Joe's heart leaped when, glancing across the Seine, he saw lights glowing from the barge. Mac was back?! Joe swerved the Ranger to change course and make it into the lane to cross the bridge - a harrowing maneuver, but he managed it and lived.
His heartbeat drummed in his ears, but not from his close calls in traffic. Three months! Three months since he had buried Richie on a rainy Paris day after a scantily attended memorial service. Three months since the Highlander had vanished after committing the unthinkable. Three grey, grief-filled months. Where the hell had MacLeod been?
Joe parked his car next to an unfamiliar Saab and hurried up the gangplank. He reached the door and knocked. A part of him warned that an unbalanced MacLeod was dangerous, but relief and anger warred in him, either one sufficient to drown out the warning.
There was no response to his knock.
"Mac? Mac, are you there?"
Still no answer. Joe gripped the door handle and paused. Maybe he should have called first.
"It's unlocked," said a sibilant accent to his right. "You should go on in."
Joe snatched his hand back and looked over into the malevolent gaze of the sneaker-clad man who appeared around the side of the cabin. A shiver went through the Watcher as he tried to hide his recognition of the immortal. Not MacLeod. Uh, not *Duncan* MacLeod.
"Oh, I ... didn't know ..." Joe fumbled. "I was looking for ..." He faltered again. He found his thoughts were numbed by the foolish shock of a fan meeting a celebrity. This was, this was ... Connor MacLeod! In the flesh. Looking as real and solid as the grocer. But not as friendly, Joe managed to observe. The immortal wore his reputation like a mantle of office, whether he knew it or not. Paranoid, volatile,*dangerous*. Connor MacLeod. Shit.
Joe blinked and breathed, as the five-hundred-year-old man paced around him to the quai-side, blocking his retreat. He reached one long arm slowly past Joe to open the door, turning the motion into a command to enter, with a cocked head and sinister smile. Joe entered.
"So, Mr. Dawson ..." The door closed behind them with a finality Joe found unnerving. What trap had just sprung shut? "Where is Duncan MacLeod?"
"How do you know my name?" Joe demanded. He unmired his thoughts enough to realize he could be in real danger. His own habits aside, Watchers were safer not chatting up passing immortals. Most people in Joe's experience, immortals or not, resented being spied on, and casual murder was a real option for these people. They even had lots of practice at disposing of bodies. He grew cold.
Connor MacLeod - Joe groped through his memory for the man's current name - glided past him into the main living area of the barge. He lifted himself to sit on the kitchen counter, his legs swinging freely, and regarded Joe like a crouched bird of prey. "Duncan only has one legless man as a friend," he replied.
It was just a statement of fact, but something about the way the immortal said "legless man," pissed Joe off. The anger was welcome, because it cleared the last of the muck from Joe's thinking. It also convinced him he was not telling this cocky bastard anything.
Joe started down the stairs. "And who the hell are you?"
He paused when he realized the other man had gone still. Joe looked up into a glare that would stop a charging bull.
"So you're going to pretend you don't know me," the elder Highlander hissed.
"Yes," Joe said. Let the immortal take that how he would. "Who are you?"
Connor flashed a sudden grin. He hopped down and opened the refrigerator. "Russell Nash. I'm Duncan's cousin," he replied. He spoke with an odd accent Joe couldn't place.
Joe relaxed somewhat. So they'd moved from bad cop to good cop.
Connor returned with two bottles of beer and held one out. Joe knew a sudden wash of grief as he remembered Richie drinking a companion to that bottle. Joe accepted the drink, and made a private toast.
Connor watched him closely. "So, where is my cousin? I'm sure you would know."
Joe looked up.
"Because you're his friend," Connor clarified with a tight smile.
"He didn't tell me where he was going," Joe gave him. It was certainly true. "I don't know where he is." Something of the familiar feeling of desolation which had been his companion these last months, entered his tone.
Connor turned abruptly away and lifted a sealed, bulging garbage bag. He brandished it easily in one hand. "He left suddenly. He didn't clean out his icebox," he accused. He was almost yelling.
Wary, Joe frowned at him. Why was he angry?
"I know," Joe replied.
Connor didn't lower the bag. He waited, holding Joe's gaze fiercely.
With sudden insight, Joe recognized the worry in the Highlander's ire. Of course, it didn't look good. An immortal vanishes without a word, without so much as taking out the garbage, or - Joe looked around - replacing the books he'd been reading, or doing his laundry.
Joe met the other man's intense gaze and took pity on him. "But I expect him back."
Connor lowered the bag, the tightness in his face relaxing. "Then where is he?" he asked, quietly.
"I really don't know," Joe responded in the same way.
Connor quirked him a skeptical eyebrow.
Grateful that Connor wasn't forcing the Watcher issue, Joe gave him what he could. They really weren't enemies, he reminded himself. "Everyone's looking for him."
Joe stood to go, hoping he'd be permitted. He didn't care to add to the story. "Do you want me to take the garbage?" Joe offered. "There's no city pickup on the quai."
"There's a strange little friend of Duncan's who said he'd come for it.."
Joe started for the door, relieved that Connor did nothing to stop him. He resented being frightened, and couldn't resist a dig. "That strange little friend has been paying Duncan's wharf fees."
Connor watched him go.
Joe delivered the supplies he'd gone out for to the kitchen of Le Blues Bar, and apologized to his expectant patrons for skipping his sets, tonight. The crowd groaned, but allowed the owner of the bar to slip into his small office. Their regard warmed something in Joe. One thing about grief and depression, he mused, it made for great Blues music, and Joe had been packing them in, recently. Oh Richie, he thought, for the millionth time, you deserved better than this.
Safe in his bar, with supportive customers and friends around, Joe allowed himself to shiver. Connor MacLeod! Wow! The man who had defeated the Kurgan! Duncan MacLeod's *teacher*. He punched the button on the blinking answering machine.
"Hey Joe, it's Tommy. Listen, man, you won't believe the deal I've got. Call me. You know that gig I've got in Vegas? That friend of my brother's? Well, he called me today; he's looking for another new act and wanted to know if I knew anyone. I told him about you. You could go to Vegas with me, Joe. I *know* they'll love you, man. You are *stone*! I'm tellin' ya. Call me."
Joe shook his head. Tommy Maloney had been around, lately, telling Joe about this or that scout or agent. It just made Joe feel old. The music business always seemed to be full of people whose brothers knew someone. Cold dreams. He'd been too depressed to pay much attention to Tommy, and he dismissed him now.
He booted his computer, logged into the Watcher's secure server, and checked the location log. Sure enough, Connor was still listed as being in Copenhagen. Joe sent in his Sighting report, updating Connor's location, and then sent e-mail in free cryptic to Connor's Watcher.
I haven't seen you in a while. How are you? My petunias are doing well. I thought of you today when I was on the river. You should come visit.
It was an odd pleasure to have something to report. With every Watcher on the planet alerted to watch for Joe's own immortal assignment, he felt like a failure.
The door to the office opened, and Rousseau stuck his head in.
"Joe? Phone for you out here." Joe nodded and Rousseau withdrew. He logged out and went through the back of the bar area, into the storeroom, a quieter place to answer the business line, if a bit chilly.
"Joe, mon ami, this is Maurice. There is a man in Monsieur MacLeod's home. Did you know?"
"Yes, I know. He's ..." Joe hesitated. Had Connor kept his story consistent?
"He says he is his cousin. Do you know him?"
"Yes, I just met him. It's all right, Maurice. He *is* his cousin."
"Yes, yes. But he gave me money. I cannot take his money. I do not take money from a friend."
Joe shook his head. He and Maurice had a distant association, due to both being Parisian business owners and having the one mutual acquaintance. But what did he want from Joe?
"Well, what's the money for?"
"The wharf fees. I am happy to pay them for Duncan. I do not want this man's money. I do not take money from a friend."
But you already have, Joe thought. Oh, he realized, Maurice wanted him to talk him into it.
"He's not a friend, Maurice. You don't know him. And I'm sure you know Duncan would pay you back himself, when he returns. What you are doing is not a small amount of money. You are being a very good friend. Taking Nash's money is just business."
It took a few more minutes to make the restaurant owner happy. Joe's attention wandered during the last part of the conversation. The crowd was thinning, he could hear, despite a very passable performance from a clarinet and vocalist duo. The music lovers in the bar had come to hear *him*. His thoughts wandered back to Tommy. He wouldn't go to Vegas, of course, but with his Watcher role on indefinite hold, it might be the time to concentrate on his music.
He returned to his office, thoughtful.
And was slammed against a wall, the blade of an extremely sharp sword pressed against his neck.
"You have his katana!" Connor hissed. "What happened to him?"
"Let me go," Joe managed.
"Call out, and you won't live to see the results. Right?"
"Right," Joe gasped.
Connor lowered the sword, but kept his other hand pressed against Joe's chest, holding him, not only against the wall, but upright, as well. The violent movement had toppled Joe from his prosthetic perch. His "legs" were still attached, but he had no way to move them into position to support his weight. It made his situation doubly humiliating.
"Talk," Connor ordered.
Talking was not easy. The pressure against his sternum made even breathing difficult.
"He left it. The katana. I'm keeping it for him."
"*And* the boy's sword?" Connor growled. "You're an assassin!"
"No! The boy is dead. That's why he left."
"He would have avenged him. He loved that boy. He would have told me."
"Grief," Joe coughed. His vision was blurring. Connor hauled him by the shirt, one-handed, and swung him like a sack, to plunk onto the chair. Joe gulped air. His .45 was in the drawer ...
"Who killed the boy?"
Christ! "What does it matter?"
Connor kicked Joe's chair. "That's where he'll be."
"No." Why couldn't he just tell the immortal the truth? "He's gone. Take his sword. If you find him, give it to him."
Connor backed off and regarded him. "It was a friend, then, who did it," he concluded.
"I don't know." That was a mistake. The point of Duncan's katana appeared at his adam's apple, pricking blood.
Name, rank, and date of birth. Don't give them anything more. Joe didn't know why his instincts forbade him to tell Connor all of it, but he had never gone against his instincts. Joe knew how to put the truth of his grief into his music; he thought he could show it on his face, even if his words were disbelieved.
"Richie died and Duncan left, in shock," he said deliberately. "I don't know where he went and I can't find him. If you can find him, ask him to call."
Connor saw, and looked away. The sword swished back to the immortal's side. He paced, then, around the office. He could almost circle the desk, like a prowling wolf. Joe took the chance to glance around and see the ransacked desk and the opened cabinet which had held the swords. He thought again of his drawer, but saw that it was open and empty.
"What did you do, follow me here?" Joe accused.
Connor paused at the door to the bar, opened it a crack, peered out, and shut it again. The door had no lock from the inside. Connor placed a chair under the knob with practiced ease, blocking entrance. He returned to Joe, and put one foot on Joe's chair, leaning into his face, forearms resting on his thigh.
"Tell me everything you know about Methos," said Connor.
"Methos!" Joe blurted. What the fuck?! Fortunately, he realized, his astonishment didn't necessarily reveal anything. But his mind was reeling. What did Connor know? What did he want? What had Duncan told him?
"Methos," Connor confirmed, calmly.
"Just answer the question!" Connor looked exasperated.
Joe had finally reached the place where his anger overtook his fear. "Why should I tell you anything?!" he demanded. "Is this how you treat your own friends, or is this just for Duncan?s friends? You break into my office and threaten me with a sword, and now you want me to tell you a fairy tale? Fuck you!"
"You?re a spy and probably an assassin," Connor replied, levelly. "At the very least, a peeping Tom. You?re lucky I don?t torture cripples. Don?t bore me with what good friends you and Duncan are. Tell me about the fairy tale. Methos."
Joe met the immortal?s gaze for a long moment, breathing hard. "Or what? You?ll kill me?"
Joe meant it as a taunt, but there was too much potential truth in it. He couldn?t keep the fear from his voice.
Connor removed his foot and looked down at the Watcher. Something flashed across his expression, too quickly for Joe to read it. The silence was heavy as Joe waited to hear his fate.
"Is it worth your life?" the Highlander asked in a tone which sounded merely curious.
Oh, Don, Joe prayed to his dead friend Salzer, you gave your life trying to protect this information. I never thought I?d be here. I don?t want to die for this.
Particularly not when I?m so pissed off at the five-thousand-year-old slippery sonofabitch.
"I tell you what I know, and *then* you kill me."
Connor smiled. It was not a pleasant smile, but it did seem to have genuine amusement behind it. "Now, would I do that?" he asked. "To Duncan?s friend?"
Not very reassured, Joe tested. "Tell me why you want to know. I?m not supposed to just ? tell you things." Damn, his voice still quavered.
Connor tipped his head, birdlike, and regarded Joe sidelong. "I don?t care what you?re supposed to do. Tell me, or it?s going to be a long night. Then I?ll tell you why."
Joe let his breath out. He believed the man didn?t intend to kill him, and this was something of a concession from the player holding all the cards. Considering the head games these warriors played to live, Joe guessed he was not going to wrangle a better offer.
"The oldest living immortal," Joe tried, watching the man's face. "Most people think he's just a myth. Five thousand years old. He's supposed to have, uh, built Stonehenge and studied with Socrates. That Methos?"
"And where is he now?"
"I don't know." Also true, Joe thought bitterly. He was facing one of the world's most dangerous immortals and all his friends had conveniently scattered.
"Isn't it your job to know?"
"We're not even sure he's real. And if he is, we've never identified him."
Connor turned away, moving to a bookshelf. He flipped pages in a volume he had probably been perusing earlier. Joe?s heart sank when he recognized it. A photo album. His own, personal, one. Chock full of pictures of Duncan and Richie and ? Adam.
Connor carefully removed a half dozen pictures.
"He's real," Connor commented, pocketing the photos. "I want him because he's hunting Duncan."
"If Duncan's unarmed and vulnerable, I'll have to find Methos first."
Joe couldn't think of anything to say. Hunting Duncan?
Connor replaced Duncan's katana in the cabinet. "You keep this. Duncan will need a new blade soon, anyway." Then he strode to the door, removed the chair, and slid out into the bar.
Joe didn't move for a long time, unless you count shaking. Then, he logged into his e-mail again.
Thank you for sending the lovely petunias. Your nephew is still ill. He wants to hear your old stories. Please come home.
He reviewed his composition. Sick Nephew - danger from an immortal; *your* nephew - the danger is to you; Petunias - Connor MacLeod; Old Stories - didn't mean anything, but maybe it would make him think; Please Come Home - lay low.
Adam, Joe thought, I could kill you myself for vanishing on me. *Please* read your e-mail, wherever you are.
Then, slowly, he reached for the phone, and dialed Tommy's number.
It had been a long time since Joe had been to Las Vegas, and he was amazed by how the city had changed. The old gambling halls were hard to find - replaced by castles, pyramids, and pirate ships. Families with kids were everywhere, even where the street hawkers handed out garish flyers advertising call girls. Disneyland for adults it might be, but it was still Sin City, and Joe was glad. He loved to play poker.
One thing hadn?t changed - musicians still entered by the rear, where they wouldn?t bother paying customers. Joe and Tommy were introduced to the maze of service corridors and back stairwells which honeycombed the Treasure Island. The Blues Lagoon in the Treasure Island Hotel/Casino was actually a general music venue - it had seldom had any association with real Blues. As an experiment, Rick, the music manager, had put together a solid week of true Blues performances, to test how well it drew the crowds. Joe was extremely flattered and slightly awed to be performing on the same stage with some of the names Rick had booked for All Blues Week. Of course, they didn?t have to audition like Joe and Tommy did.
They had one week for rehearsals. In the changeable world of music bookings, Joe ended up playing first backup in a cobbled together band, instead of performing solo as he was originally invited to do. He didn?t mind. The group was outstanding, and jamming with them was heady and invigorating. This was the life!
He even found that sometimes a whole day went by when he didn't grieve for Richie or fear for MacLeod.
By the end of the week, Joe was more than ready for opening night. Rehearsals had gone 12 to 14 hours every day, and Joe found himself in his hotel room both exhausted and enervated. At least it would only be six hours a day once All Blues Week began.
He hadn?t played a single hand of poker, he reflected. He wondered if Treasure Island even had poker. Looking down the fourteen stories to the Strip, he saw the crowd gathering for the Pirate Show. Every other hour, this hotel staged an almost life-sized ship to ship pirate battle out in the front, and Joe hadn?t even seen that, yet, though he had been wakened from dreams of ?Nam by the muted sound of faux cannon fire which drifted up to his window. He decided to go see the show.
Tommy was off doing Tommy things, so Joe was alone in the crowd, when his worlds chose to collide.
The crowd cheered when the pirates took their places on their ship - some on deck, others climbing the riggings. Joe gathered from the talk around him that there had been some concern that the show would be canceled for wind. Canned piratey music blared from a loud but wretched sound system and the pirates began their posturing. The children in the crowd pointed, and Joe saw the other ship, flying a Union Jack, approaching sedately around the corner of the building. The crowd booed.
"So, Dawson," spoke a disturbingly familiar voice beside him, "who do you think will win? The pirates or the English pirates?"
Joe snapped his head around to see - Goddamn it all to Hell!- Connor MacLeod of the God Damned Clan MacLeod.
The first words that came to Joe?s mind were not appropriate for a family crowd. He bit them back, but that left him with nothing to say. He looked back at the new ship which was now firing its cannons at the pirates. The actors on the British ship wore uniforms.
Joe knew the words were inane before he spoke them. "The English aren?t pirates."
Connor smiled. Even his eyes smiled. "Depends on who you ask, I?d say."
Joe leaned heavily on his cane, so he could lean into the Highlander?s face. "What in bloody blue blazes are you doing here?" he hissed.
"I thought you were off hunting for ? you know."
"And you think he?s in Vegas?!"
"I don?t know. But I know you are."
Joe blinked and looked back at the show. The ships were within boarding distance and the actors were swinging from ship to ship and clanking cutlasses at each other. Contained fireworks explosions simulated gunfire. A man cried out and fell from the rigging into the water below. Two more followed him.
Connor looked at the men in the water. "That?s gotta be cold, in the winter."
"You asshole! You followed me here, too? I told you, I don?t know where Duncan or ?" Joe lowered his voice from habit, "Methos is. I?m here because I have a gig."
"I know," Connor replied. He removed a blue and gold pamphlet from his pocket, and turned it over to the list of names on the back. "I have tickets to opening night. Should be a good time."
"You found me from that?"
"I found you because you didn?t keep it a secret where you were going. Oh, your manager asked me to bring you your mail. He said transatlantic postage was too steep. I hope that man does your purchasing. He?s as tight as a Scot."
"You read my mail?!"
Connor smiled. "Your business license expires in 30 days, but because the French are gentlemen, you have 45 days to renew before you incur a penalty."
"Is that all?" Joe was sarcastic.
"Your niece, Lynn, writes to say the body of your brother-in-law was reinterred in a simple but elegant ceremony, and everyone was sorry you couldn?t make it. Shame, shame."
"You asshole!" Joe repeated, this time, loudly. Fortunately, his voice was drowned out by a loud explosion from the pirates? cannon. The English ship listed, and more men fell from its riggings. "So I guess you missed the postcard from Duncan saying ?Having a wonderful time in Bora Bora; wish you were here??!"
Connor?s eyes narrowed. "Yes, I missed that one."
Shit. What had Joe just done? He looked blindly at the show, trying to keep his expression impassive, or at least, to preserve the angry look which should have been there.
"I will see you around, Joseph Dawson," Connor spoke near Joe?s ear. "And you will tell me who killed Richard Ryan."
Joe felt Connor move away. The British ship descended into the water, her remaining crew abandoning her like so many rats. The crowd cheered the pirates. The forces of chaos were victorious again.
Jean Pierre Mailhiot III, son of Jean Pierre Mailhiot II, knew himself to be a lucky man. He had a wonderful wife, two beautiful daughters, seven adorable grandchildren, and, like his father before him, thoroughly enjoyed his job as manager of the elite Hotel Bora Bora.
The oldest First Class resort on the exclusive resort island, the Hotel Bora Bora was also the first to offer over-the-water bungalows. That had been his father's idea, and now everyone was doing it.
Jean was proud to be his father's son. Everyone admired and respected the elder Mailhiot, including Jean. His aging father remained spry and sharp, except in the one area where Jean was forced to admit his father's mind was clouded. The elder Mailhiot, former head manager of the Hotel Bora Bora, insisted to his son that the current owner of the resort was the same man who had owned it sixty years ago.
Ah, Papa. Jean shook his head, looking across the lobby at the resort's owner, M. Thomas Mansfield. The young Englishman was, like all the resort's previous owners, an absentee owner, but he did come to the resort to vacation, from time to time. He never chose one of the over-the-water bungalows, and Jean thought that showed admirable good sense. Some men might insist on the best accommodations available in their own hotel, as Jean knew the owner of Le Grand Hotel, the next resort up the beach from them, did, but the best accommodations also brought in the best revenue, and it was a fiscal pity to not utilize them for income during the high season. M. Mansfield was prudent and somewhat reclusive, Jean believed, and modest enough that he always posed as an ordinary vacationer, when he visited, but he was not a day older than thirty-five. Ah, Papa.
M. Mansfield approached the desk. "M. Mailhiot," he said politely, smiling. Jean smiled back and nodded. Another thing he liked about the owner was that he was respectful to his elders, even when they were his employees. "Use the computer?" Mansfield continued, glancing at the empty lobby.
"Of course." Jean opened the desk gate, to allow the younger man in. The somewhat isolated bungalow which M. Mansfield preferred was scheduled to be the last to be hard wired for data cables, so Mansfield checked his e-mail on the office computer, from time to time. He preferred to be alone, when he did it, or else he might have to explain why a guest had access to the hotel office.
Jean continued his review of the resort?s booking rate while he considered this rather rare visit from their boss. Mansfield had had few opportunities to use the office computer, since he had seldom been alone. Ann Guadagnoli, the lovely American who raised funds for an animal preserve, had all but moved into M. Mansfield?s bungalow, and they had appeared to be enjoying a holiday romance.
The phone rang. Jean accepted it from the desk clerk and spoke for a while with his cousin. He rang off hastily when he saw M. Mansfield emerge from the office.
"Monsieur!" he called.
Mansfield paused, just beyond the desk, and turned. "Yes?" he replied, in English, which surprised Jean. The man acted a bit distracted. Jean switched, from long habit of accommodating guests of many nationalities, to English as well. He crossed the distance to stand opposite his employer.
"Monsieur, I have just had a call from my cousin, Andre."
"Yes?" Mansfield half turned away, scanning the group of people who had just entered the lobby area.
"My cousin who works at airport customs."
Mansfield turned back, looking concerned. Jean donned a bland expression and nodded.
"Did your cousin get a name?"
To Jean?s consternation, Mlle. Guadagnoli chose this moment to approach. "Tom," she called, "the snorkeling boat is leaving in ten minutes."
"Go ahead without me, Ann," Mansfield replied, barely glancing at her. Concerned that he would lose the man?s attention, Jean broke in, contrary to all manners.
"Mac ?" Mansfield choked. He looked at Jean in real alarm.
Curiosity was not in Jean?s job description, but he was only human, and now he really wished he knew why the reclusive owner of the Hotel Bora Bora used his connections to be informed when anyone arrived at the single airport checking a sword.
"What do you mean?" protested Mlle. Guadagnoli, "I don?t want to go without you. I thought you were coming."
"Ann, I don?t really care for boats." Mansfield steered the woman by the elbow, around the corner of the desk to the more secluded corner. Snorkelers were beginning to gather for the tour, filling the lobby with talk. The desk clerk was too close to where the couple were speaking. Jean frowned at her and gestured her away. She went, and Jean also moved to a more discreet distance, but one where he could overhear, nonetheless.
"Ann, I have to go. Urgent business."
"You have to go today?"
"Right now, actually."
"I was counting on you to help with the auction. Where do you have to go?"
"I don?t know yet. Listen, Ann, I?m sorry, but your preserve is just not a cause I can support."
"What?! You?re joking."
"No, I?m not. There are a lot of things I?d support before I?d support a preserve for predators."
"Predators! They're tigers! We?re talking about beautiful, magnificent animals! Animals we have robbed of their territory, their environment ? We?re not the only species on this planet; we just act like it. There are only a few hundred tigers left in the world! They?ve dwindled from a few thousand in just a decade! At this rate, your children and grandchildren will only have pictures of these beautiful, powerful creatures."
"I just can?t see that as a bad thing."
"What?! I don?t believe what I?m hearing!"
"Well, you?re thinking about your descendants. I?m thinking about your ancestors. What if your children played every day on a playground near a wood filled with tigers? Or bears? Wouldn?t you worry?"
"What are you talking about? There are no playgrounds near what few wild lands we have left."
"Right. But for centuries people worried when their daughters went to visit Granny because there were very real wolves along the way who might attack them."
"That?s a fairy tale!"
"No, it was reality for most of human history. If that playground lost a child, at random, once or twice a year to tigers, who left the mauled corpses in the wood for their parents to find, don?t you think those parents would stop at nothing to rid the woods of tigers? Well, we?ve come pretty close to finishing the job, and I can?t see it as a bad thing."
"Tom, you are talking nonsense. No one lives like that anymore."
"Exactly. Sorry, Ann. I know it?s important to you, but it?s not important enough to me."
"You obviously aren?t who I thought you were."
"No, probably not."
Fury written on every angle of her model-thin body, Ann Guadagnoli stormed away. Mansfield returned to Jean, seeming unconcerned by his paramour?s departure. He handed Jean the key card to his bungalow.
"I?ll send for my things."
"Yes, Monsieur. And your cat?" The one privilege Mansfield had claimed was the right to keep a pet at his bungalow.
"Oh." Mansfield considered. "When did MacLeod arrive?"
"Only just now. On the 10:30 flight."
"I?ll take my cat," he concluded, reaching again for his key card.
Something French and romantic in Jean Pierre Mailhiot?s soul was offended to see the man more concerned for his cat than for his lover.
"I think Mlle. Guadagnoli will not bother you again, Monsieur," he remonstrated.
Mansfield looked surprised, then slightly abashed. "She wasn?t bothering me, M. Mailhiot. But it was quicker this way. Charge her room to me, will you?"
"Yes, Monsieur. Thank you."
Mansfield gave the hotel manager a puzzled look, and then hurried away, toward his bungalow. Jean watched him go, thinking that, as much as he would enjoy being rich, he never wanted to become eccentric. He saw the desk clerk looking amazed.
"Back to your work," he ordered her.
When Connor was nowhere to be found on opening night, Joe worried. He arranged a meeting with Connor's Watcher and was relieved to learn Bjorn was in Vegas. It meant Connor probably hadn't gone anywhere. They met for lunch amid the clatter of the Caesars Palace buffet.
Bjorn was a large, taciturn Swede with, Joe remembered, a straight-faced way of joking which sometimes only struck you days later. Joe was glad to see him again, but Bjorn looked uneasy.
"Joe," he greeted, placing his tray on the table and his bulk on the chair.
"'Lo Bjorn. Good to see you."
At least they could speak in English. French was the official language of the Watchers, and Joe was fluent enough at it, but he knew Bjorn's English was unaccented and even idiomatic. Ability with languages was something Joe envied. How he'd struggled with French!
"You too," the man replied. They shook hands. "What is it?"
Well, nothing like getting right to business. Joe had spent enough time in France that he almost felt affronted to have Bjorn bring up business before they'd finished eating.
"I just want to know, is Nash in town?"
Ah, the automatic Watcher caution. Joe grinned, despite his worry.
"I saw him the other day, and I might have said something to ... make him leave. You don't have to tell me where he is. Just, is he in town?"
"You had a Sighting and you didn't report it?"
Now Joe was growing grouchy. He didn't need a lecture about procedures. And Bjorn was almost the last person he would have expected it from.
"I put in a 'Request to Meet', didn't I? So, I'm telling you now. And you're avoiding the question."
Bjorn looked away, his gaze passing over the crowds at the buffet line, before returning to Joe.
"Tell me the truth about something, Joe."
Joe tried not to fidget with impatience.
"Do you think your guy has told my guy about the Watchers?"
Joe sighed inwardly. He knew it was a sticky subject with many Watchers, particularly those of the old guard who had remained in the Watchers after Joe's trial and the mess which had followed, instead of pursuing the General Release which had been offered to just about anyone who wanted out.
Everyone knew the unusual exposure the Watchers now had among immortals was largely due to Joe's friendship with his own immortal assignment, but, since, in the aftermath of the "war" between Watchers and immortals it became clear that Galati's slaughters had had nothing to do with Joe, after all, few of the remaining field agents or administration felt inclined to point accusing fingers at him for much of anything. Particularly since that misconception had led, not only to Joe's attempted execution, but to a worldwide Watcher manhunt for the head of Duncan MacLeod - the wrong man. The Watchers could easily have been responsible for the unjustified killing of another innocent - even virtuous - immortal. The second in as many years. Watchers with any conscience felt a collective guilt over the incident, a guilt which had bought Joe a lot of leeway in subsequent months.
But Bjorn had a right to know. In fact, Joe felt a slight pang that he hadn't told him earlier.
"Yeah, I'm sure he knows. Why?"
Bjorn shook his head and looked mournful. "Because he shakes me too easily."
Joe felt a horrible suspicion. "You've lost him."
Bjorn nodded. "Couple days ago. I haven't reported it yet, but I've had his home and usual haunts checked. Nothing."
Joe leaned back on the unyielding booth seat and studied the elaborate ceiling of Caesars Palace. Faux Roman columns with triumphal arches curved gracefully overhead. Toga-clad statues adorned arched niches just below the ceiling.
Joe sighed. "I think he's in Bora Bora."
"Bora Bora!?" Bjorn's normally stoic features were comical in astonishment. He looked as if Joe had suggested that Connor might have left for Mars.
"He's looking for Duncan, and he must be really scraping the bottom of the barrel." Joe felt a sudden flash of sympathy for the elder Highlander. *He must be sick with worry, too*.
And he didn't even know the half of it.
"You told him MacLeod's in Bora Bora?!"
"No." Joe shook his head, almost amused. "But he must figure I know something. Where would you like him, Bjorn? If I see him again, should I hint that Duncan might be in Cancun? The Bahamas?"
Bjorn's expression was grave. "Don't mess with him, Joe. If he really thinks you know something he wants, it could get ugly."
Joe rubbed his throat, ruefully. "I know. At least, this time, he only tried tricking it out of me."
Now Bjorn looked confused. "You mean Duncan MacLeod *is* in Bora Bora?"
"No!" Joe was exasperated. "It's just that ..." *it's just that someone else could be there.* "...anyway, I think Nash has gone there, okay?"
"Okay," Bjorn replied. "I'll check it out."
Joe nodded, and considered the food on his tray. He had lost his appetite. All-you-can-eat buffets, he reflected, are only money savers for very hungry people.
Bjorn pulled a newspaper out of a shopping bag. "Have you seen this?" he asked. He had the paper folded to show the second page.
"Cult Leader to Die, Live Again" claimed a moderately sized headline near the top. A blurry photo showed a stocky man with a microphone on an outdoor stage. He looked familiar, but, rather than try to place him, Joe read on:
"John Kirin, the charismatic leader of the Love Now movement, announced today in Las Vegas that he will have himself publicly executed in one week, and then will return to life before a live audience, in order to inspire faith and demonstrate his own special favor with God."
Joe looked up at Bjorn. "Oh, my Lord," he breathed.
"Keep reading," Bjorn advised.
"'The Millenium is upon us,' Kirin warned a crowd of a few hundred, Tuesday, speaking from in front of Love Now's revival tent at the Convention Center. 'Mankind will be tested, and if we fail, the world will be plunged into a thousand years of darkness.' Kirin went on to claim to be the Chosen Champion of mankind, a fact he intends to demonstrate by dying and returning to life, onstage, next Sunday night, in the Treasure Island showroom."
Joe looked up again, wide-eyed.
"Isn't that something like what your guy was saying?" Bjorn ventured.
Joe assented with a reluctant nod, and continued reading.
"Officials for Wynn Properties, Inc., the parent organization of Treasure Island, said the means of Mr. Kirin's demise has not been decided. The firing squad which Kirin reportedly intended was vetoed as too potentially dangerous to the audience. 'Besides,' said spokeswoman Rose Kuhlman, 'we probably can't get the necessary permits in time, even if it can be made safe.' Negotiations are still underway."
"Kirin's death will be documented by a team of physicians, all volunteers. A team of lawyers for Treasure Island and Wynn Properties, Inc., are reportedly drawing up waivers exempting the resort from liability."
"Local clergy are responding with skepticism and even anger ..." Joe stopped reading.
"I can't believe it. He's going to go public," Joe said.
"Well," Bjorn replied, working industriously on a mound of mashed potatos, "he isn't saying anything about immortals in general. What I can't believe is that it's such a small story."
"It won?t be after he pulls it off," Joe commented. The tickle of an idea was in the back of his head, and he chased it mentally for a few silent moments as he watched his fellow Watcher dispatch his food.
Bjorn pushed away his tray, now bare of any speck of comestibles, and leaned back. "You'll never guess who I saw on the way in."
"Who?" Joe had returned to studying the paper.
"Adam Pierson. You knew him, didn't you? The Methos researcher?"
The paper forgotten, Joe nodded, dumb. He didn't trust himself to speak.
"I heard he took the General Release. I saw him over there playing blackjack. Never figured him for a Vegas kind of guy, but he's looking very natty."
Joe's experience playing poker helped him end the conversation and the meeting without seeming hurried. He shook hands with Bjorn on the casino floor, who relinquished his newspaper to Joe, and then Joe claimed he was off to look for a bathroom. He ambled in the direction of the poker machines, and watched as Bjorn headed for the exit to the parking garage. When he was sure his fellow Watcher was out of the casino, he homed in on the 21 pit.
Joe must have looked right at the world's oldest man twice before he recognized him. Methos wore an inexpensive business suit - not tailored - and was perched with just the right amount of pretended indifference to the game to blend in perfectly with the other Midwestern gamblers who wanted to look like they knew what they were doing.
Joe approached the table, which had only a few other players, and stood looking at the world's oldest gamer, trying to get his feelings under control.
Methos had abandoned Joe after Richie's death. Not a word, not a phone call. Joe hadn't known what to make of it. He wavered between fearing that Methos had unexpectedly met and lost a challenge to fury that the most self-protective of immortals had chosen Mac's apparent insanity as the perfect reason to go walkabout somewhere. On his better days, Joe had simply prayed that Methos had found MacLeod and was keeping him safe.
And now, here he was, enjoying life in Vegas.
Joe had long been of the opinion that, if you stared at a person long enough they would have to meet your gaze. Methos seemed to be immune, so Joe walked around to stand behind him, and nudged him, not entirely in a friendly way, in the shoulder.
Methos looked up at him, his eyes widening in recognition. Not much surprise in his expression, Joe thought, and not a lot of pleasure, either.
"We need to talk."
Joe was prepared for resistance, but Methos deftly scooped up his chips and stood, abandoning his hand of cards and his bet, both of which were casually swept away by the dealer. Joe followed as Methos led the way to the circular bar near the buffet area. It was nearly empty of patrons, which didn't surprise Joe. Why, he wondered, do they have bars in casinos where they bring you free drinks at the tables?
They occupied two barstools. "What the hell are you doing here, and where have you been?" Joe demanded.
"Hiding out, of course."
"From Connor?" Methos hesitated, his eyes narrowing. "Connor?" he ventured. "You mean, as in, Connor MacLeod?"
"Yeah, Connor MacLeod!" Joe broke off as the bartender approached.
"What'll it be, gentlemen?"
"Gin and tonic," Methos replied.
"Draft beer. Whatever you've got," Joe told the man. "Yeah, Connor MacLeod," he continued when the bartender had left. "He's hunting you."
Methos looked like a man who had just realized something. "So that was *Connor* MacLeod," he breathed.
"Didn't you get my e-mail?"
"Free cryptic was for you field guys, Joe; we never used it in Research."
"Oh, come on. They taught it at the Academy!"
"I didn't pay much attention. Angelina taught it, so it was hard to concentrate. I remember about the flower code, but I certainly don't remember who is what. So Connor MacLeod is petunias, huh. Why is he traveling under his original name? Why exactly is he hunting me? And which me is he hunting? You said something about 'old stories'."
The bartender brought their drinks, and Joe fished out his cash. Different to be sitting on this side of the bar, he mused.
"Thanks, Todd," Methos said. "Is Ernie still up?"
"Fifty thousand, last I heard," the bartender replied, shaking his head. He and Methos both looked toward an excited cluster of casino patrons at one of the 21 tables. The actress working the floor as Cleopatra stood at the back of the group, trying to bring regal approval to the House's losses.
"Sherry shouldn't be there," the bartender added. "Not for a shill."
"It would look funny if she weren't," said Methos. "I wish he'd let the guys put it in the safe for him. We all tried talking to him."
"That's how he is," said Todd from San Bernardino (as his name tag declared), scooping up a rag and tossing it over his shoulder. He moved off.
Puzzled, Joe had to ask, even though he was putting hundreds of other questions on hold. "Are you working here?"
"Income is always nice. I don't know how long I'll have to be here. I'm a shill. Now, about Connor MacLeod?"
"A shill! But you look ..." Joe's idea of a shill, a person employed to play at empty tables as a subtle encouragement to others to join, was of someone down on their luck. He was pretty sure it wasn't a job which had, say, a dental plan.
"Like a refugee from a sales convention? Shills are supposed to look like the desired clientele. Connor, Joe?"
Joe took a drink of beer. "You tell me some things, first."
The expression which flashed across the other man's face reminded Joe of how dangerous even his friends could be. He'd been in awe of Connor, but he often forgot that Methos was ... whatever it took to live five thousand years. Including that little interlude with Kronos.
Methos leaned back, his expression now friendly but guarded. "Like what things?"
Joe had played a lot of poker with the man, and this was an act, he suspected. Joe decided he'd better get what he could from the immortal and then give him everything he had.
"Like where were you? You didn't even come to the funeral!" His despair welling up again, Joe lost any concern for immortal sensibilities. "I needed you. *Mac* needs you. I figured you were at least looking for him. I was scared to death. What happened at your place? It was a shambles. Where did you go? Why didn't you call?"
Damn, he had meant to insist on one answer at a time. Now Methos could pick and choose which questions to answer.
Methos looked down, studying the video poker machine embedded in the bar, but not before Joe caught a glimpse of his face. Surprise and pain, and that was no act. Surprise? What had the man expected?
Joe went on. "What did you think I was gonna ask? Where were you? Did you just leave town to keep your own head safe?" This last came out very bitterly.
Methos looked up. "Yeah, that's right," he bit out. "I just left town. MacLeod had killed his own student. Do you know how awful that is to immortals, Joe? It's an unthinkable crime, like - like incest. No one will talk to him, now. No one immortal, anyway. Not if they know. So I left. Yep, that's what I did."
"That's not true," Joe protested. "Connor will talk to him. He wants to find Duncan and help him."
"Well, bully for clan loyalty. Does he know what he did?"
"I ..." Joe stopped. "No, he doesn't. He knows Richie's dead. That's all."
Methos gave him a smug look. Joe realized the conversation had veered away from his questions.
"You could have come to the funeral."
The smug look vanished, replaced with an oddly earnest expression. "No, I couldn't, Joe."
Methos shifted in his seat and swirled the swizzle stick in his drink. Then he flicked the plastic stick on the bar in a frustrated motion. "If I could tell you, Joe, I would."
"Tell me what?"
"Why I left." Methos looked at Joe straight on, begging for understanding.
But Joe didn't understand. "Why can't you?"
Methos sighed. "I just can't. Listen ..." Methos's hazel eyes grew speculative. " would you teach me free cryptic?"
"What? Don't change the subject!"
"I wasn't, actually." He looked toward the gamblers at the 21 table, then back at Joe. "Now, tell me about Connor MacLeod."
"You haven't told me half of what I want to know!"
"Tell me about Connor." Was that a threatening undercurrent Joe heard?
"Damn you." Joe glared at his drink. "He's hunting for Methos because he's heard that Methos is hunting for Duncan. Which he ought to be doing!" he added, moving his glare to the other man.
Methos frowned, thoughtful. "Now how do these rumors get started? Is he still in Bora Bora?"
"I don't know, and I wouldn't tell you ... hey! How did you know? You *were* in Bora Bora!"
"I won't be again, I can tell you," he replied drily. "Small island with only one airport. No way to blend in with the locals. Might as well be a blind alley. It's only any good if no one would ever think to look there. A place like Vegas is better. And you were here, so I thought I'd have a chance to ask you what your e-mail meant."
Joe was aghast. "You mean you came here because of me? Adam, *Connor* followed me here, too! I was trying to keep you clear of him!" Shit, shit, shit. Joe could be responsible for exactly what he was trying to avoid. His stomach knotted around the beer.
Methos gazed at Joe in silence for a moment. "Thanks," he said, simply, in a tone of slight surprise.
Joe squirmed. It was, of course, another violation of his oath, which "Adam" would know better than any immortal. How could he be both this angry with him and this worried about him? This must be what it's like to have kids, Joe thought, then he winced and steered his thoughts away from *that* direction.
"Was that the sick nephew part?" Methos asked.
"No, that just means danger from an immortal. 'Please come home' means lay low."
"How would you say an immortal is in danger from a mortal?"
Joe shook his head. "Why are we talking about free cryptic? Do you really want a lesson in this?"
"It could be useful. How would you say an immortal was in danger from a mortal?"
"Well, you wouldn't. The code isn't that firm. You improvise around the things you do know, and hope the message comes across. That way you can make the message look like it makes sense to someone who might be eavesdropping."
"So there's no phrase for danger from a mortal?"
"Not to an immortal. Why would the Watchers need to say that, you know?"
"Horton," Methos replied, drily.
"Uh, yeah. But, well, why would field agents need to warn each other about danger to an immortal? I mean, you could do it, but you'd have to make something up."
"Like a sick niece?"
"Maybe. Make it the niece of the mortal and use the flower code to specify what immortal. But they still might not get it."
Methos made a face. "Why flowers?"
Joe shrugged. "They thought it up in the Middle Ages. I guess they weren't into giving people ID numbers."
"What's Duncan's flower?"
"I can't believe you are avoiding my questions this way! Who cares?"
"Tell me Duncan's flower, Joe, please," Methos begged.
Bewildered, Joe complied. "Pansy."
Methos nearly spit out his drink. "Pansy?!" He reached for a napkin, choking.
Joe grinned. "It isn't meant to mean anything. Scottish immortals all start with P. Connor is Petunia and Cochrane is Primrose. If you tell him, I'll have to kill you."
The smile died on his face as fear for the Highlander hit him full force. It had been like this for months. Just when Joe started to laugh or enjoy something, the fear and grief returned. Methos wasn't laughing, either. He was mopping the bar with a napkin, looking somber.
Joe resigned himself to the fact that he wasn't going to get much more from Methos. He desperately wanted to know more, but Joe had to let him go. Methos needed to find another hidey-hole from Connor.
"What will you do?" he asked, quietly. "Connor might come back. He thinks I know something."
Methos nodded. "I should leave. Good thing about the job - they can pay you under the table; no employment papers, and you can walk away anytime." He sat slowly upright, a wary look crossing his features. Joe knew the look. "But it may be too late."
Joe's heart thudded in his chest. He swiveled the bar stool and scanned the casino. Methos hunched over his drink.
"See anyone?" Methos murmured.
"No one I know. Not yet," Joe replied. "Can you guys identify each other in a crowd?"
Now Joe's heart thudded for a different reason. Would Methos answer? It was one of many questions which Watchers had debated for centuries. Sometimes it appeared that immortals could, sometimes it seemed that they couldn't. "Adam" must have found it endlessly funny to watch researchers combing the Chronicles for evidence one way or the other. Joe had learned better than to just ask Methos things like that over drinks. A mellow Duncan was a better mark.
But this was different. Lying to Joe just to mess with the Watchers wouldn't be a good idea. Not when they both had the same goal - keeping Methos alive.
All this was reflected in the irritated look Methos shot him. "No," he admitted, however. "If I just sit here, looking oblivious, he shouldn't find me."
"But, sometimes ..." Joe knew he didn't have to list the examples where two strangers had sought each other out in a crowd.
Methos shrugged, but kept his shoulders hunched and his gaze on the video screen bar. "Bravado. Territorialism. Fact finding. We're made for fighting, Joe. Lots of people like it."
Joe continued scanning the casino floor, being Methos's eyes, but inside, he felt triumphant. Another mystery answered. It also answered the question of whether the immortals' sense grew stronger with proximity. Apparently not, or else Methos would be concerned that this new immortal could "home in" on him by playing "hotter/colder" with his senses. Now how could Joe work this into the Watchers' knowledge base without giving away where he had learned it?
Joe was startled out of his thoughts by the sight of ... his thudding heart sank ... Connor MacLeod. And contrary to all Methos had just said and implied, Connor was heading straight for them, weaving purposefully around the tourists, his malevolent gaze on Joe.
"It's MacLeod," Joe reported. God, if these two fought ... Methos would lose his head, and the dread that thought evoked in Joe almost made him sick. "Can you still get away?"
Methos sat straight up, jolted, looking truly alarmed. "Duncan?" he gasped.
"What? No!" Joe was exasperated with Methos's thickness. "Connor. Nash, I mean."
"Oh." Methos slumped and turned his own barstool toward the tide of people which flowed around the edge of the casino tables, beside the dais of the bar. "No, I'd better not."
Joe's dread gave way to a growing excitement. He couldn't help it. He was going to witness the meeting of the mythical oldest immortal and the legendary star who had defeated the Kurgan. Joe hadn't wanted it. He had some guilt over his own role in it, but it was going to happen anyway. And right in front of him.
The bar area was slightly raised. Not bothering to circle to the two-stair entrance, Connor mounted the dais with a bound. He wore a light jacket, in place of the more customary, for immortals, long coat, and his signature jeans and tennis shoes. His gaze took in Methos, swept the bar, and landed on Joe. Connor took the seat next to Joe and leaned forward onto his forearms.
"I enjoy traveling," he commented, with no other greeting, "and it's a good thing I do. Good thing for you."
Joe's response was interrupted by the bartender.
"Water," ordered the Highlander.
Geez, Joe thought, he wants to stay sober.
"Would it have made a difference?" Joe asked. "If I had said I didn't mean anything by that?"
If Connor recognized any justice in that, he gave no sign; unless changing the subject was a sign.
"Uh ..." Omigod, thought Joe, *I'm* going to *introduce* them! "Russell Nash, meet Adam Pierson."
Methos leaned forward on the bar looking past Joe to meet the Highlander's eyes, a guarded expression on his face. Methos inhaled to speak, but ...
"I asked who he is, not what his name is."
Joe glanced at Methos, startled, and replied, "Him? He's nobody." *Please believe me*, Joe prayed.
"Joe ..." Methos began, quietly, but Connor produced from a jacket pocket one of Joe's album photographs, showing Duncan proudly displaying a large trout, and Methos making a rude face.
"Wrong," the Highlander accused, slapping the picture on the bar. "I'm tired of games."
*Aren't we all?* thought Joe. *Too bad.*
"Look, Nash," ventured Methos, "let me buy you a drink ..."
"I only drink with friends."
"He is a friend!" protested Joe. "You can see that from the picture. Which I'll take back, by the way." He suited his action to his words, pocketing the photo. "In fact," *take a deep breath,* "he's Duncan's student."
"Joe!" exclaimed Methos, with just the right amount of aggravated surprise. "I am *not*!"
Perfect, Joe thought. Methos couldn't have done better if they'd planned this.
Ignoring Methos, Connor accused "I thought he was nobody."
"I meant nobody you have to worry about."
"I am not his student!" Methos complained.
"I am NOT WORRIED ABOUT HIM!" Connor nearly roared.
Joe and Methos fell silent. Around them, the casino dinged and burbled, though the bar remained an island of calm. Joe noticed for the first time the shadows around the Highlander's eyes, and the stubble on his jaw. Of course, he thought, maybe he usually looks like this. But Joe didn't think so.
During the pause, Connor's angry look faded. "Heh," he said, and took a long swallow of water.
"Well," Methos ventured, with mock aggravation, "that's a fine thing."
Connor sighed and leaned on the bar. He fixed those shadowed, glittering eyes on Methos. "If you're not a student, what are you?"
"I'm his friend, not his student."
Joe grinned inwardly. Try as Methos might, now he couldn't sound like anything but a petulant adolescent wanting acceptance in the adult world.
"Oh yeah," Joe mocked, determined to give him the protection from Challenge which student status could afford, "you're Methos the great and terrible. So, when did you graduate?"
Methos glanced once at Joe, very briefly. Buried in that look was deep danger for meddling Watchers.
Joe tried to think of how to change the subject.
Connor watched them both, closely.
"If you're his friends," Connor said, very deliberately, "help me find him. I know he's in trouble."
"Well," Joe exclaimed, "I have an idea about that." He brought out the newspaper, and handed it to Connor. "I think," he began, "that we should stay close to Kirin after this stunt. It should become an international story - a sensation, I'd say - and wherever he is, Duncan might hear of it and come find Kirin."
Connor read, and Methos said nothing. Joe glanced at Methos, but saw no curiosity - nothing. Perhaps the oldest immortal was calculating the quickest safe exit from Connor's vicinity. But, when Connor put the paper down, Methos reached for it and Connor allowed him to take it.
"So?" Connor queried. "Some immortal wants to make hay from his immortality. Why would Duncan care? *I* don't care."
"Not that part," Joe corrected. "The 'Chosen Champion of Mankind' part."
Methos looked up from the paper. "He has to be stopped," he announced.
"Why?" Joe exclaimed. "It might smoke Duncan out."
"We should leave Duncan alone. Someone has to fight Kirin. It's the only sure way to stop an immortal from doing something you don't want him to. Kirin probably *means* to smoke Duncan out." said Methos.
"But then he'd have to know about ..." Joe stopped.
"Know about what?" queried Connor, menace in his tone. "Why would the Champion business interest Duncan?"
Joe looked at Methos, who slumped back, shook his head, and sighed. "Looks like this is your show, Joe."
Then Joe looked back at the Highlander, and his couraged wavered. Just how do you tell someone their son or brother or whatever has apparently gone mad and committed murder? Especially someone as unpredictable as Connor? At least they were in public and he had "Adam" to back him up.
The pause lengthened, and Joe realized the Highlander could probably read his trepidation with ease.
With what looked like deliberate effort, Connor removed his diamond-hard gaze from Joe and signalled the bartender. Without much movement, he had somehow removed the aura of threat from the bar. Or, at least, it became more subdued.
"Scotch. Glenmorangie, if you have it."
They all waited in silence while Todd brought the scotch. Connor tilted his head. "He's buying," he said.
Methos's eyes widened and he sat up, fishing for his wallet, and paid, all with an over-eager-to-please attitude. Then Connor lifted his glass toward them. "To friends?"
Joe snorted. Subtle, this was not. Back to good cop.
"Yeah, yeah," he agreed, lifting his own glass. "Just don't threaten me with a sword again."
Connor regarded him seriously. "All right," he finally responded, and Joe had the odd feeling it was a promise. An apology would probably have been too much to hope for. "Well?" Connor prompted.
"Duncan, before he left ... he thought it was possible ... that he was a ... champion, of some kind, supposed to fight some millennial evil."
Connor appeared nonplussed. "What kind of evil?"
"A ... demon." God, it sounded so crazy to say it out loud.
"A demon," Connor repeated in a neutral tone. At Joe's nod, Connor frowned and took a drink. His gaze flicked to Methos, looking, Joe assumed, for contradiction.
Methos said nothing. He held his glass with both hands.
"Did he say why he thought that?"
"There was a prophecy." Joe found himself wondering if Connor knew Cassandra, and, if he did, what he thought of prophecies.
"What did it say?"
"Nothing very clear. It was all metaphor and poetry; you'd think they could just say what they meant. But it seemed to be about an evil which threatened the world every thousand years. The next champion was supposed to be named MacLeod."
"There are a lot of MacLeods," Connor supplied, with a quirked eyebrow.
"Yeah, well, I guess maybe you hadda be there."
Connor fell silent, his expression thoughtful. He lifted his glass to signal the bartender for another. Methos paid, also in silence, as Todd gave the Highlander a refill. The oldest immortal's eyes were dark with interest as he studied "Nash".
"Did anyone else see this demon?" Connor finally asked, a note of caution in his tone.
Joe sighed. "No, and it wasn't just a demon. He was seeing people ... um, dead people."
Connor blinked, absorbing that. "The work of the demon," he deadpanned.
"Well, sure," agreed Joe. Sure. Or the delusions of a psychotic killer. One or the other.
Connor scowled. "And you didn't think this was worth mentioning to me?" he growled.
"Hey, you didn't exactly ask nice!" Joe protested, rubbing his throat.
Ignoring that, Connor turned his scowl on Methos. "What do you think, *friend*?" he demanded.
"Me?" Methos fairly squeaked. "I don't know what to think!"
Connor pounded his fist on the bar. "You must have thought about it! Or did you just leave your 'friend' to his delusions?"
Methos flinched, and Joe thought it was genuine, not part of his 'who me?' act. *Yeah, buddy, that's exactly what you did.*
"I didn't know where he went!" Methos protested. "And I think we should leave him alone. He's ... dangerous."
Connor snorted. "You don't know him," he declared and knocked back a big swig of scotch.
Joe glanced at Methos and met him glancing back. They were both silent. Too silent, apparently. When neither man retorted, Connor put down his glass and peered suspiciously at the poker-faced oldest immortal. Then he turned to Joe, dread understanding in his eyes.
"Ryan ...?" he breathed.
Joe's mouth went dry. He nodded once.
Fury flashed across the Highlander's face. "Say it!" he demanded, and reached for Joe, then stopped himself and whipped his focus to Methos. "What happened!"
"Duncan killed Richie," Methos replied, with admirable calm, Joe thought.
"No," Connor denied, doubt in his voice, nonetheless. "His student ... he would never ..."
"Well, he wasn't technically his student anymore," Methos pointed out. Methos actually looked sympathetic, Joe thought. Go figure.
"You're saying it was a Challenge?!" Connor asked, incredulous.
Methos bore up well under the gathering storm of the Highlander's ire. "I don't think so."
"Then what happened?!" Connor roared.
Methos drew back, and Todd, the bartender appeared.
"Everything okay here?" he asked the group in general, but particularly, it seemed to Joe, Methos.
"Yeah, thanks, Todd," Methos replied, making a 'go away' motion with his head, but never taking his eyes off of Connor. Todd moved away.
Joe, too, felt that the heat was on Methos just a little too much, here. "We don't know," he injected firmly. "When we got there, Richie was ..." Joe did a quick check that Todd was out of hearing range. "Already dead, and Duncan ... was distraught."
"Then, someone else ..." Connor began.
"There was no one else," Methos cut him off.
Besides, Joe thought, we saw Duncan receive the quickening. He kept the observation to himself, however, since he was not clear about how immortals felt about discussing quickenings. Mentioning the boy's life essence might be ... indecent, or at best, rude.
Connor slumped slightly, apparently accepting their stated and unstated testimony. "What did Duncan say?"
"Nothing," Joe answered. *Not in English, anyway* "He left."
Joe looked to Methos for help. His own memories of those awful hours were fuzzy with grief.
"And you just let him go? Unarmed?" demanded Connor.
"He wasn't our first concern," Methos said, surprisingly gently. "We had a brother to bury."
Joe winced. Methos's last use of "brother" had not been auspicious. "Son," Joe corrected. "More like a son."
Connor could hardly be oblivious to the mourning at the bar. His storm clouds had dissipated, but his expression had hardened. "He *should* have been your first concern. 'Let the dead bury the dead.' Duncan needed strong shield brothers. Grief is a weakness when there's still a battle to be fought. *I* should have been there." Connor stood and tipped back the last of his scotch.
"Nash, wait," Methos asked. "What if strength isn't what Duncan needs? Are you sure you have whatever it is?"
"He needs kin, not cowards." Connor turned to go.
"What about Kirin?"
"What about him?"
"He's up to something. He knows about the Champion. He has to be stopped."
Connor paused, then stepped back to the bar to snatch the newspaper. A distant part of Joe's mind was amused by the thought that Connor MacLeod was leaving with his Watcher's paper.
"Thanks for the drink," Connor smirked. Then he left, shouldering through the casino crowd.
After all that, Joe still had had a show that night. He lay in bed, afterward, staring at the ceiling, too wired to sleep. He wondered how his performance had been. No one had said anything, so his detachment from the music hadn't turned him into a virtuoso. If he was lucky, there'd been no particular difference in his playing. He just wasn't able to tell.
His mind still whirled with the afternoon's events. Connor MacLeod and Methos. And *he* had introduced them. It had to be an historic meeting in the annals of immortals, and he couldn't even chronicle it. It wasn't fair.
He'd kept Connor from suspecting that Adam was Methos, and they hadn't fought. *Thank you, Jesus.* He'd told Connor about Duncan and Richie, and Connor hadn't killed the messenger. *Thank you, Adam.* And Kirin ... and Bjorn. He needed to get ahold of Bjorn before he left for Bora Bora. Damn. Probably too late for that. What about Kirin? What was he up to? And why wouldn't Adam listen? Whatever Kirin was doing, he remained their best hope of finding Duncan.
Adam. No, Methos. Joe's thinking grew more clear as he focused on his unease. What was wrong with the man? After Connor had left, Methos had insisted that he needed some air, and they had moved outside, trading the cacophony of casino sounds for the more common sounds of cars on the Strip. Methos had led him to a surprisingly secluded spot on the Caesars Palace grounds near a genuine Buddhist shrine. An odd dollop of reality in a city of carnival facades, but Joe believed the shrine was real because the Asian tourists lighting incense and bowing to it clearly believed it was real. Was belief sufficient to make it Holy Ground? Joe wondered.
There behind a wall of manicured gingko bushes, out of earshot of the worshipers, Methos had let him have it.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"What do you mean?" Actually, Joe thought he had a pretty good idea of what had infuriated the oldest immortal.
"You say I'm Duncan's student, then you drop my *name*! You even gave away that I was the immortal in the place. Are you *trying* to get me killed?"
"Oh, like he wouldn't have figured that out, once he'd seen me. What's the matter?" Joe jibed, fighting the dismay filling him. "Don't think you can take him?"
Methos went utterly still, his angry gaze on Joe frozen as if he'd suddenly been turned to stone. It was an odd stillness, making Joe feel uncomfortably like "Adam" had just left the room. The "room" being the too-still five-thousand-year-old form before him. Joe's own words echoed in his ears.
Something had to be said.
"I, uh ..."
Methos turned his head away and crossed his arms. When he looked back at Joe, Joe knew an immense relief. At least the man he knew was back.
"It's not your Game, Joe," he stated. "Don't try to play it."
He was right. Joe knew he was right. It was Methos's life he was playing with. Maybe even Connor's, he realized with a start. Nothing's ever certain once the fight begins.
"How?" he asked, a misery he had only barely been aware of, welling up in him.
"How do I not care? Can you tell me that? How do I not try?"
Methos blinked. "Damn," he muttered, as if he weren't addressing Joe. He shook his head.
"Do I just say 'Oh well, Richie ...'" Joe couldn't finish that one. He gulped, angry with himself for his weakness. "How do I not try everything I can ...You tell me, how?"
Methos sighed and tucked his hands into the front pockets of his jeans, an action which hunched his shoulders. His face was darkened by the long late afternoon shadows, so Joe couldn't quite read his expression. He sounded aggravated when he spoke, but not angry.
"I can't. I've never really had a good answer for that one."
Joe was surprised. He took a minute to get his feelings under control.
"Then you'd better be ready to deal with having an amateur player on your team."
"No." Methos kicked at a clump of desert earth which had somehow been persuaded to support lush Asian foliage. "I can't afford it. You're on the bench, Joe."
"But I'm not, and you know it. Look, Connor didn't suspect."
"We have no idea what he suspects! Listen, Joe, there's no one on my team but me. Stay out of it."
"Fine! And what about Duncan?"
Methos went stone-still again, his expression odd. "What about him?"
"Who's on his team? Why aren't you looking for him? You're not really afraid he'll take your head; you faced him when he had a Dark Quickening."
"I can't look for him, Joe. I can't be around him. It's too dangerous. And you shouldn't either."
"What are you talking about?!" demanded Joe.
Methos gave the clump of earth such a powerful kick that it broke free of the grass roots and flew past Joe. "I can't ..."
Methos's response was interrupted by the laughter of a group of approaching tourists. They were lost on the grounds and asked for directions to the fountains. Neither man could supply them, and, as they left, Methos followed, mumbling a good-bye to Joe. Joe, of course, was unable to run after him and shake him.
Looking back on the afternoon's conversations from the vantage of his hotel bed, Joe was increasingly puzzled about Methos. Every time Duncan had come up, Methos had acted ... what? Scared? Was it that simple? Joe didn't want to believe that the man he had known as a dear friend to Don Salzer, not to mention to Alexa, would just abandon a friend out of fear for his own life.
Of course, he was Methos, the ultimate survivor, damn him. And it was the Game - some primordial survival of the fittest dictate which Joe could probably never truly understand.
But still ...
Joe hadn't hesitated to send Methos after Duncan during the Dark Quickening, even though Joe knew better than anyone except maybe Richie what the risks were. And Methos hadn't hesitated to go, even leaving Alexa.
And speaking of Alexa ... Methos had risked his head to try to save her - he had to have known what the likely consequences were of being found out by the Watchers.
So why was he so unwilling to risk now? He had ignored Joe's plan to watch Kirin, insisting that Kirin had to be stopped. He seemed to want Connor to stop Kirin. Maybe fight him. But what would that serve?
*Nothing's ever certain once the fight begins.*
Joe sat up and switched on the light. He fumbled for his laptop, blinking in the sudden glare. Thank goodness he hadn't unplugged anything. With no wheelchair for mobility around the room, Joe was stranded on the bed unless he wanted to strap on the prosthetics. His phone bill was going to be horrendous.
A half hour later, Joe had what he'd feared. Kirin's Watcher had reported that the prophet of "Love Now" had been secretly training, brushing up old sword skills. He'd started, Joe noted, right about when Richie had died. And Kirin/Cage's sword skills had always been very impressive. Before his apparent conversion to peace and love - Joe snorted. He'd always distrusted that - John Cage's list of beheadings would have impressed even Kalas. Cage had, in fact, escaped Kalas's leaving-the-monestary trap, unarmed, by disarming the murderous monk and chasing him back to Holy Ground. He just hadn't reported the incident to Brother Paul.
So now Kirin, the man of peace, was a wolf in lamb's clothing. Any immortal challenging him would think him rusty and uncommitted to killing.
Anger at Methos burned hot in Joe. That sneaky son-of-a-bitch.
With no hope of sleep, Joe researched Kirin further, and, after some thought, put in a Request to Meet with Kirin's Watcher. Her name was Maya, and she had joined Kirin's movement as a follower, before it was known as Love Now. Joe didn't know her, but he did note that she was not cleared for a very high level of danger in her fieldwork, which was probably why she was assigned to a "holy man". She must not have graduated from the Academy with a high ranking.
His thoughts went to Amy. She was in danger of the same fate, her life spent Watching some accountant or something who never left Smallville. At least Maya got to travel some with Kirin.
And Maya's assignment was about to get more interesting, Joe guessed.
Maya called early the next morning. Joe struggled out of his exhausted sleep to answer the phone. He did remember to leave off his last name, on the chance that it might be her. Tommy was no early riser.
"This is Maya," reported a brittle female voice.
"Hi Maya. Good to hear from you. Can you talk?" Maya wasn't in deep cover, but her situation with a cult could still be awkward.
"Yeah, I've got some time." *I'm in the clear.* "But our connection's not good." *The line's not secure.*
Yeah, yeah. Joe knew the rules. But generally the higher-ups were more paranoid about e-mail, these days. This was going to be hard in free cryptic.
"It's okay. I just want to talk."
"Where?" she asked, expecting, Joe knew, that he would give her a coded location and time.
"I don't need to take up your time. Can you just tell me some things?"
"Something to do with your pansies?"
Joe winced. That's right. The whole damned Watcher network knew his assignment was missing. Well, she was pretty professional. She'd kept up with her briefings.
"Well, actually, I'm into petunias, right now."
"Oh really? Bjorn likes petunias. Does he know?"
"Yeah. But he's not around, so I thought I'd ask you some stuff."
"Okay, but you know my garden's all tulips."
"Yeah, are your tulips okay? I mean, no bugs or blight or anything?"
She paused. "Well, they have been changing color. They were a nice peaceful blue, but a lot of them are turning red. Some cross-pollination thing, or something."
"Kind of a blood red?"
"Yeah, warlike, you know? Also I'm expecting, if everything holds true to form, that they'll all die soon."
"Yeah, I heard about that. Then come back next season, right? Any idea why?"
"Not really. They just seem to have a mind of their own. You know, my garden's getting a lot of attention these days."
No kidding, Joe thought. But she was leading and Joe should follow through so she could get across whatever it was she wanted to tell.
"Oh really? Who's interested?"
"Well, some guy selling petunias was here yesterday. Sounds like that ought to interest you. He didn't tramp on my tulips, but it was a near thing."
"Your tulips are pretty tough."
"Tougher than they look, that's for sure. Also ..." Joe waited while she thought about how she would phrase her next bit of information. "There was a guy with a cat."
What? A cat? Joe's mind whirled. Someone had ... tried to seduce Kirin? Or her? Or ... what?!
"What did he want?"
"He really admired the tulips. Praised them and praised them. Wanted to get close to them. It was really weird. He got thrown out of the garden."
"Because of the cat?"
"Well, maybe. You see ... I thought maybe he had a flower of his own to sell, you know? But all he had was the cat."
"This was a man?" Joe was having a little trouble making his seduction interpretation fit.
"And he was interested in your tulips; not you."
"What did he look like?"
"Tall, thin, short dark hair, broad shoulders."
"Umm ... kind of."
Jesus Christ! Methos had *tried to seduce Kirin?*! What the hell?!
"Well, uh, is everything all right?"
"I guess so. He hasn't come back."
"Maya, in all the excitement, is your nephew sick?"
"No, he's fine. But thanks for asking."
"Okay. You've got my number. Thanks for calling."
Joe hung up and rubbed his gritty eyes. *We're just a bunch of friendly horticulturalists.*
What on earth was Methos doing? Joe couldn't believe it. Could he have misunderstood her? Cat, cat ... no, "cat" meant seduction. Maybe it wasn't Methos. The description was fairly common, and she hadn't volunteered the big nose.
It's Methos, some little voice said. Maya had even intuited that the visitor was an immortal, probably from Kirin's reaction. The damnable thing was, Joe didn't know where the man was staying. They had parted on fairly hostile terms, and had not exchanged room numbers. Joe couldn't even be sure that Methos was still in town.
Short of sleep and grouchy, Joe muddled through the day. He stayed in his own hotel, dawdling over brunch. He considered playing some poker, but feared his concentration would be off.
*Methos had tried to seduce Kirin.* Joe struggled to get his imagination wrapped around the concept. In the grand power struggle which was the Game, the Watcher chronicles showed that sex was not often a useful weapon. Seduction of another immortal required trust and intimacy on a scale which most immortals rarely risked. Duncan MacLeod being a glaring exception, Joe thought, bracing for the inevitable wash of fear and grief which the thought of the man always brought him.
Not to mention - Joe squirmed mentally, irritated at himself - he just never thought that "Adam" ... well, damn. Joe had no illusions that he was the most broad minded person around, when it came to sexuality other than what he was used to, but he didn't think he was either naive or bigoted. It was just that he'd known the man for a long time and never thought ... *never thought a lot of things about him which turned out to be true.* Joe was a little disappointed in himself. Methos was five thousand years old. He'd undoubtedly learned to use whatever worked.
Joe sighed. And what was Methos trying to accomplish, anyway? Joe couldn't make it out. What did Methos do, walk into the revival tent and say "Hail fellow immortal, well met. Want to go to bed?" It was ludicrous. Of course, maybe Methos knew Kirin from before. Joe would have no way of knowing.
This thinking was going nowhere. He shoved these thoughts aside, and went to see if Tommy wanted to join him early at The Blues Lagoon.
Joe returned to his room, late, of course, some excellent brandy burning in his veins, looking forward to falling into a well-earned slumber. As he worked the key card lock, someone appeared at his elbow. Someone who wasn't Tommy.
Connor MacLeod slid his arm along the unlocked door, swinging it inward for Joe, inviting Joe into his own room in much the same way he had invited him into Duncan's barge. The difference was, this time, Joe wasn't startled.
"What do *you* want?" Joe groused. "You're supposed to show a room key for them to let you up here."
Connor tightened his mouth into a mockery of a smile, holding the door.
Joe didn't even consider refusing to enter. He stumped into the room and switched on the lights. The room was freezing. Housekeeping must think it's still summer in the Mojave desert, Joe thought. He fiddled with the air-conditioning, ignoring the immortal who glided in behind him.
Finished stalling, Joe turned to face the elder MacLeod, to find him relaxing in one of the half-circle chairs by the window. He had lain his long coat on one of the two beds, and was booting Joe's laptop. Joe heard the beep which told him the operating system was finished loading.
"Hey! Stay out of that!" Joe started for the table, all too aware that the immortal would have no difficulty keeping the laptop out of his grasp. Hell, Connor could tuck it under an arm and escape to the hallway with Joe helpless to stop him.
Connor didn't prevent him. Joe slammed the top shut, actually clipping the man's fingers. Connor slowly raised them to his mouth. "Ow," he joked.
Joe yanked the phone cord out of the laptop and tossed the closed unit back on the bed. "Should I get you a band-aid?" he glowered. "How did you find me this time?"
"Followed you from the show. Good show. I really liked the second number. Who was the singer at the end? He was great."
Joe blinked, and almost answered. He must have been more tired than he thought.
"What do you want? I want to get to bed."
Connor rose and circled the bed, looking at the laptop like it was an exhibit under glass. "Is that where you keep records of the immortals you spy on?"
"No." It was almost true. Only updates to Duncan's chronicle were stored locally, and there hadn't been many of those, lately.
"But you can find things out."
"Not for you."
Connor's gaze hardened. He drifted toward the dresser, and fidgeted with the few items on it. Joe watched him, wondering if Connor thought he could learn from a hotel room the kinds of things he had learned from Joe's office. The only thing Connor could take from this room was Joe's password and path to the Watcher's secure server, and he wouldn't get that without force. There was a cheery thought.
Joe itched to get his prosthetics off. Maybe he could hurry this interview along.
"Let me guess. You want to know about John Kirin."
"And let me guess. You aren't allowed to tell me."
"Are you going to challenge him?"
"And if I were?"
*Then I should probably warn you ... damn*
"It wouldn't be fair. What if his Watcher told him everything he knows about you?"
"Fair." Connor's voice dripped contempt. "It's your Adam who wants me to challenge him. Why doesn't he do it himself?"
"I told you, he's a student. He probably knows Kirin's too good for him."
*Read between the lines, Highlander. That's all I'm giving you. And I should stay away from the subject of "Adam", anyway.*
Connor didn't seem very interested in Joe's response. It dawned on Joe that they still weren't talking about whatever the immortal had come for.
Joe sat in the chair Connor had occupied earlier, leaned back, finally easing his back and legs, and smiled broadly. "You really have no idea how to ask for information without threats, do you?"
Connor narrowed his already narrow eyes at Joe, but with interest, Joe thought, not hostility.
"Sometimes" Connor replied, sliding into the hotel chair opposite Joe, the small mahogony table between them, "I try dinner, dancing, and drinks, but I thought it wasn't the best tactic for the situation."
"Oh please," Joe groaned, "let's not go there."
Connor's wolfish grin held real humor, this time.
"How about I suggest a tactic?" Joe asked.
Connor dipped his head, graciously, still grinning. "I always want to learn tactics from men a tenth my age."
"Now don't patronize," Joe remonstrated, but he was shaken nonetheless by an echo of his awe for this warrior. *Ten times my age.* Then, unexpected, came the thought *Which makes Methos ...*
It wasn't as if Joe had never done the math before. He knew the ages of his friends. It was just that he had somehow never been really *struck* by it before. Maybe it was the brandy and his fatigue, but Joe suddenly heard the whine of the winds of ages as somewhere a door to eternity cracked open and a cool tendril of time wisped around him.
He returned to reality to find Connor studying him. Joe looked back, thinking how ... *alien* the man looked to him, now. He cleared his throat.
"How about offering me a trade? Information for information."
"What do you want to know?" Now Connor looked suspicious.
*What don't I want to know?*
"I don't know. Try talking to me. Tell me what you want, and why. Sometimes it works for Duncan."
"What if it isn't fair?" Connor mocked the last word.
"Let me worry about that."
The Highlander seemed to think about that. Joe looked for a drink to pour, then was just as glad there was none.
"I went to see Kirin," Connor contributed. "He seems sincere enough. But I think he started the rumor that Methos is hunting Duncan, and I don't know why."
"Oh?" This was interesting.
"And I was just about convinced that the Chosen Champion business was coincidence."
If Connor hadn't had Joe's full attention before, he would have had it now.
"But you're not?"
Connor frowned. "Then he said something. He said 'Evil is not the color of black; it's the color of blood.'"
Connor stood again. Joe began to wonder if Connor was ever still very long.
"You have records or something on Duncan's whole life, right?"
Joe nodded, puzzled.
"What do you know about the hermit?"
"The hermit. Duncan's first head. Duncan told me he'd said something like that. 'Evil is the color of blood.'"
Joe clung desperately to his poker face. The Chronicles didn't have something as important as Duncan's true first head?!
"Uh ... what exactly did Duncan tell you?"
Connor looked grim. "You don't know about the hermit, do you."
Joe knew better than to try to lie.
"Look, Co ... Nash, we didn't have a Watcher on Duncan until you found him. We didn't know about him."
Connor hid his disappointment with anger. Joe recognized the expression.
"Not even with all of Glenfinnan yelling about it?" Connor complained.
"Don't take this wrong, but Glenfinnan was never the center of civilization, you know? What did Duncan tell you about this hermit? Tell me!"
Connor scooped his coat off the bed and donned it. "Maybe later," he growled, and Joe knew it would never happen. Desperate, he played his only card.
"Nash, wait. Maybe Adam knows. Duncan might have mentioned it to him; they're friends. Duncan doesn't always figure he has to fill in the gaps in what I know."
"I thought he was a student."
Suddenly very impatient with the necessity to keep lies in place between people who were striving for the same goal, Joe rolled his eyes.
"That doesn't keep them from being friends."
"Ask him, then."
"I can't," Joe admitted. "I don't know where he is."
" I do." Connor wrote on one of the hotel pads by the phone. "I take it you two aren't close."
"You've talked to Adam?" Joe gasped.
"No, I'm *watching* him," Connor replied, with heavy irony. "I'll be around."
Then he was gone.
The Vegas Chalet Motel was well out of the tourist areas, but as was true with the rest of the town, Joe observed, its owners had seen no contradiction in incorporating something as outrageous as a Swiss chalet motif into a seedy motel in the American Southwest desert. Joe paused before knocking on Methos's door. His brain had finally wearied of working on the paradox of Methos's sexuality, but a sudden apprehension of facing the man, knowing what he had learned, stopped Joe for a moment. Once again, he was disappointed with himself. He knew many gay men and a few lesbians. He *knew* it didn't mean anything, dammit. It's just that you think you know someone ...
He knocked. He heard Methos speak to someone, then his approaching footsteps.
The door opened. Methos stood there, wearing a sweatshirt and jeans, looking young and harmless, and holding in one forearm, close to his side, a squirming cat.
Joe stared. It was a jellicle cat, the kind they sing about in "Cats". White face and legs, but a pied coat of black and orange covered the cat's head, back, and long, fluffy tail. Calico.
Methos had a cat. Methos had a cat.
"Come in, Joe. Quick," was Methos's greeting. Clearly the struggling cat was determined to escape.
Joe seldom moved quickly, but he did his best, still staring at the cat. Inside the room, he started to grin.
Methos got the door closed as the cat wriggled free and climbed his sweatshirt to his shoulder, meowing with irritation. Methos tipped his head to the side to better balance the compact, angry weight on his shoulder.
Joe was grinning broadly by the time the cat leaped, in an impressive display of athleticism, the five feet to the bed. "You have a cat," Joe accused, delighted.
"Yeah," Methos breathed, running a hand over the tuft of his hair which the cat had ruffled. "This is Scully. Scully, meet Joe. I've told you about him."
The cat meowed. Joe couldn't hold in the laughter which bubbled up from somewhere inside him. "You have a cat!" he repeated.
Joe couldn't afford to actually fall into a chair, so he lowered himself into one quickly, before his laughter made him lose his balance. "You have a cat," he gasped a third time. He got no response, this time, and, recognizing a note of hysteria in his own laughter, Joe struggled to gulp it down. He wiped his tears to find two pairs of green-gold eyes regarding him curiously.
"Uh, it's a nice cat. She?"
"She's a nice cat." He snickered again. "Please tell me you took her with you to visit John Kirin."
Methos's eyes widened. "How ...?" He stopped. "Who is his Watcher, anyway?"
Joe laughed some more. "Never mind. Why on earth did you take your cat?"
The cat in question meowed again, the sound almost a question. She jumped from the bed and sniffed cautiously at Joe's prosthetic left leg.
Methos opened a small ice chest and removed two bottles of beer, popping their tops off in a practiced motion against a night stand. Not the mini-bar type of hotel, Joe observed, accepting the beer.
"She's a good judge of character. I wanted to see if she'd be afraid of Kirin." Methos sat on the bed, which sank so far under his weight that Joe guessed the box springs were shot.
Joe looked down at the cat. She had chewed Joe's shoelaces free, and lay on her side, champing one of them with enthusiasm.
Methos's answer seemed nonsensical to Joe. He looked back at the other man, but Methos didn't look like he was joking.
"She wasn't," Methos continued. She's not afraid of you, either."
Joe looked down again, to where the cat was attacking his other pair of shoelaces. "Well, that's good, I guess. She doesn't look like she's afraid of much."
"Some things," Methos replied, quietly. He looked at Joe intently, but didn't elaborate.
*Like what things?* Joe thought of asking, but it seemed a ridiculous direction in which to take the conversation. They had other things to talk about.
"So did you decide Kirin can live? Even Mac let him go instead of taking his head for his past crimes."
"I don't give two figs for his past crimes, Joe," Methos replied with surprising vehemence. "I can't let him do *this*. It could lure Duncan into a vulnerable position. Aren't the Watchers concerned about him blowing immortality wide open?"
"Not particularly. He's not the first to make himself a god by coming back from the dead." *Maybe you were the first.* "For all I know, Jesus Christ Himself was an immortal."
Joe couldn't believe he had said that. He couldn't believe he had said that to Methos, the man who could actually confirm or deny it. The man who, even now, was opening his mouth to say ...
"DON"T YOU SAY A WORD!"
Methos froze. Joe had flung up his hand as he yelled. Even the cat quit chewing and leaped upright.
"Joe," Methos ventured.
"NOT A WORD!" Joe was practically shaking. He didn't want to know this. He and Mac had danced around this possibility, deciding that faith was better than knowing. At least, that's what Joe had decided. God, he was really beginning to feel in over his head. How did they get to this? *You brought it up,* he chided himself.
Methos spread his hands, his beer in one of them, his gaze on Joe. The cat took the gesture as an invitation and jumped into Methos's arms. "All right, all right," Methos said, earnestly, trying to ignore the cat who was butting her head against his chest. "I'm not saying anything."
Joe glared at the immortal, looking for an expression of mockery or amusement, but Methos was looking down at the busy cat in his lap. Joe found that he was breathing hard. He forced himself to relax. They were both silent, pulling back from that brink.
The cat, having had her fill of petting for the moment, jumped back to the floor to try teething on the tip of Joe's cane.
"Is there a code word for Christ? Or for God? In free cryptic?" Methos inquired.
Well, it was a safer topic, anyway. What was with the man and free cryptic? "No. Why would we need one?"
"What about, uh, ultimate good? Or ultimate evil?"
"No." Joe frowned. "What are you trying to get at?"
"Just getting an education. Surely there's something about something being really bad?"
"Well you know a sick nephew means danger from an immortal. General danger is natural phenomena, like blizzards or plague. The worse the danger, the worse natural disaster you pick. If you want to say everything's okay, you say the blizzard's over, or the sun is shining, or something like that."
"And a sick niece means danger to an immortal."
"No, that's just the improv we talked about."
"Right. What about danger to the whole world?"
"Oh, come on! Don't be ridiculous! What are you still doing in town? Aren't you worried about Connor?"
Methos regarded the beer in his hands. "How did you find me, Joe?"
"Well ... Connor paid me a visit. He knew where you were."
Methos nodded, paling slightly, Joe thought. "That's one reason I'm still here. If I run, the hunt will be on."
Joe looked at the oldest immortal, taking in some other details for the first time. Methos's eyes were shadowed. The room, which he had to have been living in for almost the two weeks Joe had been in his own room, was bare of any personal items. A closed suitcase by the bed, and the cooler with beer was the only evidence that anyone was living there. Most telling of all, Joe didn't see a single book. Methos was ready for a hasty exit. It must really suck to have to live like that, Joe thought.
"Do you really think he'll hunt you?"
"He followed you. He'll follow me. He hasn't got many leads."
"What are you planning to do about Kirin?"
Methos rose from the bed, looking like he would have liked to pace, as Connor had, around the room. There was nowhere to go, however. He leaned against the wall. "There's only one sure way of stopping an immortal if you don't like what they're doing." He sounded unhappy.
"So you're trying to get Connor to fight him," Joe accused.
"What do you care? I told you not to try to play the Game, Joe."
"That *is* what you're doing!" Joe had hoped for a denial. "If they fight, one or the other of your problems gets solved."
Joe would have liked to leap to his feet with anger, but more than the awkwardness of his prosthetics prevented him. The cat now had all his shoelaces thoroughly tangled. He leaned down to begin retying them.
Methos took a pull from his beer bottle before answering. His eyes glinted with something. "God, I'm good," he said, smiling, as if it were a joke.
"You're a conniving son-of-a-bitch! You still haven't told me why you want Kirin stopped. So, what if it makes Duncan show up? I, for one, would like to know where he is! If Connor gets killed ..."
"Don't you think Kirin would be easy pickings for MacLeod?" Methos looked innocent.
"You know full and damn well that Kirin's been practicing, and he's damn good!"
"Oh." Methos nodded sagely, his expression bland.
The cat, unfortunately, took Joe's angry attempts at retying his shoes as a fun game. His attempts to bat her away only renewed her determination to use his shoelaces as dental floss. He would have appreciated some assistance from her owner. "Why does she do that?" he demanded, irritably.
Methos's smile as he regarded the two of them turned fond. "Near as I can tell, Joe, everything in the cosmos was created to be a cat toy." He took another drink.
"Well, I am more of a dog person," Joe complained, picking up the cat and looking for a place to stow her. Methos reached across and accepted her, one-handed, reseating himself on the low-slung bed.
"I can't believe they let you keep a cat here," Joe continued, still redirecting his anger, as he tied his shoes.
Methos laughed, without much mirth. "If you offer them enough money, they'll let you do anything, here. Literally. Including bribing your cat out of customs quarantine. Isn't that right, Scully?" The cat, though apparently content to be stroked in Methos's lap, watched Joe's every move with avaricious attention, her tail flicking.
His shoes tied, finally, Joe stood, his cane in one hand and the empty beer bottle in the other. Methos stood, too, dropping the cat on the bed behind him. He held out his hand for the bottle, and Joe took a perverse pleasure in pitching it past the immortal to thud gratifyingly in the can.
"Joe," Methos said as Joe started for the door, the darn cat darting at his feet.
"What did you want?"
Joe halted, his hand on the doorknob. Oh yeah. He sighed deeply. He didn't feel like pumping Methos for information, now, but, dammit, that is what he came for.
Turning in place was never an easy maneuver for him, and he knew the immortal would recognize the sacrifice to the importance of his question which it was, so he did it. The cat thought that was great fun. His shoelaces once again in grave jeopardy, Joe looked wearily at Methos, who smiled and scooped up his cat.
"Scully," he remonstrated gently. Then he regarded Joe expectantly.
"Did Mac ever mention the guy who was his first head to you? A hermit?"
Methos frowned as he scratched the cat's ears. "Why?"
"He mentioned him to Connor. And apparently Kirin said something just like the hermit did. Something about evil being the color of blood. I thought there might be some clue there."
Methos's face lost the frown, along with what little color the man had. He gripped the squirming cat tightly. She protested.
"Yeah, he told me about him. He said he was completely 'round the twist. Totally bats. There's nothing there, Joe. Tell that to Connor. And tell him Kirin has to be stopped."
Damn. Joe left, knowing Methos would never give him a scrap more than he wanted to. But he was certain the man knew *something*.
Sunday came, and Joe joined the throng crowding the Treasure Island showroom. All Blues Week was over, and Tommy had hailed off to Chicago, where a friend of a friend thought he knew someone who could get him a great gig. Tommy wasn't curious about the guy who was planning to come back from the dead on live TV. He assumed, as did most people, Joe gathered, that in the city of Lance Burton and Seigfried and Roy, this would just be a Las Vegas magician's trick. The story was still not the international sensation Joe wanted it to be.
Locally, though, it was a big deal. Joe was fortunate that, as a Treasure Island guest, he had been allowed to purchase one of the outrageously priced tickets to the affair. Hundreds of people gravitated to the casino just to be around when it happened. Treasure Island had hired additional security, too. Revenue was probably great, Joe guessed.
In order to maximize the number of people who would fit into the showroom, the chairs had been removed, so Joe was crowded in, standing between an overweight woman and a man with opera glasses. Joe was a little uneasy in crowds like this. If anyone shoved him hard, he had no way to get his "feet" under him and catch himself.
John Kirin took the stage, to thunderous applause. His followers, dressed all in white, filed in at the back of the stage, behind a large screen, filling a three tiered bleacher bench, like a choir. The screen isolated the followers from the stage, so even if Joe had known what Maya looked like, he wouldn't have been able to discern her. In front of the screen, but still toward the rear of the stage, were seven chairs. Six men and a woman, wearing suits, filed in and took the chairs. The only other items on the stage were a microphone and a large wooden post.
Kirin removed the microphone from the stand and held his other hand up. His craggy face wrinkled in a smile. The applause began to die down.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for coming. God will bless you for your faith." His voice was graveley like Joe remembered, and his wispy blond hair haloed his head. "God has blessed me for mine. Dark times await us, my brothers and sisters, dark times. The Millennium is here - the time is now. Repent before you are all judged." No mention of love or peace, Joe noticed. Kirin had become a different preacher than the one Duncan and Richie had met.
"Where is the Saviour? I hear you cry. Who will be our Champion? I'm here to tell you, my brothers and sisters, I will be your Champion. I have died the death and I have seen the devil who waits to claim all our souls. Evil is red - red with the blood of those who have died fighting it. Red with the fires of Hell. But I will conquer death! I will take away the sins of the world. Today, before you, the faithful, I will die for you. And God who has chosen me to be His Champion, will raise me from the dead. Then you will see the power of faith. Then you will see the power of God. Then you will see my power and follow me."
Kirin gestured to the rear of the stage, at the seven people in the chairs. "Lest ye doubt, these doctors, men and women of good faith, will witness the truth of God's acts. And when I am back among you, then will begin the true battle against evil. The battle of the thousand years, and the Champion will defeat the demon."
Kirin bowed, arms outstretched, and, amidst the crowd's cheers, walked to stand with his back to the wooden post. The post was a good three feet higher than his head, and was notched toward the top, like a Lincoln Log. Three of the white-clad men entered from stage right, carrying stepstools and another notched wooden beam. Like practiced magician's assistants, they positioned the stepstools on either side of the performer, climbed them, and lifted the beam to form - the crowd gasped - a cross.
*A cross?* My God, thought Joe, that man has balls. Around him the crowd murmured, tittered, and hissed. Joe looked around to see the television cameras in the balconies above, rolling busily. The last Joe had heard on the news, they either hadn't decided how Kirin was to die, or they weren't releasing the information. But, a cross!?
One man blindfolded Kirin, and then, with his arms stretched out, the assistants lifted him into place, tying him to the cross by the forearms and waist. They then packed up the stepstools and vanished into the wings. Recorded music started, and, to Joe's amusement, the white-clad followers did start to sing. The song was a rousing, rock number with the lyrics, "warriors of worship, warriors of faith".
A petite woman in a flowing white robe entered the stage, carrying a crossbow. She paused at the chairs of the seven seated doctors, and handed over the crossbow. The doctors passed it among themselves, looking it and the quarrel bolt over, then returned it to her. She moved to center stage, and raised the crossbow to aim for Kirin, bound to his cross at the side of the stage. As the sleeves of her robe fell away from her wrists, Joe spotted a round tatoo. He borrowed his neighbor's opera glasses and confirmed it was a Watcher tatoo.
The singing ended, and the crowd grew excited, crushing forward, the better to see the gore to come. Joe leaned heavily on his cane, and tried to maneuver forward so as not to be tipped over from behind.
What was she waiting for? Maya, Joe presumed the woman was Maya, held the crossbow poised, as the tension in the crowd grew.
"Look at him!" the woman beside Joe exclaimed.
Joe looked, and saw Kirin struggling against his bonds.
Another man entered the stage, from behind Maya. He wore white as well, but, rather than looking like a monk or an angel, his clothes were in pirate style. Over his head he wore an executioner's mask, but his feet, which should have been in black knee-high boots in order to complete the costume, instead sported tennis shoes. He carried a curved sword, and it didn't look like a prop.
"Who's there?!" yelled Kirin. "Get me loose!"
Joe searched for the security men, and spotted a few. They were watching the crowd, not the stage, and showed no concern. Onstage the assembled doctors spoke to each other, but they, too, didn't respond to Kirin's cries. The crowd murmured appreciatively. A sword thrust could be an even gorier death than the crossbow bolt.
Only Maya looked uncertain. She lowered the crossbow and called something to the newcomer, but Joe didn't catch it. She was away from the microphone, and the noise of the excited crowd was growing. If the man answered her, Joe couldn't hear that, either.
The newcomer's strides across the stage were purposeful. As he neared the cross, Kirin's frantic struggles finally freed him, and he ripped the blindfold from his face and started to slide to the stage.
"You fool!" Kirin called, his voice clear above the noise, "You don't know what you're doing."
The newcomer drew a second sword from his sash, and tossed it to Kirin, who caught it.
"Securit - !" Kirin was calling, when he suddenly had to deflect a powerful swing.
The crowd broke into excited applause as the two men began a tremendously real looking swordfight. Joe's heart leaped into his throat as he anticipated some fatal blow. People around Joe surged forward, and, as he had feared, he had to struggle to keep his feet. Dreading every strike, every slice, Joe tried not to lose his view of the action. Onstage, he saw Maya set down the crossbow and circle the combatants toward the doctors, some of whom were now on their feet. Behind the screen, the lights which had illuminated the choir of Love Now followers were off, so Joe couldn't see if the followers were calm or not.
The crowd pressed harder as the swordsmen clashed furiously. Around him, Joe heard excited voices.
"No, it's not!"
"It has to be. Why would he be so good with a sword?"
"He has to lose, if he's going to die. Of course it's fake."
"They're bleeding! Look!"
Joe was looking, and, yes, both men were bleeding. Joe couldn't stand the terror anymore; he tried to find some emotional distance. It doesn't matter, he told himself. Observe and record, observe and record.
Kirin was on the defensive. His moves were skillfull, but he acted as if he was tiring.
"You can't defeat me!" Kirin taunted, his voice rasping above the sounds of the crowd. "I'm invincible!"
"Promised you that, did he?" responded the hooded man in a quite passable Yoda-voice. With a deft sweeping twist, the hooded man caught Kirin's blade in the curve of his own, and flicked it out of Kirin's grasp. The sword skidded across the stage, disappearing stage left.
The excited crowd finally shoved Joe over. He was knocked backward, not forward, and had no way to move his cane to behind him quickly enough to balance himself.. Fortunately, he was caught and lifted by someone strong and calm behind him.
A familiar voice spoke in Joe's ear, as he was replaced upright on his prosthetics.
"That," hissed Connor MacLeod, "is no student."
"Connor!" Joe gasped, forgetting to use the man's modern name. He whipped his gaze back to the stage, oblivious to the tight grip the Highlander still kept on his upper arm.
The hooded man scored a gouging slice on Kirin, to the delight and horror of the audience. Kirin staggered to one knee, blood pouring from between his fingers. The fighters were near the front of the stage.
"This can't happen!" gasped Kirin. "I can't be beaten!"
His opponent raised his scimitar for a neck blow, saying, still in Yoda-voice "Believed him, you did," but a recovering Kirin struck him with the microphone stand, and the blow never fell. The sound system woofed with the hollow sound of the microphone crashing.
Connor shook Joe's arm. "Who is he?" he demanded.
Joe tore his gaze from the action to look at the angry Highlander. He dared not lie, and he dared not tell the truth. He just looked at the immortal in panic.
And he saw understanding hit him.
Connor whirled back to look at the stage. "Push!" he spat, to Joe's confusion. Then Joe recognized the Gaelic sound to the pronunciation, although he didn't know the word. Connor began fighting through the crowd, toward the stage.
Joe made a grab for the Highlander calling "Connor, wait! I don't know what he's doing, but ..." Then he shouted over the heads of the crowd "He's not hunting Duncan!"
John Kirin, his white robe stained crimson, took his opportunity to turn and lope painfully off the stage, vanishing into the curtains. Methos, for it had to be Methos, recovered his footing, but, rather than following the other immortal, he turned to the audience, spread his own arms wide and proclaimed, still faking a Yoda accent, "Escape me, you will not! Death will overtake you!"
The audience tittered and some members applauded. A shaft of desert daylight beamed through the room and was gone, as a side door was opened and closed. Methos turned and ran into the wings, emerging beside the stage. The door opened and closed again.
For a moment the room was frozen, then Maya raced across the stage, through the wings and out the door. Joe thought again of Amy, his daughter, and the dangers of Watching. Maya wasn't cleared for this kind of thing.
Pandemonium erupted. The camera operators in the balconies were gesturing madly, and the crowd surged toward the small side exit. Joe found himself pressed up to the Highlander, who had nearly reached the stage.
"Connor," he cried, "go after her! She'll get hurt."
The crush of humanity was log-jammed by the stage, since few people could fit through the side door at a time. Joe groped for a grip on some solid part of the stage. As soon as the press was loosened, he would likely fall, without something to hold on to.
A crash above him caused Joe to look up and see that the light screen separating the Love Now followers from the stage had fallen, and the the white-robed followers were flooding onto the stage, and into the wing.
Connor, also momentarily immobilized by the crowd, answered.
"She should stay out of the way!" he called through the noise.
"It's her job to observe!" Joe yelled. He saw Connor mouth some epithet, his light eyes flashing. Then the immortal vaulted, one-handed, the six feet up to the stage, landing on his side, rolling.
"Out of the way!" Joe heard someone call. "Let us through!" cried someone else. The daylight shut off, causing Joe to blink his vision back to focus. Through the bobbing heads ahead of him, Joe saw that security men had reached and blocked the door.
"Everyone exit out the main doors!" one of them called in a booming voice. "This is only a fire exit!" There was a scuffle, and a voice in an accent Joe was sure he recognized, yelled "Fire!" The daylight flashed again, and the crowd laughed, but the defensive security men recovered and pulled the door shut, although not before one trenchcoat-wearing figure slipped outside.
At the back of the crowd, Joe saw that people were peeling off to dash out the main doors, into the casino. Joe was determined to get out the side door. He couldn't move through the casino fast enough to catch up with the evaporating crowd, and besides, the immortals had gone out *this* door. He had no guarantee that he could find them from another exit. He consulted his internal sense of direction, and determined that this door should open to the Strip side of the resort.
It took only a minute for most of the crowd to thunder into the main casino, leaving Joe by the side door with most of the Love Now followers and, to Joe's surprise, the seven doctors. The followers babbled incoherently, but one doctor pulled himself up to the security men. "Let us through," he ordered, in doctor-voice. "We are the witnesses. We have to see the death."
"That's not what was supposed to happen!" cried the followers. "We don't know who that guy was!"
The security men ignored the Love Now followers, but seemed discomfited by the doctor's argument. The remaining people in the showroom numbered no more than fifty, and, after exchanging uncomfortable glances, the security men opened the door. Joe joined the group and exited into painfully bright daylight.
Joe, like the others, had to pause just beyond the threshold for his eyes to adjust, and to get his bearings. He was facing the Strip, on a guard-railed walkway which hugged the building. Directly before him, almost within touching range, was the back side of the pirate ship. The back of the ship had no paint, and Joe could see the rails beneath the water which conveyed the ship into its battle with the British. The mast loomed above them, casting one dark shadow in their direction.
Beyond the ship, across the water, was the collection of bridges from which people watched the Pirate Show. Excited people were filling the bridges from Joe's far left, which would be where a main casino entrance was. Behind him white-garbed Love Now cult members flowed onto the walkway, and scurried in both directions along the path, looking for access across the water. Joe didn't see the immortals anywhere in the growing crowd.
"They could have told us they were doing this," groused the woman doctor at the rail next to Joe. Joe followed her gaze and gasped when he saw what she was watching.
Kirin and Methos, Methos still wearing an executioner's hood, fought their death duel aboard the pirate ship. Kirin, retreating, kept looking for escape, but Joe's ledge or the water below were his only options. And Methos circled and maneuvered in order to stay between Kirin and the side of the ship.
"I don't understand how he's still on his feet," mused the man on the other side of Joe. "I'm sure that sword perforated his abdomen."
As he spoke, the crowd "ooh'd" and Joe searched to see what their viewing angle allowed which his didn't. The combat had paused, he could tell, for he could see Methos, chest heaving, in a deceptively relaxed ready stance, blood staining his clothes in a half dozen places. Methos backed up a step as Kirin moved into Joe's view, holding his sword to Maya's throat!
Kirin held his slight Watcher in an armlock, with one hand. Joe had a clear view of Maya's pale face. She didn't struggle.
Joe gripped the rail and swore.
"This is quite a show," commented one of the doctors.
"But isn't he supposed to be the hero?" puzzled another. "That's one of his own people."
"Look!" cried the woman, pointing.
Connor MacLeod hung from the side of the ship, holding onto the metal scaffolding which framed the side of the ship which the audience couldn't see.
"Who's there?" called Kirin, looking around. Finding only himself and his opponent, he went on. "Now, you're letting me leave here with her, or she's shish kebob."
Methos gave ground slowly, letting Kirin move closer to the end of the ship within reach of Joe's walkway. He also moved closer to Connor's position. Joe and the doctors with him had a clear view as Connor inched into readiness, but the main audience, on the far side of the ship had no view of Connor. Unfortunately, some of the Love Now members had found the lower maintenance accessways, and could also see Connor.
"John!" someone called. "Look out below you!"
Alerted, Kirin moved away from the side of the ship, still looking around. Connor tensed, but held. Kirin's concentration may have slipped, for Maya chose that moment to stomp on his instep and struggle. Blood flowed from her throat as Kirin's blade sliced her skin.
"Now!" yelled Methos. He leaped to Kirin's right side, telegraphing a wide swing for the head, the sword in his left hand. Kirin blocked instinctively, and, since he held the sword right-handed, that brought the blade away from Maya's bleeding throat. Connor flowed over the edge of the ship, delivered a vicious arm blow to Kirin's grip on Maya, and wrenched her from his grasp.
Kirin tucked and rolled, and tried to trip Methos as he tumbled by him to relative safety. Nimble-footed, Methos avoided him and swept his blade around into that relaxed ready stance Joe had seen before. Kirin returned to his feet and the two immortals engaged again. The crowd cheered.
Connor held a dazed Maya tight against his side, as he backed away from the combatants. He was on the far side of the ship from the safety of Joe's walkway. Joe saw him glance over the side of the ship. Surely he wouldn't leap into the water with an injured woman! Then he looked up, saw something, and hauled Maya up to stand on the yardarm. He reached up and unfurled a thick rope from the rigging. Hoisting the slight woman onto one shoulder, he wrapped the rope around his other arm, and swung, Luke Skywalker style, over the heads of the other two immortals to land gracefully on Joe's end of the ship, not ten feet from Joe and the doctors. Again the crowd cheered. Joe cheered with them.
Connor brought Maya to the edge, and leaped over the rail of the walkway with her. Blood covered the front of her white robe, and her face was the chalky color of the rest of the robe. Her eyes were wide and frightened. "Ah. Ah," she said.
Two of the doctors took her from Connor and sat her down. Joe was torn between wanting to see how badly she was injured, and wanting to see the outcome of the fight. Looking from one to the other, his gaze passed over the scowling Connor.
"Aren't you going back?!" Joe demanded.
"It's not my fight," replied Connor with a shrug, his gaze on the duel.
A glance told Joe that the concentrated medical expertise on the walkway made anything he could contribute trivial, so he turned back to the ship, too.
He saw Methos give Kirin an opening which the other immortal went for, scoring a huge gash on Methos's torso as the eldest immortal spun aside at the last possible moment, putting Kirin past him, hurtling toward the back side of the ship, the side which the audience couldn't see. Off balance, Kirin stumbled against the low wall, and Methos, still spinning, brought his curved sword around in a sweeping arc, and severed Kirin's head at the neck.
A wave of relief flooded through Joe, so powerful that he sagged against the rail. But what was an ordinary, or at least, expected sight to him and to Connor was horrific to those people watching with them.
"Oh my God!" cried the woman doctor.
"Jesus!" exclaimed another.
"I don't believe he did that!"
Cries of excitement came from the audience, who saw that the fight was over, but were spared the gruesome sight of a man's head dropping into the man-made moat around Treasure Island, or the headless, spurting torso which lopped to the deck, bouncing slightly.
"We're supposed to be there," said the woman. She pulled up a hanging connector to the walkway, a ramp like a gangplank which extended to the end of the ship. Even the guard-rail proved to have a gate for passage at that point. Someone else helped her pull the ramp in place.
Joe put his hand to the gate, preventing them from opening it. "I would really wait a minute, if I were you," he advised. A blueish vapor was rising from Kirin's torso, enveloping the panting Methos.
"We're supposed to certify his death," the woman reminded Joe sternly.
"Well," observed the one doctor who remained with Maya, "I can call this one from here."
Relief had made Joe giddy. He chuckled. "You should wait a minute," he repeated. Beyond the woman, he saw Connor smirk.
"What happened?" demanded Maya, who must have gathered her scattered wits. Her voice sounded all right, to Joe.
"Kirin lost his head," Joe supplied. He hoped she wasn't too fond of her assignment. She was a member of a personality cult, after all.
"Let me see!" she ordered, struggling against the man who tried to keep her down. He spoke firmly to her of shock and blood loss, but she shrugged him off and got to her feet. Of course, Joe thought, Maya knows there's still something to see.
Holding her robe as a bandage to her throat, she joined those at the rail, and then the final doctor stood to look, too. Joe decided the doctor didn't look too concerned about her.
Connor leaned on the gate, as if he were leaning over a fence to talk to his neighbor, blocking the doctors from passing through it to the ship. The woman gave him an affronted look, but no one in the group chose to challenge him.
"They're right, you know," Connor commented to Maya. "You're likely in shock. If not now, soon."
"Shut up," she said, and Connor smiled, gazing back at the luminous cloud as it began lancing Methos with blue lightning.
Kirin's quickening shook Methos like a rag doll. His arms jerked into an outstretched crucifixion stance, and his head was flung back. The hood slipped free, confirming to Joe that it was, indeed, Methos. Very few of the crowd out front would have been able to see him, since he was positioned behind an area of raised deck, but the observers on the walkway had a curiously intimate view of the passing of immortal energy to a victor.
The power of the quickening increased. The metal scaffolding along the back side of the ship became a flashing blue grid, reminding Joe of the neon signs of Vegas. Tongues of power licked into the ship's riggings, snapping ropes and setting fires in the sails. A crow's nest lost its supports and tumbled down to crash against the deck wall and splinter into the water. The crowd "aaah'd".
The doctors watched, dumbstruck. Perhaps, Joe considered, they thought they were seeing a man electrocuted. Connor, too, watched in silence, no longer leaning against the railing gate. He stood at an easy attention, almost respectful. It was a funeral, of sorts, Joe realized. The blue flashes were reflected in Connor's eyes.
Maya was mesmerized. This might be the first quickening she'd seen, Joe thought.
A cry of agony brought Joe's attention back to the immortal at the center of the maelstrom. Joe had to squint to see him in the brightness. Methos's long arms stretched out so far, Joe wondered if his shoulders were dislocated.
The power of the storm, to Joe's horror, still grew. How could Methos stand it? He'd wondered the same thing for Duncan MacLeod countless times, and despite evidence in the Chronicles that receiving a quickening had an element of pleasure to it, the physical torture of what he saw still horrified him.
Powerful electrical bolts caused explosions in the wood and plexiglass materials of the ship. Pieces came flying loose, narrowly missing Joe's group. The doctors ducked and moved down the walkway. Soon the only people left were the two Watchers and Connor MacLeod. Connor stood tall, one hand shielding his eyes. Joe made his way past the immortal, through the flying debris, and put his arm around Maya's shoulders.
Lightning bolts reached the outside of the building, tearing and shredding the facade. With all the ship's riggings, and even the main mast, in flames, Joe heard a new sound.
From inside the resort came the ringing and clanging of hundreds of slot machines paying off.
Treasure Island took the uncontrollable liberality of its slot machines at least as seriously as they would have taken a bomb threat, in Joe's opinion. The resort went into full lockdown, evacuated all staff and guests, secured all cash and chips in a vault, and posted guards. Joe didn't know what steps were taken to deal with the blazing ship outside, nor did he know whether or not the police had been called, for he had used his intricate knowledge of the back accessways of Treasure Island to guide him into the warren of grey service corridors winding under the resort. Prosthetic legs or no, Joe reflected, there were reasons why Mrs. Dawson's boy Joe was one of the best field agents in the Watchers.
He found them in a wide corridor, between a cart full of dirty dishes in dishpans and an opening in the wall marked "Danger! Incinerator" and covered with a swiveling steel plate. Methos, his hair still wet from the dive he had taken off the back of the ship to escape official notice, was now wearing a security guard uniform. In his hands he held a gym bag and a standard immortal-issue trenchcoat.
Joe hoped Methos had one hand on a gun, if not on a sword, because, before him, stood Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, his beautiful and famous katana in hand, looking mighty pissed.
Neither immortal so much as glanced Joe's way as he came through the swinging double doors. He supposed his distinctive footsteps in the empty corridor must have given him away.
"So, you're Methos," Connor observed, in a tight, angry tone. "He told me you'd vanished from Paris." Connor was balanced on the balls of his grey tennis shoes, the katana ready in his right hand, his own trenchcoat open, hanging to his denim-clad calves.
Methos, for his part, looked incongrous in the uniform, for, rather than exuding confidence and machismo, the attitude Joe associated with rent-a-cops, Methos had turned on "innocuous and non-threatening", making the uniform look like an ill-fitting costume.
Still, as Joe looked, another incongruity stuck him. Something about Methos was not mild. Something whispered of power, of triumph. Beneath the innocuous body language, the wide, frightened-looking eyes, beneath the nervous glances around the corridor, beneath it all, a coiled dragon roared with victory. It was the quality of the quarterback raised on his teammates shoulders, the glow of the gold medalist standing on the highest platform. "I won, I won," seemed to thrum through the air. Methos reeked of power; he could no more shed it than he could shed his skin. Joe had seen it on Duncan many times, but he'd thought it a natural manifestation of the Highlander's physical charisma.
Whatever it was, Connor approached it with considerable caution.
"I'm not hunting Duncan," said Methos. He shifted the gym bag so the coat covered his hands.
"I figured that out," Connor replied. He stepped to the side, katana keeping the distance between them.
"Could we discuss this with your sword sheathed?" Methos sounded nervous. He glanced at the double doors behind him, twins to the ones Joe had come through. They could be escape; Methos wasn't cornered.
"I think we should discuss it with yours drawn." Connor ceased his circling, and settled ever so slightly into a ready posture. He raised the katana.
Joe felt in his pocket for the new .45 he'd bought to replace the one Connor had taken from his office. He thumbed off the safety.
"I'm not fighting you," Methos stated. He bent his knees slowly, watching Connor, and set his coat and gym bag on the linoleum between them. Connor took another step to the side, clear of the stuff on the floor.
"You're not a coward." Connor's tone was thoughtful, a man considering his options. "You fought Kirin fair. Why kill Kirin?"
"To protect Duncan. Kirin was trying to lure him out."
Connor shook his head and stepped closer to the other immortal. "Duncan fights his own fights. What do you know?"
Joe gripped his gun.
Methos shrugged, never taking his gaze off of Connor. "Then, I did it because it's the Game."
Connor was out of patience. "So is this. Draw your sword."
"I'm unarmed." Methos stepped back from his coat. Connor moved forward with him, maintaining a fighting distance, beginning the dance. Joe's heart pounded.
"Then you're giving me your head." Connor darted in, intercepting Methos's attempt to move sideways, and placed the tip of the legendary katana against the other man's chest.
Methos stood very still, but for one quick glance down at the sword. "I'm Duncan's friend; I don't kill his kin," he stated.
Connor never turned his back to Joe, but his attention was clearly focused elsewhere. Joe steeled himself for a shot. If Connor skewered Methos, Joe hoped he could shoot him before he went for the head. But surely the most cautious of immortals had a weapon in that security guard uniform, somewhere!
"What do you know?" Connor shouted. "Where. Is. Duncan!" He raised the handle of the katana, pressing.
Methos winced. "I don't know." Methos held the Highlander's gaze. "I don't want to know. You should stay away from him, too. You might do more harm than good."
Connor shifted his weight and adjusted his two handed grip on the dragon hilt of his sword. "Why?" he demanded. "How? Don't give me hints. Tell me!"
"I've told you what I can," Methos said, softly.
The two immortals were statues. Methos was one sudden stab and slice with that almost magically-sharp katana away from death. Yet power still rolled off of him. Joe suddenly remembered Watcher speculation that quickenings were addictive, or alluring to immortals. Would Connor kill him, unarmed?
"What kind of friend are you?" Connor's tone held anger and contempt. He pulled his katana away and back into hiding with sleight-of-hand swiftness, and simultaneously punched Methos with a left jab. Methos staggered back.
He crashed against the dishes cart, the clatter echoing in the corridor. But he kept his feet, and stood, warily. "The best kind I'm able to be."
"That's not good enough!" Connor flew forward, yanking Methos to him by the coat of the uniform. "I think you posed as his friend and took his head," Connor hissed. He threw the unresisting Methos onto the coat and gym bag. " Take up your sword," he shouted.
Methos did not move from the floor. "I couldn't do that," he said, his voice surprisingly steady.
Connor's sword was in his hands again. "It's exactly the kind of thing he'd fall for."
Methos quirked one side of his mouth. "Yes, it is. But he's too important to lose."
At that, Connor froze, and now no one in the corridor was moving. Then, to Joe's surprise, Connor took two gliding steps backward, withdrawing his katana and frowning.
"You were there when Sean Burns died," Connor stated.
The two immortals regarded each other in silence. Joe held his breath, as something indefinable in the atmosphere shifted.
"You helped Duncan," Connor continued. "You were his friend, so you can live. But you're no friend to him now."
"Thanks," Methos said, standing.
"I'm going to find him," Connor threatened.
Methos nodded wearily and rubbed his jaw where Connor had punched him. "Could you take his head?" he inquired.
"What kind of stupid question is that?"
"He might ask you to. You should be ready for it. He asked me to."
"And you let him go in that condition?!" Connor spat on the floor, and his katana vanished beneath his coat. "If I find he let someone take his head, I'm coming back for you." Without another word, or even a glance at Joe, Connor turned and strode past Joe and through the doors.
Methos exhaled and cast a relieved expression at Joe.
Joe didn't move. Some kind of shock had immobilized him. He could only watch as Methos, that intangible sense of power still clinging to him, picked up his gym bag, wrestled open the metal plate on the incinerator, and shoved the gym bag into the firey heart of Treasure Island.
"I thought you might shoot him," Joe managed, though the sense of unreality had not lifted.
"With what?" Methos brushed his hands together and straightened his uniform. "I figured *you* had *your* gun."
Joe found he was still gripping his .45 inside his pocket and he released it. "My God, you mean you really were unarmed?" Now a different shock chased the other away. This was still "Adam", his poker partner of ten years. And for a second time in the same day, Joe had almost watched him die.
"Between his commitment to honor and your commitment to your oath, I figured I was safe enough."
Joe's commitment to his oath?! Oh, this was too much. "You think I would have shot him to protect your worthless neck?!"
"I think you would have shot him in order to not lose what you think I know."
Furious, Joe turned to leave.
"Joe?" Methos called after him.
Joe seriously considered shooting the man out of pure spite, but there were too many good reasons not to. "Don't you even speak to me," he bit out. It was the last thing he said to his old poker buddy for a very long time.
But Joe did get e-mail from him. A month later, back in Paris, Kirin's hubris at imagining he could return from the dead a forgotten news story, and still no sign of Duncan MacLeod, Joe stared at the item from "firstname.lastname@example.org" in his inbox. He double-clicked and read:
Joe, Some of your rare pansies have been found, with some petunias. I don't know where, because I wouldn't let him tell me, but they're healthy. I'm sorry to hear Lynn is sick. Does she like pansies? I really think you should come home and stay away from the pansies. Otherwise there might be a global epidemic.
What the Devil? It was miserable free cryptic. Connor had found Duncan, but Methos wouldn't tell him where? And what was this stuff about a global danger and danger to Duncan from a mortal? From Joe? Lynn was *Joe's* niece. And Joe should lay low and stay away from Duncan?
Frustrated and frightened, Joe replied:
He received this reply before Methos stopped responding to e-mail: