"Snuff".

Paula Stiles thesnowleopard@hotmail.com

Summary: It's a less than holly-jolly Twelve Days of Christmas, when the Dynamic Duo (sorry, Joe and Methos) run afoul of some renegade Watchers who are selling Internet movies of Quickenings.

Characters: Joe, Methos, Amy Thomas, Stephen Keane, René Galbon, various Watcher OMCs.

Rating: R

Disclaimer: Davis/Panzer Productions owns the Highlander universe. I don't own Glenn Fry's "Smuggler's Blues", The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter", Queen's "Under Pressure", The Pogues' "Fairy Tale of New York" or Greg Lake's "I Believe in Father Christmas". God, and the copyright laws, forbid that I should make any money off of this.

Archive: Ask, and ye shall probably receive permission.

Note: This is story number nine in the "Armed Intervention" series, and occurs over Christmas 2002. This tale, and the rest of this Joe and Methos series (along with my other stories), can be found at:

http://www.geocities.com/RainForest/Andes/3071/arch.html

The series alone can be found at the Armed Intervention Series page:

http://www.geocities.com/RainForest/Andes/3071/arch2.html

Many thanks to Judith Hill for betareading this for me.





SNUFF

There's trouble on the streets tonight, I can feel it in my bones. I had a premonition that he should not go alone. I knew the gun was loaded, but I didn't think he'd kill. Everything exploded and the blood began to spill....

Philippe pegged the guy for an Immortal as soon as he saw him step up to the bar. The knee-length, black coat and too-casual scan of the room gave it away to anyone with the right kind of observational skills--and as a Watcher, Philippe had those skills.

"Est-il ici encore?" Wilhelm said in his ear, which was the only way Philippe could have heard him above the din of the club. The DJs at L'Ambrosia were fond of playing earthquake-level Europop. Still, Philippe jumped. Wilhelm liked to sneak up on people, and was very good at it, too. Philippe didn't know if Wilhelm was really an ex-soldier, as he claimed, or a man who had failed the reality but had aped the dream to perfection. He did know that Wilhelm pissed him off.

"Not yet," he replied, also in French. "But I believe he will be. See? There's the bait." He jerked his chin at the man.

Wilhelm's eyes tracked over to the bar. He looked disgusted when he spotted the man in the coat. "Huh," he snorted. "Not much. Not even worth recording the fight, probably." Philippe almost laughed. Wilhelm, with his severe acne, was not much to look at, either. Still.....

Philippe examined the man at the bar, and had to agree. The guy, indeed, did not look like much: long, gawky body that seemed swallowed up by the bulky coat, sharp, fox-like features, dark, cropped hair. The nose was the only really distinguishing feature, and that was damning with faint praise. Philippe thought that the current song playing in the club, a cover version of the Smiths' 'How Soon Is Now?', summed up this pathetic specimen pretty well. Philippe would be very surprised if the guy had been an Immortal longer than 50 years. He looked more like some postgraduate student with the Sorbonne than an unkillable swordsman.

*Not quite unkillable,* Philippe corrected himself. There was the profit for him and Wilhelm.

"Scheiss! There is the club owner," Wilhelm said. "Why is *he* here, all of a sudden? He's not supposed to show up for another hour."

"Where?" Philippe said, confused.

"Dark jacket, bow-tie, red hair. Just came out of the back office. He's crossing the dance floor now."

"Yeah?" Philippe sipped his drink. "O-kay. I see him. Who is this Keane, anyway?"

"Stephen Keane. Born during the 1480s, in Norfolk, England. Been all over the place. Pretty good businessman. He's had this club for almost five years and it is still comfortably in the black."

"Has he taken many heads?"

Wilhelm nodded. "He doesn't go around looking for people to kill like Kalas or Duncan MacLeod, if that's what you mean, but he is no slouch. Could be a good fight if this kid can hold up for more than three blows. I did hear some odd rumour that Keane is studying under a teacher, some ancient Immortal. I haven't been able to track that at all. Ah, gut."

The younger Immortal was looking around, and Keane, just clearing the dance floor, had raised his head and started scanning the room for the other of his kind. Showtime.

"Here we go. Looks like they'll try to fight right here," Philippe said, wondering if he should bother to get out his digital camera. Despite the chaotic setting, the scene could be good for a few shots. "Attends. What are they doing?"

Keane had spotted the younger Immortal. To Philippe's surprise, Keane smiled and headed for the bar, straight for the man. The other saw him as Keane approached. He, too, smiled. Keane pulled up a stool next to the man and gestured to the bartender, who hurried over to refill the young Immortal's glass.

"They know each other? I didn't know Keane had any students." The surprise in Wilhelm's voice was almost worth the disappointment of losing yet another subject to, of all things, friendship. "How are we going to get them to fight if they're friends?"

"We don't." Sighing, Philippe stood up. He and Wilhelm could probably find a way to play Keane against his young friend, with enough time and attention, but why bother? "Allons-y. This one is a dead end. Let's just hope that Gary and Andrew have had better luck."

*********

"Who were those blokes?" I ask Keane, in his office. He does not want to have this conversation in public, even in the top-volume of his club. That's fine. His office is ever so much more comfortable, and I like lounging in his plush, red-leather guest's chair. These things swallow you right up, like a Pitcher plant.

He shrugs, sipping his bourbon. "All I know is that they've been following me off and on since July. At least...I think that was them."

"And you just remembered to mention this?"

"Don't get testy. I've been distracted. You know that." I watch him pour me a drink. "Besides, I couldn't be sure. At first, I thought they were competition, the local Russian mafia, something like that. Then, after you introduced me to Joe, I thought they might be Watchers. Then, I thought perhaps they were working for some other Immortal. MacLeod attracts a lot of the sleazier members of our tribe, and it's no secret that he was in Paris for much of the past ten years." I roll my eyes at the jibe, but let it go. I am not interested in getting into the middle of that little feud again. "But, no candidates for 'boss' ever showed up, so....."

"So, what are they?" I notice that he hands over the drink with less deference than in the past. Good. I don't need a groupie. If he can learn to see me as human, he will not take my failings personally.

"I don't know. People have been watching me, off and on, since I bought this place. I'm a bit surprised that you're so worried, considering all that you've got on your plate right now."

Ugh. I do so love having keepers. "Before, it didn't matter. You can take care of yourself. You don't need me to babysit you and we both know that I would be useless at it, even if I tried. Now, though, they have got inside my perimeter. I want to know why."

He eyes me as he sits down behind his desk. "You have a 'perimeter'?"

I nod. "I have a 'perimeter'."

"That sounds ominous."

"Good." He's learning. I sip my drink--a gin and tonic. I let him choose. "What I can't figure is whether they are watching us or Watching us, if you see what I mean."

"You still think they're Watchers?" He knocks back his own drink, looking as if he needs it.

"Maybe, but not the usual kind." I swirl the ice in my glass and sip from it.

"You mean Hunters," he says.

I stare at him--surprised, to say the least. "You've heard of the Hunters?"

"I've heard...rumours. Nothing more." He is hiding something from me, but I am damned if I know what. There is no hatred as I'd expect, more like unease. "I understand that they were quite a menace in their day."

"They had their moments, though they're all past-tense now, I'm happy to say," I admit, letting the subject go for now. "I think I'd like to send some greetings down the line. I know a few people that I should warn." I can buy one of those temporary, pay-as-you-go mobiles and smash it as soon as I'm done. Either way, Mira should be warned.

"Maybe we should have a chat with Dawson, as well," Keane says. It is a good suggestion, though I don't like it, of course.

"Yeah, all right," I mutter. "We'll go to Le Blues and see what we can find."

*********

René was hard-pressed to keep his expression anything but murderous, when he opened up his door and saw Director Gabrieli standing on the doorstep. After the events of last month, he had hoped not to see Gabrieli again for some time.

"M. Gabrieli. This is a surprise." Gabrieli had told him, point-blank, that he knew about René's retreat in Reims, and Mathilde, but to come here so near to Christmas--it was highly inappropriate.

"I'm sure that it is," Gabrieli replied in his soft, American accent. "I apologise for dropping in on you so unexpectedly, Doctor, but you have a certain expertise that I need to use tonight. And no, it does not concern any of your patients." 'Patients' was code, of course, for 'Adam Pierson'.

"I see. Alors, let's go to my office, then." René let Gabrieli in and shut the door behind him. He smiled to himself at Gabrieli's clear unease about turning his back on his subordinate. Ever since he had found out that René had been a Hunter, Gabrieli had been uneasy around him. That might never change. They had been allies in dark times but that was all.

"It is right down here. Follow me, s'il vous plaît." René edged past Gabrieli, no more enthusiastic about turning his back on his supervisor than Gabrieli was about the reverse. Faced with a mutual threat, they had acted in sympathy, but now, weeks later, cold reality had set in. They might well be allies again, but René doubted that he and Gabrieli would ever become friends.

René had no sooner closed the door behind them than Gabrieli pulled a manila folder out of his coat and tossed it onto the table. "I need you to look at the photos inside that folder and tell me if you recognise any of these men."

René picked up the folder gingerly. "Why, may I ask?"

Gabrieli stared out the window. "I believe that they may be former colleagues of yours."

*Mon Dieu. Pas encore. Will I ever leave this behind?* René opened the folder and looked through it. Relief flooded through him. "I recognise none of these men."

Gabrieli sagged, seeming to shrink inside his trenchcoat. "You are sure, Doctor? It is critical that you be absolutely sure."

"Oui. In my, ah, former line of work, it was necessary to work closely with all the others. None of these men were Hunters, unless Horton recruited them after I left, or unless they were like Harold Croft or Eddie Brill--secret spies and assassins of other Watchers. But, field Hunters, non. We were never a large group."

René was surprised when Gabrieli cursed to himself. He had expected relief, not worry. Gabrieli turned to him. "In that case, Doctor, I have an assignment for you."

*********

The sailors and the pilots, the soldiers and the law, the payoffs and the ripoffs, and the things nobody saw....

Gary stood outside the ski lodge, shivering in snow up to his ankles. He wasn't ecstatic about his assignment. The Hautes-Alpes was too damned cold a province for a nice boy from Austin, Texas to be hanging around in December, and skiing just wasn't Gary's thing. Funny, it didn't seem to be the kind of thing the Immortal he was Watching liked, either. Seemed he was here to climb a mountain, not ski down it. He was some kind of extreme environmentalist. They had found the guy's pack when they broke into his locker in the lodge. It was covered with mountaineering badges. The guy had been everywhere--McKinley, K2, the Matterhorn (who climbed that anymore?), even Mount Washington. He was downright obsessed with mountains and snow. Pretty fucking weird.

But, hey, if Gary and Andy could get to him out on the slopes, they could isolate him and take him down--if only Andy would get off his fat ass and call. Gary really wanted to get this guy. The ones they'd been tracking so far were all youngsters, little fish. This guy, though, wasn't even in the chronicles. Gary didn't think he was Methos--he didn't fit the vague description that Cassandra's Watcher had reported. Still, Gary was sure this guy was some kind of old. He cared about whatever he was doing at the moment and didn't give a shit about the rest, as far as Gary could tell. If they could get this guy, they wouldn't have to sell him under false pretences as Methos, the way Philip and Willy were planning to do with their little fish.

Gary checked the gun in his coat for the fiftieth time and pulled out his cellphone to punch up his partner's number. He'd given Andy more than enough time to set up the trap. Time to light a fire under ol' Andy's butt. The phone rang...and rang...and rang....

"Andy, where the fuck are you?" Gary said out loud, puzzled. He heard snow being scraped off boots behind him and spun around, going for his gun. And there he was, the Immortal, standing a few feet away, hands clasped behind his back. Gary had only seen him from a distance before. Up close, the guy's thin face was startlingly dark against his brown beard and sandy eyes. His faded red snowgear looked battered next to Gary's brand-new stuff. He smiled at Gary, in a way that made the Watcher clutch his gun inside his coat. Where was Andy?

"I understand that you and your friend have been looking for me," the Immortal said. "Perhaps you'd like to tell me why." When the guy brought his arms out from behind his back, Gary saw the sword in his hand--and the blood dripping off it, onto the fresh snow.

*********

I wasn't too thrilled when I got the call from Headquarters. Gabrieli wanted to see me. He made the call himself, I'll grant him that. He was polite, but he didn't bother to make it sound like a request. I left Amy and the new girl, an exchange student from Ireland looking to make a few extra euros to pay the rent, to mind the bar, got in my car and drove over.

Security, security and more friggin' security. At least the guard hopped right to it when he heard my name. Notoriety has its privileges. I got right into the parking lot, parked my car and breezed in past the secretary (who didn't even say 'boo') to Gabrieli's office. As I did, I passed a woman in the hallway--late forties and greying, but elegant and damned attractive, too, in a posh, British kind of way. Walked down that hallway right past me like she owned it. Way above my station, as the Brits would put it. I don't know why she struck me so. It was funny the way she looked at me--as if she knew me. She even smiled. Then again, lots of Watchers looked at me like that, these days, like I was some kind of legend. You whined about my visibility all the time. It scared you. Wimp.

I knocked on the door to Gabrieli's office. "Come in," I heard him call from inside. I pushed the door open and went in. It wasn't as overgrown as old Lebeau's office, but I wouldn't say Gabrieli's was excessively neat, either. I'm sure that my new boss knew where everything was inside those manila envelopes piled up in the boxes next to his desk. The office was also a Hell of a lot smaller than either Shapiro or Anders' offices--more like old Lebeau's--and that made me wonder. That, and the open window against the wall. Did the guy like having an escape route, for some reason? At least he wasn't like Jacques Vemas, who'd pretty much worked out of his car. Not that it did him much good; Kalas got him, anyway. You hadn't shed too many tears over that. To be honest, neither had I.

Gabrieli looked up as I came in. "Mr. Dawson. Good to see you." He indicated the chair in front of his desk. "Please have a seat."

I did what he wanted. Then, I said, "So, you gonna tell me what I've done now, or do I have to guess?" It was insubordinate, but it just popped out. When things go sour in the first meeting, it's hard to make a right turn and play nice the next time.

He smiled grimly and tipped his head in a salute. He knew we'd gotten off on the wrong foot, too. "How was your trip to Scotland?"

"Fine." *But I'm sure you didn't call me in about that,* I thought.

He played with his laptop for a minute or two. "Your preliminary report was very interesting, if abbreviated."

"That was my full report," I said. "I didn't have much to say."

He raised his eyebrows. "Not much to say about a Quickening taken on holy ground?"

"Like I said in the report, I didn't get a good look at what happened, especially since we--I came in after the fact. Kenny, the Immortal involved, just fell apart after he took his last head in the church or grove, or whatever it was. The weather might have been affected by his actions, but I couldn't be sure. The incident did happen in Scotland in November. You'd expect bad weather under those circumstances."

Gabrieli shuffled through some papers on his desk. "And the other Immortal?"

I rubbed my cane, hard. "What other Immortal?"

"The one who took Kenny's head, of course."

I resisted the urge to start grinding the butt of my cane into the floor. "I couldn't tell you. Like I said, I didn't get a good look at what happened to Kenny, before or after."

Gabrieli sighed. "Mr. Dawson, whenever you refuse to identify an Immortal in your reports in the future, I am just going to assume that you mean Adam Pierson, all right? Especially since he was right there with you during the entire incident."

"I don't understand what you mean," I said stiffly.

Gabrieli chuckled. "Moving right along.... The reason why I called you in, Mr. Dawson, is because I have a job for you. I have a problem, and I'd like for you to take care of it for me."

I stared at him, suspicious. "What kind of problem?"

Gabrieli handed a file to me across the desk. "Do you recognise any of these men?"

I opened the folder and looked through it. There were eight names, files and photos, in all. Philippe D'Aire? Wilhelm Brandauer? Gary McCain? "Nope. Never heard of any of 'em. Who are they?"

Gabrieli sat back in his chair and steepled his fingers. "They are Watchers, Mr. Dawson. Or should I say--they were. Now, they are renegades. They were all in Central and South America, mostly Watching Immortals involved in black market activities, as of last spring. They all dropped out of sight within a week or two of each other about eight months ago. Investigations of connections between any of them have proved inconclusive-- though D'Aire and Brandauer's Immortals fought a duel last year, which Brandauer's Immortal won, and Brandauer's Immortal lost his own head two months later to a woman named Rosa Armenderez in Buenos Aires. Both men failed to take up subsequent assignments, and were on probation at the time of their respective disappearances."

"So what? We get dropouts all the time, especially the ones who came from the sleazier walks of life. As long as they keep their mouths shut and don't go after Immortals, we let them go."

"Exactly. Which is why we have a problem." He turned his laptop and showed me the webpage called up on it. The background to the page was black. In blood-red letters, the foreground read: "SNUFF -- Real Challenges, Real Blood, Real Death. Gladiatorial combat like you've never seen it before. Come see it live on our webcam."

"Shit," I said. "They're filming Immortal challenges and showing them as snuff flicks?"

"Exactly," Gabrieli said. "It gets worse." He hit a key and another page loaded up. This one read: "Tired of playing the Game by everybody else's rules? Looking to take a few heads? Want to make your veins quicken with more power than you've ever had before? Contact us." The cellphone number seemed almost like an afterthought.

"The two pages are not linked, by the way," Gabrieli said. "Though I'm sure that doesn't surprise you. Whoever set these up has two very different sets of clientele--and that person--or persons--definitely does not want those two groups to meet."

*********

"Right," Methos said as he and Keane pulled up across from Le Blues Bar. "Here's what we'll do. We will breeze in, you will get a drink and I'll go out back and check out the database."

"Are you sure that Dawson is going to be okay with that?" Keane felt doubtful about this plan. It seemed more harebrained than even the Master's usual.

"Probably not, but I can talk him into it. Once I explain the situation to him, it should be okay. Don't worry about it. Joe's not gonna boot us as long as we don't put him in a difficult position with the Watchers."

Keane frowned, but Methos conveniently missed seeing his student's doubt by getting out of the car at that moment.

"The bookshop is coming along nicely, don't you think?" he said, as they went inside. "You've done a really nice job. I'd sell you stock in it if it were worth anything." Keane bit down a laugh. The Old Man was a nomad, not a businessman. When he needed something, he either took it or did without.

"Don't worry about it. I enjoy being there," Keane reassured him. "Besides, you've done most of the work, even if you don't realise it." Methos glanced at him, face screwed up in skepticism. Keane wasn't surprised. Methos didn't think much of flattery, and that was how he would see Keane's praise. Most of Keane's own contribution had been reminding Methos of all the things he immediately forgot that he'd just done, right after he did them. Fortunately, Methos was good at holding onto records (if a bit messy), so Keane could usually piece together the paper trail of the previous day's activities, even when Methos was too distracted to remember them. Keane was beginning to think that Methos was not nearly as vulnerable as his Mortal handlers thought he was. The Old Man might be ill, but his priorities were perfectly aligned. Keane would not care to take him on again in combat. He had been unpredictable enough in their first encounter. And Keane, despite his curiosity, had no intention of sparring with his teacher again, even in jest, any time soon.

As they walked in the door, Keane's heart sank when he saw Amy wiping down a table. He did not want to run into her right now. The clientele was good for a Tuesday afternoon, about ten people, all of them wander-ins rather than habitual drunks. Dawson was nowhere in sight. Perfect. Keane hoped that Amy wasn't going to try to get him drunk again. It showed a major lack of respect for him, on her part, and he would keep that in mind, for future interactions. Getting shanghaied into helping her finish out that bit of Watcher dirty business last month, behind Methos and her father's backs, had not improved their relationship.

"Hi, Amy," Methos called out to her as she looked up from her chore. "Where's Joe?"

"He got a call to go meet one of our investors," Amy said casually. Ah. That would be Joe's bosses in the Watchers. Interesting. She gave Methos a smile, which faded when she saw Keane. Things had not changed very much, then.

"Hey, I need to check out something in the office," Methos said, heading for the curtain next to the bar. "I'll be right back."

"I'll come help you," Amy said, hurrying after him.

"You don't have to do that," Methos looked beleaguered. So much for that plan.

"Oh, yes. I do," she said. Keane hid a smile as Methos let his shoulders slump and held open the curtain for Amy. She might want to jump into the Old Man's bed, but she wasn't about to fall for any of his fairy stories.

*I think I'll have a drink,* Keane thought, and found a table. *Maybe if I get my own, I can stay sober this time.*

*********

There's lots of shady characters, lots of dirty deals. Every name's an alias in case somebody squeals. It's the lure of easy money. It's got a very strong appeal.

"You don't have to do this, you know. I can handle myself. Don and Salzer and I designed the original database." I lean over Amy's shoulder. She is wearing a t-shirt and jeans, so I can't see down her cleavage or glimpse her very shapely legs this time, which is a shame. Her hair smells nice, though--some apple-flavoured shampoo. Is she growing it out? She sighs and points at a seat, not looking at me. I sit, but pull the chair right up beside her, so that our thighs are touching. She rolls her eyes, but doesn't move away. I think I amuse her. She certainly doesn't seem threatened. I would never play that kind of game with Joe's daughter.

"You know the rules," she scolds me. "You're not even supposed to be back here."

Folding my arms, I lean over and say in her ear, "So, why am I still back here?"

She glances askance at me. "As you said, we need to work together. Maybe these are only overzealous Watchers who need to be warned off. Maybe they're renegades whom we need to track down. And maybe, just maybe, they're outside folk who have found out about Immortals, or worse, Hunters. In which case, we may have a problem."

I shake my head. "I think we're all right on that score. They were Watchers. I'm sure of it--but they're probably renegades, though not Hunters, or Keane and I might be dead by now."

"What makes you say that?" She calls up the internet browser.

"Because no one else would just watch. Not like that. Watchers do things a certain way, unlike any other type of spy."

She looks puzzled. "What certain way? We don't do things 'a certain way'."

"Of course you do. You're always Watching your Immortal, not those around you--not more than absolutely necessary for safety. The Immortal is almost always the most dangerous factor in your surroundings."

"And the most fascinating?" She bats her eyelashes at me. Little girl, are you flirting with me? This is a good sign.

"That, too." I grin. Might as well flirt back. "It's easy to get distracted by your assignment."

"Especially when he's finally decided to start showering regularly?" Ooh. Touché. She is sharp. I will have to keep that in mind. She shakes her head, her expression darkening--thinking of Morgan Walker, maybe? "You don't need to remind me of that lesson. I learned it thoroughly the first time." The Watcher logo comes up on the laptop screen. "Here we go."

I lean forward. "I see they've changed the design since last summer."

"We change addresses, servers and design quite frequently now, to avoid hackers." She gives me another sidelong look. "Not that we'd be thinking of any *specific* hacker."

I blink at her. "Moi? I'm no hacker. I just like to exercise my creator's rights from time to time."

"Oh, that's what you call it."

"That is what it is."

"The copyright of any work that you do for a job belongs to your employer." She is twitting me.

"Yeah, well, not if they reject the work, which is exactly what Vemas, the European Director back then, did initially." I know I sound defensive, but this is still a touchy subject for me. "It wasn't until after Kalas killed him and after Shapiro got booted that they reopened the project. I'd left by then." And that is more than I have told any Watcher besides Joe about my leaving. Even Joe mostly knows just what he saw at the time. "I can see them using all the data that Don and I collected, but the fact that they were using our design at a time when all my old colleagues wouldn't have given me the time of day in the street was galling."

She types 'France' into the search term box. "You take some getting used to."

"So I've noticed." A map of northern France comes up on the screen, with a cluster of labeled dots in and near Paris. "This is a map of field Watchers in the area?"

She nods and peers at the screen. "I see me and Joe, of course. Dr. Galbon. No surprise, there. Hmm. You're listed, too."

"I am?" I stare at the label--Adam Pierson, Independent Researcher-- startled. "I guess I am." What game is Gabrieli playing? Or is someone else playing it? I file away the information for future use, and get back to the chore at hand. "Any unusual suspects?"

A strange look comes over her face, but she just shakes her head. "No, none--wait."

"Yes, that's not an administrative label, is it?" I touch the screen over a name--Evelyn Baer.

"No, it's not. But, you said you were looking for men, not a woman. Besides, she has a legitimate reason for being in the area--her Immortal is here. She's been assigned to Keane." She hits a key and the map expands to include all of France and parts of Germany, the Netherlands and even Denmark. An uneven ring of dots appears at the outer edge of the map. "That's odd." She hits another key and turns back the clock on the map a week. The ring disappears. When she rolls forward the date, the ring reappears, closing. "For some reason, we have 12 Immortals advancing on Paris since last week. See? Those are their Watchers, reporting in."

I shiver, chilled by her words. "But why?" Have I stayed too long in this place? What is going on? Who gave the alarm? Was it because I took on Keane? Whacked Kenny in Scotland? Is that bastard Atticus reaching out for me from beyond the grave? See, this is what happens when you get back into the Game.

"If I knew, I wouldn't have had to look up this map." She sighs. "I suppose we had better report this." She turns to me. "Maybe you and Keane should go live on holy ground for a few weeks."

*********

The boys of the NYPD choir were singing "Galway Bay". And the bells were ringing out for Christmas day.

"Mr. Dawson? Mr. Dawson!" I was so distracted as I hurried down the hall, that I didn't hear the woman's voice calling out behind me. I stopped and turned. The lady that I'd passed in the hallway on my way in ran up to me. She looked out of breath as she approached me, her heels clicking on the tile.

"May I help you, Ma'am?" I said. I had to admit, she did look familiar, but I couldn't place her at all.

"You really don't remember me, do you, Joe?" She smiled sadly. "Well, I can't blame you. It's only been 30 years."

I stared at her, seeing the lines of her face, the wave of her hair, now salted with grey, so familiar. Of course they would be familar. I saw them every day--in my daughter. "Eleanor?"

She laughed, patting her hair and looking self-conscious. "Yes, Joe. It's me. Eleanor Thomas." She came forward and hugged me. A whole lot of memories hit me at once--cuddling up with her in bed that one night we had at Academy. Seeing her standing in a graveyard, pregnant and bundled up against the cold, telling me we had no hope together, that she wanted to be with her husband even if he was a cold son of a bitch. Watching her propped up in bed, holding newborn Amy, grinning with exhausted pride. Yeah, I remembered her. Come to think of it, how could I have ever forgotten? I hugged her back and I didn't let go right away.

"I was sorry to hear about your husband's death," I said when we pulled apart.

A cloud crossed her face. "Yes, it was quite a shock. None of us expected him to die so young, but he never did take care of himself. It was very hard, but considering what was happening at the time, I didn't want to add to your burdens by contacting you." She smiled again; it looked forced. "But you've done well, the past few years. And I see that Amy found you. I am glad that worked out, even if it was difficult, at first. She seems very happy these days. How have you been? I haven't seen you since...oh, it's been since the hospital, hasn't it?"

"Yeah. It was." Even now, knowing my daughter was waiting for me back at Le Blues, that memory hurt. I'd gone to see Eleanor as soon as I got her call announcing Amy's birth. In the hospital, Eleanor let me hold Amy for a little while. I don't know how long it was, just that it wasn't long enough. I had to sit down before the nurse put her in my arms. Otherwise, I'd have dropped her. I was still getting the hang of the prosthetics, which weren't as good as the kind you get now. But, I was damned if I was going to meet my only child for the first time in a wheelchair. Amy slept the whole time, one small hand gripping my finger. She looked so perfect. I know that all parents say that, but I mean it. She did. I remember that I cried, but that's all right. Men are supposed to get drippy over their little girls, aren't they?

Eleanor, bless her, never said a word about it. Maybe she liked me better because I did cry, I don't know. Her husband wasn't that type. He was away at some conference when Amy was born. I don't know if he ever knew about me, but I'm not sure it would have mattered. Not that it mattered now. I wouldn't see either Amy or Eleanor again for over 26 years after that day. Tough to say which of us got the better deal. Just because Amy's dad wasn't interested in the good thing he got, didn't make it any easier on me.

"So, what brings you here?" I asked her.

"My Immortal, Rosa Armenderez, is in town and I was reporting in. There are several Immortals converging on Paris for some reason, so several of us came here to have a meeting. Something is happening."

I was skeptical. "What, some kind of mini-Gathering?"

She shook her head. "No one is sure, but we think they might have been summoned here by the same person or group. We just don't know why."

Oh, shit. I thought of what Gabrieli had told me, and I had a good idea of why her Immortal might be here, but I couldn't tell her why. It was starting to look more and more as if the Immortals these renegade Watchers of Gabrieli's were filming weren't willing participants at all.

*********

Keane looked up as the door to the bar opened. His second least- favourite Mortal came in--Dr. René Galbon. Keane didn't think much of Galbon's techniques. Galbon seemed to think that Methos could barely feed himself, let alone get through the day or defend himself in the Game. Or, maybe, he had some more sinister plan in mind. He was an ex-Hunter, after all. You never knew with Mortals. Either way, Galbon was still not very pleased with Keane about letting Methos slip away for his little jaunt up to Scotland. Keane hadn't been best pleased about it, either, not that he would ever have set foot in Scotland for love or money. But, when he had pressed the Old Man over the trip, Methos shrugged it off with, "Everyone needed a vacation." Since he was right, it was hard to argue with him about it, so Keane had given up.

"Keane," Galbon said, as he approached Keane's table. "If you're here, may I assume that my patient is, as well?"

Keane ignored the taunt. "He's in the office with Amy, doing some research."

Galbon frowned. "That is trusting of her."

"He needed to look someone up. I've acquired some stalkers over the past few months, and Adam thought they might be some of your colleagues, overstepping their bounds."

Galbon sat down. "I see." The new barmaid came to the table. "Un cognac, s'il vous plaît," he said, glancing up at her. He seemed to be weighing something in his mind.

"What is going on?" Keane asked. Did Galbon know something? If the men who had shown up at L'Ambrosia were Watchers, that might make sense.

Galbon set his pack on the table, opened it and pulled out a manila envelope. Out of it, he took pictures, eight of them. They looked like surveillance photos. "Do you recognise any of these men, M. Keane?" he asked.

Keane looked at the photos. "Why, yes," he said, startled, spotting the stalkers from his club. "Here they are right here. But, there were two of them." Before he could think or speak about it further, he felt the Buzz of another Immortal, and lifted his head, staring at the door.

"What? What is it?" Galbon said.

Keane shook his head. "One of our kind."

"Methos?" Galbon asked (quietly, thank God).

"No. Someone else." Methos' unique signature, ringing like mediaeval church bells, still thrummed from the next room. This Buzz came from outside, and was approaching fast. "I'd better go outside." He stood up.

Galbon grabbed his arm. "Are you sure that is wise?"

"It's the way things are. My job, you could say." Keane pulled away. He was surprised when Galbon got up to follow him, ignoring the confused barmaid coming to the table with his drink. "What are you doing?"

Galbon smiled grimly. "I am coming with you. I'm going to Watch. That is my job, non?" He pushed his glasses up on his nose and opened the door for Keane. "Soyez tranquille. I will stay out of the way."

*********

"I don't want to stay on holy ground," I complain. "That is not what it's for. And if I had to stay there with Keane, I would go barking mad and take his head inside of a week. I think I have already pushed my luck far enough on that score for one millennium."

"It's sanctuary," Amy says, looking puzzled. I snort bitterly, remembering the Watchers' version of that, and what happened to the Immortals who trusted it. Best not to think about my own role in that, when I thought it was a viable option for those of my kind who needed a rest from life. "What do you have against holy ground?"

"Nothing. But there is more to holy ground than a safe place to hide. It is special, not a privilege to be abused, and I will not hide my head in the sand just because the sand has been blessed." The Buzz hits me, making me sit up in my chair. It isn't Keane; this one is new.

"What?" Amy says, sitting up in her chair, eyes widening. Do we have some special expression when we catch a Buzz that all experienced Watchers can see?

"Someone is out there." I stand up, as I feel Keane's Buzz recede along with the other one. "Let's go find out what's going on."

The moment I step through the curtain, I see that Keane's table is empty. The new barmaid is placing a cognac and another pint on it. "Where did Stephen go?" I say.

The barmaid looks up. "Your friend in the bowtie? Oh, he left with that bearded man, the Frenchman."

"Let's go," I tell Amy. "That bearded man" sounds like René, doing his Watcher duty. He is in the field, after all. I head for the door. I may be too late to head off a challenge, no doubt, but if Keane loses, I want to know who (or what) I might be facing next--and maybe get lucky enough to take said challenger out while he (or she) is still weak from the Quickening.

As she follows me out the door, Amy asks me, "Do you have a plan, yet?"

I muse over that, surreptitiously feeling for my sword and my gun, even as I notice her feeling for her own. "A plan? Why does everyone always think I have a plan?"

*********

Keane didn't like the exposed parking lot where the other Immortal had chosen to fight, but at least it was familiar ground and it was two blocks from Le Blues. Most likely, no one would make any connection between the challenge and the bar. If Keane survived, Joe would still let him drink there.

Galbon, true to his word, had hung back, following Keane at a distance. He was sitting comfortably, around a corner of the brick building at the top of the parking lot out of sight, smoking a cigarette and waiting for them to get on with it.

"We don't have to do this, you know," he told the woman as they circled each other. She smirked back at him. She was well-dressed, but sensibly so. He wasn't going to get any advantage out of her clothing simply because she was wearing silk and cashmere.

"Are you afraid?" she taunted him. She sounded South American-- Chilean, possibly.

Keane snorted. "If I were afraid, I would have run to holy ground, now, wouldn't I? I don't see any reason to fight when we don't have to."

"Too bad." She leveled her sword at him. "You don't look very impressive. Normally, I would throw you back, but sometimes, you have to take a lot of little fish before you can hope to take the big haul."

In spite of his irritation at her arrogance, he was intrigued by her words. "What big haul?"

She smirked. "Why, Methos, the eldest Immortal, of course."

*********

"I hope that idiot isn't taking a challenge, after all," I tell Amy, as we walk down the street, Amy having to stretch her legs to keep up with me.

"Well, if he's challenged, he can't turn it down, can he?" Amy says, a bit breathless.

"Of course he can. He can run, he can hide, he can do all sorts of things. The problem is not refusing the challenge; it is scraping them off when they do not take 'no' for an answer. The challenger is the one with the advantage, so of course, he's going to press it as much as he can--or she."

The faint Buzz that I've been following increases. As we turn a corner, my heart sinks. René is sitting calmly on the sidewalk at the end of the block, back against a wall, smoking a cigarette. *Those things will be the death of him*, I find myself thinking as we draw near. I should have a word with him. I don't want to end up raising Mathilde. He looks up.

"You're not going to interfere, are you?" he says, taking a drag on his cancer stick. I hold out a hand and he takes it to help himself stand up. He drops the cigarette and grinds it underfoot, all business, now. The clash of steel comes from around the corner.

"I take it Keane's taken the challenge, then?" I ask. "I would rather not get involved, but simply showing up might scare off this challenger." I peer around the corner. Keane and some woman are circling each other. They don't seem to have noticed my arrival, though how they could not.... I suppose they are already too wrapped up in the challenge, too busy looking for that crucial opening, bolstering their defenses.

"Unless I ran in there screaming and waving a sword, I doubt they'd notice me, now. I like my head where it is." I glance at René and Amy. "How about you?"

René shrugs. "As your people say, 'no interference'." Amy snickers, but doesn't say anything.

I nod. "That's what I thought. Anyway, Keane is a strong fighter. He's a bit of a sucker for a pretty face, but he beat Amanda at her own game. He can probably take this woman, and...." I see a flash of light on the other side of the parking lot. "What is that?"

"What?" René peers past me. "Mon Dieu. Does that man have a camera?"

A car pulls up behind us and stops. René and I duck back behind the building, turning to look as the car's door opens and two people get out. One of them is Joe.

"What are you people doing here?" the woman demands.

"Dad?" Amy says. "What's going on?"

And that's when the shooting starts.

*********

Christ, this woman was good. Keane feinted to one side then cut up at her head. She parried it up and wide, then thrust in while his guard was open. He backed up in a hurry. She pursued him with a lunge, thrusting again. He swung at her while she was extended, but she recovered too fast, both she and her basket-handle rapier being more lightly built than him and his cavalry sword. He tried to thrust at her, even though the cavalry sword was too curved for him to use the point well that way, but she parried it down to the left. He brought his own blade up and round before she could spit him, but she leapt away before he could close. Her sword could not block his close up, as Methos' wide mediaeval blade could. She seemed to lack the strength for a trade of hilt to hilt blows on blades, anyway.

He saw a flash of light in her eyes. She hesitated, blinking, and raised her free hand. Before she could recover, Keane took advantage of her confusion, rushing forward and slashing upward from hip to shoulder. Her cry of pain was cut off as he swung across, taking her head. As her head thumped to the ground, he reflected that they would always be strangers now, as she had given him no time to exchange names. Her body slumped, falling backwards, even as a mist began to rise from it. He braced himself for the Quickening.

And that was when the shooting began.

*********

Eleanor and I both jumped when her cellphone went off. She apologised and took it out. The conversation was brief, and obviously involved Watcher business. I saw her eyes go wide as she listened to the other person. She nodded and umhmmed several times, then clicked off the phone.

"I'm sorry," she explained. "My Immortal has just appeared in the vicinity of another Immortal--one Stephen Keane. It looks as though she'll challenge him at any moment. I have to go."

Ah, shit. I could see this going down in so many bad ways. It was a wonder the name Adam Pierson hadn't appeared in the conversation already. "Keane? I've seen him. I'll come with you."

"Are you sure?" She looked startled. "But, why?"

"Let's just say that I've developed a sort of proprietary interest in the guy since he challenged my Immortal several years back."

"Well, all right. I don't see the harm." She started down the hallway, restraining her steps to my pace. "'Your' Immortal? You mean Duncan MacLeod? But I thought he was in America, now. With his wife?"

"He is." I always hated admitting this, even though being taken off Mac's beat had been sort of a promotion on my end, rather than a failure. Mac had even thrown a party for me after I got the 'transfer'. Maybe he'd thought that the professional distance would reduce my age-old conflict of interest and we could be real friends now. "I'm not his Watcher anymore."

"I see." The tone said that she didn't, but was going to let it go. "So, what do you do now?"

"I'm...management, I guess you could say. More or less." Jesus, I felt like an undercover cop trying to explain my trunk-load full of bait-coke for a bust to a highway patrolman.

Are you still in the field?" she asked, as the front door guard nodded us out the door of Headquarters.

"That, too. More or less."

"Do you still see MacLeod?"

"When he chooses to walk into my bar, yeah." Which hadn't been recently, though he'd sent me a Christmas card. "Can't stop a man from buying a drink in my establishment, just because he's an Immortal. That would be bad for business, not to mention interference."

She smiled and shook her head. "You always did seem to have three things going on under the surface, Joe, even when I knew you before. I never understood why."

"Oh, I'm not really like that. All my friends say I'm an open book."

"I see." She beeped open the locks on her car doors. "So, those rumours that most of your friends are Immortal are true then, are they?"

After that, the conversation wilted, to say the least. I was so busy wondering what she'd heard about me that I couldn't concentrate on what she was saying, and most of it was shoptalk anyway. She was still mulling over the sudden concentration of Immortals in town. Since, as far as I could tell, half of the Immortals in Paris seemed to hang out in my bar, I hadn't noticed the difference until Eleanor pointed it out to me. But other Watchers had noticed. Looking back on it now, I was so busy covering my ass in that car that I almost got it blown off by the minefield I didn't see coming at me in 3-D.

I should have gotten my first clue, for example, when Eleanor couldn't reach Keane's Watcher again on her cellphone. I knew who Keane's Watcher was, of course. I'd reamed her out good for taking that unscheduled vacation when he first blew into town. But, that didn't mean that I'd had a whole lot of contact with her--though she had shown up in the bar a few times, when Keane lingered there. I wouldn't have called her the most observant Watcher on the planet, and I'd told her that. On the other hand, I'd kept my oath enough not to make her job any harder by blowing her cover with Stephen.

"I can't reach her at all," Eleanor said, looking worried. She handed off her phone to me. "Here, you try."

When I tried, all I got was a busy signal. "Nothing," I said. "Maybe the fight's over, she got too close and her phone got fritzed by the Quickening?"

"Maybe," Eleanor sounded doubtful. Man, the streets were starting to look very familiar. Not surprising if Keane really was involved, but not good. I hoped you weren't anywhere near the fight. I'd have a Hell of a time explaining it all to Eleanor. "This is near where she said she'd be," Eleanor said, as she turned down a street only a block or two away from the bar. "Look, there's a parking lot. Is that them?"

"I think so," I said. Keane and the woman were circling each other. I couldn't see Evelyn Baer, his Watcher, anywhere, which should have been good. And then, I said a really dumb thing, "Just pull up around the corner out of sight." As we turned the corner, there was the whole gang--you, Amy and René Galbon. The Methos Field Project, all present and accounted for. I couldn't believe it. Talk about a worst-case scenario.

"Amy?" Eleanor gasped. "What is she doing here?" She hit the brakes and the car screeched to a halt right next to the little group. Amy looked up and her mouth fell open. You and René turned around. I heard the sound of a Quickening start, just as Eleanor shouted, "What are you people doing here?"

And that's when the shooting started.

Bullets sprayed the car from the other side, ponging into the metal, shattering the driver's side window and punching out mine. Some sort of automatic rifle or machine gun. Must have been a fairly new make, because I didn't recognise it. "Get down!" I shouted to Eleanor, covering my head with my arm. I popped open the door, and practically threw myself out on the pavement. I didn't hear her answer. When I turned, staggering, I saw why. She was slumped across the seat, her own window shattered. I saw a whole lot of blood. Before I could register it, movement out of the corner of my eye made me turn. A guy was coming around the back of the car aiming a gun at me. I went for my own gun, reaching inside my coat, but he was going to get me first.

You appeared right in front of me and grabbed my shoulders. I heard a gunshot and your body jerked, your face convulsing with agony. As you were flung against me, you took me down backwards. You coughed and went limp. I know you saved my life then, as the crossfire chattered overhead, right where my head had been. Oh, God, Amy was in the line of fire, too. Where was she?

Amy screamed some name--mine or Eleanor's, I couldn't tell. At least she was alive. A gunshot cracked out. René cursed, and then I heard running footsteps out into the parking lot. I hoped it was them getting away. Even if I went down, at least my daughter would live to fight another day. The machine gun chattered again, drowning out their escape. I was still going for my gun, but it was hard getting my hand under your dead weight.

Before I could do it, you were pulled off me and thrown to one side. I froze as the guy with the gun aimed down at me. I recognised him now from Gabrieli's surveillance photos, mostly because he had bad acne. I didn't need to see the tattoo that was exposed on his wrist as he took aim at my head to know that he was a renegade Watcher, but it still shocked me. The machine gun sniper came up behind him, exposing his own tattoo as he put his weapon up on his shoulder. I recognised him, too, from the photographs.

Then, you saved my life for a third time. The sniper glanced at you and grabbed Acne Boy's wrist. "Attends," he said. "Don't kill him. Look at his friend. That's the Immortal who was with Keane. We can take him instead."

Acne Boy's eyes didn't move from mine. "What does that have to do with not shooting Dawson?" He jerked his chin at me. Great, he knew who I was. Man, fame sure had its drawbacks.

"Don't you see? The Immortal took a bullet for him. He tried to save him. We can use him as leverage if the guy gives us any grief. If the Immortal acts up or tries to escape, we'll just wax his Watcher buddy."

"Ja...D'accord. I see your point. Let's do it, then." Acne Boy smiled. Now, I saw how much trouble I was really in.

*********

Amy didn't know what she was saying or whose name she was calling as she ran. Mother dead, father down, Ben shot down and helpless, and she was running away from them all. René didn't have to shove her after the first few steps. She ran to save her own skin. If she lived through the next five minutes, she thought she'd never be able to wash away the shame of that. Everyone important to her lay behind her in a bloody heap.

Instead of running along the sidewalk and exposing himself to the machine-gunner, René had pushed her into the parking lot, right into the middle of Keane's Quickening. The smell of ozone blew against her, just as a bolt of electricity exploded the bricks next to her head. She flung herself down and crawled along the wall, René on her heels. Flinching from the lightning bolts and Keane's howls of pain as she groped for her gun, she scrambled through the worst of the storm. That was how she and René surprised the shooter on the other side. He had come out from his cover and was approaching Keane, staying clear of the Quickening. He looked up and saw her. She thought his eyes widened in surprise before she started shooting. René's gun boomed in her ear, deafening her. The shooter went down, blood spraying out from the back of his head. Which one of them got him, she never knew, afterwards, and in the end, it didn't matter. He'd already done enough damage to hurt.

A car door slammed shut. As the Quickening died and Keane fell to the ground, she turned to see her mother's car pulling away with a screech of tires. A body lay in the street. She didn't need to run to it to know that it was her mother, and that her mother was dead. And she didn't need René to tell her that her father and Ben were gone as well.

*********

You see it in the headlines, You hear it everyday. They say they're gonna stop it, But it doesn't go away....

The bastards were smart--or as smart as you could be, doing what they had in mind. There was a reason why no Mortals had tried to profit in this way from the Game before. "Cunning" might be the better word. Under the cover of Keane's Quickening, they forced me to throw my gun away, picked you up and put us both in Eleanor's car. I tried not to look when they threw her out on the pavement like garbage, but when you woke up and Acne Boy shot you in the face, I lost it and took a few swings at whoever got in range. Acne Boy punched me in the face (though he looked tempted to shoot me) and put me in the back of the car. When I came out of my daze, he had you shoved up against me and was sticking a knife into your chest, up to the hilt. His partner, the French guy, was driving the car, and we were already out of the area. I wrapped my arms around your body and pulled you as far away from him as I could, glaring at Acne Boy. He glared back.

"Don't even think about taking that out," he told me, as he relieved you of all your hardware and shoved the knife in harder, for good measure. "I am not nearly as kind and forgiving as Philippe is." Acne Boy's use of his friend's name rattled me. That meant they weren't going to just let us go when they were finished with you.

"Kiss my ass," I snarled back.

"Not even on a bet, old man." I controlled my twitch at the name as best I could. The last thing I needed to do was wake them up to the fact that they had netted a big fish. They were already scary enough. I didn't even try to go for Acne Boy's gun. There was no point.

I thought I might be able to keep track of where we were, but as soon as Acne Boy was done with you, he blindfolded me. I didn't need to be told that he'd use my trying to get the thing off as an excuse to shoot me, but he told me that, anyway. I sat there, listening to him, and promised myself that the first chance I got, I was taking him out. Didn't help that the blindfold made it impossible to see anything but that one, frozen image of his partner tossing Eleanor's body out into the street. At least I couldn't remember how it sounded.

They didn't bother to take off the blindfold after the car stopped. Instead, they pulled me out, dragging me into a house and down some stairs. One of them shoved me onto a bed and yanked off my pants and my prosthetics. They went back upstairs. I lifted the blindfold a little and saw that I was in a cellar. That would explain the chill. A few minutes later, I heard them upstairs and shoved the blindfold back into place. They came back down, dragging a body with them. I winced at the sound of every thump of your head against the steps. They dragged you across the dirt floor and dumped you next to the bed. Acne Boy yanked off my blindfold. I looked down at you. Philippe was chaining you by the ankle to the leg of the bed. Acne Boy bent over and pulled out the knife, which came out with a sucking noise. They went back upstairs.

After a few minutes, you gasped, choked and started coughing. I rolled over and looked down at you. When you opened your eyes, you rubbed at them, wincing. Blood must have gotten into them--your face was covered with thick clots of it. It came off on your hand in flakes.

"Hey," I said.

You looked up at me, zeroing in. It looked painful. "Joe," you said, wheezing as you struggled to sit up.

"Yeah, it's me," I said. "I'm here. It's...it's not okay, but I'm here. These guys are bad news, man. They're filming Immortal challenges and showing them on the Internet. I think they're planning on setting up some fights themselves, too, with you as the bait."

You gave me a funny look, then laughed. "Oh. Spartacus, you mean."

"Something like that. Look, don't give them anything. Just keep your mouth shut for now."

I was hoping to get a little more time with you, bring you more up to speed before the Two Stooges came back, but no such luck. A new guy came downstairs. He saw you trying to lift yourself up onto the bed and grinned. I could have seen a gold cap in there, but maybe I was being prejudiced. Now we had three kidnappers to deal with. This was not looking good.

He crouched down next to the bed, but just out of reach. "Okay, Methos, Conan, Og...whatever you call yourself. Here's how it's gonna be-- you lose your head, we don't need him anymore." I hoped he was just guessing about the "Methos" moniker. He jerked his head at me. So nice to be included in the friggin' conversation. "You take off on us, we don't need him anymore. You be a good boy, we'll keep him around and maybe you'll even get a Christmas dinner out of it."

You watched him as if he was a bug, which he was. Then, you grinned. "Okay," you said brightly. "But it's gonna cost you." He looked pissed off at that. You weren't supposed to be bargaining from a supine position on a dirt cellar floor. What the Hell happened to keeping your head down and your mouth shut? "I could murder a Big Mac right now," you went on. "And I'll bet Joe here could, too. You wanna keep me, you feed me. You feed me well, I'll give you such a show, you'll be rich beyond the dreams of Internet porno slime anywhere."

The man looked stunned. I almost laughed, but I stifled it. "You're *hungry*?"

"Well, yeah." You didn't quite add, 'stupid', but you didn't have to. "You just shot me twice. You think I'm not gonna be hungry after all that healing? Oh, by the way, get a TV down here while you're at it, and a space heater. This place is *cold*. You do that and I'll keep this blood on my face--do up my hair all spikey, too, like the Kurgan's. Remember him? Bet your audience would like that." I watched you, incredulous. Was this some bad effect from getting shot in the head?

"It would look really good on the vid," the guy said thoughtfully, eyes a little faraway. Damned if you hadn't sucked him right in.

"Exactly. Hey, I used to be a gladiator, buddy. You treat me and my friend right and I'll give you great vid. Trust me." I wouldn't have, seeing that sunny smile, but then, I knew you. This extra from 'Deliverance' did not. "So, how 'bout it? Two Happy Meals each, a space heater, the TV down here--maybe a VCR with some tapes, if you got it. I assure you, you won't regret it."

The new guy smiled--a down-home, jest-shootin'-varmints grin. You'd appealed to his lesser nature, all right. He pointed at your face. "You keep that blood on. Looks good on you."

"All right," you called out after him as he went upstairs. "Don't forget the grub, now."

"Are you out of your mind?" I said, as you crawled up onto the bed.

"Well, yes, Joe, I am. I thought we established that months ago." Suddenly, you looked exhausted and grey.

I stared at you. "It was an act. You were snowing the guy."

You crawled over me and settled down next to the concrete. I let you. That fucking wall was ice cold. At that point, I was just fine about having a warm body between it and me.

"Of course it was an act, Joe," you said wearily as you pulled the thin blanket up, and rolled over to face the wall. "What did you think it was?"

"Oh, I dunno. Residual brain damage, maybe?" I punched you in the shoulder. "Hey! I meant it. You keep pushing them like that, we are gonna end up dead in a ditch somewhere."

You sighed and rolled back over to face me. "Joe, if we are to get out of here, we need to be fed and warm and in good health. These guys may look like stupid rednecks, but they won't give us many chances."

"But, still...." I tried to come up with something to add, but all I could think was, "Mac wouldn't do it that way." For once, the way Mac would have done it didn't seem all that impressive. The last time he'd gotten himself locked up in a cellar, it had taken Amanda, Richie and me to get him out.

You smiled wryly. "Joe, I think we both know that I would go to great lengths to survive. Haven't you ever thought about what I would do to make sure my friends did, too?"

I didn't have an answer to that. I still didn't have an answer when Acne Boy came down with four Happy Meals, a space heater (which he set up just out of reach) and a thick quilt. And by the time he and his friends had dragged down an old TV/VCR with a couple of tapes, cursing your name all the way, and handed you the remote, I still hadn't come up with anything. You had long gone to sleep by the time I stopped trying.

*********

It's a losing proposition, But one you can't refuse. It's the politics of contraband, It's the smuggler's blues.

Inspector LeBrun had been at his job long enough to have his share of strange stories. He knew all about Joe Dawson, his bar, his friend Duncan MacLeod and his odd tattoo. He just didn't know how they all connected.

Of the victims in the parking lot, all but one had Dawson's tattoo, a complex blue circle on the right wrist. The younger woman in the bushes had been strangled and the man near the edge of the parking lot, the one found with the camera, had been shot in the face from a distance. LeBrun suspected that the man had killed the young woman, but he still had no idea why. The older woman at the other side of the parking lot and the headless woman in the middle of it were more of a problem. So far, there was no forensic evidence that the man had crossed the parking lot, let alone carried a sword. The forensics were all wrong for the wounds of the older woman, who had caught a bullet in the left side of her head and the headless woman, who had been found sprawled on top of a charred patch of tar. That brimstone smell was all too familiar to LeBrun, but MacLeod had left for America in October. These killings might involve Dawson, but not MacLeod. Now, there was a new wrinkle.

LeBrun went straight from the parking lot to Le Blues Bar. It was evening and business was beginning to pick up. Blues music played from the speakers, though there was no live band. A young Frenchwoman served customers. LeBrun saw no sign of Dawson, who, as the owner, was there nearly every night. In the corner sat an older man with a greying beard, drinking cognac and smoking. LeBrun sauntered over to him and pulled out a chair. "Is this seat taken?" he asked in French. The man shrugged, puffing on his cigarette. LeBrun thought the man's hand might be shaking, but couldn't be sure. He sat down. "It's been a long time. What was it, 1987, since we last met? I am afraid that I've forgotten your name."

The man watched him coolly. "And I am afraid that I never knew yours, Monsieur," he replied, also in French. "I do not believe that we have met."

"Perhaps not. You were a little non compos mentis when we picked you up at that little hole-in-the-wall in Montreuil. Quite traumatic for all involved, I fear. You fought us, you know, especially after we got your gun away from you. You had the most interesting tattoo." He held out his hand. "Inspector LeBrun."

Smirking, the man shook the proferred hand. "Dr. René Galbon. Unfortunately, I don't think that I am who you think I am. As you see, I have no tattoo." And indeed, his wrist was bare. "May I offer you a drink?"

"Mai oui. Merci." LeBrun was sure that Galbon was the man he had seen raging in that police station so many years ago, the first he had ever seen bear that tattoo. It was possible to remove them, if one had money or certain friends. "I will have cognac, myself."

Galbon nodded and raised a hand to the waitress. LeBrun watched with interest as she hurried over and took his order. It seemed that Galbon was a favoured customer in Joe Dawson's establishment.

Galbon rubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray and blew out smoke. "What brings you here, Inspector LeBrun? Business or pleasure?"

"Business, hélas. Are you aware of the tragedy which occurred just a few blocks away from here this afternoon?"

Galbon looked puzzled. "Tragedy, Inspector? I had heard some talk about a murder on the television, but it was confused. I decided to stay out of the way."

"It was a multiple murder in a parking lot, Doctor. Four people. Three of them had a strange tattoo, and the fourth was décapitée--beheaded." LeBrun leaned forward, watching for Galbon's reaction. Galbon did a good job of looking surprised but mostly what LeBrun saw was sadness. "I have seen similar tragedies before. There is a group...but I am sure you would not know about them. I have been tracking them for some time." Galbon's expression did not change. Disappointed, LeBrun sat back as the barmaid returned with his cognac. "I would appreciate any information that you could give me."

Galbon shook his head. "I am sorry, Inspector. You have already told me far more than I knew before. This is not that kind of establishment. Whoever did this probably would not come in here, afterwards."

"Perhaps someone else knows more." LeBrun glanced around the bar at the other patrons. "I do not see the owner this evening."

"M. Dawson is out of town on business, and I have been here all afternoon. No one who came in has mentioned the incident." Galbon smiled. "But I have no objections, myself, to your asking around."

*********

Amy looked up from Joe's laptop as René came out into the office. Keane was still asleep on the couch. She hadn't realised that quickenings could be so draining on an Immortal, even hours afterwards. "Is that policeman still out there?" she asked.

"No. He left." René gave her a quizzical look. "How did you know he was out there?"

"Marie mentioned it." Amy went back to her interactive map. She had been relieved when Marie showed up for her shift. Amy was not in any kind of mood for serving customers.

"Ah. He claimed to have known me years ago, when I still had a tattoo. He was very inquisitive."

"LeBrun's been trying to catch Joe out for a long time. He's not 'safe', exactly, but his interest is benign enough. He's noticed our activities over the years and he wants to know what's going on."

René pulled out his cigarettes and lit one. "Then, why have we never recruited him, if he is on to us?"

"Who knows? Before, I think, things were too chaotic, and Joe didn't want to drag him into the middle of a civil war. But I also think he was afraid about which way LeBrun might jump, and he didn't want to kill the man if he jumped the wrong way."

René nodded. "Je comprends.... He mentioned the 'incident' this afternoon. It seems that Keane's Watcher is dead, as well." He looked her over. "Are you all right?"

She swallowed and resisted the urge to close her eyes. That would make her weep. "No."

He looked concerned. Well, he was a therapist. "How can I help?"

Amy concentrated on regulating her breathing. "You can help me find my father and Ben. Then, you can help me get within range of the bastards who murdered my mother so that I can kill them."

"I see." He put his hands in his pockets, as if to keep from hugging her or patting her on the head. She was grateful for that. "How necessary is it that you do this yourself?"

She knew, from their recent dealings with Croft and Brill, that it was a serious question. She answered it in the same manner. "In a perfect world, I'd do it slowly, with my bare hands, or with something very, very sharp. But I will settle for however the situation ends up, as long as we get Ben and my father back safe and they all end up dead. I would, of course, appreciate any help that you might provide." Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Keane stirring and sitting up.

"Understood." René pulled up the chair that Ben had sat in hours before and sat down next to her. She put that comparison out of her mind as quickly as she could. "It is all right to grieve, you know."

Amy rubbed the bridge of her nose. Her eyes ached. "Not now. Not when I still need my edge. I'll grieve for her after they're safe, after it's all done."

He nodded. "Then, let us get this done." He leaned forward. "Have you discovered anything yet on the map?"

"Something, yes. They're getting closer to Paris, the other Immortals. It seems clear now that these renegades have attracted them to the area somehow. I think Stephen was the intended target, ironically enough, not Ben. They didn't know about Ben."

"Is this map accurate and up-to-date? Can we use it to track the renegades?"

"Yes, and maybe. I contacted Gabrieli. Apparently, he spoke to my father as well as you. I don't know how that will help Ben and him, but let's hope they won't be completely in the dark, wherever they are. Gabrieli is giving this top priority, though I think he's keeping the details to himself. We'll have to keep that in mind, if we run into any field Watchers. If our theory is right, then eventually one or more of these Immortals will end up fighting Ben. The problem is tracking which one."

"I think I can help with that," Keane said from behind them.

*********

I didn't sleep well in the night. You were more restless than usual, twitching like a cat and muttering in some unknown language, making the chain on your leg clank. You were probably dreaming about challenges and quickenings. The room was pitch-black after they pulled the plug on the TV from upstairs, but I still couldn't shake the feeling that one corner, at the other side of the room next to the old, empty wine rack, was darker than the rest. It reminded me of that stairwell in Scotland--not the kind of memory that helps you sleep. I hoped it wasn't Eleanor. She hadn't been dead a day, but I was having trouble remembering what she'd looked like alive.

In the morning, the Good Old Boy brought us breakfast--MacDonald's, and plugged in the TV. My arteries were gonna be rock hard by the time we got out of here. If we got out of here. While morning kid's cartoons played away on the TV, you scarfed down two Egg McMuffins, some orange juice and a couple of hash browns. There was plenty left for me, but I didn't have any appetite. Watching you eat so calmly, with your face still covered with your own dried, brown blood like a war mask, put me right off my feed. I must be getting old; I've lost my tolerance for the smell of blood.

"Joe, what's up with you?" you said, eyeing me as you finished up. "Sure, we're in a tight spot, but we've seen worse."

"That woman I was with when I drove up," I said. "Did you see what happened to her?"

You shook your head, munching on a hash brown. "'Fraid not. I was too busy throwing myself in front of a bullet because you were too dumb to get out of the way. Why?"

You didn't care. Of course you didn't care. You didn't even know her, let alone know she was dead. "They shot her; blew her brains out all over me."

You grimaced. "Ow. You didn't know her very well, did you?"

Christ. Now, not only was I not hungry, I thought I was gonna be sick. "She was Amy's mother. Her name was Eleanor."

As soon I said it, I regretted it. You stopped in mid-chew, stricken. "I didn't know," you said, after an uncomfortable silence. "You never told me her name."

"It never seemed important." Damn. That sounded real sensitive. "It's just...I hadn't seen her since Amy's birth. I didn't think it was right to get her involved in my little moral dilemmas."

To my relief, and eternal gratitude (at least, for the next five minutes), you didn't make the obvious, sarcastic remark about that. You finished the hash brown with no further comment. Then, you picked up the rest of the food, put it all back into the bag and handed it to me. "Eat that."

I pushed it away. "I'm not hungry."

You pushed it back. "And you think I am? Eat it, or they win."

I glared at you, shoving the bag back at you. "Eat it yourself. You just wolfed down all that food and you're telling me you weren't hungry?"

You stared back, your eyes bright and startling through the blood mask. They're green; I'd never noticed that before. For the first time, I also noticed that your pupils weren't quite the same size, a legacy of the day before. "I got shot, Joe. That takes time to heal, and energy-- especially head shots. Of course I needed the food, but do you really think I enjoy the taste of my own blood for breakfast?" You flicked the bag with your hand and closed your eyes for a second or two, swaying on the bed. "If I stood up right now, I'd fall flat on my ass and puke all over the floor. Just take the bloody food, all right?"

The door upstairs opened. We both looked up, but we could only hear it, not see it. Philippe skipped downstairs, holding a cellphone. He stood at the base of the stairs and waved it at us.

"Good news," he warbled over the sound of the kiddy cartoons. "We got our first customer. You fight him this afternoon." He was all excited, and that's when the obvious hit me--these guys had never done this before. You were their trial run. I guess they must have been aiming for Keane, since they'd been stalking him and you weren't in the database, not as Methos, anyway. No wonder they hadn't killed me yet. They were still feeling their way along. That might be our only ticket out of here.

"Oh, yeah?" you said. "Who?" I'd spent an hour last night telling you what Gabrieli had told me about these guys and their brand new idea for an Internet start-up company. You were as up to speed as you were gonna get.

"His name is John Siodmak." Philippe watched you closely for a reaction. You didn't give him one. I kept my mouth shut, trying to attract as little attention as possible.

"Never heard of him," you said. "Who is he?"

"Oh, he's young--had his first death during World War I. Will that be a problem?" What kind of game was this guy playing, here?

You shook your head. "Don't think so, but I guess I won't find out until I get out there."

Philippe was still watching you. It scared me. He wanted something from you and you weren't giving it to him. "Don't you want to know more about his background? How he fights? How many heads he's taken?"

You shrugged. "What for? It's your dance card, not mine. And one of us will be dead by nightfall, so why go to the trouble of getting to know him first?" Philippe's eyes widened. Why, I think you'd shocked him. "What time are we doing this?"

"In a few hours," Philippe admitted. Guess he didn't want to give us any more of a heads-up than he had to. Couldn't blame him there. I wouldn't have.

"Well, when you're ready to go, just come down and tell me, okay? I'm gonna take a nap." You lay down and put an arm over your face. Philippe stared at you, mouth hanging open, but you never moved. As far as you were concerned, the conversation was over. He looked at me, as if for an explanation. I shrugged and reached for the MacDonald's bag. He fled back upstairs while I started munching on an Egg McMuffin. It tasted like greasy cardboard, but I kept at it. Eleanor would have wanted me to make the effort and I wasn't about to disappoint her anymore than I had already.

*********

"Mon Dieu, they are both psychotic. I told them about the other Immortal we found and they didn't care," Philippe said, watching Bob slurp down his soup. Philippe did not aspire to any sort of high society, himself, but Bob had no manners at all, as far as he could tell. Philippe sipped his own coffee. "Did you hear me?"

Bob stopped eating and peered at Philippe. "Yeah, I heard you the first time. What did you expect? Some kind of saint? The guy's obviously older than you, or your buddy Billy, thought. Doesn't mean he gives a rat's ass about being civilised. Bet he can't even remember his own name on a good day."

"We don't need him to remember his name, just how to fight."

"Bingo. As for Joe Dawson, I'm not gonna cry any tears over him when he buys the farm. He picked his side years ago, and he sure as Hell didn't choose the humans."

"Je ne sais pas." Philippe shook his head. "Yesterday should not have gone like that. Two Watchers dead and we lost Carlos, too. Gary and Andrew have gone missing in the Hautes Alpes. If we lose any more people, we cannot continue this operation. As it is, we may have attracted too much attention from the Watchers. If they see us as a threat, they will hunt us down. I do not relish having a Watcher clean-up crew after me."

"We'll be fine." Bob went back to slurping soup. "Those Watcher chicks just got in the way. Shit happens." Philippe wished Bob would stop bringing up those women. Philippe had had no choice but to lay down covering fire-- he'd drawn the Uzi for the job--but that didn't mean he had to feel good about killing another Watcher. Not that Bob had been any use. He had stayed back at the house. His skills lay elsewhere. "The organisation ain't gonna risk exposure to come after us over that kind of thing," Bob was saying. "As for Gary and Andrew, they were never gonna be much help, anyway. They were too wrapped up in tracking down the Abominable Immortal Gary was so sure he'd found in that ski resort down south, and I never liked Carlos. He was a little funny in the head." Philippe had to agree with that. Keane's Watcher may have had to die, but she hadn't deserved to be strangled. Carlos had enjoyed his work a little too much. "We've still got five on the team--as long as Billy shows up with the others. He's showing up, right? I'm not unchaining that guy with less than four for backup."

"Don't worry. I told him to be here by noon. The fight is scheduled for two. Do you have all the equipment prepared?"

"Yeah, should be fine. You sure you don't want me to set up the webcam for a live feed?"

"No...no." Philippe shuddered at all the things that could possibly go wrong the first time, if they went live. "I think we should do this a few times first, before we risk doing it with no safety net. Not that our viewers will notice." He looked around the small kitchen, with its peeling, green paint and unidentified brown stains on the walls. He would be so very happy to escape all this, get a nice place in a quiet neighbourhood where he could ignore the world--and especially his erstwhile colleagues.

"Whatever," Bob was saying. "I guess it doesn't matter. A snuff flick's a snuff flick, whether your star is dying live or just on camera. We can always introduce the livecam later, once we build up our audience and they start looking for a new thrill. What happens if our guy loses?"

"We continue with the winner. The post-Quickening weakness leaves an Immortal vulnerable. I've seen it. It should be no problem to capture the challenger, if necessary. Dawson would be expendable if that happened, of course. Would you mind taking care of him, in that event?"

Bob snickered. "Blow that asshole's head off? Oh, I think I can handle that. Maybe I'll drop the body on the doorstep of Watcher HQ for Christmas Day."

Philippe rolled his eyes and sipped coffee. Obviously, they would need to get themselves another techie soon. Bob knew his stuff, but he was much too volatile to be safe. Yes, once they got this operation up and running, it might be best for Bob to suffer a small accident. Very tragic. Perhaps they could do it right after he killed Dawson for them, but only if they switched Immortals. Until then, Dawson wasn't expendable. Philippe smiled to himself. He would talk to Wilhelm about it. Wilhelm was good at arranging that sort of thing--and he already hated Bob for calling him 'Billy'.

*********

Azar was used to her prize postgraduate student being fashionably late for his appointments with her. His recent illness made him erratic in his habits, which was one reason why she had advised him not to teach this year. Not that he could afford to be distracted, so close to submitting and defending his thesis. But, he always showed up for their meetings. Today, he had not done so. And Joseph had not called for two days. Perhaps she was being a frightened, old woman, or feeling jilted at the beginning of a relationship, but unexplained disappearances terrified her. She had lost too many friends to vanishings in the night. Both Adam and Joseph had been quite responsible about maintaining contact up until now, each for his own reasons. This was out of character for both of them.

Phone calls to Adam's home produced no result. She considered calling Joseph's establishment, then decided she had better go over there and see to her concerns directly. She had some space in her schedule in the late afternoon, before supper. She would go then.

When she arrived at the bar, she was surprised to see none of the usual suspects out in view, but she was pleased to discover Marie working the bar. Marie was a sensible soul who stayed very far away from whatever monkey business Joseph was using the bar to cover. Joseph had not told Azar what he was hiding, nor had Azar asked, since it was none of her business and did not seem likely to endanger her any time soon. She knew that he was involved with some sort of secret group, and that his daughter, young Amy, was also involved, as well as Adam, though Adam did not wear Joseph and Amy's unique tattoo. The real mystery, however, lay in what that group represented. She had considered terrorism as the first possibility, except that Joseph did not strike Azar as fanatical. Nor did Amy, aside from some understandably youthful idealism. Certainly, Adam had his own thoughts on just about everything under the sun, and none of them were fundamentalist. Nor did either Adam or Joe seem to be involved in drugs or organised crime. Azar had had her brushes with that sort and she knew the signs. None of the people who came to Joseph's bar ever seemed desperate or frightened or blackmailed, so that theory made no sense, either.

"Bonsoir, Marie," Azar called out to Marie, who was serving a family at the other side of the bar. "Is Joseph or Adam in?" Marie stared at her quizzically, as though she didn't quite recognise Azar, and shook her head. "Amy?" Azar asked.

"She is out back," Marie replied in French, looking alarmed. Hmm. Something seemed to be up, and Azar did not think it involved any arcane Christmas rituals.

"Ah, merci," Azar headed for the curtain next to the bar. She thought she heard Marie objecting behind her, but continued through and out into the back room. As she reached the door to the office, she saw three people scrambling to hide what looked like various guns, knives and swords from her. "Hello," she said cautiously, keeping her hands in sight. "I am looking for Adam and Joseph."

"Dr. Davani!" Amy exclaimed. "I'm sorry. They've both gone out." The red-haired man trying to stick his sword under the couch appeared to be Stephen Keane, the man who was minding Adam's bookshop. Azar did not at first recognise the older, bearded man who was smoothing the back of his jacket down over what was most likely a handgun. She vaguely remembered, after establishing through the process of elimination that he might be Adam's therapist, that she had encountered him in the bar several weeks ago. He had a large bandage on the side of his head. He smiled blandly at her, as therapists did when they were being disingenuous. As Azar recalled, this was the same group which had frequented the bar the week of Joseph and Adam's unexpected trip to Scotland last month.

"I see," Azar said. "Does this mean that they are in town, or that they have they left on business again?"

"Actually, they've left town for a few days," Amy said, her voice squeaking. Something was wrong.

"Really." Azar watched the three in front of her carefully. "I am surprised to hear that. Adam missed an academic appointment with me yesterday afternoon and Joseph was supposed to call me this morning."

"They must have forgotten," Amy said. Keane and the bearded man both smirked briefly at this, but said nothing. The 'brush-off', as Joseph would put it, was very clear. Amy did not want her back here. Keane pretended to pick up a magazine and read it, but the bearded man watched Azar with keen interest, head cocked to one side. Was he a possible ally?

"With all due respect, Mlle. Thomas, both your father and Adam are more considerate than that." Amy looked startled. Surely, she had not thought that Joseph would deny the identity of his own daughter to Azar? Joseph loved Amy openly and would not make a secret of their relationship. "If they are in trouble, I would like to help."

Amy moved forward, hands out as if to herd Azar back out into the bar. "Dr. Davani, I really don't think--" She stopped when the bearded man put a hand on her arm.

"Wait," he said. Amy scowled. "Didn't you say that Dr. Davani helped your father with Adam before? If she wants to help now, perhaps we should let her do so."

Azar said nothing, waiting. Let the man convince Amy. Amy looked down at the floor. For some reason, she seemed to be near tears. Something was indeed very wrong. Amy raised her eyes again and stared at Azar. "If you help us, you can't tell anyone. Not the police, not your family or friends. *No one*, do you understand?"

Azar nodded, and took the step that she had been contemplating for weeks, almost without conscious thought. "I won't do anything to hurt your father or Adam." She spread her hands. "Please. I only want to find out what is going on, so that I can help in any way that I can."

*********

Ohh, the floods is threat'ning My very life today. Gimme, gimme shelter Or I'm gonna fade away.

"Are we there yet? When do I get my sword?" I sincerely hope that I am being a pain in the ass. I hate manacles and I don't much love blindfolds, either, especially when they push flakes of blood up my nose. I sneeze and kick idly at the back of the seat.

"Knock it off or we won't give you a sword at all." That would be 'Acne Face', as Joe calls him.

"You'll get your sword when you go out to meet your challenger," the other one, Philippe, says. "We're almost there." Oh, I am so reassured.

This feels uncomfortably like the trade Stern tried to make on that bridge years ago, me for the Methuselah Stone. Bloody Hell, Old Man. Don't think about that now. Don't think about Alexa. Focus, dammit. Breathe, work yourself up to this. Your life depends on it.

And then there is Joe. He is still back at the house, with one of them guarding him. If I die, he dies. It shouldn't matter, since I'd be dead by then and wouldn't care anymore, but it does. I really hate that, but I don't suppose you choose to love people, to make friends. It just happens; does to me, anyway. I don't know if thinking about him will help me or not. I really need to work up a good rage, here, when all I want to do is puke my guts out and fall asleep for a week.

I cannot believe that these sick bastards are doing this over Christmas.

The car stops. Guess I'm out of time. The two goons sitting in back with me get out. One of them grabs me by the collar of my coat and drags me out. They couldn't possibly let me get out on my own, oh, no. They are taking me to the place of sacrifice, and when they are finished with me, they will throw me back into the bog until the next spring.

Whoa. Where did *that* come from? Now is not the time to lose it and fall into some technicolour, full-out flashback. Get it together, already. I am in or around Paris, early 21st century, Christmas, going to a challenge I did not agree to. Principle loved ones: Joe, Amy, René, Keane. Mac, if he ever leaves that stick-figure bitch and comes back to Europe. Mira--no, don't think about him. Too dangerous. Right. Get all the time markers back into place.

It is a short walk, which is good, because I must trip over every root and stick on the way there. They stop me, and, while the two thugs hold my arms, Philippe rips off the blindfold and Acne Boy unlocks the manacles. Or, it could be the other way around, and why should that matter? I am standing in the woods near the edge of a small field, relatively flat. The sky is grey and dark, heading towards dusk. It is raining. Oh, for fuck's sake, couldn't they have found better ground?

"Your sword is out there," Philippe says in my ear, then shoves me in the back. "Better hurry up. Your challenger is coming." I stumble forward as a video camera starts running behind me. Bloody Hell, how did I get myself into this?

My luck runs out when I make it to the clearing; I feel the Buzz of an Immortal, and I still don't see my sword. The Bastard. What a wonderfully appropriate name for it today. Where the Hell is it? I glance around--Ah, there it is, lying on the ground, covered with muck. Lovely. I can feel that bloody camera tracking me--no. Fuck the camera. Concentrate on getting that sword. There is just a hair's-breadth of a chance that I might be able to talk this challenger round, even if he or she did pay good money for the chance to cut off my head, but only once I have a sword in my hand. I don't hesitate at the edge of the field, just go balls-out, gathering speed, as my muscles unbind. A few feet away from the Bastard, I glimpse a shadow out of the corner of my eye and dive the rest of the distance. I can almost hear Joe yelling, "Safe at first base!" My hand closes on the quillions as the challenger's sword cuts the air above my head. I grab the pommel with my other hand and go into a roll, swinging the Bastard up above my head, ham-handed, at my shadow. I don't connect at all, but the challenger's second swing goes wide. Good. I spooked him. I roll to my knees and come up in a crouch, readjusting my grip, looking around, not seeing much. Mud makes the Bastard's grip slippery. Where *is* this guy? Why can't I catch a break, today?

Mud squicks behind me and I swing around, straightening up. I whack my challenger in the hip, throwing him off balance and nearly jolting my own sword out of my grip. Instead of cutting at me with his sword, he collides with me, instead. We both go down and then it is all hair, teeth and eyeballs time. I bonk him on the top of the head with my pommel; he sinks his teeth into my elbow. I yelp and grab for his wrist. Gotta get his sword--his sword, dammit! I scramble away and lash out with my foot, grinding down hard on his hand with my heel--which hand, I am not sure and don't much care. He screams as I stand up right on him. Good. I hope you hurt, you mercenary son of a bitch. My best friend and I are chained up in a cellar at Christmastide because of you! I step back, and just as he starts to get up, I swing down, hard, chopping down through his neck as if I were splitting a Yule log. His head rolls away down the slope.

The challenger's Quickening is short, sharp and intense, not unlike Walker's. Philippe was right; the guy did take a lot of heads. Not much personality or impressions to the rattle and hum, but it leaves me flat on my back in the mud, coughing and spluttering. When they come to collect me, circling in for a last close-up with that fucking camera, I am still too weak to fight them off or run.

I never get a chance to see the face of the man I've just killed.

*********

"Joseph, wake up." I opened my eyes. Eleanor leaned over me, her face lit up by the TV.

"Eleanor?" I stared at her. "What are you doing here?"

"You didn't think I would abandon you, did you?" She stroked my face. She was wearing a smart, dark suit with wide shoulders, a black beret on her head. She had made her face up, her eyebrows plucked and drawn in and her mouth a bright-red bow of lipstick.

"Eleanor, you can't be here." I couldn't remember why that was, but I was sure. So sure that when she touched me, I shivered and pulled away.

She stood up, her face going into shadow. Only, now she didn't look like Eleanor but more like Azar. She backed towards the shadowy corner of the room, blending into the darkness. "I know what it's like. I won't leave you down here, I promise." A clatter from overhead startled me and I glanced at the stairs. When I looked back, she had disappeared.

"I'm coming...." It was Azar's voice. I sat up, blinking, as the door upstairs opened. Must have been a dream. The light went on and then two guys came downstairs, half-shoving and half-carrying you. I thought the corner at the other side of the cellar darkened as they passed in front of it. When they dragged you over, I recognised them from the photos that Gabrieli had shown me. So, that made five, with three missing. Could it be we'd gotten lucky and tracked them all? It already looked like a mickey- mouse operation. I'd count my blessings once we got out of here, if that turned out to be true.

You didn't fight them as they brought you over and chained you up again. You were shivering and covered with mud, your blood mask washed off in streaks. Didn't stop you from making more demands, though.

"Hey! I want a shower! And we could use some more food down here, ya know," you yelled after your bodyguards as they went back upstairs. One of the guys rolled his eyes, but I had no doubt we'd get both of your demands met in the next couple of hours.

"I take it you won," I said, as you stripped off your coat and climbed up onto the bed.

"Depends on what you'd call a victory, I guess," you grunted. "I'm still here and I've still got my head, so I must have won. You want the gory details?"

"Sure, why not?" I pulled up the blanket and quilt over us both. "I'll have to write it all down when we get out of here, and I've been stuck down here all day, wondering." Should I tell you about seeing Eleanor? No, maybe not. You'd just crack some joke about wet dreams.

You were right; the details were gory. What worried me, though, was how tired you sounded. "You know what you need?" I said, when you finished. "A fight song."

You laughed. "Hey, whatever works, Joe. If you come up with it, I'll sing it."

*********

"This is good vid." Wilhelm giggled, as he watched the mpeg of the fight play out over Bob's shoulder. "And look at those hits! They are loving it!"

Philippe finished counting the money from the dead challenger's payment and laid it out on the kitchen counter. "Five thousand euros. Not a bad first day, even if we did have to switch to the video camera at the last minute. It was a good idea to make the Immortals pay cash up front to fight. That will keep us until the webpage becomes popular enough to make a profit."

"Ja, or if the Watchers come after us and we have to run," Wilhelm said, still peering over Bob's shoulder. "This could have been a much longer fight, but I think we can make the next one more challenging. Make them chase each other through the woods, maybe."

"If he is so old, why not just give our guy a different weapon for each fight?" Philippe said, as he leaned against the sink and sipped his coffee. "Make him work for it next time. That sword he has is fine, but surely the audience will get bored if we don't show them something different. And if we're pretending he is Methos, we cannot get away with having him use a sword design that is only five centuries old all the time. Methos would be more versatile in his style."

Wilhelm turned to glare at him. "Philippe, I am not spending all of our profits on Schönfärberei. Do you know how much swords cost? Do you?"

"It was a suggestion," Philippe muttered. "C'est tout."

"Why don't we have him use the weapons from his previous fights?" Bob suggested.

"Where is the last one's sword now?" Wilhelm asked.

"In the trunk, with the body."

Wilhelm smacked Bob in the back of the head. "Dummkopf! You left him in the car?!"

Bob shoved the chair back and stood up, turning around to get in Wilhelm's face. Alarmed, Philippe set his coffee next to the money and felt for the gun in the back of his pants. Aidan and Max were in the other room, watching TV. The worst would be all over by the time they realised what was happening and came in.

"Chill out, man," Bob snapped. "The body's fine where it is. No way am I doing any corpse-planting in the Bois-la-Ville until well after dark. We're gonna attract a whole lot more attention if I have to plug some nosy, old fart who catches us digging while out walking his dog than if we disappear some guy who was hiding from the authorities already without involving any witnesses, you get me?"

Wilhelm, of course, showed no signs of backing down, so Philippe stepped in. "Bon. Just make sure you leave the sword here, and make sure you're not seen when you dispose of the body."

"I think I can handle that," Bob said, still glaring at Wilhelm.

Philippe turned to Wilhelm, who still refused to back down. "Wilhelm, why don't you go get us dinner? Pick up some Chinese food and a few beers for our guest downstairs, too. He did good, today. He deserves a little consideration."

"What for? I don't see any reason why we should coddle him or Dawson," Wilhelm snarled.

"If we keep them happy, they're less likely to try to escape, at least for now," Philippe said, in the most reasonable tone he could manage. He picked a few bills off the pile on the counter and pushed them at Wilhelm. "Go on. It's your turn."

Bob waited until Wilhelm left before he relaxed. "That kraut is a real prick, you know?" Philippe said nothing. Bob turned back to his beloved laptop. "I'm gonna see if I can edit this down some," he said. "We'd be in deep shit if the Organisation tracked us down by checking out the scenery or identifying the challengers."

Philippe nodded. "Bon. What about our guest?"

"Nah. He wasn't even on the books. I checked." Bob sat down and began to play with the video feed. "Either he's brand-new or somebody did a real good job of wiping him off the database. Nobody will miss him and we can probably pass him off as Methos for as long as we want. If we can keep him from cutting our throats in our sleep, we're fine with him."

"Bonne chance, then." Philippe split up the money five ways and dropped one of the piles next to the laptop. "Your cut for the day."

"I'll try not to spend it all in one place," Bob called after him as Philippe went to give Aidan and Max their share. Wilhelm could get his when he got back. If Wilhelm didn't watch it, Philippe was going to take their operations budget out of his share. The last thing they could afford to do, at this point, was start fighting among themselves.

Aidan looked up as Philippe came into the living room. "Oi, mate," he said cheerily, waving a beer bottle. "Did you see the evening news? We're Public Enemy Number One!"

*********

"Heeerrre I come to save the dayyyy! Because it's Mighty Methos on the wayyy. Drinking beer, twitting the crowd. At Closing Time, always the last one out.

"Here he comes, Mighty Methos. Because it's Mighty Methos on the way. So, give the man a big Hurray. 'Cause Mighty Methos wins todayyy."

"Joe, that stinks!" you said, as you bent over and touched the floor.

"Hey, you're the one doing a workout routine to 'Gimme Shelter'," I chortled back. I reached over and turned down the radio you'd wheedled out of them yesterday.

"What's wrong with the Stones?" You went into a crouch, your arms stretched out over your knees. I watched you with envy. "I used to roadie for them, you know. Back in the '60s."

"Oh, yeah? So, tell me--is Keith Richard an Immortal or did he make a pact with the Devil?"

You snickered. "You're kidding, right? Pact with the Devil."

"You sure?" I lay down on the bed, propped up on my elbows, watching you get ready.

"Absolutely. Didn't you ever listen to 'Sympathy for the Devil'?" You looked around, sighed, and sat down on the floor to do the rest of your leg stretch. That chain really cramped your style. And the way the bedposts were driven into the floor, neither love nor money would get it off--though a lockpick might. My envy disappeared.

"They didn't write that about you, by any chance, did they?" I said sweetly.

"Oh, no. Not little, innocent old me. Though I can't guarantee that Kronos never came calling after I moved on. 'Mighty Methos', eh?"

"Yep." I grinned. "What's the matter? You don't like it?"

"Oh, it's lovely. Very festive." You lay down and stretched your arms over your head. "But, if I die today with that tune stuck in my head, I am coming back to haunt you, buddy."

"Promise?" I stuck a finger in my ear, trying to clear it.

"Oh, yes." You smirked up at me. "Would that be dried soap in your ear, Joe Dawson?"

I put both hands back on the bed, trying to look innocent. "I dunno, Old Man. Could be somebody hogged all the water last night so I never got the chance to finish washing my hair."

"Oh, right. Blame me. Who wouldn't take his shorts off in front of the guard and ended up washing his clothes, as well?"

They'd stuck us in the bathroom with one tub of water, like something out of a French farce. Talk about humiliating. "As I recall, you weren't too enthusiastic about stripping down to the buff, yourself."

You sat up and batted your eyes at me. "I was shy." Yeah, right. Death was shy. "At least they dried us off, afterwards."

"With a hair dryer. Which they wouldn't let either of us hold because we might use it as a weapon." We'd had to sit there, you balancing me on the edge of the tub, shivering together in our shorts and t-shirts, as one guard blew this dinky little travel dryer over us. Humiliating? Try beyond humiliating. "Ah, Hell. At least we got clean. So, what did you get me for Christmas?"

You gasped in outrage. "Joe! I can't tell you what I got you for Christmas! That is sacrilege!"

"Why not? We might not get out of here, and I want to know." Now I was curious. You had a very sly smile on your face.

You scowled. "*When* we get out of here, I will tell you--after you have unwrapped it."

I humphed. "Tease."

"Scrooge. What did you get me?"

I shook my head. "No way. Not until Christmas." We mock-glowered at each other, then you sobered.

"Joe, we have to get out of here." You hung your head, looking ashamed. "I can't take many more Quickenings."

"I know." I reached out and patted you on the shoulder. I hadn't missed how strung out you were starting to look.

"I can hold out for a few more, until after the Full Moon, but after that--"

"I know, Methos." I sighed. "I'll look around while you're out, see what I can find." Like something sharp, maybe. Like a weapon, any weapon. The door upstairs opened and we both looked up at the stairwell.

"I guess it's time," I said, as the two goons came downstairs. You nodded and stood up, pulling on your coat. Before they took your chain off, you crouched down and hugged me.

"Knock 'em dead, tiger," I said, when they pulled you away.

"I'm gonna drink me some beer and twit the crowd," you declared as they manacled and blindfolded you. "I'll bring you back a souvenir!"

"Yeah, you do that," I said under my breath, after they took you up the stairs. "You come back at Closing Time, Old Man."

*********

"We've lost two Immortals in the past two days," Amy said. Keane watched her, worried. She was too angry, and her eyes and voice had gone hard. He knew too well how that look felt from the inside, and he didn't trust her instincts right now.

"Is there any indication of what happened?" Galbon asked calmly. "Are we sure that they lost their heads? It's possible that they left town, non?"

Amy shook her head, looking frustrated, and shut the laptop lid tight. "Their Watchers lost them both. It was as if someone had told them how to give us the slip, or vanished them into thin air."

"Or both. That 'someone' you believe to be the men who hold your father and Adam, non?" Galbon said. She nodded. They did not discuss her mother, by her own request. "This could become very awkward."

Keane sighed in exasperation. He had been growing more and more impatient with the two Mortals, the past two days. He knew that their peculiar code meant that they couldn't trust him, were not even supposed to be in the same room with him, but this was getting ridiculous. "Look, why don't you just tell me which Immortals are closest to Paris, and where they are, and *I'll* track them."

"We have discussed this already, Mr. Keane." Galbon shook his head, as stubborn as Amy. "That would be gross interference in the Game."

"Worse than hunting down Immortals that you've deemed unworthy to live?" Keane snapped. Keane had been shocked when Amy told him about Galbon's past indiscretions, but since he had never been Hunted, and had done some Hunting of his own, he really didn't see how it was relevant to how he treated this Mortal, now. But, he wasn't so sure that Galbon, perversely enough, agreed with him.

Galbon lifted his chin, his brown eyes defiant and hostile. "How does helping you murder more of your own kind redeem my past sins, Mr. Keane? I am curious. How does that redress the balance that I destroyed?"

Keane closed his eyes and sighed. "I'm sorry, Doctor. I'm not trying to rub salt in old wounds. To be perfectly honest, I don't care what you did fifteen years ago. I care about today, right now. We are wasting time here, debating morality. I can track an Immortal far better than any Watcher. I can find these challengers, if you'll help me. I don't intend to kill anyone if I don't have to. At worst, I could even pay for a challenge with M--Adam...Ben. Whatever."

"They would recognise you," Galbon insisted. "They were tracking you. They know all about you--your habits, your business, your clothes...."

"Well, if you have any better ideas, I am all ears." The two Watchers sitting in front of him shifted in their seats and glanced at each other in obvious discomfort. "You can't, can you?" Keane was getting a bit irritated with the pair of them, but he supposed that was what happened when you had to challenge old taboos. For himself, he was still wrapping his mind around the idea of paying to hunt. It was disgusting. The only reason he could think that it had not been banned by the Rules was because it had never come up. And that frightened him even more. Methos had claimed more than once that the Rules were arbitrary things, made up by mercenary Immortals simply as an excuse to continue the Game.

Keane leaned forward. "Look, let's at least try this out. If they recognise me, I can do a runner, but at least we'll have located them--all right?"

"What about Joe?" Amy's tone was uncompromising. She wanted her father back.

"I don't know. What about Joe? It seems to me that the only one we have a prayer of finding right now is...." he trailed off, wondering which name he should use.

"Methos. You are saying that the only way to find Joseph is if we can locate Methos first." Keane stared at Galbon in shock. "Methos is the one out in the open, the one whom they will show to your kind as bait, the one who may well die first. Eh bien, he is the only one we can track. So, we must find him first and hope that he will lead us to Joseph, too."

"How long--How did you know?" Keane blurted. Galbon and Amy exchanged an uneasy glance--so they had both known. Perfect. Keane had noticed that she and Galbon had drawn closer since that business with the Hunters during Methos' escape to Scotland with Joe last month. Keane suspected that what Galbon had involved Amy in had hardened her.

Galbon regarded Keane sadly. "I have known for months. I am not a fool; and I have been his friend for fifteen years. How could I not know, once I discovered his true nature?"

"And yet, you'll still help us find him, knowing that he's a renegade?" Keane asked, curious.

Galbon's look soured when he favoured Keane with it. "I said that I am his friend, non? I am also his doctor. And I am not afraid of renegades. I know all about them. I was one? He is my friend and he is in trouble. Ça suffit."

Keane did not think it sufficed for himself at all, but Galbon was not going to give him a better explanation. Keane wasn't sure that the old Watcher had one. He looked at Amy. She wouldn't meet his eyes. He could see that pushing this would get him nowhere.

"Fine," he said, leaning forward, his hands clasped between his knees. "Now, here's what we'll do...."

*********

They drag me across the grass, my hands bound behind me. The dead, the dead crowd round. Boggy water fills my nose and mouth. I cough as they drop me onto my knees. I bow my head to the ground; I can smell grass and flowers. It is spring again. How will they kill me this time? Strangling, a club to the head, a knife in the back? Oh, please, just let me go. When they pull me up and yank my head back for the knife, I still struggle, cursing them, knowing it is hopeless. I will never say 'please' again--

"Methos...." A hand grabs my shoulder, breaking loose the ropes and the blindfold. I leap up. I open wide my eyes. The thirsty dead crowd in like dry leaves in autumn to batten on my blood, smothering me. It is dark and the air smells of dirt. I am in the ground! They have buried me alive this time!

One of the dead grasps at me and I scramble away, my back smacking up against cold rock. "Methos...." No. He is not dead, but as alive as me. They have buried him, too. He shuffles close. He is not the right shape. Is he a demon? No...no. It comes to me. He has lost his legs somewhere. The gods took them away, just as they took the light away from me. He puts a hand on my shoulder and shakes me, more gently this time. "Methos." His tone reassures me, though I don't understand his language, the words he uses to soothe me. When he leans forward, I can sense his face, almost see it in the faint light coming from a crevice above us. I know the face.... I know him.

"Joe," I choke out the word, through the memory of the bog.

He nods, so close that I can feel his breath on my face. He speaks and speaks his incantation until I feel myself coming into alignment with him, with this time. "...just a dream, Methos. You're okay. It's December 14th, 2002. You're just outside Paris, in a cellar. Do you remember, Methos?"

I nod, then croak out, "Oui...yes," when I realise that he cannot see me. "Joe...."

He hugs me, patting me on the back. "It's okay. It was just a bad dream. I don't know where you were just now, but you're not there anymore."

"Not anymore. No." I lean my head back against the wall. "Not for about four millennia."

Joe is so quiet, I can hear him breathing. "Ow."

I giggle, still shaken. "No shit."

"What?" he says. Bloody Hell. I didn't say what I thought I did, or at least, not in the language I thought I said it in.

"Nothing." It shouldn't matter anymore.

"What was the dream about?" He won't push, but....

"Human sacrifice." From the sound of his reaction, I know that I spoke English that time. "Me. Over and over and over again. You want the gory details?"

"Only if you want to tell me." He pushes himself over and sits next to me, back to the wall, pulling the blanket over us both. "You want to tell me?"

"Not really." I giggle again, full of inappropriate humour, of a sudden. "How did you think I became a Horseman?"

"I tried not to think too hard about it. Sorry." The warmth of his shoulder against mine steadies me.

"Don't be. It's good to have a brother at my back again, you know? Maybe that's all it is.... Did I say that in English that time?"

"Yeah. You did. Don't worry about it. I'm the only one you need to talk to and I can figure it out as we go along." He laughs quietly, his own inappropriate sense of humour sparked by mine, methinks. But it dies off. "It's the Quickenings. Three in as many days--they're messing with your head."

"It's the dead," I disagree. "I take more heads, I see more dead. It has always been that way."

He is very quiet. I begin to think he's gone to sleep, until he says, "That corner is getting darker. I can't see it, but--you know."

I nod. "I know."

"I'm worried about you, man. You weren't in great shape before. You can't keep doing this forever." His concern is touching. It is so good to have a brother again. Oh, I have missed it.

"I don't have to do this forever, just until we escape." I shiver. "Let's lie down again. This wall is cold."

"Yeah. No shit." Only, that's not what he says, or at any rate, he doesn't say it in English, but mimicks what I said before. I can recognise that now, even if I still cannot remember the language. Joe flicks out his hand, scattering the shadows within shadows. The dead swirl away as we lie down, but come back as soon as we settle. They always come back. I should have remembered that.

*********

"I do not like this plan," René said. "There are too many moving parts." He wanted to light a cigarette, badly, but the light might show outside the car, in the growing dusk. Thank God that the park was clearing of people. Ah, merde. He had forgotten to take his medication. He pulled out the little bottle, hands trembling, and shook out the dose.

"God, I hate sitting around in cars, Watching these people," Amy sighed, shifting in the driver's seat. René had asked her to drive, not trusting himself on the road. She glanced over at him. "What are you taking?"

"Zoloft," he explained. "After our adventures a few weeks ago, my therapist prescribed it."

She chuckled. "Doctor, do you have any idea how strange that sounds? I mean, consider the irony--a therapist who needs therapy."

"It is standard procedure for therapists to have their own therapists," he reassured her. "We need, above all, to have a good sense of perspective and balance at all times, even though our profession can make that difficult." He washed down the pill with a swallow of cold coffee-- possibly not the best accompaniment. "But, we are not generally on medication when we work, c'est vrai. I am on leave. Adam is my only patient for the moment, and that is only because he refuses to see anyone else."

"Why am I not reassured?" Amy smiled, for the first time in days it seemed. "An ex-Hunter treating an ex-Horseman of the Apocalypse? There is some sort of justice to that."

René echoed her unwilling smile. "I do not pretend to know him better than any others, because of my background. We both know he would not be understanding if he found out about my past." And unfortunately, that seemed very likely, at some point, particularly now that Keane knew.

"I don't know. You might be surprised." She looked thoughtful. "My father betrayed him once, and they're still friends."

René patted Amy on the shoulder. "Merci pour la réassurance, Miss Thomas, but I would rather not test your theory just yet." He sat up as Stephen Keane came into view across the street. "There he is."

Amy also sat up. "Good. Does that mean he found the other Immortal?"

René shrugged. "He said he would bring the other one out here. You tell me." Another Immortal appeared behind Keane, walking quickly as Keane turned to face him. Keane drew his sword, as did the Immortal.

"Why couldn't they have met on holy ground?" Amy groused, as Keane and his challenger circled each other. "He can't get anything out of a dead man, or if he gets himself killed."

"You know why--it would look too suspicious." Now, he needed a cigarette worse than ever. "Ah, non. They are going to fight." Whatever conversation had passed between the two Immortals ended as the challenger leapt at Keane. Keane backed up hurriedly, parrying. He stayed on the defensive, which was as far as he stuck to the plan. The other Immortal attacked again and again, shouting in a frenzy. When he took first blood on Keane's shoulder, Keane lost his temper and went after the challenger. The fight ended when the challenger dropped his guard after a wild swing and Keane took his head. Despite the gloom, René thought he saw the look of horror on Keane's face, as he realised that he had just done what he'd expressly promised not to do, right before the Quickening rose around him.

"Agh. Gabrieli is going to shoot us," Amy said covering her eyes. René peered past her at the Quickening, and wondered when the two of them had become so jaded that a Quickening seemed ordinary.

*********

"I should take you both out into the hallway and shoot you right now." Gabrieli said this in a conversational tone, his face bland, but Amy wasn't fooled. "Obviously, we haven't had nearly enough executions in the past few years if we have failed to weed out two such *stupid* Watchers under my command. Why don't you tell me why I shouldn't do it?" Next to her, René shifted from one foot to another. God only knew what he was thinking. "I'm waiting."

"I take full responsibility," René said, before Amy could speak. He sounded very subdued.

"No." Amy glanced at René, whose stood, head high, waiting for his punishment. "I am as responsible as he is. We did it together."

Gabrieli sat back in his chair and steepled his fingers. "You two are a menace. Do not expect me to be indulgent, here. You *interfered*. Worse yet, your interference was directly responsible for the death of an Immortal in the Game. What possessed you to give information about one Immortal to another?"

"Stephen Keane felt that the only way we could locate Adam Pierson was by tracking the Immortals that the renegades contracted to Hunt him. And since we couldn't find any other way to track him, or to find m--Mr. Dawson at all, we eventually decided to go with his plan," Amy said.

"Keane's plan was to track down one of the Immortals involved in this vicious, little pyramid scheme and kill him?" Gabrieli leaned forward, looking incredulous. Amy couldn't blame him. In the cold light of Gabrieli's office, the plan sounded even more idiotic than it had when Keane had first tossed it at them like an anchor disguised as a lifesaver.

René shook his head. "He thought that he could get the information we needed from the other Immortal and then scare him out of town without anyone getting hurt. Obviously, things did not go according to plan."

"You can certainly bet that they did not." Gabrieli stood up and glared at each of them for a long moment. Amy squirmed, rubbing one foot with the other one. "I understand, Miss Thomas, that you have recently lost your mother to these sick bastards, and I understand, Doctor, that your past makes you perhaps a little too obsessed with helping her find them. I also understand that they are holding your loved ones, who are long- standing members of this organisation. If it were not for those extenuating circumstances, I would have you both up before a tribunal tomorrow, do you understand?"

Amy nodded. "Oui, Monsieur," René said quietly.

Gabrieli sat down. He looked tired. "What mayhem do you plan to do next?"

"Keane volunteered to sign up for a challenge," Amy explained, breathing a silent sigh of relief. "We'll follow him at a distance as back- up. Once we locate Mr. Pierson, we should be able to backtrack to my fath-- Mr. Dawson."

Gabrieli rubbed his forehead. That must be some headache they were giving him. "Won't they recognise Keane from their botched kidnapping last week?"

"The movies that we have seen so far indicate that the challenger comes in from a distance," René said, "and that the kidnappers are closest to Pierson, at least at the beginning of the fight. It could give us time to get in and neutralise them before the fight even began. Not that Keane would fight Pierson, anyway."

Gabrieli put one elbow on his desk and leaned his head on his hand. "Perhaps, but from the fights I've seen, I wouldn't rely on Pierson holding back. Five challenges in as many days seem to have scrambled his brains more than a little. In yesterday's entry, he chased the challenger-of-the- day around the field, screaming in Old French, before he killed her."

"Which makes it that much more urgent that we get him out of there," René replied.

Gabrieli sighed and hung his head. When he raised his eyes, he looked resigned. "Fine. Take care of this and get it over with. And do it soon, or you'll both wish I'd had you before a tribunal, instead of turning you loose back out on the street."

*********

"Hey, Phil. We got big probs, man," Bob called. Philippe looked up from the TV and went back into the kitchen. Wilhelm followed him.

"Qu'est-ce qui se passe?" Philippe asked.

"We're losing paying customers, that's what. Look." Bill turned the laptop so that Philippe and Wilhelm could see the screen.

"What?" Wilhelm said. "Surely they're not losing interest, already? Or backing out?"

"No, the hits numbers are fine. Nice and healthy and climbing even faster than we predicted. Guess things haven't changed too much in the past couple thousand years--yer average Joe still likes throwing Christians to the lions. No, look at this. I emailed this guy, calls himself 'Hotspur', yesterday. Everything was fine; he was gonna show up for a challenge tomorrow. Was all hot to do it. Figured our guy needed taking down a head, you know what I mean? He was supposed to email me today for the final details on the meet, and he hasn't shown up."

"Maybe he changed his mind, or is taking his time responding," Philippe suggested, looking over the email messages.

Bob shook his head. "Nuh uh. I'm telling you, this guy came to Paris for our guy's head and he wanted it like last week. No way he'd start playing coy now."

Philippe thought about it. "Bon. Contact the next one down the list and have him come tomorrow. It is too late to set it up safely today."

Bob stared up at him. "But, what about today? We'll be out 5000 euros."

Wilhelm snorted. "The risks of the business. Our competition has been doing this for thousands of years. We are bound to lose some customers to other Immortals. We have made 25 thousand euros this week already. We can afford to give our man a day off."

"Do we still have to feed him?" Bob asked plaintively.

Philippe frowned at him. "Of course we do. Don't be a scrooge. I doubt he will see the New Year."

"I don't know about that," Wilhelm said thoughtfully. "He is a tough bastard. He could survive all twelve--okay, eleven--of his challengers. And that would just about bring us up to Christmas. We are giving him that day off, ja?"

"I don't see why not," Philippe replied. "But, we should get rid of him and Dawson after Christmas, start someplace new with a fresh Immortal before our audience gets bored. We can't stay here, forever. And I do not like the idea of taking him with us. Eventually, someone will identify him, or the surroundings, and then the clean-up team will be after us. I want to be far away before they come."

"You really got that idea stuck in your head, dontcha?" Bill said, snickering.

"I have worked with a clean-up team before." Philippe shuddered. "They are frightening--Watchers who kill Watchers."

"I don't see why that should scare you," Wilhelm said, going to the refrigerator for a beer. "You killed a Watcher just last week."

Philippe was growing very tired of this subject. "That was different. That was in the middle of an ambush. The Watchers who clean up, they are executioners. Go downstairs and look into Dawson's eyes, ask him how many of his own people he has killed, and you will see what I mean." He glared at Wilhelm, who was about to close the refrigerator door without offering a beer to his camarades. "You could get us a beer, too."

Wilhelm glared back, pulled out a beer and and tossed it at Philippe, who caught it. Wilhelm glared at Bob and said, "I suppose you want one, too."

"Sure. Absolutely." Bob grinned, though his eyes stayed wide. "Hey, um, another problem, though it might solve some stuff for us." He played with the mousepad on the laptop, running down the list in the Fights Movies folder and hit the return key. The raw footage from the latest fight came up. Bob clicked on the Play button. Philippe put his hands on Bob's chair and looked over his shoulder as Wilhelm came over.

"What are we looking for?" Philippe said, as the movie showed their Immortal being shoved onto the killing field and breaking for his sword. The man could run, bien sûr. "What is wrong with the lighting? Is the webcam broken again? I can barely see our guy."

Bob nodded, and paused the playback. "I know. That's what I meant. It's not the lighting and not the equipment. I went back over the previous fights and the effect's there from the beginning. It's getting more pronounced with each fight."

"So, our equipment is defective?" Wilhelm slapped the wall. "Perfect. This is all we need."

"We have plenty of money," Philippe said. "We can buy new equipment, if necessary."

"No!" Bob leaned forward, more excited than Philippe had seen him in their already too-long acquaintance. "No, the equipment's fine. Look." He fastforwarded the mpeg to the point where the challenger showed up. The challenger came through clearly in the grey winter light, sharp and perfectly in focus--Bob did know his technical stuff. But, their guy....

"What are those things?" Wilhelm leaned right over Bob's shoulder. "Shadows? Sundogs? What?" To Philippe's eyes, their guy stood in the middle of a dust storm. Colourless whisps flitted around him, now dark, now light, making him seem far away, like the wrong end of a telescope. If he noticed them, he gave no sign.

"I think they're ghosts," Bob said, grinning nervously.

Wilhelm snorted in disgust, pushing himself away from Bob's chair and swigging more beer. "Don't be a fool. It is just an effect of his Quickening. It must be getting so strong, it's messing with the equipment, that's all." He scowled at Philippe. "I guess you're right. We will have to get rid of him after Christmas."

"And not have to deal with that prick Dawson anymore?" Bob laughed. "I can live with that! The next Immortal we get, though, let's leave the baggage behind."

Philippe nodded slowly, relieved. At least they were all in agreement, now. "What about Aidan and Max?" Aidan and Max were out getting dinner.

"What about them?" Wilhelm said. "They're muscle and they don't care. They will probably enjoy doing both our guy and Dawson at the end."

*********

I got lucky today--they left Aidan behind to mind the store while they all took you out to the challenge. Aidan was lazy. He wouldn't come down more than the necessary once an hour. I'd get a quick lookover with the flashlight from the top of the stairs and that would be it. But, I still couldn't waste time. You like your fights short and sharp and wherever they drove you was less than half an hour away. I'd have maybe two hours, tops, to do this--unless you didn't come back, but I told myself not to think about that too much.

One of the few good things about being 'handicapped' is that you're not predictable anymore. If you're a bilateral amputee and you want to get anything done that needs legs, you'd better figure out your own way of doing it, or it won't get done. And since all the fun and important things usually need legs to get done....

For instance, just because you don't have legs anymore, that doesn't mean you can't use your arms. And that is exactly what I did, getting down off the bed and along the floor. I had to manoeuvre around the blue, plastic bucket we were using for a toilet, but that was simple enough. It was using the damned thing that was tricky. Not like I could crouch over it, you know? You had to help me to use it. I like to think of myself as a practical guy, a survivor, but I was glad you were my friend, or the humiliation would have been too much and I would have made them shoot me by now.

Once I got onto the open floor, I had to be careful. They'd given me my pants back after the first day, if not my prosthetics, and I didn't see even Acne Boy eyeing my butt too closely. But, I didn't want to drag any dirt back onto that bed. They would have noticed that. There was a piece of mostly-clean burlap next to the TV. I sat on it, then turned the TV as quietly as I could without yanking out the electrical cord and the cable coming down the stairs, so that I'd have enough light to see something. There was winter daylight coming in from a window about halfway between me and the corner, but it didn't show much.

I don't know why I had to go to that corner. I sure as Hell didn't want to go check it out, but something about the dream that I had had the other day told me that I needed to, and it wasn't as if I had a full schedule for the day. It was a mystery, and I saw no good reason to leave that stone unturned.

It started to get cold as soon as I passed the space heater, a bone- chilling cold. The shadow in the corner lightened about halfway over, by the single window. The TV yak got more faint, some trick of the acoustics maybe, but that was about as creepy as it got. There was a lot of loose dirt on the floor in this corner. The bricks were loose, covered with old cobwebs and dust. Nobody had been over here for a long time. I knocked on them gently--wouldn't do to alert bozo Aidan upstairs. They sounded hollow. I started picking at them with my fingers, trying to find one that would move, some chink. One came loose so fast it screeched as I yanked it out. I froze. No sound from upstairs, aside from the TV, directly overhead. Aidan hadn't noticed. From the sounds of it, he liked his TV turned up loud. I pulled out the next loose brick I found much more carefully. And then another, and another. I set them down in a row, so I'd know how to put them back. With my luck, you'd come back early today.

It didn't take long to make a big enough hole to look through, maybe twenty bricks' worth. I leaned down on one elbow and peered through, wishing I had a flashlight. As I let my eyes adjust to the light filtering in, I saw that I was looking into a small alcove. It could have been a hiding place, or just a walled-up closet. There was a pile of old clothes against the other wall. It wasn't until I noticed the beret on top of the pile that I realised it was a body. Dead bodies are funny things. In horror movies, they're lit up so bright, there's no way you could miss them. But, in real life, they're trash, the reason for paying attention to them gone with the spirits who lived in them. You trip over them; you forget that they're even there.

I figured if that dream had meant anything, this was what was left of the girl who had visited me. The beret was a big enough clue. I couldn't see any detail, no leering skull or grasping finger bones, nothing to make me recoil, cursing. So, I sat there, and wondered what the Hell I was supposed to do now. Why lure me over here, just to see a dead body that I could barely see? Whoever had died in here was long past helping. I didn't even know how she'd died, or even if the body was a 'she'. Then, I pushed myself up on my hands, trying to get a better look, and the light flashed on something right next to my hand. I looked down and saw salvation--a dagger, sharp and unsheathed, with the swastika still etched on its handle in bright silver.

*********

"His name is Methos He was a Horseman Pillaging with his brothers three Every town from sea to sea...."

I wince. Joe's latest fight song, set to the tune from "Copa Cabana" is stuck in my head. I think I preferred "Mighty Methos". I don't want to die to the tune of this one.

"We don't have to do this," I say, as I circle my challenger, who circles me. He is shorter and slighter than I am, but the way he bends his knees slightly as he walks, the way he keeps the point of his sword always aimed at my centre, tells me that he knows his business. "I am their prisoner, you know. If you win, you'll only replace me in slavery. I don't think you'd care for the accommodations."

He smiles faintly. "I paid good money for this fight." Why do I waste my breath? Not one of them has heeded me yet, and he is number nine. He jerks his chin at the woods to my left. "Besides, I have a perfectly serviceable escape route. I have no doubt I will escape your fate." Smug bastard. He sounds Greek. Does it matter? No.

"It won't help you if you're dead," I say. He looks puzzled. English, Old Man. English, English, English! It is the language of the day.

He says something, but the words are beyond me. Huffing in exasperation, I leap forward, attacking him head-on. He parries, sidestepping, as I thought he might. Perhaps he thinks I am slow. When he tries to swing at me, I come in close, too recklessly. I punch him in the face as he brings up his sword to cut me, making him scramble to get away. As I'm taller, he does not want to get into wrestling with me--I can tip him over.

He strikes at me, slashing at my hip. It snags on my coat, but that is all. I drive straight in, ignoring the attack. Why bother to parry when it won't be fatal? Blanching, he backtracks towards his escape route. I pursue him. When I get close, he stabs me in the thigh. As I yell and fall to one knee, clutching my leg, he comes at me, swinging. I duck under his blade and stab him in the belly. It's not deep enough to be fatal, but he breaks and runs, anyway. My blood is up. I stagger after him, leaning on my sword. It sinks into the muddy grass. People are screaming behind me. I ignore them. I run as I heal, speeding up, but just as I catch up with him, come within two swordlengths, he reaches the edge of the field and drops out of sight.

What the Hell...? I reach the edge of the field--and almost drop out of sight, myself. It's a ravine, a river! I see the challenger at the bottom, floating down the river, out of reach. Out of reach.... I hear them coming up behind me, closing in, but if I only put out my foot and let myself fall.... I can escape! I can escape! I can...kill Joe. Without me, they have no use for him.

*Your last chance, Old Man....* But, I don't move. The four Mortals puff up behind me. Two of the goons grab me and drag me back from the edge, back into the field. One of them is laughing.

"I thought for sure you'd jump!" he says. I thought for sure I would have, too.

*********

"I've got it!" Keane's whoop of victory almost made René spill his coffee all over Amy's chronicle. The Zoloft was making him groggy and nauseous. He hoped that side effect would settle down after another week or so.

"You have got what?" he said, getting off the couch and sitting down in the chair next to Keane.

"They emailed me back. I'm in. I'm due to fight him on...." He peered at the laptop screen. "I'm fighting him on *Christmas Eve*?! That's sacrilege!"

"No, M. Keane. That is merely amoral." René wasn't getting much sleep, either. Was that the Zoloft or the underlying problem? Hard to say. He sipped coffee, longing for a cigarette. It might help with the nausea. Perhaps Keane wouldn't mind if he lit one out here in the office.

Keane sat back, staring at the screen. "I can't believe how this bloke fought me over it, too. Said he wouldn't have penciled me in, except that they'd had a sudden 'opening'."

"He must mean the challenger whose head you took on Sunday." René was not looking forward to putting the Old Man on medication after all of this was over, but he saw no other choice, particularly if they got Methos out, but not Joseph. Methos would definitely need to be hospitalised then. He might still need to be hospitalised, even if everything went smoothly.

Keane chuckled. "D'you think we can move up the timetable if I go track down the other challengers and take their heads?"

René shivered. "I would not advise that you do that, M. Keane. It would earn Miss Thomas and myself a bullet in the back of the head. Even if you went out and found them on your own, Gabrieli would assume that we had helped you, and shoot us on principle."

Keane looked incredulous. "You don't really think he'd do that, do you?"

René nodded. "Yes, I really think that he would. He is very angry with us, right now."

"A hard man, eh?"

"Oui. Very hard. He has to be, non? What we did was very foolish. It was a great mercy, giving us a second chance, myself especially."

Keane shook his head. "Yes...no. I can't judge, to be honest, and I do see your point, but.... You people have a very strange moral code, and an even stranger way of enforcing it."

René smiled in unwilling agreement. "D'accord. But, when you look at the world of most Mortals, do you really feel that you are living a normal life?" Keane looked down. "We watch you. We guard your secrets. When you see us, do you not see a mirror of your own lives? I think that Methos does. It may be why he joined the Watchers." *And why we refuse to let him go. He is one of us, now, and we will not let him go until he blesses us.* "I think that if he has survived until now, they are unlikely to find a challenger so soon who could take him. This is a new thing. They are still getting the little fish, je crois."

"Maybe." Keane looked doubtful.

René touched the laptop screen. "Have you looked at the recent combats, to see if his fighting style is deteriorating?"

"I wouldn't say that it's his fighting style that is deteriorating," Keane said, calling up the webpage and clicking on the latest fight. As René watched Methos (who seemed to be surrounded by a continuous blur) chase the terrified challenger right off the field, he had to agree.

*********

"Methos." The voice tickles my ear. I roll onto my back and she lies down on top of me, full-length, skin on skin. "You've had a busy week," she purrs, playing with my hair. "Ten heads in twelve days. My goodness, what a tiger." I reach up and cup her face in my hands, tangling my fingers in her hair, and pull her down for a kiss.

"Don't you want to talk?" she says when she comes up for air.

"No," I reply, pulling her back down as she moves against me, letting me inside her. I hate post-Quickening dreams. After I whacked Kristin, I dreamt about shagging her on top of a desk in front of a lecture hall full of students, while simultaneously delivering a talk on 17th century French cuisine. And she wasn't even my type.

"Who are you?" I gasp, as she picks up the rhythm. With so many Quickenings fermenting together at once inside me, it is no wonder that I don't recognise which of my challengers knew her. So, why do I feel I should still know her?

"Don't you know?" she grins, teasing me far more than verbally. She leans close, her hair falling around her face, tickling my nose.

"Amy?!"

A shout of laughter wakes me. I open my eyes. The sound comes from a box below my feet, not the man sitting next to me, or my heart, still banging in my ears. He is silent, playing with something bright and glittering, watching the box. My brother. Who else would have a knife? When I sit up he looks at me and says something. I shake my head, sweating, trying to let my breathing slow. Non comprehendo. He says it again and again, until I understand, "You look like shit."

I rub my face. "Aye." When I move my leg, the chain tugs against it. I look at my brother. "Joe," I say, not too certain.

He nods. Oh, I was right. Bueno. "You didn't remember my name last night, though--or yours. I guess ten really is your limit. The good news about that is, they decided to give you the day off to get your head back together. Is that gonna be enough?"

"No." I'm not sure what would be enough. "How many times did you have to say that before I got it?"

He holds up three fingers. Ow. "That was some wet dream," he says. "Was she any good?"

"I think so." Identity came first. Now, I'm remembering relationships, like who is Joe's daughter. "Did I, um, say anything? In my sleep?"

"Like a name for your dream girl? Nope." He fingers his beard. He is turning so grey...the sadness of that weighs so heavily, I want to lie down and go back to sleep. "You want to keep a date with Mr. Hand, I can look the other way, maybe go check out the back of the TV or something."

I shake my head. "Non. Vivam." No English today. No verdammt English. "I'm not. Making. Any sense. Am I?" Joe just smiles, reaches out and ruffles my hair.

He lifts the knife, the blade flashing in the light from the talking box. "Don't worry, buddy. I won't let this go on forever. I think I got a plan."

I stare at the knife, which has a symbol on its handle, a crooked cross. It is familiar. I may have carried, and killed with, its like before. "Where did you get that?"

"It was in the wall." He points at the dark corner, where the dead remain. "Over there. Where it's dark. A ghost told me where to look."

*********

"Someone's helping himself to the till," Philippe told Wilhelm quietly, as they stood outside on the porch. Inside, Aidan and Max were laughing at the TV. Bob, Philippe assumed, was still at his computer in the kitchen, playing with the latest fight movie. The weather was surprisingly warm for December, but also wet, and the air was cooling as the sun went down to their right.

"What are you talking about?" Wilhelm said, puffing on a cigarette. "How much?"

"Not a lot. A few hundreds here and there each day, but we're all short, and getting more so--except for one."

"Let me guess--might that be Aidan?" Wilhelm's face was hard. Philippe nodded. "I'm not surprised. After all, he's been the only one too drunk to go out with us to the site with the Immortal every day and do his fucking job, eh? He's the one who's had the opportunity more than anybody else."

"What do you want to do?" Philippe asked him. "Max will want proof."

Wilhelm threw down his cigarette and ground it underfoot. "Right. Get the car. We'll leave some money in the kitchen as bait, take Max and Bob out for a ride for a hour or so and count it up when we get back. Aidan is pissed already. You can bet he will take some of it." He looked out across the empty field at the setting sun. "After that, we do him. We wouldn't have needed him much longer, anyway. And now, we won't have to share with a drunk."

*********

Azar found Amy sitting in a corner of the bar, drinking club soda and ignoring the Monday afternoon customers. She was staring at the empty stage, her gaze as hard and focused as a laser. Azar knew that look, just as she knew that Amy would not notice her until she set her own glass on the table.

"May I sit?" she asked, as Amy looked up at her.

Amy inclined her head. Neither her eyes nor her mouth changed expression. Azar sat down across from her. She folded her hands on the table. "Dr. Galbon told me about your mother. I would like to offer my condolences."

Still no change in expression. "Thank you. It was quite a shock."

Azar looked around. "I was surprised to hear that the bar will be open, the day after tomorrow. Marie tells me that you don't serve alcohol on the high holy days."

"My father feels that everyone should have a place to go on Christmas. Being a Vietnam War veteran, he knows what it is like to be alone, truly alone. But he also hates getting people in that mood drunk. He doesn't think it helps." Azar noticed that Amy still spoke of her father in the present tense. Good. She still had hope.

"Yes, he told me that a few weeks ago, after he returned from Scotland."

Amy chewed her lip. "Really? I am impressed. He doesn't tell many people about his military service. That's how he lost his legs, you know."

Azar lowered her eyes. "Believe me, I did recognise the honour he paid me in telling me. Not everyone would have reacted well to the information, I'm sure."

"Doctor Davani," Amy said, lowering her voice and leaning forward, "I appreciate your support, but I'm surprised that you are leaving your family behind this week to help us. Especially when there is so little you can do."

"I have no family left, really." Azar met Amy's eyes again. "My son doesn't speak to me and his father is dead. I left the rest of my family behind in Iran. I have heard nothing about them for nearly 20 years."

"I see." Was that diamond hardness softening, just a little? "I am sorry to hear that. How old is your son?"

"Il a vingt ans--He is 20 years old. He took a scholarship to study in Canada. I hear from him sometimes, when he wants money. He blames me for his father's death, you see."

"Were they close?"

"No. My husband died before Iraj was born." Amy looked startled, finally distracted out her own broodings. "Iraj blames me for his father's death. I suppose it is easier to idolise a parent whom you have never met, than the one who raised you." When Amy's expression crumpled, Azar realised her error. *I must be getting old.* "I am sorry. I didn't mean your own situation." She reached out and tentatively patted Amy's hand.

Amy did not pull it away. She blinked and sniffed, rubbing her eyes. "It's all right. I had been neglecting my mother lately, though she never said anything."

"I am sure that she understood." Azar wasn't sure of this at all. Hopefully, if--when--Joseph returned, he would be able to tell Amy a gentle tale of a late reconciliation between himself and her mother. That would explain why they had driven up to the parking lot, right at that fatal moment. Azar put down the bad feeling at that thought. She no longer indulged in jealousy of the dead.

Amy's mobile phone rang. She pulled it out and turned it on. "Hullo?"

Azar felt her heart rise when Amy sat up straight, eyes wide, and said, "Dad?! Dad, where are you?"

*********

A good friend will help you move. A really good friend will help you move a body. A best friend will hold your enemy down while you get your gun.

The dirt was cold, even right next to the space heater. Heat, like shit, rises to the top, which would explain why Acne Boy and his buddies lived upstairs, with you and me stuck down here. I shifted in place, every pebble digging into my hip and shoulder. The other four guys had gone out, leaving one guy left. He had to come down at some point to check on us. It was the perfect opportunity, goddammit!

The floorboards overhead creaked, and the door upstairs opened. *About time, you lazy son of a bitch.* Man, was he in for a surprise. The guy came downstairs, step by slow step. He sounded a little unsteady. Maybe he was drunk; that would make things easier.

"Fucking Hell!" I grinned at the horror in the guy's voice. Irish accent. That would be Aidan, one of the hired goons. He couldn't see my face; I was lying on my side with my back to the stairs. I squinted up at you as you sat crosslegged on the bed, your face serene and the shackle on your leg firmly in place. "What did you do to him?" Aidan asked you.

"I didn't like him anymore," you said, cocking your head. "He was always on at me--nag, nag, nag. So, I killed him." You eyed him. "You know, I don't like you either."

"Shite! Look at all this blood!" Your blood, your idea. I was covered in it. The worst part had been getting enough blood out of you without giving you a mortal wound--you kept healing too fast, but a mortal wound might have taken too long to heal. The guy's footsteps came closer. You helpfully kept your eyes on him, so that when he knelt behind me, you were looking right at me. He grabbed my shoulder and rolled me over. His eyes widened, just as I snapped my arm up and drove the knife into his chest. But, it didn't go straight in. It caught on his leather jacket and got yanked aside as he jumped back. Shit! So much for the plan.

He fell on his ass and scrambled backwards when I sat up. The shackle on your leg, which you'd picked an hour ago with the knife, clinked behind me as you ripped it open. You bounded past me and tackled the guy, landing with all your weight on him. You got a hold on his throat, choking him, and started thumping his head against the dirt. He was gagging and wheezing, scrabbling in his jacket for something. I crawled after you and got hold of his leg, just as he pulled that something out and a gun went off. You jerked, groaning. He fired again, right into your body, and you fell forward on top of him. He struggled to push you off him. Once he did that, I'd be dead meat. No way you'd revive in time to keep him from shooting me.

I grabbed onto the back of your jeans and pulled myself up. He was kicking at me, but couldn't shake me off, distracted by your dead weight. As I got level with your waist, he pushed you off. I fell on top of him, blade-first. The point went in right below his ribcage. His mouth opened wide in agony and he grabbed at the knife in his belly, losing the gun. I scrabbled for it, got hold of it and took aim. I shot him twice, once in the throat, once in the head, then fell over on top of him, panting. I am getting too old for this shit.

Next to me, you twitched and sucked in air. You sat up, still hyperventilating as your body warmed up to life again. Upstairs, it was still unnaturally quiet. We didn't have much time.

"You okay?" I said. You turned your head and stared at me. "Methos? Get with the program here. You okay?"

"Fine," you said, after a minute. You glanced down at the guy, then stood up. "Let's go before they get back."

"You're welcome," I muttered, yanking out the knife as you started stripping the bed. I searched through his pockets. "Hey, he's got a cellphone. I can call Amy!" I turned the phone on. "Dammit! I can't get a signal."

"Upstairs." You knelt beside me and wrapped me up in the quilt.

"I'm not getting up there without legs." For a second, I wanted to kill this guy all over again, and his buddies, too. But, that wasn't sensible. We'd be happy campers if we just got out of here and never saw Acne Boy or his friends ever again.

"That's why I'm carrying you. Give me the gun and the phone." The tone in your voice didn't allow for any democratic discussion. I handed them over to you. The knife I wiped off on the body's leg, sheathed and stuck in my belt. You turned off the phone, clicked the safety on the gun and put them both in your pockets. "Put your arms around my neck," you said. I did and you hefted me onto your back, then stood up slowly.

"You know, the last guy who did this had to hump my sorry ass for seventeen miles through the jungle," I joked.

"Yeah, well, your sorry ass has gained a few pounds since then, buddy," you muttered, as you crept up the stairs.

*********

"I wish you'd got more information about these blokes and their location," Amy complained. René could hear the edge in her voice.

"I tried; they wouldn't give me any," Keane snarled back. "All I know is that it's out by that airport by the Bois-la-Ville, west of Coulommiers." René winced. That name brought back bad memories. Amy looked no happier.

"Soyons calmes tout le monde," René reminded them both, quietly. "We cannot help Joseph and Adam if we lose our heads and start fighting." He clutched at the doorframe as Keane swerved around a slow car and pulled ahead of it on a blind hill. Traffic was heavy on the two-lane road and the falling darkness made visibility worse, with cars sporadically switching on their headlights. René didn't trust Keane's driving, but since Keane was the only one who could sense Methos, it had seemed wiser to let him drive. René was rethinking that decision.

The traffic thinned as they came out into the countryside. "Maybe we should call Joe again," Azar suggested from the back. Since Azar was the only one unarmed, Amy had given Azar her mobile phone. René had his own, as well, which he had remembered to turn on, for once.

"Oui, that might be wise," René agreed. Suddenly, Keane's head went up, and he pulled the car over in a spray of gravel. In the shocked silence, the wind blowing outside rocked the car.

"What?" Amy said, her voice shaking.

"I feel him," Keane said. He didn't have to explain whom he meant. "He's moving." He looked across the field to his left. "Over there. In the woods." He opened the door, letting in a blast of air, and got out, slamming the door behind him. As Keane crossed the road, René got out and hurried after him. Amy was ahead of him, her gun out and ready. René got out his own gun, though between the darkness and the way his hands were shaking from the Zoloft, he did not expect to hit anything much smaller than a barn.

*********

Back inside the car, Azar held the mobile phone and wondered what to do. She had no use for guns, which was why she had refused one, and she had no idea how to help the others while unarmed. At a loss for what else she could do, she redialled the number of the phone Joe had used to call Amy. She put it to her ear. It was ringing.

Someone picked up the phone on the other end. "Amy?"

"Joseph?" she replied.

*********

"It's okay," I told you, as we reached a two-lane road. "Stop here. Amy said they'd pick us up out on the road."

"Yeah, but which road?" you panted, sinking into a crouch. "I think we're out near Coulommiers, but I'm not sure. It's been a few centuries since I passed this way and it is too bloody dark to see much."

"I'll call her again," I said. I had commandeered the phone as soon as we had got upstairs and gotten through to Amy. I started to redial her number. "Hell, at the very worst, we can call a taxi. We're loaded." We had found some money in the kitchen drawer and liberated it. Why not? We'd earned it.

"Wait!" you hissed. "There is a car coming!" You went to your hands and knees and scrabbled down into the ditch next the road, while I held onto both you and the phone for dear life.

"It's probably not them," I said, but in your ear, just in case. You didn't answer, which was just as well when a car turned into the gravel road we had just come up. We both hunkered down in the dead weeds like a couple of scared rabbits as it passed slowly overhead without stopping and continued back to the house.

"They didn't see us," I said, relieved.

"Not yet," you growled. "When they find that piece of shit we left behind in the cellar, they will come back, though." You straightened up, giving me time to get a better grip. "I think this ditch goes west. When we get a little further down the road, you try Amy again, okay?"

"Okay." It wasn't as bad as I expected, holding on. You didn't try to run. I guess you figured you might need your strength later on. At least they'd left you your boots and your coat, so they wouldn't have to dress you up for any fights. I would have been freezing without the quilt. We hadn't been able to find the Bastard in the house, which probably made you more tense than you were willing to think about, let alone admit out loud. Instead, you just trudged down the ditch, with me bouncing along on your back trying to enjoy the view and keep an eye out for Charlie without freezing my face off. All in all, I could have thought of better ways to spend my Christmas holiday.

*********

Philippe stared down at Aidan's body--or at least, he assumed it was Aidan. Blood and gore made the face unrecognisable, but the clothing matched. "Did you find his gun?"

"No." Wilhelm came downstairs, cursing quietly in German. He had the Immortal's sword. "The sword was still where we hid it, but the gun is gone- -and the bait money we had left in the kitchen drawer. 15 thousand euros. I don't think they took much else. Stupid bastard. He should have stayed upstairs and left them alone."

"They were in a hurry and traveling light," Philippe said. "They would only take the important things." He crouched next to the body. "Interesting. Did you notice that he was stabbed, as well? Where did they get the knife?"

Wilhelm shrugged. "Probably from him. Maybe he kept one hidden up his sleeve, and they got it away from him during the fight. Aidan wasn't too smart." He pulled the sword out of its sheath and swung it around his head, before resheathing it. "I don't know about you, but I intend to get my money back."

Philippe nodded. "We'd have had to kill them, anyway. If they got back to the Watchers, we would never be safe again." He stood up. "Allons-y before it gets too dark. The fields are wide open right now and they can't have gone far."

*********

It's the terror of knowing What this world is about, Watching some good friend screaming, "Let me out!"

We didn't get a mile, not nearly far enough, not even out of sight, when they came peeling back down the driveway and onto the road. You dropped flat in the mud. I didn't yell when I landed on top of you, even though it hurt, but only because I'd had previous practice.

"Shit, Cord," I gasped. "I think they saw us."

You said something that wasn't English but sounded a whole lot like, "My name's not Cord." You crawled out from under me as the car roared up, got your feet under you and turned around. You pulled out the gun and dropped it in front of me. I thought your face would be blank, like it was when you hit overload, but it wasn't blank, it was--

"Don't do it!" I hissed at you. They were driving slowly up the road, shining one of those X-Files-type police flashlights in the ditch and across the field, like a scene out of some fucking Nazi POW camp movie. There was no cover, nothing. The ditch was wide open, the weeds soaking wet and mashed flat, and the field was worse. Talk about broken ground. No way we'd make the woods in time. We were history. "Don't do it," I said again, because I knew you were gonna do it anyway.

You smiled at me. I thought you'd say something, but then you stood up, turned and sprinted down the ditch. I heard a howl in four-part harmony go up right above my head as you scrambled up the side of the ditch and out across the field. The car roared down to that spot and braked hard. They all piled out, down into the ditch and up. I lay there and didn't give them any reason to look back, and they didn't. They'd never taken me seriously before, and that was what saved my life now. I lay there, listening to their yelling recede. Then, my phone rang.

I dug it out. "Amy?"

"Joseph?" Not Amy, Azar.

"Oh, God. Azar, where are you?"

"I am on a road." She described it to me. It sounded like the one above me. "Where are you?"

"I'm in a ditch. I think it's on the north side of the road. There's a car right on the road above me. Everything's turned on. It's theirs. They're after Adam."

"Don't worry," she said. "Keane, Amy and Dr. Galbon are out looking for him. I'll come get you."

"Be careful. They might come back," I said.

"They won't come back," she said, but she didn't explain why. She left the phone on so I could hear as she got in the car. I heard her pull up a few minutes later; she hadn't been that far down the road. The driver's door opened, then I heard a voice overhead. "Joe?"

"Down here," I croaked. I had to repeat myself a few times before she heard me and slid down into the ditch. She came over to me and helped me sit up.

"Oh, honey, you shouldn't have come," I said.

"I couldn't have not come," she said. When she hugged me, that was when I knew I was safe.

*********

It seems like suicide, but I run anyway. I hear them whooping and screaming behind me, blind to everything but me and their killing rage. They want me, not Joe. Joe was never on their radar. I have to get to the woods. I can lose them there. I sprint across the broken ground, stumbling over the clods of dirt. My lungs are burning and my limbs still feel loose from carrying Joe, but I'm faster, in better condition and I have a head start. And I do not want to die.

Just as I reach the outlying trees, the illusion of safety, my back explodes into fire, and I go down flat, smacking my face in the mud. Guns, the great leveler. Even Kronos didn't like them. It hurts so much I cannot breathe. I claw at the ground and drag myself further into the trees. I don't want to die. I don't want to die. Not like this, not at all.

*********

"Pick him up," Philippe said. Bob and Max stepped forward and dragged the Immortal up off the ground. The thing mewled and squirmed. Max twisted the Immortal's arm back hard, breaking bone with a crack like a pistol shot in the sharp air. The Immortal choked, but did not scream, would not scream. Philippe admired the man's self-control. Max was very angry about Aidan. That must have hurt a lot.

Wilhelm pulled the sword out of its sheath. "Do you want me to shoot him again?" Philippe asked him.

Wilhelm shook his head. "No. I want him to feel this." He stepped towards Bob and Max, who were still wrestling with the Immortal. "Get him on his knees!" He raised the sword.

The shot came from behind them. Wilhelm jerked forward and slumped to the ground. Philippe spun around, raising his gun, and the world exploded in blood.

*********

"Amy, wait!" René called after her. She ignored him, yanking the Glock 36 out of her coat, clicking off the safeties one by one. She had outstripped Keane when she heard the shots and saw those bastards making for the woods. Keane tried to grab her as she passed him, but she shoved him off. She was starting up the small rise, cursing the bad footing, when they caught up to Ben and picked him up. They paid no attention to her, so intent were they on cutting off his head, even as she came within the outlying trees. She stumbled against a tree, raised the Glock and fired.

The swordsman went down. The man next to him turned, a gun in his hand. She didn't think, just took aim at him and fired several times. His head snapped back and he fell, too. The two men holding Ben dropped him as she came forward. One turned and tried to run; she shot him down. The other one scrambled backwards, whimpering, as she advanced on him, taking aim. "No...please. Don't," he said.

"Is that what my mother told you when you blew her brains out all over my father?" she asked him. She emptied the rest of the clip into him before he could answer. Pulling out another clip and snapping it in, she shot him a few more times, then emptied that clip making sure that the others were all dead. At the end, she was shaking, pulling the trigger repeatedly on an empty gun. She heard groaning, and turned. Ben lay on the ground, curled up with one arm covering his head. Going to him, she knelt and lifted him up so that his head and shoulders rested on her knees. He kicked the ground, keening in pain, but at least the bleeding had stopped, or so it looked. One of his arms looked broken. When she straightened it out, he stopped kicking and lay panting, staring up past her at the trees, eyes wide and blank.

"Ben...Methos. Look at me. It's all right. We got you out. It's all right." She looked up as René and Keane came up the hill, proceeding with far more caution than she had. To her relief, neither of them did more than make sure the four renegades were dead. "I don't think he can hear me," she told them. As she spoke, Ben shuddered in her arms and stopped breathing. She closed his eyes.

"Don't worry," Keane reassured her. "Whatever they did to him, he'll heal."

"His body, anyway," Amy said uncertainly, stroking Ben's hair.

"The rest will heal as well," René said, coughing. "Eventually." He slumped down against a tree. "I am getting too old for this."

"You are not the only one," Keane said. He sat down next to Ben and hung his head.

René's phone rang. He fished it out of his pocket. Amy laughed at the quizzical look on his face.

"You turned it on this time?" she said. "I'm impressed." René had missed an important warning from Gabrieli just weeks ago because he had turned off his mobile phone. Amy's humour died at the thought of Gabrieli. She would be lucky not to catch a bullet for what she'd done here. She sat down, pulling Ben onto her lap.

"'Allo?" René said into the phone. He closed his eyes. "Ah, bon. Yes, I'll tell her." He let the phone drop. "Azar found your father in a ditch by the road. He's fine."

"Oh, God." The killing rush was draining out of her, leaving her cold and sick. She glanced down at Ben, still lying warm and heavy on her knees. As she stroked his hair, he gasped. He opened his eyes, his face contorted. This was her reward for her day's work, Ben and her father, safe and alive, if not well.

"It's all right, Ben. It's all over. They're dead." She rubbed his shoulders, trying to warm him. Should they try to carry him, or wait until he was able to walk back to the car? To wait seemed the most logical thing. His frantic breathing was evening out, but he still didn't seem to know where he was. "Ben?"

He blinked, and his expression softened, as he finally saw her. He put his cold hand over hers, tentatively feeling her fingers out, one by one. "Alexa?" he whispered. Then, he blinked and squeezed her hand. "Amy," he said, his voice hoarse. "Thank you."

She felt water trickle over her hand as she stroked the side of his face. She didn't know what to say. She had always thought him oblivious to her feelings. This was more of a reward that she could have hoped for. "It's all right, Ben," she said inanely. "You're home, now." And then, she cried.

I wish you a hopeful Christmas. I wish you a brave New Year. May all anguish, pain and sadness Leave your heart and may your road be clear. They said there'd be snow at Christmas. They said there'd be peace on Earth. Hallelujah, Noel. Be it Heaven or Hell, The Christmas we get we deserve.

END

For now, but Joe and Methos will return in the conclusion to "Parce Que J'ai Péché [For I Have Sinned]".