I'd been well away from Duncan and out of reach of Holy Ground." Amanda stiffened as she saw a familiar face. "Here he comes. Get out of the way, Connor. If Melander shows up, you don't want him to sense you."
Connor sighed and faded backward through the press of late-night strollers.
Amanda met her contact on the seal that marked the geographic center of Paris. She spoke with him pleasantly for a while, trying to guess from his demeanor if this meeting really was a set-up. He seemed nervous, as if he were waiting for someone. Amanda's polite smile became sharper-edged, and she pretended to be quite taken in by his claims of a wealthy, secretive buyer.
When a familiar roaring started in her ears, Amanda began to lead her associate casually toward the steps of the cathedral. They mounted them, still talking, until Amanda could feel the warm tingle of holy ground beneath her boots.
The purported fence cut himself off in mid-word. "I have to go now," he said hastily. "A -- business meeting I forgot about. We can talk again later." Looking slightly pale, he hurried away.
"Don't turn around," said a voice behind Amanda.
"Why not?" she said calmly. "This is holy ground; you can't threaten me here."
"I can't take your head, but I expect the gun I have aimed at your heart could cause quite a stir if it went off. It's always unpleasant, isn't it, to die in public? To be forced to abandon one's identity, to start a new life, to lose so many friends . . . "
"All right," said Amanda. She wrinkled her nose at a sudden whiff of cigarette smoke. "Why did you come here?"
"Such a pity that your boyfriend couldn't join us. I understand he's wanted by the police for murder."
"Oh, didn't he tell you why he had to leave town so suddenly?"
Amanda's lips tightened. "No, he didn't."
"Ah, but the course of true love is often badly pitted."
"Forget about that. What do you want?"
"Why, you, my dear."
"Well, you've picked a poor place for it."
"I know. Perhaps you could suggest something better?"
"I'd be happy to. How about --" Amanda stiffened as she sensed another Immortal approaching.
Connor only had time to glimpse a figure in a black trenchcoat standing behind Amanda; then his view was blocked, and by the time he reached her, she was alone.
"You scared him away!" she accused.
"Well, that was sort of the point."
"You don't have to protect me when I'm on holy ground! He wasn't expecting anyone to be with me. He knows about Duncan."
Connor became very still. "Knows what about Duncan?"
"He knows Duncan is gone. He said the police want him for a murder! Did you know about this?"
"No." Connor frowned. "Dawson might. He was holding something back. Did you get a good look at this man?"
"No, I didn't see him at all. He told me to keep my back to him, or he'd shoot me in public."
"Damn! What about his voice?"
"His French had a southern accent -- Italian, or maybe Greek. It was just a normal voice."
"You didn't recognize it?"
"No, why should I?"
"You shouldn't. Not if it really is Melander."
"Who else would it be?"
Connor shook his head. "It's not important. Just a crazy idea."
"Connor. Now you're the one who's holding back."
"I tell you, it's nothing important! I'm sure it can't be right, anyway. Just now we have to worry about how to find Melander again. He's going to be more elusive now that he knows I'm protecting you." Connor considered. "Tell me more about this fence you came to meet."
Alain Marchand stepped out of the tabac and headed home, whistling under his breath. His path took him through a dark area where some of the lights had burned out and others were blocked by the corners of buildings, but he was generally more comfortable in shadows anyway. As he moved into the inky no-man's-land between the lights, a hand grabbed him and forced him against the wall of a building. He dropped his bag and winced as he heard the wine bottle break. Then something long, sharp and gleaming was pressed up under his chin.
"What do you want?" he gasped. "I don't have much money --"
"You set up a meeting tonight," said the man who had grabbed him. His voice was silky, menacing and slightly accented.
"A meeting with a lady," the man continued.
"I don't know what you're talking about!" Alain cried.
"And you invited a third party to this meeting." The long blade suddenly pressed harder, making Alain gasp. "I want to know how to find this -- third party."
"Look, I don't know --" Alain began.
The man's free hand shoved Alain hard against the wall. His eyes glittered stonily under short-cropped hair. "Now this can be easy, or it can be hard," he said. "The easy way is if you tell me what I want to know, and I let you go. The hard way is if I have to cut off one of your ears to make you speak."
"Now, where is he?"
"I don't know! Mr. Black just gave me a number to call!"
"Black?" The man's lips curled in grim satisfaction. "Yes, that's the man I want. What number did he have you call?"
"I -- I can't remem --"
"Don't hold back on me." The gleaming blade moved slightly to tickle Alain's ear lobe.
"The Hilton! Room 509!"
"Very good." The stranger stepped back and moved his sword away. Alain sank to his knees. "Now, I expect Mr. -- Black -- will be very unhappy if he learns of this conversation. I won't tell him if you won't."
"I won't say anything!" Alain vowed.
"Smart of you. I would advise you to get out of town."
"Yes -- yes! Anything you say!" Alain realized he was speaking to an empty street.
Connor shared his information with Amanda. "We can find him at the Hilton. It's a good place to set up a trap."
"It's a lousy place! You can't fight in a hotel. Witnesses everywhere, security cameras, limited exits . . ."
"Actually, I thought we could get him down to the parking garage."
Amanda stared at him. "Set off a quickening among all those cars? You don't think a few million francs worth of property damage would attract attention?"
Connor shrugged. "I've done it before."
"And did you get away with it?" Amanda nodded at his thin-lipped silence. "No," she went on, "better to get into the hotel room when he's not there and see what he's up to. We can set a trap for him wherever we want, then."
Connor sighed. "All right, you're the expert on break-ins. What do we do, pick the lock?"
She paced the barge. "Why couldn't he stay in a proper hotel? Preferably one with locks about your age."
"What's wrong with the Hilton?" Connor asked.
"It has those new locks, operated by magnetic cards. They update the cards every once in a while, which makes them just about impossible to forge. Given a few days to prepare, it usually isn't hard to steal a master, but we don't have the time."
"How are we going to get to him then?"
Amanda chewed her thumbnail thoughtfully. "We'll have to wait until tomorrow anyway, because he's bound to be at the hotel now. That gives us a little time." Suddenly she smiled. "I know. Call the Hilton. Tell them you want to make a reservation. And ask them if room 609 is free."
Duncan opened his eyes to an unfamiliar room. He was tucked into a bed, wearing only his briefs, with his clothes folded neatly on a chair that stood against the wall. A knock sounded on the door, insistently, as if it wasn't the first of its kind.
"One moment!" Duncan called automatically, leaping out of the bed and reaching for his clothes. Something fell from the shirt pocket as he lifted them: an open pack of cigarettes, with two or three missing. He stared at them in consternation for a moment, then hastily pulled on his pants.
"Yes?" he said as he opened the door.
A husky young man stood on the other side, looking moderately annoyed. "Monsieur Dalou is ready to see you now."
Duncan stared. Dalou was dead!
The messenger grew impatient with Duncan's surprise. "Come to the salon in fifteen minutes," he commanded, and made his way down the hall.
Duncan closed the door again and stood looking around the bedroom, baffled. He picked up his clothes and began to search through them. A little money was missing from his wallet, not much more than the cigarettes would have cost. Nothing else seemed out of place. His watch, on the bedside table, declared that less than one day had passed.
He caught sight of an ashtray next to the watch. It held one stub, the same brand as the pack he had just found. He ran his tongue around his mouth, but couldn't really identify any taste after a night of sleep. He sniffed at the fingers of his right hand and recoiled at the scent of nicotine.
With a curse, Duncan threw the ashtray and the nearly-full pack of cigarettes across the room into a wicker trash basket. He dropped his head into his hands. Another memory blackout, and this time he knew that he had been acting out of character, at least enough to smoke a few cigarettes.
He groped for his last clear memory and stiffened at the image of Joe's white face and accusing eyes. What had he done?
His coat was draped over the back of the chair. He grabbed it and felt inside, but there was no sword there. Perhaps he really had dropped it after attacking Joe. He felt its absence keenly, after carrying it almost every day for hundreds of years, but it was a relief to think that he had been unarmed while he was prowling the city like a madman last night.
Perhaps this man he was supposed to meet would have some answers. Duncan dragged himself to his feet and pulled on his clothes. A little water splashed on his face made him feel more clear-headed, but there was no time to shave. He opened the bedroom door, wondering how to get to the salon.
The young messenger he had seen earlier was just rounding a corner in the hallway. His frown cleared as he saw Duncan, and he gestured for him to hurry. Duncan recognized the salon when they reached it -- he had been in this house before. He also knew the black-clad man who looked up alertly from the couch; it was Armand Dalou, Georges' second son, who had inherited most of Dalou's operations.
"Mr. Macleod," said the young Dalou. "Come in, sit down."
Duncan cleared his throat. "I'm sorry if I seemed a little strange last night . . . " he said uneasily.
"Not at all, not at all. I understand that you recently lost a dear friend. That is always difficult to accept."
"Er -- yes, that's right."
"Well, Mr. Macleod. I know that your father and my father were very close -- he often spoke of how many times Duncan Macleod had saved his life. And so we owe you a debt."
"I wouldn't put it that way," Duncan said.
"We do, it's true. We also owe you for avenging my father's death, although I wish you had left his killer to us."
"I couldn't do that. There was old business between us."
"So I understand. I want you to know that I will be happy to help in any way that I can. Now, please tell me, what do you need?"
"Well, I --" Duncan hesitated, trying to think. He had no idea why he -- or whoever had been in charge of his body -- had come here last night. He did, however, have some questions that Dalou's organization could probably find answers for. "An acquaintance of mine was found murdered yesterday, in his hotel room," he said slowly.
"Would this be Francois Duhamel?" asked Armand.
"Yes, that's the man. I'm . . . some people suspect me of the murder. I thought the best way to clear my name would be to find the real guilty party."
"I see," said Armand Dalou. "All I know just now is what I've seen in the paper." He snapped his fingers and the young messenger-bodyguard handed him a newspaper, hastily retrieved from across the room. He flipped through until he found the right page. "The police are searching for a man who visited Duhamel late the night before. The hotel employees described him as well-built, in his thirties, with dark hair and a black trenchcoat." He looked up. "That is not much help, since it could just as easily be a description of you."
"Yes," said Duncan, his heart sinking. What if it was a description of him?
"I will see what else I can find out. In the meantime, do you need a place to lie low?"
Duncan nodded reluctantly. He could hardly go back to the barge, where he would be putting his friends in danger. "Just for a few days," he said, "until I figure out what my next move is." He had an uncomfortable feeling that he already knew his next move, but it was going to take him a while to accept it.
"All right," said Armand crisply, getting to his feet. "In that case, it would be best if you didn't leave this house. My staff will provide whatever you need. I hope you do not have to retrieve any of your belongings? You might be walking into a trap."
Duncan thought of his sword, and swallowed. "No, I don't need anything else."
He thanked the young man and made his way back to the bedroom to sit despairingly on the edge of the bed. It would be better for everyone if he stayed in this house away from his friends, but he wasn't going to enjoy being cooped up. He had been in some fairly dank prisons in his time, but they had always been made pleasant by good company. This time he didn't have that option.
Insanity, Duncan thought, had to be the loneliest thing that could happen to a man.
The young man crouching across from him pushed back a scrap of dirty lace from his wrist and bit his lip thoughtfully. Squinting in the dim light, he rubbed out a few of the marks in the dirt and drew in new ones with a fragment of stone. "Queen takes knight," he pronounced with a grin. "Check."
"King takes queen."
Duncan reached out and made the alterations in their makeshift board himself.
"You can't do that with a king!"
"You can if the other queen gets close enough."
"Pfaugh!" the youth exclaimed. "I've never been any good at this game, and I doubt I ever will."
Duncan leaned back against the rough stone wall behind him. "You're getting better at it already. You just have to learn to think about your moves, and not be so impetuous."
"You, the wild Highland warrior, tell me not to be impetuous?"
Duncan grinned. "Caution and a proper appreciation of strategy can be useful to a warrior as well."
"But they don't come naturally to me." The boy glared at the makeshift chess board. "How many moves to checkmate?"
"Six." Duncan tented his eyebrows apologetically.
"And that's if I don't do anything stupid, eh?" The boy sighed. "You should play with my father. At least he can give you a challenge."
Duncan looked toward the corner of their cell, where the boy's father lay on the straw mat that was their only approximation to a bed. "I don't think we should bother him," he murmured.
"He's very tired," the boy agreed.
"I heard that," said the older man, rolling over to glare at the two of them in the dim light.
The young man stood up, nearly cracking his head on the low ceiling. "I'm sorry, sir," he said quickly. "We didn't mean any disrespect."
The Duc de Givagny chuckled and sat up. "Respect would be singularly out of place in a dank hole like this. In any case, don't you think you should worry more about tiring our wounded hero?"
Duncan's face grew hot. "I wasn't hurt that badly, sir."
"It seemed bad enough to me." The Duc came to crouch by Duncan's side, shrugging on the remains of a once-elegant coat with its gold embroidery ripped away. He stepped carefully, since his shoes had been stolen for the money their gold buckles would bring. "You were wounded in our service, and if I had the power I would see to it that you had only the best of care. Instead you are condemned to rot here with us. I wish you would let me look at that cut. I would swear the fellow's knife went deeper than you said."
Duncan's arm curled protectively around his ribs. "No, sir, better to leave it covered. I bandaged it right away and put some of my grandmother's best salve on it. I'm sure it will heal best if left alone."
"Very well, if that's how you would have it," the Duc conceded. "I still don't understand why you came to our rescue, but we are deeply in your debt."
"But I didn't do any good, sir. You were taken anyway."
"Even so. Why did you do it?"
Duncan swallowed. "Your daughter sent me, sir. She was most concerned for your welfare."
"Anne-Marie?" the young Vicomte de Tourennes exclaimed.
"Er -- yes. Madame la Comtesse de Roulembert." Duncan suspected that it would be unwise for him to speak of the Comtesse as "Anne-Marie" in the presence of her father.
"She made it to England, then?" the Duc pressed.
"Yes, she's quite safe. She sent me here to look for you two."
The Duc and his son exchanged exclamations of surprise and admiration, but Duncan hardly heard a word. He was distracted by a roaring that reverberated through his head and blotted out all sound. Another Immortal was here, a very old and powerful one.
Footsteps approached down the hallway. Duncan started to climb to his feet.
The Duc pressed him down with a hand on his shoulder. "Hold still, man, you'll start bleeding again if you move about so!"
"Who is that in the corridor?" Duncan gasped.
The Vicomte pressed his face to the tiny grille in the door. "The guards are coming," he reported, "and they have a priest with them." He turned away from the door. "There is no one else."
"Do you wish the priest to come to us?" the Duc asked. "I'm sure they will let us be shriven before they . . . take us out."
Duncan shook his head. "That's no priest!" he said vehemently.
"You recognize his voice, then?"
"After a fashion, yes."
"Is he an enemy of yours?"
Duncan calmed as the stranger's buzz began to fade into the distance. "I'm not sure," he said. "Probably . . . he would be glad to see me dead." After the initial shock, he began to wonder if it wouldn't be better to have another Immortal present when he was guillotined. At least it was preferable to the alternative of losing all that he was, with no one being the gainer for it.
"Well, in that case he shouldn't have long to wait," the Duc replied with grim humor.
"The priest paused outside our door," reported the Vicomte, who had watched the visitors pass. "The guards didn't tell him our names, though. I don't think he could know that you are here."
"Oh, he knows," said Duncan with certainty. "He knows."
Connor tipped the porter while Amanda checked over the room. By the time he closed the door, she was already on the balcony. She had taken off her fashionable fur coat, revealing a skin-tight black body suit with a businesslike tool belt and a multiplicity of pockets.
She leaned out over the railing. "Child's play," she said with a hint of disappointment in her voice. "We don't even need the ropes."
Connor looked at her. "I need the ropes," he said firmly.
"Fine. Whatever you say." Amanda pulled her gear from the innocuous suitcase they had brought along, and started attaching it to the railing, testing for security at every step.
"How did you know he would be out of his room at this hour?" Connor asked, watching.
Amanda shrugged. "This is France. Everyone goes out for a proper dejeuner. Daylight work may not be my specialty, but at least I know the basic principles."
Connor's cheek twitched with amusement.
"All right," said Amanda, satisfied with her preparations. "Put your gloves on. Don't move anything out of place. Don't talk above a whisper. Let's get in, find out what we need, and get out quickly."
Connor nodded and shrugged into the harness. Amanda stood back while he stepped over the railing, then leaned forward to guide him down to the balcony below. Before he could send the harness back up to her, she swung herself down and landed lightly beside him.
Connor glanced at the drop down to the parking lot. "Are you trying to get yourself killed?" he complained.
"Whisper!" she reminded him, suiting actions to words. "It was quicker. The longer we're out here, the more likely someone will see us." She reached into the pouch at her belt and pulled out two metal probes which she applied to the lock on the sliding glass door. It yielded to her skill in less than a minute.
The hotel room had little clutter. A briefcase lay on the desk, a few coats hung in the closet, and some toiletries stood on the bathroom counter. Connor was drawn to the long wooden case that stood atop the dresser. He opened it to reveal an empty nest of foam padding, the size and shape about right for a Spanish-type saber. Amanda gave everything a quick look, pausing to copy down a few numbers from the paper pad beside the telephone. She gestured to Connor to look through the dresser drawers while she worked on the combination to the briefcase.
She had just gotten it open when Connor came to her side. "Look at this," he breathed.
Amanda glanced at the book he had brought over. "I told you not to move anything!" she hissed, then stared.
The small notebook held the Watchers' symbol on the front. Connor met Amanda's startled gaze and nodded, then opened it to the front page. He laid a finger on the name written there: Francois Duhamel. The notes on the following pages were in a complex code.
"Who's Francois Duhamel?" Amanda asked, forgetting for a moment to keep her voice down.
Connor shrugged and carried the notebook back to the drawer he had taken it from.
"Macleod, look at this," Amanda said, carefully riffling the papers she had found in the briefcase. She dropped her voice again. "Internal police memos. Budget figures. Crime statistics. Results of committee meetings."
"He's with the police?" Connor whispered back.
"Not just the police. There are files here from nearly forty cities, in half a dozen different languages." Amanda patted the papers back into place and stepped back. "It looks like this guy has strings to pull in police departments all around the globe. But why?"
"To keep them off his back?" Connor suggested, then stiffened. "So he can use them against other Immortals, if they make problems for him?"
Amanda shook her head. "I doubt it. Letting the police know about the affairs of any Immortals would just be asking for trouble. We'll have to think about this." She closed the briefcase and carefully returned the combination to the way it had been left when they came in. "Did you put everything back exactly where you found it?" she asked, with a hasty glance around the room.
"Yes. Did you find anything that will help us?"
"I think so." Amanda straightened up from the table. "Now, let's get out of here." She headed for the balcony door.
Both of them froze as a low roaring began in their ears. "Dammit, he's here!" said Connor.
"Don't slow down!" Amanda hissed. She pushed him out onto the balcony and locked the door quickly behind them while he pulled on the nylon harness. He gained the upper floor first and reached down to help her while she swarmed up the railing from the level below.
As one, they moved for the door of the hotel room, only to pause as they felt the other Immortal's presence fading away. Connor slammed a fist against the door. "We scared him away again!"
"Don't worry about it," Amanda said. "As long as he doesn't realize we got into his things, we can still use the information we found in his room."
Inspector LeBrun stepped off the elevator and headed down the hall toward room 509. He was hoping to talk to M. Lenoire about this business of covering up the decapitations. Lenoire had influence with the Surete and most of the police officials in France. If anyone could counter the order of silence, it would be Lenoire.
LeBrun stopped with his hand poised to knock on the door. Had he heard voices inside? He had thought M. Lenoire would be alone. But then, he was early for their meeting, and it was up to the distinguished gentleman if he wished anyone else to hear their discussion. He raised his hand again.
This time he heard the voice clearly. It was a woman, and she said the name Francois Duhamel in an inquiring tone. LeBrun paused again. How could Lenoire or his -- friend -- have heard about Duhamel already? Ah, well, they had probably read it in the newspaper, he reasoned with himself. But he bent his head to listen some more instead of knocking.
"Macleod, look at this," said the woman's voice.
LeBrun's eyes widened. It wasn't Lenoire in there at all, but Duncan Macleod and one of his accomplices! Were they setting a trap, or a bomb? Was this Macleod's response to LeBrun's threats yesterday morning? He reached for his gun, then hesitated. He hadn't prepared for a firefight, and he knew Macleod could knock heads with the best of them. Perhaps he should try to find out what they were up to. He pressed his ear to the door once more.
A minute later, he dashed for the stairs, slamming through the fire door just as the elevator pinged its arrival on floor 5. The elevator opened, then closed again on its black-coated inhabitant and started downward.
Connor and Amanda were still arguing about their plans when they left room 609 several minutes after that, each one carrying a nondescript suitcase. They didn't notice the man who turned casually to walk along the hall behind them, and they wouldn't have recognized him in any case.
Connor stared pensively through the rain-streaked windshield as they drove back to the barge. He didn't trust Amanda; she was hiding something from him. He wished there were someone in Paris that he could trust, but the past years had taken their toll on his friends.
"Very well, thank you, my friend," Hugh returned, clasping the priest's hands warmly.
"But was it wise of you to come to Paris? It is not very safe here these days."
"I know, but we came for the sake of a friend."
"We?" the priest turned to Connor, who was gazing around the small chapel in amazement.
"Darius, this is Connor Macleod, my -- traveling companion. Connor, this is Father Darius."
Connor shook hands with the priest warily.
"But I am being rude!" Darius exclaimed. "Would you care for some refreshment? Tea, perhaps? I have a new infusion that I fancy tastes quite good."
Connor looked about to accept, but Hugh said quickly, "No, thank you, Darius, we just came here to find out if you could help us with a problem."
"An old friend of mine and a clansman of Connor's, Duncan Macleod, has been brought to prison in Paris. We must find a way to get him free before he's taken to the guillotine."
Darius lifted his chin. "Ah. I see. He's one of our kind, yes? That would be a problem -- though indeed, there are too many mortal souls who face the same fate each day, with no one to help them escape. But in fact I may be able to help you. I believe I know where your friend has been imprisoned . . . "
Joe's phone rang just as he was about to get out of his car. He pulled it from his pocket and flipped it open. "Dawson," he said. "Yeah, I think so. I'm about to find out right now . . . How do you think you can do that? . . . Well, I don't know. I suppose it might work, if we can get him to agree . . . All right. I'll get him there if I can." He tucked the phone between the seats of the rental car and opened the door. He had arrived at an old stone house surrounded by a compound of disused farm buildings. No one seemed to be around, but the hair lifted on the back of his neck as if he were being watched. With a sigh, he walked up to the front door.
Joe studied the beefy young man who answered his knock. "I'm here to speak to Duncan Macleod," he said quietly.
The man shook his head. "No one here by that name," he declared in a husky bass.
Joe wedged his new aluminum cane in front of the door before it could close. "I think he is here. Now, look. I'm not with the police. You can see for yourself I'm no threat to him personally. I'm unarmed -- search me if you like."
The young man's eyes flicked up and down Dawson, lingering on his false leg and cane. He clearly came to the conclusion that Joe posed no danger. "If there is a Duncan Macleod here," he said slowly, "he must not want any visitors."
"He'll see me." Joe reached into his pocket. "Just tell him that I'm here, and give him this." An antique Watcher's medallion gleamed on his palm.
The doorman took the medallion and looked it over suspiciously. Then he stood back and jerked his head for Dawson to enter. In the foyer, he patted Joe down quickly and professionally, flipped through his wallet and returned it to him, then gestured wordlessly for him to sit on a bench against the wall. "Wait here," he commanded, and disappeared into the fastnesses of the rambling house.
Joe restrained his curiosity enough to stay in place, but he noted every detail of the front hall. This house was clearly still dominated by the presence of Georges Dalou. Old war photographs lined the wall. Joe got to his feet to study one of them more closely. It showed four men in an old 40's style automobile, with young Georges Dalou in the driver's seat. Three of the men were grinning at the camera. The fourth had his head turned away, but Joe recognized Duncan easily enough. He smiled a little; Immortals were notoriously camera-shy, but sometimes they couldn't avoid being captured on film. A note in the corner of the frame gave the date as May, 1945.
The beefy guard reappeared. "This way," he said, gesturing for Dawson to follow.
They passed through the back of the house into a courtyard. Duncan was there doing martial arts exercises. His shirt had been cast aside, and rain and sweat streaked his torso. He moved with a frantic energy that made Joe frown in concern.
Duncan came to a stop and brought his hands to his chest in a closing gesture, breathing heavily. Then he opened his eyes and turned to Joe. Despite the exhaustion that overlay his features, there was no peace in his expression. He looked haunted.
"Dawson," he said curtly, staring over Joe's shoulder. "Why did you come here?"
Joe glanced at the guard, wondering how much English he understood. "I came to get you."
Duncan sighed. "What if I don't want to go back?"
"I'm not taking you back to the barge. Amanda has an idea. She thinks she can help you."
Duncan looked up sharply. "What does she know about what's wrong with me, or what will help?" He picked up his shirt and used it to wipe his face.
"We'd all like to help, Mac. Connor thinks some of Cassandra's knowledge might come in useful here."
Joe frowned, beginning to get really worried. "Connor told us about her, on the barge."
"Oh . . . right."
"Mac, will you come with me? We have to leave soon to meet Amanda."
Duncan lifted his face to the light rain. "Where's my sword?"
A shiver went up Joe's back, he couldn't guess why. "I brought it with me. It's in the car."
Duncan's eyes closed. "All right, Joe. I'll come. Give me a minute to clean up."
"Sure, Mac." Joe began to retreat from the strain on his friend's face.
"Dawson. Wait." Duncan gestured to the guard to leave them.
"I'm sorry about -- on the quai."
"Well, no harm done," Joe said in the lightest tone he could manage.
Duncan's shoulders were bowed as if by a great weight. Joe wondered if they would begin to tremble, and he couldn't bear it.
"Buy me a new cane and we'll call it quits," he said.
Duncan took a deep breath. "I can't remember . . . where I was the night before last. I don't know if I went to Duhamel's hotel." He hauled himself around wearily to look Joe in the face. "I -- guess I could have killed him. I just don't know."
"All right, Mac. It's all right. We'll find a way out of this somehow."
Duncan's eyes were dark pits of despair. "A way out? Is a way out going to bring Francois Duhamel back to life?"
There was a tightness in Joe's throat. "Come on, Mac," he said softly. "Let's get out of here."
When they were a few miles away from the Dalou compound, driving through winter-barren fields, Duncan said suddenly, "Pull over."
"Just stop here. I want to get out for a minute."
Joe stopped the car. "Mac, we don't have much time."
"I know." Duncan reached into the back seat and lifted his katana. He stepped out of the car and swung it slowly back and forth, as if it were not quite familiar. Joe got out too, but kept the car between them.
Duncan glanced his way and seemed to guess what Joe was thinking. He sighed and set the katana on the roof of the car. He stepped backward into the muddy field. "Pick it up," he said.
"Pick up the sword for me, Joe. Please."
Joe reached across the car and took the carved handle in his hand.
"Come over here," Duncan said.
Deeply uneasy, Joe stepped around to Duncan's side of the car. He kept the sword behind him, pointed at the ground.
"You know what's wrong with me, Joe?" asked Duncan in a distant voice.
"Connor thinks you're having trouble integrating all the quickenings you've absorbed lately."
Something short of amusement twitched Duncan's mouth. "I guess that's about it. It started with Kalas. Maybe that was just the straw that broke the camel's back, or maybe . . . " He sighed. "I'm going mad, Joseph."
Joe stepped back a pace.
"I don't think I can -- control it much longer. I don't know what to do about it."
"Connor --" Joe began.
Duncan interrupted. "I can't go to Connor. Or Amanda. Don't you understand?" There was passion in his voice now, the passion of desperation. "There's something, something inside me, that wants to take their heads. I can't be around them and not think about it. I have to stay away from them! For their own good."
Duncan touched his temples. "I'm carrying them around with me every day -- Michael Moore, and Alfred Cahill, and Marcus Karolus. Garrick. And Kalas himself. So many others. And now they're trying to get loose. I thought I'd killed them, but they're still here. Still a threat.
"I suppose I could lose a fight on purpose," he mused, almost to himself. "Then I wouldn't have to worry about it. But what if my quickening, and all that it holds, drives the winner mad? Another insane Immortal loosed on the world. I might as well do nothing. I can only think of one solution that won't endanger anyone." He closed his eyes. "I want you to take my head."
"What!" Joe staggered and caught himself against the car.
Duncan gestured to the katana in Joe's grasp. "Cut off my head. Now, while I still have some control. That way this -- insanity that's inside me will be released, and it won't infect anyone else."
"You can't want that! All that you are will be lost!"
"Well, that might be just as well," Duncan returned, stretching for humor and falling short. "Anyway, it's no different from what will happen to you, and every other mortal in the world."
"What the hell do you take me for, Macleod?" Joe growled, his voice trembling with anger. "Do you think I can just kill a man, a friend, someone I've known for decades, and walk away from it? Do you have any idea what you're asking?"
Duncan's eyes were like chips of obsidian. "I know exactly what I'm asking, Joseph," he said in a low voice. "Because I've been forced to kill men, friends, people I've known for centuries. And then I had to carry them around with me, inside of me, for the rest of my life. At least I'm not asking you to do that."
"No! I won't do it."
"For Connor's sake, Joe. For Amanda's. For Francois Duhamel."
"We don't know that you killed Francois!"
"And we don't know who else I might kill, if this goes any further. I'm too good, Joe. Too fast, too dangerous. A trained killer with centuries of experience, nearly impossible to stop -- do you really want someone like that roaming around the world insane?"
"Dammit, Macleod, if you have a deathwish, pick a fight with someone else. Go buy yourself a guillotine and cut your own damned head off! Don't ask me to be a party to this." Joe threw the katana to the ground and crossed to the far side of the car.
Duncan bent to pick up the sword, staring at it as if it embodied salvation and damnation at once. "There isn't much time left, Joe," he said quietly. "I don't know how much longer I can hold out." His voice was level, contained, but it carried an undercurrent of unbearable tension.
Joe leaned on the car and rubbed his face with one hand. "All right," he said. "All right, Mac. I'll make a deal with you. I'll do what you're asking, if you'll give Amanda's solution a chance first. Come with me now and do what she asks. If she's wrong, if it doesn't work, then I'll . . . I'll take your head."
Duncan stared at him. "If it takes too long, I might not --"
"Well, come on then. Amanda's waiting for us! Or else you can stay here and work out your own damnation."
Duncan considered for a long, miserable minute. Then he opened the car door and got inside.
Joe scrubbed at his eyes and took a deep breath before he climbed into the driver's seat.
Duncan was silent during their drive back to town, thinking of simpler times, when he had anticipated death but never stopped striving to live.
Duncan was on his feet before he remembered that he was supposed to be wounded. He crouched a little under the low ceiling and clasped his elbow to his side. The Duc's face mirrored his own fears; this must be their escort to the execution.
There was a pause while the guards bound their hands together. Duncan regarded the shackles they put on him with distaste. They were caked with blood, only partly dry. He wondered how many different people had worn these gyves today, and how many times all told the wristlets had been to the guillotine and back. The Duc's face twisted as he watched the shackles being placed on his son.
"There's a chance you can escape, sir," Duncan said in English, which the two aristocrats would understand but the guards would not. "I will go first. When my head comes off, there will be a . . . disturbance. The guards will be distracted and alarmed. That will be your chance to get away."
"What sort of disturbance?" the Duc murmured as they were prodded along the corridor.
"It's -- too complicated to explain right now. Trust me, the guards will be very surprised. A lot of people will be running away." Except for the Immortal who stays to receive my quickening, he thought. "Don't stay to watch, just get away as fast as you can."
"How can you be sure you'll go first?" the Vicomte asked, his voice quavering slightly.
"I'll make sure I do," said Duncan, stumbling heavily against one of the guards. He got a hearty cuff to the head in return.
"Eager to meet Madame Guillotine?" the guard growled at him. "You will be her first suitor, then."
Duncan winked at the Vicomte.
The three prisoners were ushered out into a courtyard, blinking at the daylight. A priest in brown robes stood near the doorway, raising his hands in blessing. Duncan stiffened, but he had no sense of Immortal presence from this priest; he was just an ordinary man.
"Peace be with you," murmured the holy man, marking a cross on the Duc's forehead. "Go in peace." He grasped Duncan's hands briefly.
The guards shoved them roughly into the waiting tumbril. Four other prisoners were already inside the rough cart: a man and three women. Two of the ladies clung to each other, weeping. The third, somewhat older lady held her chin high and bent a sharp glare upon the guards who leered at her.
The Duc de Givagny peered intently at the fourth prisoner in the cart, whose leg was in splints. "Gervase!" he cried. "Is it you indeed?"
"Yves!" Their bound hands clasped awkwardly. "I never thought to see your face again, my friend."
The Duc nodded. "I could wish the circumstances were better, but I am glad to see you also."
Duncan rolled his eyes, thinking that this aristocratic sangfroid could be carried a bit too far. The young Vicomte, pale and thin-lipped, seemed to agree with him. They stood at the back of the tumbril as it lurched drunkenly into the streets of Paris, gazing about at the world for what was surely the last time.
Duncan bent his head to study the scrap of paper the priest had pressed into his hand. It held only two words, in English: "Hold Fast." The Macleod clan motto.
"What does it mean?" the Vicomte murmured to him.
"It's a message from a friend," Duncan replied.
"I'm not sure, actually, but I think we can expect some help."
"Not sure? What were you saying about a proper appreciation of strategy?"
Duncan grinned. "Well, there's something to be said for impetuosity, too." Tucking the note into his belt, he craned his head to scan the onlookers that lined the streets. This incautious movement earned him a rotten tomato square in the eye. As he ducked his head and tried to wipe his face clear, he felt the beginnings of a familiar prickle.
The tumbril jolted to a sudden halt. Their driver added a flood of imprecations to the jeering of the crowd. A farm cart had wedged itself across the narrow street, and the horse that pulled it was balking with its ears pinned tightly back. As the volume of the shouting increased, onlookers began to gather round the cart and snatch its store of radishes to use for pelting the hated aristos and their red-faced driver.
A wrinkled creature with lank grey curls hanging about her face climbed down from the farm cart and began to harangue the driver of the tumbril. Duncan's head twisted frantically as he felt the buzz of the other Immortal's presence growing stronger. Then his eyes fell on a man maneuvering around to the back of the tumbril.
"Connor!" he gasped, realizing what the message had meant.
The man in the dusty peasant clothes grinned and whipped a hefty sword from his coat. With one powerful blow he shattered the wood around the tumbril's lock, then turned upon the bewildered guards before they had even brought their muskets to bear.
Duncan pushed the tumbril's gate open and started ushering the other prisoners out. The younger ladies shrieked as he propelled them into the melee; the older one picked up a guard's fallen musket, fired it into the mob, and bayoneted a man that had grabbed one of her young companions by the hair.
"Macleod!" cried a familiar voice.
Duncan turned his head in time to see the old crone from the farm cart thrust a blade under the driver's ribs, pluck the driver's sword from his limp hand, and toss it to Duncan. He caught the hilt reflexively. A moment later his view was blocked by half a dozen milling bodies, and he had no chance to stare.
The Vicomte was guarding Connor's back with a long dagger. The Duc was supporting his lame friend, and the older woman had the young ones under control. Duncan leaped down from the tumbril and sliced the arm of a man trying to stab the Vicomte in the back. Since his hands were chained together, he arranged them in a two-handed grip on the sword. A few judicious kicks and stabs opened some space around them.
"Connor!" he yelled. "Where are we going?"
"Follow me!" his clansman cried, and with a bloodcurdling yell he opened a path down the street.
The radish-throwing brawl had escalated into a riot. Most of the participants were quick to back away from a sword blade and turn to less dangerous pockets of fighting. Duncan herded the Vicomte, the Duc and his friend, and the three ladies after Connor, only following himself when the farming crone popped up next to him from under the tumbril.
The two of them acted as rear guard for the bedraggled little party as they forced their way down the street. After a short distance, Connor led them into a cramped alley, where only a few of the most determined citizens and two uniformed guards followed them.
Duncan groaned and dropped his sword as a musket ball plowed into his shoulder. The greasy-haired crone put a well-muscled arm under his elbow and hauled him through a doorway into a cellar. Duncan leaned against the wall to catch his breath while the crone barricaded the door.
"I hope Connor knows where he's going," Duncan gasped as they hurried after the other prisoners.
"Don't worry, we've got this all planned out," said the crone next to him, in a distinct tenor.
Duncan gave his companion a suspicious glance, but didn't pause for questions.
Two adjoining cellars and three alleys later, they appeared to have lost their pursuers. Clutching his shoulder, Duncan collapsed on the ground next to the Duc and his friend. Connor and the Vicomte were discussing something earnestly. The two young ladies were having hysterics, but the older one, still wielding her bloody bayonet, had persuaded them to do it quietly.
The grey-haired crone pulled a pipe out from beneath a filthy shawl and began to puff on it. "We weren't expecting so many of you, Macleod. Did you have to bring them all along?"
Despite the pain in his shoulder, Duncan burst into laughter. "Fitz! It is you!"
"Well of course it is, you nodcock. Didn't you recognize my dashing swordplay?"
"No, I recognized your pipe." Duncan choked, almost speechless with mirth. "Where did you get that ridiculous outfit?"
Fitzcairn glared at him from under a tumble of grey curls. "It was all Darius' idea."
"Oh, I forgot, you haven't met him yet. Darius is a brilliant strategist who planned our escape from this godforsaken city. In fact, he's so brilliant," Hugh gestured broadly with his pipe, "we may even be able to accomodate the extra company you've brought along."
"How?" Duncan asked curiously.
"Come and see." Fitzcairn led the way around a corner of the building that sheltered them and waved at a cart in the alley. "Behold your means of escape!"
Duncan stared. The cart was actually not unlike the tumbril they had just been in. "How are we supposed to hide ourselves in --" He broke off. There was a large pile of manure and street rubbish next to the cart. "Oh, no. You're not going to cover us with --"
"Dung," Hugh filled in cheerfully. "It's perfect. The guards at the gates won't look too closely at this cart."
Duncan was appalled. "Couldn't you hide us under vegetables -- radishes or something, like that other cart you had?"
"Macleod, my friend, no one takes vegetables out of the city to sell them! Ordure, on the other hand . . . " He shrugged. "I, of course, will be driving, since I have a disguise." He slapped Duncan between the shoulder blades. "Congratulations on your escape."
Duncan glared at him. "Since you like the idea so much, you can explain it to the ladies," he growled.
Fitzcairn stared at the two weeping women, and his face paled with dismay.
LeBrun's fingers thrummed on the steering wheel. He was obesrving Macleod's barge, but so far it had been a singularly boring experience. The woman from the Hilton had come here, along with the man she had addressed as Macleod. Was he supposed to be a relative of Duncan Macleod's? There was certainly little resemblance. Perhaps he was an impostor, deceiving this woman for some reason. Or perhaps Macleod was a standard code name in their anti-terrorist organization, or whatever it was.
LeBrun had considered, of course, calling his men and having the two brought in for questioning. Just from what he had witnessed at the hotel, he had enough evidence to lay charges. But he had checked and found out that M. Lenoire was unharmed, and his hotel room had not been disturbed -- he could only accuse them of illegal entry, not robbery. He doubted that they would answer any of his questions, given the limitations placed on police interrogation procedures. And the investigation would be quashed as soon as word spread up the chain of authority. LeBrun could learn more about their outfit -- and the corruption he suspected it was riddled with -- by biding his time and watching every move that these two made.
He sat up straighter as he saw movement on the barge. The woman was coming out. She paused at the top of the ramp and looked both ways before hurrying down the quai, the tails of her long leather coat flapping behind her. There was no sign of the man she had called "Macleod."
LeBrun cursed as he tried to decide what to do. He should have called for backup earlier, but it was too late now. The man was the bigger fish, he decided, and settled back again.
He had scarcely been waiting five minutes before the lights went out on the barge and the man posing as Macleod appeared. He, too, wore a long coat -- it was almost a signature of this organization -- and he headed along the quai in the same direction the woman had taken, paying no attention to the car they had used earlier in the day.
LeBrun slipped out of his car and followed the man to the nearest Metro stop. Traffic was heavy at this time of the evening, and he found it easy to conceal himself in the crowd while he followed "Macleod" from the purple line to the green and out to the edge of the city. They ended up at a dark, abandoned warehouse on the Rue Girard. LeBrun was hanging further back now, since the area was almost completely deserted and it was harder to remain unseen. He saw the man enter the warehouse and crept to the entrance to find the place scattered with industrial-sized wooden crates, perfect for concealment. He could hear voices not far away, and he crept closer, keeping his head below the level of the crates.
" . . . doing here?" the woman's voice demanded, on a rising note.
"Waiting for Melander," the man replied. "Isn't that why you're here?"
"You couldn't have been following me," she objected. "I would have seen you!"
"No, I knew where you were going."
"You showed me the phone numbers you copied from the pad in Melander's hotel room."
LeBrun frowned in his sheltered nook. This "Melander" they spoke of was evidently M. Lenoire.
"That's right!" the woman replied. "I told you, they're probably our best lead for finding him."
"Really? You didn't think `71 Rue Girard, 20 h.' was a good lead? I suppose that's why you didn't copy it down, then."
The woman didn't respond.
"And what were you doing when you carried the phone into the bathroom? Confirming the appointment?"
"I called Dawson to see if he'd found Duncan yet."
LeBrun's brows went up. So she did know the real Duncan Macleod. Who was this other Macleod, then?
"Come on, Amanda, do you expect me to believe you? You've been fooling me all along. You made this appointment with Melander when you met him in front of Notre Dame. The whole business of tracking down Alain Marchand and searching Melander's room at the Hilton was just to waste my time, wasn't it?"
"Look, Connor, it would be better if you just stayed out of this."
"No! Melander is mine! He killed two women under my protection."
LeBrun's jaw dropped. This Connor was accusing one of the most esteemed men in France of murder! And he was planning vengeance. LeBrun squeezed further between the two crates, trying to see the speakers. His eyes widened as he saw that both of them were holding swords.
"They weren't under your protection, Connor! You told us Cassandra could take care of herself."
"Just like you, eh? That's right, I would have said she could stop anyone who came after her. This bastard has tricks up his sleeve, Amanda. Something even Cassandra didn't foresee. What makes you think you can face him alone?"
"What makes you think I was planning to?" Suddenly Amanda's head spun toward the door -- and LeBrun's hiding place. "Did you hear that?"
"Hear what?" Connor turned.
Amanda attacked him from behind.
At the last moment Connor sensed danger or heard the whistle of her blade, and he tried to block it. But he was anticipating a high blow, to the head or torso. Instead, she struck at his legs. The razor-sharp broadsword cut through the tendons at the back of both legs, and Connor fell to the ground crippled.
LeBrun was shocked by the casual betrayal. So, clearly, was Connor, but he didn't let surprise paralyze him. He still held his sword.
"So," he said bitterly. "Were you planning to take Duncan's head as well, when the right time came? I'm just more convenient?"
"No!" the woman cried, panting. Her brow furrowed with distress.
"Finish it, then. What are you waiting for? There can be only one, you know." Connor's lip curled.
"It's not what you think," Amanda said. Her hand went behind her back, inside her coat. She produced a long dagger. "I'm sorry about this, Connor," she said, and threw the dagger.
It thudded squarely into Connor's chest. He dropped his sword and supported himself briefly with both hands, while the blood bubbled from his mouth. Then he collapsed.
The woman nudged him with her toe, then set her own sword aside and began to drag his body away by the feet. "I would have just tied you up," she told the still corpse as she pulled it behind a crate, "but you'll be safer dead. I'll come back for you later." She tossed his sword after him.
LeBrun felt sick. The woman treated death as if it were only a temporary inconvenience! Was everyone in their organization this crazy? The body was only a few meters from him now, staring sightlessly up at the ceiling, the dagger protruding from between two ribs.
If he had read their conversation correctly, they had been plotting vengeance against M. Lenoire for some murders he was supposed to have committed. It almost made sense, since it would be nearly impossible to prosecute a man like Lenoire through normal channels. LeBrun knew that Duncan Macleod had stopped a number of killers, after the law proved itself powerless. That man who had escaped from prison and been found beheaded on the Eiffel Tower was just the latest case in point. But in this instance, surely, they must be wrong! Someone in the organization was spreading false information about M. Lenoire -- or Melander, as they called him -- and sending out operatives to assassinate him. Perhaps they had come to the same conclusion LeBrun had reached, that Lenoire was the perfect man to counter the order of police silence.
The woman's head snapped up. LeBrun held his breath, wondering if she could have heard him. She looked almost fearfully toward the door, then skipped over to her sword and lifted it from the ground. She wiped Connor's blood away with a silken handkerchief, which she then dropped casually back into her pocket.
A step sounded behind LeBrun, and he reached into his coat for his gun.
"So, the lovely Amanda Darieux," said a cultured voice with a slight southern accent to the French.
"That's right." Amanda lifted her sword and stepped back into the wide clear space at the center of the warehouse. "You wanted my head, Melander -- come get it!"
The new arrival stepped forward and LeBrun could see that it was, indeed, the man he knew as M. Lenoire. But all his clever theories crashed down around his ears when he saw that Lenoire, too, wielded a sword. He was one of them!
"I've been wondering," said Lenoire/Melander, circling Amanda with his saber held low and ready, "just why you arranged this meeting. I'm especially puzzled now that you've actually shown up. Why didn't you run?"
Amanda followed his movements from a fighting crouch. "Is that what you wanted me to do? Is that why you kept interrupting my meetings and chasing me around the city? Really, Melander. It wasn't necessary. I can hardly wait to fight you."
"Oh? Despite my reputation, my . . . history?"
"No, because of it!" She leaped forward and swung at him fiercely, but he twisted out of reach. She struck again, and the swords clashed together. They returned to their wary circling. "I thought it was about time you met a woman who could make you pay for all you've done."
Melander laughed. "My dear child," he began, and thrust at her without warning. She parried neatly. "You're not bad at all, sweetie, but don't think you're a match for me. I've cut the heads off deadlier bitches than you."
LeBrun winced at this admission of guilt. He was all at sea here; he didn't know what was going on or what he should do about it. The gun he had pulled from its holster lay useless in his hand without a target.
The two were fighting in earnest now, circling and retreating and striking. The ringing of the swords began to develop its own deadly rhythm. Melander's reach was longer, but Amanda fought with astonishing energy and ferocity, leaping in and out as she wove a net of steel around him.
As they circled, LeBrun could see that the man was concealing something behind his back. At first he suspected a dagger such as Amanda had thrown at Connor, but this was smaller, and black. A gun?
The next time Amanda moved in, Melander locked their blades together with a move LeBrun could not follow. His left hand came out of hiding and darted toward her. She jerked her body away and shifted her weight to kick the object from his hand, but he jabbed it against her thigh instead of stabbing for a vital area. LeBrun heard the sizzle and realized what the weapon was: an electric shock gun.
Amanda cried out, and her sword clattered to the floor as her hand spasmed. Melander's blade, unhindered, swept toward her chest. Somehow, she managed to throw herself back and rolled awkwardly across the floor, her legs still jerking helplessly. Melander chopped downward at her as she rolled, slicing into her hip. LeBrun winced, certain that it was almost over for the woman, still unsure whether he should interfere.
Then Amanda pressed herself up from the floor into a handstand, and her foot struck out unerringly at Melander's chin. He staggered back. Her coat tumbled down around her head, but she bent backward neatly and came to her feet, swinging the coat by its sleeves. She snapped it at Melander's eyes and he flinched involuntarily.
Scowling, Melander thrust back, driving her away from the sword that lay on the floor. She tangled his weapon in her coat and kicked him hard in the knee. When he stumbled she threw the coat over his head and pulled him down to the ground. She leaped onto his back hard enough to break ribs and drive all the breath from his body.
LeBrun was on his feet, ready to stop her from killing Melander, but Amanda made no move toward either of the two swords. Instead, she pulled out a pair of handcuffs and attached one end to Melander's wrist.
"Come on, sweetie," she snarled, dragging him across the floor. When he tried to struggle, she kicked him in the head. LeBrun winced. "I've got other plans for you." She attached the free cuff to a steam pipe running up the wall. Then she adjusted her hair in its tie and brushed herself off, grimacing at the blood on her thigh. LeBrun could only shake his head in bafflement. She casually killed her accomplice, but merely handcuffed her avowed enemy?
Amanda collected the two swords and picked up the shock gun, making a face as she tucked it into one of the pockets of her abused coat. She froze suddenly in the middle of a movement and turned toward the door. LeBrun quickly ducked down again, realizing that he had just heard a car pulling up outside. As confusing as this night had been, it wasn't over yet.
Joe stopped the car outside a darkened warehouse. As soon as Duncan got out, he could sense the presence of another Immortal -- no, two. He had to steel himself against the inner chorus of raging, greedy voices. He should be glad neither of them was Connor, he told himself, or Methos. Both those two had quickenings so powerful and strange that they would have put him right over the edge.
"Mac," Joe called from the other side of the car. "Your sword."
"You bring it," he returned. He didn't dare look at his friend, couldn't face the concern in Joe's eyes or the recognition that he shouldn't be trusted with weapons.
He walked toward the warehouse slowly, carefully, as if he were walking on eggshells or carrying a hot drink -- except that the broken shells and scalding spills were all in his mind. The rhythm of his thoughts kept blurring into religious chant -- My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? -- or opera -- As' Tod from Peer Gynt. All he could do was cling to his sense of reality and self, and hope that this ordeal would soon be over, one way or the other.
Amanda met them inside the warehouse. She carried two swords, her coat was rent, and blood seeped from her hip. Duncan was so busy tamping down the vengeful fury aroused by the sight that he had no energy left to ask what had happened.
"Did you get him to come?" Joe asked.
"He's right over there." Amanda pointed to the wall.
"Good, because there's more at stake here than you think."
Duncan looked where Amanda had pointed, realizing that was where the second buzz originated. When he made out the pale face that showed through the darkness, a wave of dizziness overcame him for a moment. He found himself standing just a few feet from Melander with his katana in his hand, with Joe beside him looking startled. He wrenched himself around so that his back was to Melander. "What the hell are you trying to do?" he gasped hoarsely. "Do you want to drive me crazy?"
"Go ahead," Amanda urged. "That's why I caught him for you!"
"WHAT?" Duncan shouted. "No! Keep him away from me -- keep me away from him!" He squeezed his eyes shut, fighting for control.
"Duncan, he deserves to die. He killed --"
"Don't say it!" Duncan growled. Carlo Sendaro howled for freedom within him.
"-- Cassandra. He carries her quickening. If you take his head, you'll get her knowledge and power along with all the rest. Maybe it will help you deal with . . . what's been troubling you."
Duncan stared at her. "This is your solution?" He turned to Joe incredulously. "This is what you made me promise?"
"It's your best hope, Mac. You said yourself, you don't have time to learn Cassandra's techniques the hard way. Maybe a good shock will --"
"Maybe it'll send me right over the edge!" Duncan finished. "I can't believe you expected me to consent to this. Even -- even with . . ." he couldn't finish the sentence.
"Your friends are right," said a silken voice behind him. "It is your best chance."
"Silence!" Duncan bellowed, in a voice not entirely his own. "Not one word from you!" He held himself rigidly facing away, refusing to look at Melander.
"Duncan, he has to die. He knows about the Watchers!"
"What?" Joe exclaimed.
"He had a chronicle in his hotel room. From someone named Francois --" Amanda frowned.
"-- Duhamel," Joe finished. "Mac, you hear that? Melander killed Francois, not you!"
Duncan wasn't listening. He knew he would go irretrievably mad if he allowed himself to kill Melander. Carlo Sendaro would take over, perhaps forever. Duncan Macleod would be lost amid the throng of more ancient personalities inhabiting this body.
But if Melander killed him, what then? Would his quickening overcome Melander as well? Whether it did or not, either Connor or Amanda, or both, would try to avenge him. They would run the same risk of insanity by taking Melander's head. He couldn't let that happen to Amanda. But Connor . . . perhaps, with Connor's strange new skills and the change that had come over him since he lost to Miranda Kelly, perhaps here was someone who could quell the fire consuming Duncan. Connor would never be persuaded to take Duncan's head, but he would be eager to have Melander's.
But Connor was not here. Or was he? Duncan could feel the beginnings of a buzz at the very edge of his senses, too faint to pinpoint. If that was Connor approaching, he would be here in minutes. And Duncan doubted he could stop himself from trying to take his clansman's head.
"I'll do it," he said abruptly, cutting off Joe's words. "But I won't kill an unarmed man. Let him loose and give him back his sword. We'll fight properly."
"I knew that Duncan Macleod's sense of honor would demand no less," said Melander, with a tinge of satisfaction in his tone.
"He's already had his fight, and lost it!" Amanda protested. "His head is forfeit."
Duncan's face contorted. "Do it, Amanda," he choked out. "Let him free, or I won't raise my sword against him."
Furious, but knowing how stubborn Duncan could be, Amanda tossed her captive his sword and the keys to the handcuffs.
Duncan moved out into the open area and waited for his opponent. He held his katana hilt up in salute and closed his eyes for concentration. Surely the pressure of a fight would help him to focus, to push the other voices aside, if only for a little while.
But when he opened his eyes and saw Melander standing before him, the dizziness rose again and he ceased to be Duncan Macleod.
LeBrun saw Duncan Macleod arrive, accompanied by a limping man who looked too old to be an operative, but wore the trademark long coat and carried a sword nonetheless. LeBrun wondered sourly if this man was also called Macleod. Was this warehouse some sort of meeting place for their organization?
The two of them joined Amanda and continued on to where Melander had been secured. LeBrun could hear voices raised in anger, but he couldn't see what was going on. He started to creep around the crates for a better view. He glanced in passing at the body of the second Macleod and froze as he realized the man wasn't quite dead. Connor's eyelids fluttered and his hand twitched weakly toward the dagger standing out from his chest.
LeBrun swallowed hard and reached out to feel for a pulse at the man's neck. Blood pooled on the floor from the cuts on his legs and the dagger wound in his chest. If by some miracle he was still alive, it wouldn't be for long.
Connor Macleod's eyes opened fully at the touch of LeBrun's hand. He focused on the detective's face with apparent difficulty. His hand twitched again, creeping up his stomach toward the dagger. His mouth moved.
LeBrun bent closer to hear the words.
"Pull it out," Connor breathed. "Get it out."
Pulling the dagger out would allow the wound to bleed freely; clearly the man didn't know what he was asking for. But he had already lost so much blood that he would undoubtedly be dead before any help could arrive. Perhaps there was no harm in humoring the wishes of a dying man.
LeBrun wrapped his good hand around the hilt of the dagger and tried to look reassuring. He pulled the knife up and out of Connor's chest, feeling it grate against the ribs.
Connor groaned thinly and fell limp as the blade came free. LeBrun bit his lip and checked again for a pulse, sure that he would find none this time. But it was there, and Connor's color grew stronger as he watched. His chest rose and fell almost normally with his breathing. The wounded man's eyes opened again.
"Thanks," he said in a voice that was audible, if hoarse. He turned his head to look at the crates stacked around them. "How long was I out?"
"Er -- five or ten minutes," LeBrun managed to say. "Are you --" He didn't even know how to finish the question.
"I'll be fine." Connor pushed himself to a sitting position. The bloodstain on his chest seemed smaller, somehow. "Are you here to watch Amanda, or Melander?" His voice was getting stronger by the minute.
LeBrun was baffled by this question. "I was following you," he replied uncertainly. Who did Connor take him for?
Connor looked surprised. "I didn't think they would have anyone assigned to me so soon."
Before LeBrun he could think of some response that wouldn't betray his ignorance, Connor grabbed the edge of one of the crates and pulled himself to his feet. LeBrun stared incredulously as a man who had been hamstrung not a quarter of an hour ago walked several easy steps. When Connor bent to pick up his sword, LeBrun caught a brief glimpse of new pink skin through the bloody rents in his pants.
You'll be safer dead, Amanda had said when she knifed her companion. I'll come back for you later. Somehow, for this man, death truly was nothing but a temporary inconvenience. Was it the same for Amanda? For Duncan Macleod? For all these operatives? What kind of training or medical technology could allow a man to rise from the dead and heal crippling wounds within minutes?
A sound came from behind the crates that LeBrun recognized at once. It would remain imprinted on his mind for the rest of his life. Swords were clashing together in a deadly swift syncope.
Connor's head whipped around. "Dammit! Amanda!" he snapped, and rushed toward the source of the noise.
Standing next to Amanda, Joe watched Duncan's fight with one hand clasped white-knuckled on his cane. As an inveterate armchair swordsman he was well-versed in the moves, and he had seen more of Duncan Macleod's style than any man alive. Tonight, something was wrong. Duncan struck with short, hard chops instead of the long flowing moves that suited him best. His stance was not as low as usual, and he shifted his feet too often.
A figure appeared from around one of the crates, and Joe gave a start. It was Connor, evidently a late arrival. He stared hard at the two figures.
"What the hell is going on here?" Connor growled in a low voice.
"I thought Cassandra's quickening would be more useful to Duncan than to you," Amanda replied warily.
"So you killed me?"
She shrugged. "I didn't think I could talk you out of fighting him."
"You were right. Melander is mine!"
"Too late. Duncan is fighting him now."
Connor shook his head. "That isn't Duncan. Who is it?"
Joe cleared his throat. "I think it may be Sendaro."
Connor grabbed Amanda's arm and shook her. "Do you realize what you've done? Even if he doesn't lose his head, he may have lost his mind already!"
"He was losing it anyway," Amanda snapped back, pulling her arm from his grasp. She pinched her lip between her teeth as she watched Duncan evade a nasty blow by a hair's breadth. "This is his best chance."
"You fool!" Connor raised his katana.
"You want to take my head?" Amanda challenged. Her sword was in her hand, but held well back. She stepped forward so the point of the katana lay just under her breastbone. "You want to kill me? Go ahead! I dare you."
"Shouldn't I cut your hamstrings first?" Connor spat back.
Joe poked his cane at Connor's chest; the Immortal swept it aside and down reflexively. "Not here!" he growled at them both. "You want to give Duncan something else to worry about?"
All three of them cast sudden, worried glances at the two combatants. Duncan had the upper hand and was driving Melander back, despite his altered style. Connor snarled wordlessly, grabbed Amanda, and dragged her behind the crates to finish their argument.
The tension coiled in Joe's shoulders began to ease as he saw that Melander was out of breath and out of rhythm, barely blocking Duncan's sword in time. Duncan delivered three swift blows, and with the third one Melander's saber broke. He gritted his teeth and threw the jagged stump at Duncan's face. Duncan merely dodged and pulled his katana back for the killing blow.
As his shoulders came around, Duncan faltered, then stopped. His sword swept inches short of Melander's throat and then clattered to the floor. He bent over and clutched at his head, face contorted with anguish.
Melander snatched the katana off the floor and turned toward Duncan.
"Mac!" Joe cried in warning.
Duncan fell to the floor and rolled away, but whether it was evasion or collapse, Joe couldn't tell. Alerted by the shout, Amanda and Connor appeared around the far end of the line of crates. Melander threw one glance their way and abandoned his pursuit of Duncan. Instead he ran toward Joe and the door.
For the second time in as many days, Joe raised his cane to block Duncan's katana. Melander mowed him down and continued his race for the door.
Another man stepped into his path. "Lenoire, wait!" he cried, aiming a gun at the Immortal.
Melander swept the katana across his body as he ran. The sword clashed against the gun just as it fired, and the man fell down with a cry. This time Melander tripped over his victim. As he struggled to his feet, Duncan tackled him.
They tumbled across the floor and fetched up against a crate. Duncan pummeled his opponent with great force but not much science. Melander kicked himself away and tried to bring the katana into play. Duncan grabbed the blade in his bare hands and held it back from his throat. Blood ran down his wrists as he wrenched the katana free, reversed it, and chopped at Melander's neck. Melander fell back, gurgling, one hand to his throat. Duncan lurched to his feet and struck again, harder. Melander's body fell headless to the ground.
Duncan stood panting over the corpse, frowning as if unsure what he had just done. A glow rose from the empty neck. For a moment it seemed to form a face, female, smiling -- then it rushed at Duncan and blew him backwards. Duncan was pinned, writhing, against a crate as lightning struck him. Most of the remaining windows of the warehouse shattered. The pipe Melander had been cuffed to burst open, releasing a brief blast of steam. Sparks popped from electrical outlets. Duncan threw his head back and screamed.
His cries lingered on the air several seconds after the last explosion. Then he sank to the ground, weeping, and curled into a ball.
Amanda started toward him at once, but Connor stopped her. "Leave him alone," he warned. "He needs time to adjust."
Amanda frowned worriedly at Duncan's huddled form, but nodded and turned instead to Joe. "Dawson. Are you all right?"
Joe unwrapped his arms from his head and looked about cautiously. "Yeah," he rasped. He opened the tear in his pants leg to show the gashed plastic underneath. The sword had scarred the steel frame of his prosthetic leg, but not broken it. Joe reached for his cane to get up, then stopped. The aluminum was sharply bent in the middle, where the sword had struck it. "Oh, not another one!" he groaned, and threw the ruined cane across the floor. He jerked his head in the direction of Melander's other victim. "Check on him."
The man with the gun was sprawled against one of the crates, his eyes wide and his hair standing on end. He had been dangerously close to the storm of the quickening. His left hand was clamped around his right forearm, and his face was drawn with pain. He looked familiar, but Joe couldn't quite make out his features in the dimness.
"Let me see," said Connor, kneeling beside him.
"The cut's not deep," the man said. "I caught the back of the blade."
"He was more used to two-edged weapons," Connor pointed out as he peeled the concealing hand away.
"I think my elbow's shattered." The man leaned his head back and laughed with a touch of hysteria. "It wasn't good for much before, anyway."
Connor looked up. "We should get him to a hospital."
"Go on," Joe said. "I'll look after Duncan. I need a few minutes to get my leg on straight anyway."
"I'll stay too," Amanda offered.
"No, Connor may need help. Go."
Connor gave Joe a sharp glance, then looked at Duncan, still curled on the floor. "Dawson's right," he said slowly. "Give me a hand, will you?"
Together they helped the wounded man to his feet and led him out of the warehouse, Amanda casting frequent glances over her shoulder as they went.
When they were gone, Joe heaved an unhappy sigh and pulled himself to his feet with the support of a nearby crate. His leg was not badly twisted; he tugged at it a little to straighten it, then limped over to Duncan's side. The Immortal lay silent and still, only brief twitches showing that he was alive at all.
Joe retrieved Duncan's katana and leaned on it, waiting.
Duncan was drowning in a sea of memories. They filled every orifice, blinding his eyes, stifling his mouth. He could not breathe. He could not coordinate his flailing limbs to escape. He could not guess which way the surface lay. The alien thoughts invaded him, possessed him, consumed him until he had no identity of his own . . . he was merely a part of the sea.
*Take control, Highlander.*
-- tears streaming down my cheeks as I stared at the flames rising behind Troy's lofty walls --
-- shoveling the dirt onto my husband's grave, watching the blisters I had earned heal in moments, wishing the wounds within could disappear so easily --
-- bending low over my mount's neck as we swept over the finish line, the thrill of our speed --
-- the sun beating down on my shoulders, perfect harvest weather, as I watched the Duke's mercenaries burn our fields again --
-- swinging the lash through the air so it whistled, relishing the sound and feel of the leather striking the back of the slave before me --
*Take control. You have the strength.*
-- pressing the healing energy out through my fingertips as I bent over a patient's pain-wracked body --
-- lying trapped beneath a man twice my size, struggling against him, his hand over my mouth smothering me, his weight oppressing me, his body violating me, his sweat staining me without, as his smirk stained me within --
-- my fingers dancing over the keys without conscious volition, the audience rapt, the conductor attentive, the orchestra responsive to each crescendo and rallentando --
-- watching the abolitionist jerk at the end of the rope, my hat in my hands, trying to keep the discomfort from my face --
-- pressing a silk handkerchief over my mouth as the ash of thousands of Jewish bodies pattered from the sky --
-- the endless, soporific hum of the spinning wheel, the wool passing through my cold hands, the gentle scrape of someone carding fleece behind me --
-- staring in disbelief at Lenora in bed with another man, her lovely hair cascading over his shoulders --
-- supporting the babe's head as his mother made the final push --
-- my stepdad beating me, beating the evil out of me as I cowered and wept --
-- lying in the maintop as the ship danced over the waves, the delightful leisure of a clear day with a steady breeze --
-- standing on faggots of wood, choking with the smoke, screaming as my flesh blackened and crisped, screaming until my throat was as raw as my skin --
*Be yourself, Highlander. Do not give in.*
-- grasping the glowing spear of the quickening within my breast, bending it to my will --
-- Cullen's sword leaping unerringly for my neck, knowing I couldn't stop it, the pain of --
-- Duncan Macleod's ruthless eyes as he swept his katana across my --
-- Kalas plunging his sword down into --
-- fighting --
-- singing --
-- making love --
-- weeping --
-- lying curled on the floor of a darkened warehouse.
A woman, dark and mysterious, with eyes that seemed to pierce to the bottom of the soul . . .
Joe waited, his jaw tight. At length Duncan let out a long sigh and relaxed from his unnatural tension. He pushed himself off the floor to his hands and knees, hanging his head and shaking it like a dog. He glanced at the katana in Joe's hand. Joe shifted his grip.
"Planning to keep your promise?" Duncan asked.
"If you ask me to," Joe replied, his voice dead of all emotion. But something leaped within him at the sound of Duncan's voice, normal and unstressed. At least he remembered their bargain.
"Well, I won't ask it." Duncan's mouth curved into a smile as he got to his feet.
Joe blew his breath out and smiled back. "Thank goodness for that." He held Duncan's sword out to him. "Feeling better now?"
"Yes," said Duncan slowly, staring at the katana as it lay across his hands. "I feel just fine."
"So, Amanda was right."
Duncan's eyes narrowed. "She was right, but don't tell her I said so."
"I'm just glad that you -- that I didn't have to --"
"I know." Duncan rested a hand on his friend's shoulder. He cocked his head as if listening to something Joe couldn't hear. "It wouldn't have worked anyway, because Connor and Amanda are still in range."
"What? They left a couple of minutes ago!"
"They're outside, arguing about something . . . someone." Suddenly Duncan's eyes widened. "LeBrun!" he gasped, and hurried for the door.
Joe snapped his fingers as recognition clicked into place; the man who had tried to shoot Melander was a police inspector! But what had he been doing here?
Amanda and Connor stood next to Joe's car, shouting at each other. LeBrun sat in the back seat, facing out of the door with his head propped weakly against the window strut.
"How could you let this happen?" Amanda cried.
"Me? It wasn't my fault! I thought he was a Watcher!" Connor yelled back.
"Well, you should have checked!" She brandished LeBrun's police identification at him.
"Anyway, what could I do? He'd already seen me revive by that time. If you hadn't killed me --"
"If you had gotten him away before the end of the fight --"
"Hold it!" Duncan bellowed as he reached them.
They both turned.
"Duncan, are you --"
"How do you --"
Duncan held his hands up. "I'm fine," he said. "What's going on here? LeBrun needs help, not a shouting contest."
"You know this man?" Connor exclaimed.
"I've known him for years. He's not a bad fellow at all. What's the problem?"
"The problem is, now he knows about us!" Amanda cried.
"He saw the whole thing," Connor added. "The fight, the quickening . . . "
"He saw Connor revive from the dead . . . "
"And whose fault was that?" Connor snapped.
"Wait -- Connor, you were dead?" Duncan interrupted.
Connor looked at Amanda.
Amanda shrugged. "I thought -- I thought maybe it would be better if you couldn't sense Connor when you arrived."
Duncan frowned. "You may have been right about that."
"That wasn't why she did it!" Connor objected. "It was Melander. She wanted his head for herself!"
"Never mind that now," Duncan said pacifistically. "Melander is dead. What are we going to do about LeBrun?"
The Inspector raised his head wearily. "You're not going to persuade me to keep quiet about this, if that's what you're thinking."
"Duncan, he'll tell everyone!" Amanda said. "We have to stop him."
"He's only left us one option," Connor said grimly.
"Stop right there," Duncan snapped. "Amanda, we've been through this before. I won't allow you to kill a mortal whose only crime is planning to tell the truth."
Joe, who had just arrived on the scene, winced and looked away.
"Duncan, you know what this will do to us. Just when we thought we were safe . . . "
"Amanda, when are we ever safe? And what difference will it make in the end? There can still be only one."
"So you're just going to let him tell the police whatever he wants?" Connor demanded.
"Well, I'm not going to use threats to get him to see reason! You're going about this all wrong. Why not a carrot, instead of a stick?"
LeBrun glared. "I won't take your bribes," he spat.
Duncan squatted before him. "You're sure?"
LeBrun twitched his right arm, tied up with a handkerchief and cradled in his lap. "I paid for your bloody secrets with my arm. Twice. Nothing you offer me can pay for that."
"What if I offer you your arm back?"
"What?" LeBrun gasped.
"What if I can fix your arm for you?"
"You can't do that! The best medical procedures --"
"I can do better." Duncan's voice was strange, lighter and accented differently.
Connor looked sharply at Duncan. "Cassandra?" he breathed.
Duncan cast an otherwordly smile over his shoulder. "Only for the moment," he said in the same light voice. "I will return the body as soon as this is done."
Amanda fell back a step, raising a hand to her mouth.
"What are you talking about?" LeBrun demanded. "Can you really heal this?" He gestured at his arm.
"I can," said the voice from Duncan's mouth. Dark eyes turned to Connor. "Help me out here. We need to get him away from the car."
Duncan and Connor supported LeBrun back to the warehouse and laid him supine on one of the crates. "Now, get well back," Duncan piped, waving at Connor and Amanda. "I'm not sure how well this will work."
Connor drew Amanda out of the warehouse. Joe, after a glance in their direction, moved closer to see what was going on.
"This is crazy," LeBrun said, squirming. "This can't possibly work. You don't know what you're doing --"
"Yes, I do." Duncan's hands pressed him flat. "Just lie still." He began to untie the handkerchief around LeBrun's forearm. His fingers traced the cut skin and shattered bone. He closed his eyes.
Joe leaned forward as a blue glow gathered around Duncan's fingertips. It flowed into LeBrun's arm until the flesh seemed to glow from within. LeBrun hissed and tried to jerk his arm away, but it was held fast in Duncan's grip.
Then the glowing skin began to move, knitting the torn flesh back together. Bones moved under the skin. LeBrun moaned.
An electrical outlet that had survived Melander's quickening exploded behind them. Sparks flickered up Duncan's body. One of them leaped from his fingertips to LeBrun's arm, and the Inspector yelped. Duncan drew his hands back with a sigh.
"That is the best I can do," said the light voice. "I could not heal all the old damage, but you should have more freedom of movement."
LeBrun looked down incredulously at the new, hairless flesh along his forearm. He poked at the elbow, straightened and bent the arm, lifted it above his shoulder. "You healed it," he murmured. "You really healed it."
Duncan's head nodded and he turned back to the door of the warehouse.
LeBrun climbed down from the crate, still swinging his arm experimentally. He wiggled his fingers. "Did that really happen?" he asked Joe.
Joe shrugged. "I saw it too," he said, and followed Duncan outside.
"Cassandra, wait --" Connor said suddenly as they neared the car.
Duncan's head tilted. "Yes?" said that eerie voice.
"Why -- how could you let this happen? Why did you let Melander take your head?"
"It was time. One grows weary after three thousand years. There can be only one, and I do not wish to be that one."
"But . . . why Melander? Did you know what was going to happen?"
Duncan's shoulders lifted and fell. "I foresaw some of it, but not all."
Connor moved closer, gripping Duncan's arms, staring into the eyes that were not quite Duncan's. "You wanted me to kill him, didn't you? You wanted me to have your quickening."
The dark eyes turned away. "I -- hoped to be joined with Ramirez once again. But it has turned out well. My power is in capable hands. I am content. We will all be joined together soon enough."
Connor shivered and stepped back at the implications of that.
Duncan's eyes glazed briefly, and he shook his head to clear it. Blinking at the others, he said in his own voice, "I don't think I'll make a habit of that."
"Do you remember -- what you did?" Joe asked.
"Oh, yes." Duncan looked at LeBrun. "Well? Are you going to keep quiet about this?"
LeBrun flexed his arm. "Who would believe me?" he said. "Can I accuse the distinguished M. Lenoire of trying to cut off my arm, when I don't even have a mark to show for it? As for the rest -- that's entirely too wild. And I forgot to bring my videocamera. I think, if I want to hang on to my job, I'll have to keep quiet."
"Good," said Duncan, patting him on the back. "You'll avoid a lot of trouble that way." He looked around at the rest of them. "I don't know about you folks, but I'm starving. Anyone for dinner?"
"Well!" Maurice exclaimed, holding his arms wide to include all of them. "Can I get you anything else?"
Duncan glanced around the table at Joe, Connor, and Amanda. "Another bottle of wine would be nice, Maurice. And thanks for staying open for us." The rest of the Etoile d'Or was empty.
"Not at all, not at all. I have other work to do anyway." Maurice uncorked a fresh bottle, set it at their table, and bustled away.
"So." Duncan poured himself a glass. "Here's to friends who know what's good for you."
Connor gave Amanda a sour look as he raised his glass.
Amanda drank the toast with a slight frown. "There's one thing that worries me," she said. "If Melander was the one keeping the police off our backs, what's going to happen now that he's dead?"
Duncan shrugged. "Well, LeBrun said the police officials have gotten pretty well accustomed to those standing orders. Besides, Melander had a lot of other people working with him. I expect the machinery will continue to work for some time. After that, we'll just have to take extra care to cover our tracks."
"He was really more interested in protecting himself, rather than other Immortals," Joe said. "He killed Francois in such a way that you would be under suspicion, but it would never be fully investigated."
Duncan nodded. "He picked Duhamel because he saw me arguing with him -- and then he ended up learning about the Watchers."
"Do you know where you were that night?"
"I remember both nights. After I -- left you on the quai, I was . . . that was Carlo Sendaro. I -- he went looking for Melander. But a lot of his old connections in town had dried up. Finally he decided to try some of my connections, so he went to Dalou."
"And the first night?" Amanda asked. "When this Watcher was killed?"
Duncan swallowed. "That night, it was Grayson. He spent the entire night in Darius' chapel, mourning. He had tried for so many years to hurt Darius, to provoke him and draw him out, but he never wanted Darius to die -- especially not in such a way." He frowned. "Grayson doesn't believe his quickening was lost. He thinks it's still there, somehow."
"Is that possible?" Connor asked quickly.
Duncan's brows flew up. "How would I know?"
"What does Cassandra think?"
Duncan's expression turned inward. "Cassandra, obviously, never witnessed an Immortal killed without other Immortals around. And the fact that it was on holy ground might have confused the issue -- I just don't know." He took a sip of his wine.
"What's it like, Duncan?" Joe asked suddenly.
Duncan set his glass down quickly.
"I mean, what's so different? You don't seem changed -- what did you get from Melander, or Cassandra, that made it easier for you?"
Duncan searched for words. "It's just -- discipline. A matter of control. Knowing I can reach those other memories, if I want, or hold them back. That one basic skill makes all the difference."
"You really have the skills of all those people?" Amanda asked.
Duncan grinned. "Remind me to play the piano for you sometime."
"And the memories? You said you wouldn't want to hold other peoples' memories."
"That was when they were out of control. If I know I'm not going to be overwhelmed, it can be . . . I can remember now how Fitz felt when he died." Duncan smiled sadly. "He was mostly worried about me. And I can remember how Kalas felt when he killed him." His jaw tightened. "It doesn't exactly make sense out of losing a friend like that, but -- the picture is a lot clearer now. And other memories, including mine, are richer because I remember them from more than one point of view."
Duncan leaned on the rail next to Connor. "I'll never get the smell of that dung from my hair," he complained.
"At least it got you out of Paris."
"You got us out of Paris, and I haven't thanked you yet."
Connor waved the thanks away with one hand.
Duncan frowned. "I thought you were in Boston these days."
"I had some business in London. Fortunately for you."
"Hmm, yes. How do you like the New World, then?"
"It's very . . . fresh. There've been great things happening the last few decades. It's like reinventing the world! You should see it, Duncan."
"I'm afraid after this, I'm a bit soured on revolutions," Duncan pointed out.
"Well, come over if you get tired of old politics. There's always something new in America."
A whiff of fine pipe smoke preceded Fitzcairn's arrival. He was back in his accustomed finery, and he made a point of maneuvering to stand upwind of Duncan. "Well, MacLeod," he said smugly, "I expect the Comtesse de Roulembert will be overwhelmingly grateful."
Duncan gave him a suspicious look. "Yes, but who will she favor with her gratitude? What were you doing with her after I left?"
"Consoling her fears, no more," Hugh said airily, then stiffened as the lady's father appeared on deck, accompanied by his aristocratic friend with the wounded leg.
"Ah, my good friend!" the Duc exclaimed, coming to Duncan's side. "Your wounds do not trouble you too much?"
"Er -- no," said Duncan. "I'm fine."
"You have done us a great service, sir," the Duc said. "I am deeper in your debt than ever. Whatever part of my fortune I can regain, you shall have half of it."
Duncan's face reddened. "Well, I was just trying to get away myself," he said shyly.
"I have been telling Gervase here that it was his lady who sent you to us."
Duncan's gaze went to the Duc's friend. "Gervase?" he said in a strangled voice.
"The Comte de Roulembert. We all thought him dead. Won't Anne-Marie be delighted when her husband is restored to her at last!"
Duncan could only exchange stunned glances with Fitzcairn and smile weakly at the Comte.
Joe looked up in time to catch a strange expression crossing Duncan's face. "What is it?" he said quickly, realizing that he was still uneasy after the events of the past few days.
Duncan's eyebrows twitched humorously. "Just thinking," he said. "I never had many women's quickenings before. It's strange."
"What's so strange about it?" Amanda asked, sipping her wine.
"It just is. I mean, for one thing, I never guessed what a ladies' man Methos is."
Joe choked on his drink.
Amanda burst into a torrent of giggles. "You mean," she gasped, "you mean the way he used to --"
Duncan reached across the table and covered her mouth firmly. She continued to sputter behind his hand.
"Duncan was never one to kiss and tell," Connor told her disapprovingly.
Duncan twisted his head to look at his clansman. "And it's a good thing for you, otherwise I might have some stories to tell."
Connor sat bolt upright. "What do you mean? You can't know anything --"
"Remember Katie O'Donnell from Derry?"
"Her? You have her quickening?" Connor looked appalled.
"Yep." Duncan grinned, looking from Connor to Amanda. "I trust neither of you will want to annoy me again." He crossed his arms smugly and glanced over at Maurice, who was hovering just out of earshot. "Now, Joe. I have something for you." Duncan winked at Maurice, who pulled out a box from behind the bar and brought it over.
The carved wooden case was long and thin, like a sword case. Joe frowned suspiciously as he opened it. Inside, on a bed of velvet, rested an ebony walking stick with a gold foot and a ball-shaped golden head.
"I know you like the ones with curved handles, that you can sling over your elbow," Duncan said, "but this one has other interesting features."
Joe lifted the stick from the case. "It's heavy," he said in surprise. "What, is it filled with lead or something?"
"Or something." Duncan leaned over and pointed. "Twist the head off."
Joe turned the head of the cane, expecting it to unscrew slowly. Instead, it snapped loose and came away from the ebony body, revealing a narrow steel blade as Joe pulled it free. "A swordstick?" he murmured.
"I thought it might come in useful if you're going to go around annoying Immortals." Duncan grinned.
"Mac, I can't take this. It's an antique. It must be priceless!" Joe brushed his thumb cautiously across the razor-sharp edge.
Connor leaned over to inspect the blade. "Good workmanship," he said. "Eighteenth century?"
"Late eighteenth," Duncan confirmed.
"I can find you a buyer, if you don't want to keep it," Amanda offered.
Joe glared at her. "Mac, when did you get this?"
"Actually, I've had it for a few years. Just seems like you could use it best now."
Joe's eyes narrowed. "Have you ever used it?"
"It's strong and flexible, not just ornamental, if that's what you're wondering."
"That wasn't what I asked."
Duncan shrugged. "I haven't taken any heads with it. Let's just say it was helpful during a few arguments."
They returned to the barge, still discussing the nature of the quickening and the Prize. They had just settled in and gotten the fire started when Connor cleared his throat uncomfortably.
"I should really be going," he said.
Duncan stilled. "At this hour? You're welcome to stay."
Connor glanced wryly from Duncan to Amanda. "I think I should be on my way."
Duncan sighed. "Where are you heading, then?"
"Back to New York, first, to see Rachel. Maybe, if she's still sick, I can help her a little. After that -- who knows?"
"I'll be going back to Seattle," said Duncan, "if you want to look me up. But first I have to make a side trip to Greece."
"Greece!" Joe exclaimed.
"Cassandra kept her journals in storage. Some of Grace's notes are there as well. We could learn a lot from them."
Amanda looked uneasy; Connor just nodded.
"Well." Connor shrugged and looked toward the door.
"Hold on a minute; I'll see you off." Duncan pecked Amanda on the cheek and followed his clansman up the stairs to the door.
They stood on the deck of the barge, above the water, between the lights, beneath the stars. Duncan breathed deep the smell of the city.
"Duncan." Connor squeezed Duncan's shoulder and turned to go.
He looked back inquiringly.
Duncan grasped his clansman's hand. "I know we never say goodbye," he said haltingly, "but, maybe this time . . ."
Connor stiffened. "Is that Cassandra speaking?"
Duncan shook his head. "I can't see the future. I just think we shouldn't take the future for granted anymore."
Connor nodded slowly. "Maybe you're right."
"It's just -- I've lost so many friends lately."
"It's the way of the world. Slainte, Donnchadh."
Duncan grinned. "Farewell, Connor. Take care."
"You too, my friend." Connor skipped down the ramp and disappeared along the quai.
Duncan watched his old teacher depart sadly, then turned his head as he heard a step behind him. Joe stood there, leaning on his swordstick.
"Are you off too, then, Joe?" Duncan asked. His Scottish accent was thicker.
"Yeah. I have a plane to catch tomorrow. Time to get back to my bar. The Watchers have filled their power vacuum here, and I'm not really needed anymore."
Duncan shoved his hands in the pockets of his coat. "Let me guess," he said, staring at the sky. "They're very appreciative of your help, but your methods are unorthodox, and they'd prefer it if you'd keep your nose out of their business."
"Something like that." Joe grimaced wryly. "I was just wondering . . . " His gaze fell.
"What? Something you want to ask me, Joe?"
Joe nodded. "If Cassandra -- if you can use your power to heal mortals -- even an old wound . . . "
Duncan sighed. "I'm sorry, Joe. I couldn't fix most of the old damage to LeBrun's arm, and I still had everything there I needed to work with. I can't really do anything about your leg."
"Yeah. Well, I didn't really suppose you could."
"Not yet, anyway."
Joe looked up.
"When the gathering is over, you might ask the winner of the Prize." Duncan gazed out over the water. "Who knows what might be possible then?"
Amanda met him as he returned. She had slipped into a sheer, revealing black dress, and she was quick to help him out of his coat.
"So," she said, tugging him toward the couch by the front of his shirt. "With all these new skills you've learned, is there anything I might be interested in?"
Duncan smiled. "I might be able to think of something," he said, stroking her satin curves. With one hand he reached out to turn off the light.
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