That man was still following her.
A gust of sleet stung Maureen's face when she glanced back into the night. Winter in Maine, she thought, you'd at least think the weather would have the decency to dump snow on you.
February had been a run of sleet and freezing rain, no damn good for skiing or anything--it just made the sidewalks into bobsled runs and the roads into skating rinks. People always pictured New England with those picture-postcard mounds of fluffy white stuff. Instead, most winters plastered the city with yellow-gray ice full of freeze-dried dog shit and dead pigeons.
She hated it. She ached to be out of it.
And that bastard had followed her through four turns to head right back towards the Quick Shop. He kept his distance, but he was still there. It wasn't chance. She hadn't seen another person or even a car in the last fifteen minutes. What were her options?
The midnight streets vanished in a vision of green grass and trees, sunshine, warm breezes, and streams of peat-stained water the color of fresh-brewed tea. She breathed summer country, a cabin-fever dream she wanted so much she could smell the clover.
Wish, the whisper came, out of nowhere. Wish. And hard on the back of the thought came a memory of Grandfather O'Brian's voice, "Be careful what you wish for, my darlin'. The gods just might be givin' it to you."
The thought brought tears to her eyes, or maybe it was the sleet. She had been far closer to the old man than to her own father, and now Grandfather was fifteen years dead. Funny such a devout Catholic should talk of the gods in plural. Funny she should think about him, slopping through the dark streets of Naskeag Falls and thinking dark thoughts about the entire male race.
Maureen's nightmare still followed her, half a block back--a squat black shadow under the streetlights, framed by the double rows of dark storefronts and old brick office buildings. Everything was closed and silent, brooding over her search for someplace warm and dry and public.
The scene reminded her of a hodge-podge of old movies--Peter Lorre stalking the midnight streets with a switchblade in his pocket. For some reason, the movie image relaxed her. Maybe it made danger seem less real, the sleet turning the night into grainy black-and-white flickers on a silver screen.
Maureen pulled her knit cap down tighter on her head and went back to concentrating on the ice underfoot. She was reading her past into the future. No self-respecting mugger or rapist would be out on a night like this. The voices in her head could just take a fucking hike.
Besides, her mood matched the foul weather. She'd had a rotten evening at the Quick Shop, and the chance to blow some scumbag to hell carried a certain primitive attraction.
Maybe while she was at it she should put a slug through the carburetor of that damned rusty Japanese junk-heap that had refused to start and left her walking. And pop the night manager with the roving hands who had reamed her out and docked her pay for being late, before suggesting they could maybe arrange something if she chose to be a little "friendlier."
Hell, go big-time and shoot all the paper-mill cretins from upriver who stomped in for their six-packs of beer, steaming their wet-dog smell and dripping slush all over the place so she spent half her shift mopping up after them.
Definitely blow away the oh-so-precise digital register that had refused to tally when she closed out at midnight. She'd ended up putting in ten bucks out of her own pocket, just to get the hell out of the place. Two hours pay, before taxes.
CONVENIENCE STORE CLERK GOES BERSERK, MURDERS 20.
Again, Maureen checked on her shadow. He was still there, still half a block back. The way she felt, she almost wished he'd make a move.
She kicked a lump of slush and yelped when it turned out to be frozen into place. Adding insult to injury, her next limping stride found a pothole in the sidewalk, and she sank into ankle-deep ice water.
Screw this psychotic winter weather, she thought. Psychosis: a mental disease or serious mental impairment, a medical term not to be confused with the precise legal implications of the word "insanity." Psych. 101, second year elective for distribution requirements in the forestry program.
She had reasons to remember the definition, reasons for such a personal interest in the ways and means in which human minds deviated from the norm. Fat lot of good college was doing her now.
A snowplow growled around the next corner and headed in her direction, fountaining out a bow-wave that washed up over the curb and sidewalk to break against the dark line of buildings. Maureen ducked back into the entryway of the nearest storefront, trying to dodge the flying muck. It spattered icily across her jeans, and she stepped back out into the storm, elevating her middle finger at its retreating yellow flashers.
"Naskeag Falls Department of Roads and Bridges," the sign on the dump gate said, "Your tax dollars at work."
The man following her ignored the truck, and the slush seemed to ignore him. Hairs prickled along the back of Maureen's neck. Without speeding up or even looking at her, he'd halved the distance between them. The paranoia kicked in, elbowing her anger aside and substituting cold calculation. She needed some defenses.
"Enough of this crap," she muttered, or maybe it was her voices. The next alley offered places where a small woman could hide, places where muscles wouldn't help him. If he came in after her, he was history. She thumped the pocket of her wet ski jacket and felt the reassuring weight of metal.
She ducked around the corner. Dumpsters lurked in the shadows, two of them, jammed right up against brick walls and close enough together to just leave space for a single person between. She ducked into the bunker they formed and waited, remembering her lessons.
Smith and Wesson Chief's Special, she heard the instructor lecture, thirty-eight caliber. Five shots, short barrel, not very accurate--don't ever shoot at anything beyond ten yards. Light, compact, reliable--perfect weapon for close-range self-defense.
If you ever really need your gun, don't give warning. Don't wave it around. Don't make threats. Just shoot as soon as you show the weapon. Shoot twice. Shoot to kill. He's trying to kill you!
Her gloves jammed in the trigger guard. She slipped them off and stuffed them into her pants pockets. The wood and metal of the pistol grip actually felt warm compared to the sleet.
The squat shadow turned the corner, outlined against orange streetlights. "You stupid ass," she whispered, "you just voted for the death penalty."
She crouched between the dumpsters, took the two-handed stance she'd learned in the firearms course, and centered on the shadow's torso. Her senses switched into overdrive and the world slowed down. Kill or be killed, just like the instructor said.
She wimped out. "Stop, or I'll shoot!"
The man kept coming. He didn't speed up, or slow down, or flinch, or anything. Was the sonuvabitch deaf? She aimed at the bricks across the alley and snapped the trigger as a warning shot.
Her belly froze. She hadn't checked the cylinder before tucking the gun in her pocket. Had Jo been frigging around with the gun, dry-firing in their apartment?
Her hands trembled as she flipped the cylinder open and saw the glint of cartridges. It was a goddamn dud. She'd never had a misfire before. She snapped the gun shut.
Two more duds, centered on his chest. She ran the whole cylinder around again.
Click. Click. Click. Click. Click.
Clear in spite of the shadows, the man smiled in slow motion. He inhaled deeply through his nose, as if he had been tracking her by smell. His mouth opened and spouted gibberish.
"Na gav aygul orsht. Ha an dorus foskulche."
That's what her ears pulled out of the air. God only knew what he'd actually said. Maureen started to scream and found she couldn't. She started to throw the useless gun in his face and found she couldn't. The alley was nowhere near as dark as it had been a few seconds earlier.
The slow-motion unreality continued. The man had a face now, not just a shadow, and his eyes were fire under heavy brows and a mop of coarse black hair. What she had thought was the drape of an overcoat was his square body, short but muscled like a Bulgarian weight-lifter. He radiated power and compulsion.
Maureen flashed back to childhood Sundays in church, and she grabbed the crucifix she wore as jewelry rather than a statement of faith. She started to mumble the "Our Father," offering it as a prayer against witchcraft.
The alley seemed as light as day, and the sleet had vanished from the air. Somebody must have dumped flowers in the trash because Maureen could smell them, lilacs or something sweet like that. The brick walls looked more like fieldstone masonry now, like the peasant cottages in Grandfather O'Brian's yellowed photographs of County Wicklow.
Something flashed in the end of the alley, and Maureen saw another man striding easily through the molasses-slow air. Steel mail rippled across his shoulders and swung heavily as he struck the dark man from behind. Gold crowned the second man's head over honey-blonde hair.
She'd stepped into a tale of knights and mages. Swords. Sorcery.
Maureen gasped at the renewed sting of the sleet. The metal of her pistol burned cold. Shadows swirled in the darkness and resolved into one man standing and another stretched out at his feet. Her scream finally escaped into the storm, sounding more like the squeak of a mouse.
Steel flashed again, hacking at the fallen mugger. The light-haired man swung some kind of heavy bent knife, almost a short machete. Sour bile clawed at Maureen's throat, and her bladder burned like she was going to soak her pants.
A severed hand scuttled through the snow, sideways like a crab, searching for its wrist. Blood flowed black in the shadows. The meat-cleaver chunking seemed to go on forever. Her rescuer kicked something into the heaped snow across the alley, and Maureen gagged when she recognized it as a head. It hissed at her and clacked its teeth.
The light-haired man dropped his knife and pulled a can from his jacket, sprinkling something over the corpse. It writhed across the filthy snow and seemed to spit steam.
He looked up at her and nodded as if she'd asked a question.
"Lye," he said. "Drain-cleaner. It prevents healing, blocks the tissues from connecting back together." His voice was bright and cheerful, with a faint accent she couldn't place. He sounded like a TV chef assembling lasagna.
The whole scene was insane. His teeth flashed a savage grin from the shadows, as if killing a man was a public service like emptying the rat-traps in the basement laundry room of her apartment. Then his smile vanished as he stared at her shaking hands.
"You tried to fire that gun. Give it to me."
She hesitated and shrank back against the bricks.
"Quick, you fool! Killing him hasn't ended the danger!"
She handed him the .38.
He swung the cylinder open and spilled the duds into the nearest dumpster, muttering something under his breath. Then he grabbed her wrist and dragged her around the corner onto the sidewalk. Two steps down the street, he slowed and took a deep breath, handing back the empty pistol.
"He stretched time for the cartridges. That's sloppy, temporary. Never take short-cuts with your spells: Murphy's gonna bite you, every time."
Maureen's mind chased after the surreal concept of slowing the laws of physics. Her thoughts were punctuated by a muffled pop behind them. Two more followed after a short pause, then two more.
"What the hell was that?" she asked. "A .38 makes a lot more noise!"
"Not enough pressure. Smokeless powder just burns in the open air. You have to confine it for an explosion."
She shuddered and stared at her hand. Five cartridges in the cylinder . . . .
He grabbed her wrist again and pulled her back to the entrance of the alley. The body still twitched in the slush, trying to push itself erect with the stumps of its arms, as if it was searching for its head. It couldn't balance and fell, again and again. Maureen slapped a hand across her mouth and turned away, desperate for a place to run, a place to hide.
"You need to watch." His voice was quiet but implacable. "You must never talk of this. You'll see why, in about a minute. That man did not belong in your world."
He turned her around. He didn't squeeze, didn't hurt, but she could feel the power in his grip and realized, with a shock, that he was built as solidly as the other man. He was immensely strong. Those hands gave her no choice.
What she had seen as chain mail was a gray anorak of tight-woven wool. Splattered blood glistened black in the reflected streetlights. The gold crown was a yellow ski cap, equally worn and stained. His pants looked like army surplus. He must be soaked. She was soaked, and she started to shiver with the cold rain and reaction. Her gaze darted around everywhere except at the slowing jerky spasms of the corpse.
Blue light flickered in the corner of her eye, and for an instant she thought it was the flashers of a police car come to rescue her from this madness. The light strengthened and steadied. Terror snatched her breath again and froze her pulse.
It was the corpse.
It burned with a blue flame like gas, smokeless, with flashing tendrils of copper green or cobalt or strontium red like the flame-test for salts in chem. lab when she waved the platinum wire over the Bunsen burner. The alley filled with a quiet hiss and sizzle that must be the rain and the slush boiling, because she could feel the heat of the burning twenty feet away through the storm. Her mind locked on the horror, and she barely noticed when her rescuer let go of her.
Bits of flame showed her where the severed hands lay. A blue ball consumed the head and melted the snow-bank across the alley. Liquid fire like gasoline floated on the water and licked up splashes of blood from pavement and wall. It even outlined her rescuer, eating the blood off his sweater and pants.
Flesh dissolved. Organs dissolved. Bones glowed into ash and hissed into the flowing water of the melting. The skull popped, spattering gouts of flaming skin and brain across the slush.
Acid rushed up from her belly, and Maureen vomited.
When she could see again, the alley was dark. Wisps of steam floated upward and vanished in the freezing rain. The only evidence of the fight, of her terror, of the corpse, was a scattering of holes melted through the snow to the brick pavement of the alley.
She staggered out into the pale orange light of the street. Her teeth chattered uncontrollably.
"You need warmth and light. I'll buy you a cup of coffee."
The voice startled her. She had forgotten about the knight dressed like a street bum, out wandering in a storm.
She ought to scream and run. Part of her mind was screaming. But whenever he came close to her, she felt calm radiating from him like heat from a sunlamp. She remembered strength, and grace, and a sense of protection. She remembered a tantalizing smell.
"God, what the Mob would pay to be able to get rid of a body like that," she blurted. "Was that magic? Did you do that?"
"Define magic. That was spontaneous human combustion, well documented in scientific literature. Of course, the subject wasn't exactly human."
She staggered into a recessed doorway and squatted down, trying to clear her head. The apartment was at least a mile away. Maureen didn't think she could make it.
She needed coffee.
She needed warmth.
She needed explanations.
She stared up at the stranger. Silhouetted against the streetlights, he looked too damned similar to the man who had been following her. And he hadn't really answered her question. He had just killed . . . something. Something "not exactly human."
All the bone seemed to melt out of her legs and spine and she huddled back against the doorway. Maureen's memories ran off with her, fleeing the alley. Buddy Johnson had looked like that. Squat, strong, hairy, broad nose and powerful jaws like the Christmas Nutcracker and a forehead that looked like the business end of a battering ram. Java Man walked the streets of coastal Maine. He grew up to play pro football. Brutal aggression fit in there. Steroid rage. He'd bought off a couple of rape and assault charges with his earnings.
Maureen shivered and curled tighter into her ball. She was suddenly ten years old, cold and wet and frightened, hiding from the neighborhood bully who insisted on playing "doctor" with her when he came over and Jo wasn't home yet. It hurt. Every time she met a man, she had to fight down those memories. She kept wishing Buddy Johnson was dead and buried along with her teddy bear and tap shoes.
Something touched her shoulder, and she flinched back. Words flowed around her, gentle, barely louder than the sleet rattling against the storefront glass. She shrank back into the deepest corner but felt implacable hands lift her and guide her back out into the storm.
"You need a chance to dry off and something hot inside you. There's an all-night coffee shop a few blocks from here."
Those were her own thoughts, pulled out of her head and spoken. The man knew what she needed. He wanted to help her. He was concerned. And now that he was close, she smelled him again. He was the first man she'd ever gotten close to, who smelled right. He smelled safe.
"Prefer. B-b-b-booze. Need. D-d-d-drink." Her teeth were chattering too fast for coherent speech.
The apparition in the yellow ski cap shook his head. "The only bar close to here is no place for a lady. Let me buy you coffee."
"S-s-strip joint. Next b-b-block. Open. Serve booze. Walk by it every n-n-night. Seen naked women b-b-before. M-m-mirror."
Besides, she was much too cold to be affected by the
atmosphere of sex. And she was used to aggressive, wanton
women. She lived with one.
Brian thought he'd just as soon skip any place calling itself "The London Derrière." At least it had a vestibule, and the vestibule was warm. It was dirty, yes, with cracked and peeling wallpaper, water-stained ceiling, and a smell of unwashed bodies, but warm. It was also bright after the stormy streets, as if the management liked to get a good look at its customers before it let them in.
Oh, well. He'd seen worse in his many decades of soldiering for God and King. Bangkok came to mind, a place called Wong's in the Chinese slums where the bouncer carried an Uzi. He shook sleet out of his hair and gave himself a quick once-over for evidence of the brawl.
He couldn't see any blood--only a little dirty slush to show for his night's work. The burning and his own powers had cleaned up the gore.
Call it luck. Skill. Art. Mostly luck. Liam hadn't sensed him coming up behind. The bastard had been too busy concentrating on the woman and her gun.
Speaking of the woman . . . . Brian finally got a good look at this distraction who had wandered into his shark-hunt. Thin. Medium short. Almost skinny, but you couldn't tell any figure under that drenched yellow ski-jacket and wet baggy jeans.
She pulled off a green wool cap and revealed curly wet hair, burgundy red and cut short. Her eyes were green, and a cloud of freckles stood out like they were painted in dried blood across the white skin of a ghost.
Well, she had an excuse to look a little pale. Brian fed more Power to his calming spell, soothing her thoughts while wondering just how much of her memory he was going to have to edit. That was as tricky as playing around with primers, and he'd rather skip the process.
The bouncer at the inner door was also studying her as they dripped Maine winter all over his floor. Brian gave him a professional look-over and decided to behave. The guy was a little fat, but he could probably bench-press Brian with one hand.
The vault door shook his head. "I'm going to have to ask you for some I.D., Miss."
That was understandable. She looked like she was about seventeen, maybe one of those homeless waifs. That would explain why she was out after midnight with a .38 in her pocket. It'd be God's own joke if she'd been trying to mug Liam rather than the other way around. He reminded himself that he was in America, the Wild West where people carried guns all the time.
She fumbled for her wallet and handed over her driver's license. Her fingers were still shaking from the cold or the shock or both. It made her look even younger and more afraid.
The bouncer looked at her, at her license picture, at her again. He took the license over to a light and peered at it carefully, shook his head, and then studied Brian for a moment before handing the bit of laminated Polaroid back to her.
"Kid, I'll give you a C-note if you tell me who did that for you. It's the best job I've ever seen."
"Department of M-m-motor Vehicles," she stuttered between her chattering teeth. "S-s-secretary of S-s-state Office."
"Yeah. And if you're twenty-eight, I'm the mayor of Boston."
The man opened the inner door and waved them through into a tunnel throbbing with canned techno-pop. Strobe flashes lit up the blue glow of a set of stairs leading down. Brian's instincts twitched, and he started looking for exit signs. Life had taught him the old rule of the fox: always have at least three ways out of your den. He followed the girl down, warily.
Girl, he repeated, in his mind.
Sixteen, seventeen, he thought, with an I.D. saying she's twenty-eight. What in hell has Liam been up to? The Old One might have authored a list of sins as long as a hangman's rope, but random rape or mugging weren't on it.
It doesn't really matter, after tonight. Now Mulvaney can sleep, in whatever grave he's found. Brian felt tension drain out of his back, as if he'd dropped a burden he'd been carrying for years.
The stairs spilled them into a gloom of empty tables and stabbing theatrical spotlights. A fog of cigarette and cigar smoke warred with the tang of sweat and lust and spilled booze. It looked like a thin house: either a lousy show or the lousy weather. Probably both. There was one exit sign, floating in its red glow through the haze. And another. Plus the way he came in. Good.
The music pounded at him, squeezing just behind Brian's eyeballs. It was worse than firing his FAL full-auto on an indoor range. He scanned for the speakers of the sound system and steered the girl toward the corner farthest away. The table also had a clear view of all three exits. It was well away from the stage, but Brian didn't consider that a problem.
The dancer was totally nude except for an incongruous pair of ballerina's toe-shoes. Her body glistened with sweat or oil and jiggled in about five directions at once as she did various obscene things with her hips, but if she had I.D. saying she was twenty-eight, it would be about twenty years too young.
"How do they get away with this?"
Brian thought he'd been muttering to himself, well under the noise-level, but he must have spoken louder than he thought.
"F-f-fix. Newspaper says, woman who owns this p-p-place, lives with a cop."
Her teeth were still chattering, even though the room felt hot after the winter storm. The house kept the furnace at full blast for the dancers.
The table sat right by a hissing radiator, and Brian thanked blind luck. Now he could get that soaked jacket off her and let the heat go to work while he figured out some explanations--ones he could sell whether they were true or not. He pulled out a chair for her and held the shoulders of her coat while she wriggled out of it.
Her body-smell steamed up from the sweater underneath and Brian's nostrils flared. Doors clicked open in his brain, and he felt as if someone had picked him up and moved him across a chessboard into an entirely new game. He suddenly knew why Liam had been stalking her.
Brian hung her coat on the radiator to dry and fumbled for a seat. His brain and his hormones tumbled over each other, racing along in overdrive as his mind followed tangled connections and his body responded to genes older than the human race.
And it explained her apparent age. Twenty-eight was still nearly a child, for her kind . . . .
A waitress wiggled her way towards them through the flashing strobes. A topless waitress, he noticed, wearing nothing but a pair of high heels and skin-tight purple Lycra pants that molded her legs and butt and showed no trace of a panty-line.
"Get you anything?" The way she hung her painted breast just in front of Brian's nose, it looked like an open-ended offer. The joint was more than a bar . . . no cover charge for the show. They must make money the old-fashioned way.
"Coffee, if you've got it."
The waitress lifted an eyebrow. "Cost you as much as a drink. Four bucks."
"Irish coffee," the girl said. "Two. Make that doubles on the whiskey."
"Six bucks for the doubles."
The girl handed over a twenty. "Make it three of them and keep the change."
The waitress threaded her way back through the maze of empty tables. Brian's gaze dismissed her in its ceaseless prowl of the shadows: he wasn't all that interested in her or the dancer. This redheaded stranger, on the other hand . . . .
And if she wasn't interested in him, she would still draw Liam's brothers, cousins, and nephews like moths to a pheromone trap. Did she realize it? Could he use her again . . . ?
The sound system was too loud for talk. He studied her in silence, as she soaked up heat and expanded from her knot of fear and cold. She could be pretty or even beautiful, if she made the effort. She definitely wasn't dressed for sex-appeal, not with those loose jeans and baggy green sweater. Either she wore no makeup or a powerful understatement, and he hadn't caught any hint of perfume in that wash of her musky smell. He saw no rings, no jewelry except a crucifix.
She didn't know who she was, what powers she could summon.
Brian's thoughts spun, leading him nowhere. His only anchor was the need to watch the exits and the entry stair. Nobody declared truces in the ancient war he fought.
He had followed Liam. Someone could be following him.
The waitress reappeared from wherever the coffeepot lived. She set three steaming mugs in the center of the table, taking no sides in the division of three drinks between two people, eyed Brian, and aimed her breasts at him again as if firing a broadside from a frigate.
Brian wasn't interested. She shook her head at his lack of response, gave the redhead a searching stare as if trying to figure out what she had, and wound her way back through the tables again. Her rump twitched irritation at the wasted effort.
The girl swiveled around and poked through the pockets of her jacket, pulling out the .38 and a speed-loader. Five fresh rounds clicked into the cylinder, and the gun disappeared under the table rather than back into her pocket. Suspicious little witch.
The noise stopped, and the dancer vanished through one of the exits. So. The blessed quiet meant it was time to use that tale he hadn't manufactured. The redhead had already inhaled half of one mug and sat there, one hand hidden, glaring at him with hard distrust.
"Okay, Galahad, talk! Who are you, who was that in the alley, and what exactly happened back there?"
Her attitude was reasonable, given what she'd just been through. However, if he spent any more time with her, he'd have to persuade her that firearms could be unreliable in the wrong company.
He kept his hands on the table and tried not to think too much about where those chunks of lead were aimed. The ones he'd dumped in the trash had been hollow-points--nasty little things.
Send her off on a tangent. "Pawn to Queen Four."
"Chess. I just thought it was time to try a different opening."
She smiled. It was the first time he'd seen her smile. Granted, she hadn't had much reason. And then a shot of mischief flashed through her eyes and she became a different person, a person he definitely wanted to know better.
She nodded and sipped her coffee. "Pawn to Queen Four."
"Pawn to Queen's Bishop Four."
You haven't played mental chess since you were shivering in a captured Argie trench outside Port Stanley. Where have the years gone, since that Falklands balls-up? And why in hell did you try that as an icebreaker with this woman? Sergeant-Major Terence Mulvaney spoke up from Brian's memories, offering his sardonic digs as the price of a mug of tea in the regimental tent. Brian and the big Irishman had bled together in a dozen ugly little wars. Two Pendragons in the entire British army and they'd both ended up in the SAS . . . .
"Pawn to King Three."
Ah. "Queen's gambit declined. It leads to interesting variations, but you're going to find yourself locked in a prison of your own pieces if you aren't careful. You must play a lot of chess, to even try it."
"Used to." Then the light went out of her eyes, and her face hardened again. "The rules never change. Your opponent stays safely on the other side of the table. And the action is purely mental." Her mouth clamped shut, and her eyes narrowed, as if she felt she'd let some secret loose.
It was Brian's turn to blink. Take it easy, Captain Albion. You've got a casualty here. Check the vital signs. Those three sentences told him the woman had problems that went far beyond Liam. And then he laughed at himself.
You're at least bright enough to recognize your own buttons, me laddie. You're hearing her say she needs a knight in shining armor, and your nose wants you to be the chosen champion. Engage your brain and switch the balls off-line.
She seemed to shake a memory out of her eyes. "Who the hell are you and what the fuck's going on, here? Did I walk into a goddamn movie set?"
He winced at her language. "My name is Brian Albion. That was Liam in the alley. It wasn't a movie set, or a David Copperfield illusion. I hope Liam's dead now, although I really can't be sure, and I can't come up with any reason why you should believe me. That's up to you."
She sucked up the rest of her first coffee and started on a second. Maybe she intended to drink all three by herself. One hand stayed under the table. With the gun.
"Saying he's dead, saying you hope he's dead, doesn't tell me shit! What the hell happened back there?"
She had a lilt to her voice, slight but noticeable in spite of her anger and crude words. Third or fourth generation Irish, he guessed, from a close family where she would have talked a lot with the grandparents. She might have heard tales . . . .
Brian quietly claimed the last mug, guessing she'd at least growl at him rather than shooting him out of hand. Except first thing in the morning, most people won't kill you for taking their coffee. Besides, she didn't have a silencer.
"What did you see?"
She muttered something into her mug, and then looked up at him. "It's crazy."
"I doubt it."
"That . . . Liam . . . came into the alley and things started getting brighter, warmer, as if the sun was shining. It smelled good. There was some kind of round stone tower, like a castle."
Ah. "You're Irish, yes?"
She stared at him as if he had just sprouted an extra head. "Grandparents, yes. Some Scots on my father's side. What the hell has that got to do with anything?"
"He was taking you to Castle MacKenzie in the Summer Country. The British Isles have rain eight days out of seven. Trust the Celts to create a fantasy world where the sun is always shining and the wind is at your back."
"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! Next, you'll be telling me he really did burn up when he died. Magic. You claim to do that, too?"
"No. Liam did it. The fire wasn't a spell so much as the ending of a spell. He cast it on himself before he came here, and kept it from happening as long as he was alive. When he died, the spell completed itself."
Brian frowned. Maybe it was old-fashioned, but he didn't care for that kind of language from a woman. Unlady-like. But then, he was old-fashioned. Or just plain old.
She finished up her mug and started eyeing his. She'd downed two doubles in less than ten minutes: equally unlady-like. Brian slid his mug back to her. He'd gotten maybe three sips out of it.
"You said something about him not being really human."
A drunken cailín pointing a gun at his balls did not make for smooth conversation. Brian tried a delicate nudge to her thoughts and relaxed slightly as her hand strayed back to the jacket and came away empty.
"Anybody ever tell you about the Old Ones?"
There was that two-headed look again, with a slight lack of focus around the eyes. She didn't have a lot of body weight to absorb that much whiskey.
"You mean the Little People? Leprechauns, fairies, elves?"
"No. The mages, the witches, the war wizards, Merlin and Gorlois and Morgan le Fay. Merlin was supposed to be the Devil's child. He was an Old One. So was Liam. Technically speaking, Liam was not Homo sapiens. That's why he traveled this world with a burning spell set on his body. It destroys the evidence, the bones that aren't exactly right. Cuts down on questions."
"Holy Mary, Mother of God. You are fucking crazy." She stared fuzzily down into the bottom of her last mug, disappointed with what she found there.
Call it five ounces of whiskey now, in fifteen minutes. Or a bit less, since they probably watered the drinks in this dive. That was still heavy input. Maybe the booze helped her to live in a world that belonged to another species. Brian grimaced in sympathy, but that was about all he could do. If she was lucky, she might live the rest of her life without one of them brushing by her on the street and smelling that sharp musky sweat.
Liam's blood had been nearly pure. He'd had no more choice in what he did than she had. Put the right scent on a trap, and even the wiliest animal loses all caution.
She looked up again, eyes totally unfocused. "Merlin," she whispered. "Arthur. Lancelot. The Once and Future King. Mallory. Tennyson. Is that the Summer Country you're talking about?"
Bloody hell! Now she was going cloudy on him. Next thing, she'd be chanting "The Lady of Shalott."
"Don't get any warm-puppy feelings about this: the legend of Arthur has to be about the most depressing tale ever told in the English language. It's an endless stream of people you like doing their damnedest to doom themselves and knowing it every step of the way.
"Besides, with Liam you're looking at the other side. Mordred. Nimue. The tangled dysfunctional family of Clan Orkney. Pain for the fun of it."
Pain for the fun of it, like what Liam had done to Mulvaney seven years ago. Well, that debt was paid, although Liam's nasty little cousin still wove his traps. Wait a minute . . . . Maybe Dougal had been after this girl.
She started to hum a tune from Camelot. Even allowing her the twenty-eight years, she wasn't old enough to remember that show. He was. It had made him sick.
"Do they still hold tournaments in the Summer Country? I hung out with the S.C.A. in college, even learned to fence a bit. We held medieval banquets and mock duels."
Brian had swallowed enough fantasy for one night. "They have dungeons in the Summer Country. They have slaves in the Summer Country. Camelot is dead. Arthur is dead. Law is dead. Power rules."
He wondered how much of this was slipping past the alcohol. Time to get crude. "Liam had power. He wanted a woman, either for himself or for his master. He saw you and wanted you and was about to take you. For life. For rape. A bed-slave to bear his children. You wouldn't get a vote. 'Women's Lib' never came to the Summer Country. A woman is either a sorceress or a slave. A bed-slave while she is young and fertile and pretty, a drudge in the kitchen or farmyard afterwards. Much the same is true for men, unless you have the Old Blood and the Power."
Brian stopped and realized he'd been ranting. Her mug was empty. He wanted a drink or two of his own, to settle his stomach. The next round was his. If she got too drunk, there were things he could do about it.
That waitress was what they wanted in the Summer Country: a sex toy with no brain. Where the hell was she? His glance scouted the corners of the room.
A slim woman, dark-haired and dark-skinned, stood at the bottom of the entry stair. A man who could have been her twin held her arm. The gray-clad pair scanned the smoky room like a pair of elegant cobras, their expensively understated dress warping the strip-club into a Parisian demi-monde cellar.
Damn! Fiona and Sean. Here. Now. Bloody, bloody hell!
Brian couldn't waste the time to figure out what that meant.
The redhead blinked fuzzily at him when he draped her coat over her shoulders and dragged her through the nearest exit. He turned and had a few words with the door, hoping the walls were stronger than they looked. They probably weren't.
Shouts echoed through the room behind them. Customers weren't allowed out back. Brian leaned a little harder on his control, and the girl finished shrugging her arms into the sleeves of her jacket. He slipped her gun out of her pocket before she could think about reaching for it.
He could make it work, if he had to, no matter what Fiona or Sean tried to say to the little grains of nitrocellulose.
He pulled her down the corridor past three curtains, dog-leg right, up a flight of stairs flanked by flaking cinder-block walls to a door with a crash-bar and one of those idiot red flags that said "Alarm Will Sound." He held another quick discussion with locks and electrons.
They pushed through, not into the storm but into another passageway with doors and stairs and exit signs. The place was a bloody fire-marshal's nightmare. The door clicked shut without an alarm, and he told it to be a good boy and stay closed. Not that Fiona or Sean couldn't also talk to locks. It would just take them a little while.
A dull thud shook the floor from below, probably Sean or Fiona showing off. That did trigger the alarms--electronic horns rather than the metallic snarl that would have been the door. Brian hauled the girl up another flight of stairs and slammed the door open with his hip, dragging her out into freezing rain. He'd expected stairs down, but they were in an alley. The place must be built into a slope.
Another alarm cut in, a mechanical ringing clatter overhead. A sign under it said "Sprinkler Alarm." That meant fire. Must have been Sean: Fiona tended to more subtlety. She wasn't less dangerous, just quieter about it.
Rain, he thought.
Fiona would follow him. She wouldn't pay much attention to the girl's smell: wrong circuitry. And Sean wouldn't notice her, either, being what he was. Liam had been the one who'd tracked her.
He looked for water--rain and slush and the running gutters --things to kill his scent. He had to get the girl home without a fight. She was a dead weight, a drunk, a distraction. She'd almost gotten him caught down there.
Mental chess. Fiona was such a devious little bitch, twisting Dougal's plot to her own ends. The bloody girl had been bait for a trap, Fiona's own trap using Liam's hunt as cover.
He slowed down, the clamor of the alarms blocks behind them in the rainy darkness. Sirens wailed in the distance, stringing together the great braying horns of the fire-trucks as they plowed through intersections against the lights, and he winced at the thought of a panic stop of one of those metal monsters on the ice and slush. At least there wasn't much traffic at this time of night. Or morning.
Maybe Fiona and Sean would get tangled up in that, get squashed flatter than bedbugs. Faint hope. They'd be more likely to wreck the truck. And Fiona had the persistence of a saint, even if nothing else about her was holy. That book wasn't closed.
He slipped the gun back into the girl's pocket. He had better ones. Then he smiled at her and turned on the charm. "You never told me your name."
She blinked back, still dizzy from the drinks and the run. "Mau-reen," she said, stumbling over pronouncing her own name. "Maureen Pierce. I don' know if Grandma'd call this a formal in-tro-duc-tion."
He took her hand and kissed it, gravely.
"I won't presume upon it."
Now, to adjust her feelings a little further . . . . Any woman who could take what she'd been through and come back with Queen's Gambit Declined was someone he wanted to know better.
A touch of the glamour wouldn't hurt anybody.
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