My name is Jessica Reislander. I have a master's degree in sociology and anthropology from the University of Waterloo. My graduate thesis, on the cultural response to violent crime within Toronto's Portuguese community, was hailed as an impressive achievement: it earned me a few hearty back-pats from my professors, my name engraved on a couple of plaques, and the somewhat useful sum of $500. What it did not earn me, however--and I really should have known this when I started--was a job.
So I cut hair.
It's not so bad once you get through the training. If you can suppress the urge to murder the old bat who tells you to take two inches off her layers and then screams that you've scalped her, or maintain an air of professional detachment as you watch your black-haired client's platinum blonde colour treatment turn green, you can survive pretty much anything.
I try to tell myself it's good practical research, that I might even write it up one day. A Brief Analysis of the Stylist-Customer Dynamic. Some Observations on the Social Hierarchy of the Salon. After all, you have to think positive, right? This job will eat your soul if you let it. And it isn't forever, just until I can find something in my field.
It's been two years.
I'm between customers now, washing hair and soap out of the sinks, trying not to look at the mirror above me. I know there are blue circles under my brown eyes, and my hair, which is supposed to be a testament to the salon's collective genius, looks like it's been nibbled by rats. I have so far resisted the pressure to get it tinted or streaked. Medium Dirt may not be the world's most popular shade, but I've got this superstitious fear that if I give in, I'll be stuck here for the rest of my life.
The door opens with a jingle of bells. I look up automatically--this is my customer, the other girls are still busy--and see a man standing by the entrance, gazing around with a sort of distracted fascination. Not one of my regulars. Not anyone's regular anything, by the looks of him, in a frock-coat and stripy trousers, V-neck sweater in the middle of August, red question-marks embroidered on his lapels. Either the Halloween parties have started way too early this year, or this guy's a serious eccentric.
It just goes to show I'm not a stylist at heart: it takes me thirty seconds to scan from the scuffed white leather of his shoes to his serene, yet oddly ancient blue eyes before I realise how badly his hair needs cutting. It hangs in a ragged fringe across his forehead and brushes the collar of his shirt, curling a little in the heat.
He is, I admit to myself grudgingly, kind of cute.
'Hullo,' he says. And yes, that is exactly how he says it, which means he isn't from this side of the Atlantic, or anywhere south of the equator. He's got a lovely voice. I suck in my breath, shift my weight from one shoe to the other.
'Hi. How can I help you?'
'Rather obvious, I should think,' he says, a little ruefully, and tugs at his fringe. 'Wash and trim, nothing fancy--I'm a creature of habit.'
'Funny, you don't look like a nun.'
Idiot. I should know better. But he gives me a smile that radiates delight, and I feel myself relax. 'Wordplay,' he says, crossing the room toward me with the light, springy step of an athlete, 'is the hallmark of all civilised conversation. Puns notwithstanding.' He sticks out his hand. 'I'm the Doctor. And you?'
My clients rarely ask me my name. I've cut some people's hair four, five times, and they still don't know me from Eve. I say, "Jessica," and take the hand he offers, wondering what makes him so different, so alive. His grasp is cool, yet warm; firm but not constricting. The perfect friendly handshake: it practically vibrates sincerity. I have to remind myself to let go.
'This way, please,' I hear somebody say, in a calm professional voice that can't possibly be mine, and yet he's right behind me as I walk to the sinks. He shrugs off his long, square-tailed jacket and hangs it on the stand; then he sits down in the nearest chair, tips his head back into the washbasin. All at once his throat is bare, vulnerable. I might even say tempting, if I were Sweeney Todd.
Fortunately for him, I'm not. I drape the plastic apron over his shoulders, fasten it loosely about his neck; then I squeeze myself in between the sinks and turn the taps on, running the water against my wrist to make sure the temperature's right. Glancing down at his upturned face, I see his eyes are already closed. He trusts me, or perhaps he simply trusts everyone: it's hard to tell which.
At the touch of the warm water he gives a little, contented sigh, and his long body sinks deeper into the chair. My hands, full of herb-scented shampoo and cornsilk hair, begin their rhythmic journey back and forth across his scalp, and the corners of his mouth curl up in a sleepy smile. I look away, telling myself sternly that I need a life.
'So,' I begin in my best casual tone, 'do you travel much?'
It's a stock question, I've used it a thousand times, but his reaction tells me I've hit a nerve. His eyes snap open, startled, and he almost lifts his head from the sink before I stroke his hair back, calming him down.
'Quite a lot, actually,' he replies, but now his voice is cautious, and I can feel his tension. I continue to stroke, weaving my fingers through the wet strands, working the shampoo in. Very few people can stay tense when I give them a scalp massage; it's one of my more useful talents.
'You're lucky,' I tell him. 'I've hardly been anywhere. To Lisbon, once, a few summers back; and I took a week's vacation last year in Vancouver, but that's about it.'
He's relaxed again, surrendering to the seduction of my fingertips, his eyelids drooping closed. 'Ah, yes. Lisbon. Lovely city. Do you speak Portuguese?'
'A little. I'd like to go back some day, brush up on my vocabulary.'
'Not a bad idea,' he agrees.
Now I'm rinsing his hair, watching the suds swirl down the drain. I squirt conditioner into my palms, spread its cool smoothness over his scalp. He hardly needs it, his hair's so soft.
'So, do you travel for business?' I ask. 'Or pleasure?'
'I suppose you might say a little of both.'
'By yourself?' Okay, so that was pretty transparent. Fortunately he doesn't seem to notice.
'No, I take friends along.' He pauses, a little awkwardly, and adds, 'Usually.'
'Not this time, I take it.'
'Yes. Well.' He shifts in the chair, as though the admission makes him uncomfortable. 'It's just that sometimes... one has to do things on one's own.'
'I know what you mean. I had three roommates the summer I went to Lisbon, and in the beginning they were great, but then they started to bicker, and one girl got the sulks, and by the end of six weeks I thought I'd lose my mind.'
'Yes!' His eyes open wide again, but this time his voice holds only relief. 'Yes, quite. What did you do?'
Rinsing the last of the conditioner from his hair, I fold a towel around it, gently pat it dry. 'I hopped out on them and took a week-long bus tour. At the time I felt pretty selfish, but later I realised it would have been stupid to stay around, because I'd only have blown up at them and spoiled the whole trip. Anyway, it gave them something to think about. I won't say things were perfect when I got back, but it did help.' I let the towel drop back into the sink. 'Come with me.'
Obligingly he follows me over to my chair, sits down in front of the mirror. I crank him up a few notches, pull a fine-toothed comb out of the Barbicide jar and begin to smooth the damp spikes of his hair back into place. For a few moments neither one of us says anything, while I measure and snip, measure and snip, wisps of pale hair drifting over my hands and down onto the floor. There's one big drawback when you cut men's hair: it's so fine it gets everywhere, into your socks, your underwear, even under your skin. Right now, however, it seems a small price to pay, and I keep cutting.
'So you're from... England?' I ask at last.
'I've spent some time there,' he replies, in a light but firm tone that tells me I'm not going to get any further with that question.
'And how long do you plan to be in Canada? If that isn't too nosy.'
'Not long,' he says. 'I've just got someone to track down, and once I find him, that'll be the end of it.'
'Here in town, you mean?'
'Well... in this area, at least.'
'What's his name? I might know him.' Not very likely, of course, since Waterloo's a big place, but it never hurts to try.
'I don't know what name he's using,' says the Doctor, obediently bending his head forward as I trim the fine hairs at the back of his neck.
'Oh,' I say. 'That could be difficult.'
'Yes,' he replies, and now he sounds serious, and more than a little troubled. I wonder who he's looking for, and why. I wonder if I could help him. I'm off work in a couple of hours; I could show him around, if he'd let me. I'm about to say something to this effect when I hear a sharp crack, like a pebble striking glass, and Janelle Taylor, who works the chair beside mine, spins around as though she's been slapped, and crumples.
My cheek is wet, and there are red polka dots on my sleeve. Janelle's hair forms a loose fan on the floor, and it, too, is red, although she had it bleached two days ago. I can't see her face. Her customer, a tiny woman in her seventies, lets out a hoarse, hysterical scream.
I stand there with the scissors in my hand, gaping stupidly. In an instant the Doctor is on his feet, tearing the plastic apron away from his throat, stooping over Janelle.
'She's dead,' he says, and although his voice is soft, it is also furious. His eyes meet mine, blazing blue and terrifyingly old in that young, guileless face.
'She's dead,' I echo, hearing the words without really registering what they mean--that, among other things, the engagement ring on Janelle's finger will never have a wedding band to match, and that somebody else is going to have to do Mrs. McMurtry's impossible colour treatments from now on.
'I've got to stop him,' says the Doctor, and he flings the apron down beside Janelle and sprints for the door.
There is absolutely no good reason for what I do next. It might be that I can feel Janelle's blood on my face and on my sleeve, and if I look at her any more I am guaranteed to throw up. It might be that the sobs of my co-workers and the panicked shrieks of the customers are ringing in my ears, and I have to get away from the sound before it drives me crazy. It might be that I just can't bear not knowing what will happen if I don't.
Whatever the reason, I grab my purse and run after him.
* * *
By the time I dash across the shopping plaza's narrow parking strip to the sidewalk beyond, I've nearly lost sight of the Doctor; he's that fast, and that determined. Fortunately, even in my somewhat lowered condition I've retained enough vanity to jog two kilometres a day and take aerobics classes. I might not be able to catch up with the Doctor, but I can at least keep pace.
What I can't figure out is where the killer thinks he's going to hide. This is a semi-residential area, on a busy street: the houses are widely spaced, interspersed with gas stations, convenience stores, and the occasional strip mall. There just isn't a lot of cover, and he should be easy to spot. Yet I can't see anyone ahead of the Doctor, and judging from the way he slows down, glancing from side to side with a kind of hurt perplexity, neither can he.
'Wrong way?' I pant as I catch up to him in the parking lot of Mac's Milk.
'Can't be,' says the Doctor, sounding irritated. 'The other way was too open.'
He shakes his head impatiently. His hair is nearly dry now, and I can see I've done a good job of it. As if that matters. 'I'd have seen it.'
It's at that point, belatedly, that I realise there's something even odder about the Doctor than his clothes and his name: after all that running--a good four blocks at least--he isn't even breathing hard. The summer heat has sapped my energy and plastered my T-shirt to my skin, but he's still wearing that ludicrous cricket sweater, and he looks as fresh as when he walked into the salon twenty minutes ago.
Surreptitiously I sidle closer to him and take a sniff. He smells of linen and cotton wool and the apple-scented conditioner I used on his hair, but nothing more. When all of this is over, I tell myself, I'm going to find out where he buys his deodorant. 'Well,' I begin hesitantly, 'if he didn't go east and he didn't go west--'
'Up!' shouts the Doctor, and he's off again, long legs flying, back toward the plaza.
There's nothing to do but follow him. Though as I'm running, it dawns on me that chasing down an armed murderer who may well have found himself a nice high vantage point from which to shoot me is not the most intelligent way I could be spending my Wednesday afternoon.
If this has occurred to the Doctor, however, it doesn't seem to worry him. As soon as we reach the corner of the plaza he swarms up one of the pillars and launches himself over the edge of the roof with a reckless ease that leaves me gaping. I have to run around the back of the plaza before I can find my own way up, and by that time he's halfway across the roof.
Up here the air shimmers with heat, and bits of black tar and gravel weld themselves to the soles of my shoes. Panting, I trail after the Doctor, picking my way around the pipes and ventilators. Lots of places here, I think, for a psychopath to hide. But not for long: somebody has to have called the police by now, and if I strain my ears I can almost hear the sirens in the distance.
The Doctor, still well ahead of me, appears to have found something. He stoops, peels a Post-It Note off the side of an absurdly gigantic air conditioner that must belong to the supermarket, and frowns at it with a severity I haven't seen since Dr. Warriner caught me napping in the middle of Social Statistics.
'What's it--' I start to yell at him, but at that same moment the Doctor crumples his fist around the note and whirls, staring down into the parking lot. I follow the line of his gaze to a small space between a blue Saturn and a rusty black Ford, where somebody's little girl--seven or eight at the most--is pushing a doll carriage back and forth across the pavement.
It's an expensive-looking carriage, lace-trimmed and gleaming with newness. By contrast, the child pushing it is almost absurdly grubby, with scraped knees under her faded jean shorts and a tangled brown ponytail coming free of its holder. Only the smile of pure happiness on her face makes her beautiful.
The Doctor holds very still, his eyes fixed on the child. I crunch my way over to him, but he doesn't even seem to register my presence. His lips move, rapidly but soundlessly, as though he's trying to solve some convoluted mental equation.
Between his fingers, I can see what's left of the scrap of yellow paper he pulled off the A/C unit. I take his hand very gently, so as not to disturb his concentration, and pull the paper free. When I unfold it I see four words written in a clear, unembellished script:
TICK. TICK. TICK. TICK.
There is no colour in the Doctor's face: even his lips are white. He says in a tight voice, 'Stay here, Jessica. Stay down.' And before I can stop him, or even ask what he thinks he's doing, he swings himself down over the edge of the roof, hangs a moment by his fingertips, and drops to the pavement below.
I watch him approach the child, his steps quick but light, his posture loose and carefully unthreatening. He sits down on his heels beside her, bringing his face to her level, and the two of them exchange a few words. The little girl looks puzzled, but seems not to be afraid of the Doctor, and after a moment she steps back and lets him inspect her precious toy.
Once in possession of the carriage, the Doctor doesn't waste a second. He hares off across the parking lot with it, pushing it furiously ahead of him, away from the cars. To my surprise, the child doesn't chase after him. Perhaps she's too shocked to move. I know that I would be, if a grown man took off with my brand-new doll carriage.
At almost the same moment, a woman rushes out from the plaza. Babbling incoherent apologies, she wraps her arms around the child and drags her away from the cars. I can hear the little girl wail thinly as they vanish back into the supermarket--probably to call 911 and howl about the Bad Man Who Frightened Little Kimmy. On the other side of the parking lot, the Doctor gives the carriage a last, desperate shove and sprints back toward the plaza: I realise then that he thinks it's going to explode, and for some inexplicable reason--mild hysteria, possibly--I start to laugh.
I am still laughing when the cars blow up.
* * *
'Jessica!' The Doctor's voice is low, urgent; his arms wrap around me, holding me as I shake. I have seen plenty of explosions on television, I remind myself fiercely, even as I turn to him and push my face against his shoulder. I have seen lots and lots of cars explode in a hideous screeching blossom of fire that almost killed the little girl who had stood there, played there, barely a minute earlier--
'Jessica! It's all right. No one was hurt. Though,' he adds grimly, 'only by sheer luck. I should have known better.'
'He was trying to kill her.' My voice sounds like a hiccup. 'Why was he trying to kill her? Just a child--'
'I'm leaving now, Jessica.' He detaches himself from me, but gently, holding me at arm's length. 'The police have arrived, and I don't have time for their questions. Especially since they're bound to ask all the wrong ones.'
'You mean--you're just walking away from a crime scene?' I pull back to stare at him. 'When you're the star witness?'
'I've no choice. Not just now.'
'But--Doctor--' That name is never going to sound right, but apparently it's all I've got. 'They'll think you had something to do with it.'
The muscles in his jaw tighten. 'No doubt. And unfortunately, they wouldn't be far wrong.'
'Our vicious friend had rigged up a reverse-proximity detonator.' He springs to his feet, begins fishing about in his pockets. 'As soon as I pushed the carriage more than fifty metres away from the car, the bomb went off-- aha.' With an air of satisfaction he produces a crumpled twenty-dollar bill, presses it into my hand. 'For your time.'
Almost frantically I push it back at him. 'You'd have to pay me more than that to get me back down there. I'm going with you.'
'Jessica, I haven't time to argue--'
'Good.' My voice is still shaky, but I fight to keep it level. 'Then let's go.'
He gives me a long, hard look, which I return with as much determination as I can muster. At last, without another word, he turns and heads for the back of the plaza. I follow him, scrambling down onto the lid of a rancid-smelling dumpster. Reluctantly he helps me to the ground--he's strong, for all his slightness, I can feel it--and we set off at a brisk trot toward the nearby suburbs.
Though I move like a robot, still stiff with the shock of the explosion, my mind is churning. The note, with its mocking suggestion of a bomb. The incongruous juxtaposition of filthy girl and clean carriage, her face shining with the pride of new ownership. She had driven it back and forth so intently between those same two cars, when there was a whole parking lot to explore. Why?
My heart skips a beat. 'Doctor,' I blurt, 'he spoke to her! He gave her the carriage and told her what to do. She knows what he looks like.'
'But we have to go back! She could--'
'We can't. Trust me, Jessica. It won't do any good.'
That Post-It note was more than a morbid joke--it was a challenge. The killer knew he was being pursued. He had counted on someone to intervene, someone clever enough to notice the oddity of the girl and the carriage, and brave enough to take action.
I stop short. 'You know him. The guy who shot Janelle. That's who you were--'
'I thought I was chasing him,' the Doctor murmurs, his face darkening with penitence. 'I believed he was on the run, afraid of being caught. I never expected he would turn it into a game.'
My hands close around his arm. 'Are you saying,' I ask very slowly and distinctly, 'that Janelle, the girl, the bomb, all of this, was just a psychopath's way of saying "Tag, you're it"?'
His fair, shining head bends a little, in acquiescence or perhaps in shame. 'I've got to stop him,' he says again. 'Whatever it takes.'
* * *
'I suppose you might call him a stowaway,' the Doctor half-shouts at me, his voice barely audible above the engine's throbbing drone. We are on the bus, heading for the city's outskirts; I'd wanted to go downtown, but the Doctor is determined not to involve any more innocents. 'I was visiting a little pl--a place you won't have heard of, and strayed into what you might call the wrong part of town. Anyway, I must have attracted our nasty friend's notice, because he got a hold of my friend Turlough, and followed him back to the--our vehicle. I had an inkling that something wasn't quite right, but I couldn't pin it down, and in the end none of us knew he was there until we arrived in Washington.'
'That must be some "vehicle",' I say dryly. Even when I could afford a car, I never got into it without checking the back seat. I can only assume he means a plane, though why he's being so coy I can't begin to guess. Unless he's rich as Oprah and doesn't want anyone to know it.
'Quite,' says the Doctor. 'At any rate, by the time I discovered our unwanted passenger, he'd already jumped ship, so to speak, and helped himself to some rather dangerous medical equipment in the process. My companions had planned a holiday, but I told them they'd better go on without me. There was a bit of an argument, which didn't solve anything, and in the end I just slipped off. For their own good, really: they wouldn't have been safe if they'd come with me.' He gives me a severe look. 'And speaking of which--'
'I'm perfectly safe right now. Go on.'
He sighs, but I know he hasn't really given up. 'At any rate, I'd no idea just how dangerous my stowaway really was. Within a day or two of our arrival in Washington he had latched on to a lonely and unstable man, armed him with a terrible weapon, and created a serial killer.' He pauses, glancing out the window at the line of red maples flicking past. 'Have you heard about the "Nemesis" murders?'
'They probably did a story about them on CNN or something, but--no.'
'Probably for the best--the details were very nasty. At any rate, six people died. And by the time I tracked Clarence Mortensen down, he'd committed suicide, and the real killer had escaped.'
I frown. 'So you're saying the guy we're after doesn't actually dirty his own hands? He uses other people to kill for him?'
'I'm afraid so.' The Doctor looks bleak. 'Which means that even if the police manage to catch the man who shot Janelle, they won't actually have the murderer.'
'So he's a master blackmailer?' I ask, trying to ignore the chill creeping up my spine. 'Or does he just have a lot of disposable income, and a knack for finding people who will do anything for hire?'
The Doctor appears to consider this carefully. At last he says, 'Neither, really. I suppose you might say that he has a particular knack for coercion. He knows just how to find your weak points, and by the time you recognise what's happening, it's too late to escape.'
'Brainwashing, then. Hypnosis.'
'If you like.'
'So why didn't he try it on you, then? Or did he?'
'I'm quite sure that he did,' says the Doctor. 'Only I've got my own resources when it comes to that sort of thing, and he wouldn't have found me easy prey.'
'But now you seem to think he's hunting you after all. What does he want?'
'I don't know,' the Doctor admits. 'Are you still sure you want to be involved?'
The question startles me. 'Are you giving me a choice?'
'Well, I can hardly throw you off the bus, if that's what you mean. I'd prefer you weren't tangled up in this, but it seems to have happened, just the same.'
'You sound like you're used to this.'
His mouth twitches ruefully. 'Well, as a matter of fact, I am.'
'Then I want to come with you,' I tell him. 'I want to help, if I can. And if I can't, I've at least got enough sense to keep out of the line of fire. I assume you're carrying a gun?'
Something flickers across his eyes, stronger than distaste, almost--hard as it is to believe--horror. 'Certainly not.'
I am still mulling over this rather alarming piece of information when he reaches up a long arm and pulls the bell.
'I think we've gone far enough,' he says.
* * *
EASTWOOD BUSINESS PARK, says the sign where we get off the bus. It's past supper time; few of the windows in the glassy buildings are lit, and the road through the complex is nearly deserted. In silence, because the Doctor seems to be deep in thought and I can't think of a good reason to interrupt him, we follow the path between the buildings until we reach the fountain.
It is, I have to say, a pretty ugly fountain. I suppose it could be worse--I'm not exactly fond of spitting cherubs either--but the pile of steel girders in the middle of the basin looks like it fell from the top floor during construction and nobody had the heart to clean it up. However, it is no doubt an insanely expensive piece of modern art, and my inability to appreciate its subtleties only betrays my bourgeois tastes. Or something like that.
'Good heavens, what a hideous sculpture,' says the Doctor in mild surprise. He dusts off the square edge of the basin and sits down. 'Have a seat, Jessica. We may have to wait some time.'
'You really think he's coming?' Confidence like the Doctor's can be compelling, but so is my common sense, and right now the two are wildly at odds. 'Even if he knew where to find you, why on earth would he come all the way out here?'
'He'll find me.' The Doctor's pale brows are lifted, his eyes unfocused, as though gazing at something only he can see. 'He knows the taste of my mind, even if he can't penetrate it. And he knows I don't want anyone else hurt. He's been waiting for this, forcing my hand. He won't want to miss his chance now.'
I regard him a moment in blank astonishment. 'The what of your mind? Doctor, no offence, but are you entirely sane?'
One corner of his mouth turns up. 'I'm afraid so.'
'So you're just sitting out here for--what? As bait?'
'You could put it that way, yes.' He looks down at the hands resting on his knees. 'If you're frightened, Jessica, then go. There's bound to be another bus in a few minutes.'
'I'm not frightened,' I tell him, and it's very nearly true. 'Anyway, I'm not leaving.' And that is the truth, because if this weirdo is going to show up after all, I sure don't want to meet him coming off the next bus.
'So,' I continue after a moment's pause, 'what do you think makes this guy tick?'
He looks thoughtful. 'It's hard to say. His people were peaceful once. Many of them still are, though for the last two centuries they've been suffering under oppressive military rule. Their natural curiosity and empathy, their respect for life in all its forms, made them easy prey for conquest, and for decades they refused to do anything but appeal to their enemies. As the conquerors became more secure in their control of the pl-- the place, however, they also became more brutal, and some of the natives decided it was time to fight back.'
It sounds like eastern Europe to me, and I'm about to say so when I remember that in addition to being an eccentric billionaire, the Doctor seems to be involved in some sort of international intelligence operations. If my guesses get too accurate, he might stop talking. So I play dumb, and merely look at him expectantly as he continues:
'Their name for themselves means "Watchers", and that's really been their traditional role--simply to observe and learn from those around them. But the new generation call themselves "Riders". I knew it was a dramatic change in philosophy, but I was naïve enough to think they would only try to influence their enemies.' He pauses, adds quietly, 'That's the trouble with evil. No matter how pragmatically it starts out, it always grows beyond reason.'
'And no matter how many times you encounter it, it still takes you by surprise.'
His head comes up sharply, and he fixes me with that penetrating, oddly ancient gaze.
'Doesn't it?' I say. 'I think that's why I wanted to be a sociologist.' It's an embarrassing admission, but he ought to know at least that much. 'To try and predict evil somehow, anticipate it. Maybe even prevent it… though realistically that doesn't seem possible.'
'Is that why you gave up?'
Pride tells me to take exception to that remark, to protest that my jobless state is the result of an unfair hiring process, and that I am not just an idealist in a sulk: but honesty wins out, and I look at my hands. 'Maybe.'
A light touch on my chin makes me lift my head up again, meet his searching blue eyes. 'Jessica,' he says. 'You're right. We can't stop all evil, or even most of it. But together we might just be able to stop this one. So tell me, Jessica-the-Sociologist, what do you think?'
The candour in his gaze takes my breath away. How can he believe in me, when I don't even believe in myself? And yet there's no refusing the question--I owe him at least that much.
'Well,' I say shakily, 'I'm a little rusty, but I'll give it my best shot…'
* * *
'Someone's coming,' breathes the Doctor, and nudges me awake. I sit up, blinking, rubbing the cable-knit pattern embossed on my cheek, and realise with some embarrassment that I have drooled all over his shoulder. Granted that waiting around for hours, even with company, can be pretty dull; but even so I must have been a lot more tired than I thought.
The sun has nearly set, and among the long shadows of the trees another, smaller shadow is flickering. He looks about fifteen, a lanky figure with gel-spiked hair, thin shoulders slouched under the weight of his denim jacket. And speaking of jackets, I don't have one, and I'm starting to wish I did. The breeze raises the hairs on my arms, and I shiver.
'If that's him,' the Doctor murmurs in my ear, 'he doesn't seem to have noticed us.'
'I don't think it is,' I reply, shifting closer to his warmth. 'There's a whole co-op development behind that rise: the kid probably came out here to sneak a cigarette.'
'Hmm. Perhaps.' He sounds almost idiotically vague, but then he pulls his sweater off and drops it around my shoulders, and it's clear that he doesn't miss much.
'You've really got a thing about question marks,' I observe, thrusting my arms into the too-long sleeves. The warmth is bliss, but then, so is the view. I am still grinning foolishly at him when the firecracker goes off, making us both jump. The Doctor tackles me to the pavement, which I'd almost enjoy if it weren't for a sudden tearing pain in my left arm and the belated recollection that firecrackers don't travel at 1,500 feet per second.
'You're bleeding.' He whips a handkerchief out of his pocket and knots it around my arm, so fast and so tight I don't even have time to yelp. Then he's on his feet, running toward the boy, who unexpectedly panics, drops the gun, and bolts for cover.
Amateurs, I think sourly, and lift the makeshift bandage to peer at the wound in my arm. It isn't deep--hardly more than a bloody scratch--but it certainly smarts, and there's no saving the sweater, which is already starting to unravel where the bullet passed through. The Doctor and the punk kid are out of sight behind the nearest building, so I go for the weapon instead.
If you don't count the kind that squirt water, I've never handled a gun. Too late I remember that I should have picked it up with something other than my bare hands, but no doubt the police can sort the fingerprints out afterward. The weight of it surprises me, and the slippery feeling of the grip tells me the boy's terror wasn't feigned. He probably thought it was all a joke until the thing actually went off.
I am still gazing stupidly at the gun when the Doctor comes pounding back toward me. 'He's gone inside,' he says. 'We should stay together.'
'Here.' Awkwardly, I push the gun into his hands. But to my astonishment he lets it slide through his fingers, and it thumps back into the grass at our feet. 'Doctor--'
'Don't argue,' he snaps at me. 'Hurry!' And without waiting for an answer he sprints away across the lawn. I snatch up the gun again--it seems stupid to just leave it lying there--and run after him.
Either someone's working late tonight, or the custodial staff's pretty careless, because the door opens easily to the Doctor's tug, and silence is our only greeting. Our footsteps echo dully against the marble floor as we enter, glancing cautiously from one side of the lobby to the other.
'Take the gun,' I hiss at the Doctor. 'You might have to use it.'
'No,' he says flatly.
'Why on earth--'
'Because I might have to use it. And that's not what I do.'
'Why not? Lousy aim?'
The Doctor bounces across the lobby and stabs the elevator button, which fails to light up. 'Aha,' he pronounces with a peculiar relish, flings the stairwell door open and vanishes.
I follow him, physically and verbally. 'Doctor, why not?'
He's half a flight ahead of me, long legs taking the stairs two at a time. 'Shhh,' he says. 'He'll hear us.'
The stairwell is a good five storeys high. By the time we reach the top, with no sight of our quarry, I'm gasping like a landed fish, and my arm throbs fiercely. 'Why did we--'
'The only lighted windows were on this floor,' whispers the Doctor. He pulls the door open a crack and slides his long body through. I push myself after him, trying not to wheeze.
We emerge into a wide corridor. The doorway on the right suggests a boardroom, but the double doors are locked, and no light escapes from beneath. I glance at the windows to our left, just in time to see the sun wink at us and disappear, abandoning us to the semi-darkness.
'Are you sure it was this floor?' I ask the Doctor, looking dubiously down the hall. All the doors are shut, and the only artificial light I can see is the dismal red glow of the EXIT sign behind us.
'Positive. He must have turned out the lights when he heard us coming.'
'Maybe he thinks we're playing Sardines.'
The Doctor's mouth twitches wryly. 'In a way, he is. Only if you found him, he'd hide with you, instead of the other way around. And I don't think you'd consider yourself the winner. Stay close, Jessica.'
He doesn't have to tell me that twice. I'd be holding his hand if I had the nerve.
We tiptoe down the hallway, listening intently at every door, but there's no sound. Then the corridor bends at a right angle, and we nearly run smack into another door. Through the frosted glass a dim light glows, and all at once I feel my stomach trying to crawl up my throat. I tighten my grip on the gun, but apparently you have to know how to use one to find it even remotely comforting.
'It's all right,' says the Doctor, and reaches for my hand, but it happens to be the hand with the gun in it, and he recoils. 'Don't tell me you've still got that thing.'
I don't say anything. He looks at me a moment, a little sadly, then turns back to the door.
He never gets to open it, though. There's a muffled bang, and the door flies open and whacks us both off our feet. My shoulder hits the wall, my left arm erupts with pain, and I drop the gun. By the time I can pick it up again, the kid's all over the Doctor.
By rights it shouldn't be much of a struggle; the boy is half his weight. And yet when one bony fist hits the Doctor's jaw, his head snaps back. He reels, but only for a second, and then he grabs the kid by the shoulders and pushes him into the door. If this were an action movie it would shatter spectacularly and the punk would go tumbling out the other side, but the double layer of safety glass doesn't even crack, and he just launches himself at the Doctor again.
I realise now that the Doctor's holding back: he doesn't want to hurt the boy. Neither one of them speaks, they merely grapple with each other in a clumsy, desperate fashion, until in a sudden fluid movement the Doctor twists the younger man around, wrenches his arm up behind his back and kicks his feet out from under him. He lands hard on the carpet with the Doctor's knee between his shoulderblades, and doesn't move.
A peculiar gulping sound comes from the teenager's mouth--he's had the wind knocked out of him, and he's trying to cry and get his breath back at the same time. This seems completely normal to me, but the Doctor looks startled. He releases the boy abruptly and steps back.
'He was only trying to escape,' he says.
'Let me--go,' sobs the boy. 'Got to--get away--can't let it--get me again.'
'I'm a fool,' breathes the Doctor with sudden fervour, and plunges through the doorway.
I have no idea what I'm supposed to do. If I follow, the kid will get away--and I've got no reason to believe he isn't dangerous. A boy prepared to shoot at a stranger just because another stranger tells him to might be capable of nearly anything, and for all I know he might have been the one who shot Janelle--
But the Doctor takes the decision out of my hands. 'Come on,' he insists, and his arm loops out from behind the door and drags me after him.
* * *
The light turns out to be coming from an open doorway about ten feet down the hall. The only sound from within is the soft clicking of a computer keyboard, which seems pretty innocuous. Except that it's too fast, and not rhythmic enough--it sounds more like someone punching keys at random, merely pretending to type.
'It's him,' the Doctor whispers. 'Be careful, Jessica. If he jumps at you, run.'
But he won't jump, I think. Not yet. Not if he wants to talk to the Doctor first.
We step cautiously into the bar of light, stand there side by side, looking into the small office. There's a middle-aged woman sitting at the computer, surrounded by crumpled papers, a scattering of dust-cloths, and an overturned pail. Her salt-and-pepper hair is screwed up into a bun and there's a gauzy sort of cap over it. That and the extreme plainness of her dress, coupled incongruously with ankle socks and cheap sneakers, marks her as one of the local Mennonites. Not old-order, or she wouldn't be working outside the home: but devout enough--and no way the kind of person who would do anything for a psychopath, no matter how forceful or persuasive.
'It's a mistake,' I mouth furiously at the Doctor. 'The kid tricked us.'
'I don't think so,' says the Doctor, and steps into the room. Still, the woman continues her vigorous, uneven tapping on the keys. She doesn't turn, or look up. We might as well not be there.
The Doctor addresses her softly. 'Loonoo. Enough. This has to end.'
Tap. Tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap.
Suddenly, she jerks and collapses, tumbling bonelessly out of the chair. There's a flash as something purple whips out of her nose and across her cheek, and the Doctor and I both jump back in alarm. 'Jessica!' he shouts, but it's too late because at that exact second a skinny hand grabs my shoulder, and my stomach lurches at the prick of a knife beneath my ear.
'Divide and conquer,' sneers the kid. His hand slides down to my wounded arm, squeezes with deliberate malice, and I nearly choke with the effort not to cry out. 'It never occurred to you, did it, that I could be in two places at once?'
'Very clever,' says the Doctor flatly. His hands are raised in a silent, unmistakable appeal: don't hurt her. Let's talk about this. 'It must take a great deal of energy, though--you obviously weren't in full control of the boy until now. You're going to revert to your solid state if you're not careful.'
He's telling me something, I know, or he's trying to. The only problem is that it makes absolutely no sense. Solid state? The kid feels solid enough to me, and so does the cold metal against my neck. All at once he makes a wet snorting noise, and his voice sounds stronger as he retorts:
'One more is all I need--now I've got you here.'
'Loonoo, no!' shouts the Doctor. I have no idea what he's talking about. 'Loonoo'? More like loony, if you ask me.
Then I feel it, slick and muscular, slithering up my neck toward my chin, and I open my mouth to scream but that's the stupidest thing I could have done because it's too fast and now it's in my mouth my throat my nose my oh my g--
And just like that, I'm someone else.
His name is Llwnw (not Loonoo), and he's cavalier. I know that. No, he's a cavalier, a Rider, he's just feeding me the French word because the double meaning amuses him. He's rummaging through my mind, tossing thoughts and memories around like scrap paper, settling into my skin--and I can't stop him. There's nowhere to hide, and I'm trapped in my own psyche, with an alien in complete control of my body, my voice, and my will.
I hate him. I've never hated anyone so much in my life. And the worst of it is, I let him in.
At least Llwnw tells me that's the case. I was tired, I was afraid, I was angry at the Doctor and at myself for being fooled, and my defences were down. Strong emotion always helps. With Clarence Mortensen it was envy--a bitter, consuming jealousy of those more confident, attractive, and successful than himself. The material for murder was there: all it took was a molecular scalpel and a good hard push. Llwnw had been intrigued to see how far he could drive the man, and how long: he'd never ridden a Terran before, and for a time he quite enjoyed himself leaving messy puzzles for the police. But in the end Mortensen's guilt and horror became tedious, and it was time to move on.
Muriel Harris was seventy-eight and too nervous to drive outside her own neighbourhood, but the Doctor was on Llwnw's trail and he needed to get out of Washington. He rode her mercilessly across three states and well over the Canadian border, twelve hours without a rest, until exhaustion and terror overwhelmed her and she drove straight into a guard-rail on the 401. If the old Monte Carlo had not been so huge, both of them would have died; as it was, Llwnw recovered from the shock and slipped free of the old woman just seconds before her heart gave out.
I don't want to know this. I don't want to hear this. But I can't make him stop.
With days to spare before the Doctor picked up his trail, it amused Llwnw to accumulate a number of surprises with which to greet the Time Lord (Time Lord?), including explosives, a pistol, and somewhat whimsically, a doll carriage. Riding one human after another, influencing them with varying degrees of subtlety, he was able to keep an eye on the Doctor's activities right up to the point where he decided that, with his quarry apparently nowhere in evidence, he might spare a moment for a haircut….
'Let her go, Llwnw," says the Doctor fiercely. 'She's no good to you.'
'Isn't she?' The creature chuckles, with my larynx, my throat, and I could scream with rage if only he'd let me. 'On the contrary, Time Lord. She's as useful as a primitive creature can be. This one, on the other hand…' and he turns my body around and points the gun at the boy standing slack-jawed behind me, still stupefied by the horror of what he's just been through, and I can't stop him heaven help me I cannot make him stop and my finger closes around the trigger--
A paperweight hurtles past my left ear and hits the boy with a resounding smack, and he crumples just as the gun goes off. The bullet misses him by inches, smashes a splintered hole in the woodwork, and before Llwnw can make me fire again the kid scrambles to his feet, clutching his bruised shoulder, and staggers out the door as fast as his rubbery legs will take him. Pain, it would seem, is a great mind-clearer--and the Doctor throws a major-league fastball.
Unfortunately, that particular lightning pitch has also relieved him of the only item in his vicinity which even remotely resembled a weapon, and we all know it. Llwnw pushes my mouth into a truly hateful grin--I can feel my cheek muscles ache with the sheer unfamiliarity of it--and turns back to him in triumph.
'Such a sentimentalist, Doctor. I knew I could rely on you. Ever since I had the good fortune to ride your devious friend Turlough, your weaknesses have been an open book to me. Did you really think anything you could do would take me by surprise?'
'Compassion is a strength, Llwnw,' says the Doctor quietly. 'And as a child of the Vuar, you of all people should know it. Have you really rejected your heritage so completely?'
I know what he's trying to do. It was my idea, after all, and at the time I really did think it made sense: that if the killer had a vulnerability, it must be his patriotism, his identification with his oppressed people. Unfortunately, that brilliant notion, which the Doctor is so loyally expounding on my behalf, turned out to be founded on a false premise. I forgot that in war there are two kinds of soldiers: those who fight for duty and those who fight for pleasure--and Llwnw happens to be one of the latter.
'Try again, Time Lord,' says Llwnw. 'You, telling me not to give up on my stodgy, gutless race? Surely you of all people should appreciate my genius. We're pioneers, you and I. We don't answer to our society's rules.'
'Ours is a high and lonely destiny,' the Doctor says dryly. 'I've heard that before. Enough talk, Llwnw. Tell me what you want.'
The creature squeezes my face into an expression of feigned surprise. 'Why, don't you know? You, of course. Your mind, your body, your knowledge, your TARDIS. I want to see the universe.'
'Conquer the universe, you mean.' The pleasant voice goes flat. 'Not on your life.'
'Or hers?' Irresistibly, my right hand lifts again, but this time the gun turns in a different direction, the muzzle pushing into my breast. 'You don't want to see that happen, I'm sure. By now you know what I'm capable of.'
'Then you'd better be ready to move fast,' says the Doctor. 'Because I'm sure suicide isn't any higher on your "To-Do" list than it is on hers.'
I can't consciously allow myself to think it, but I know the Doctor's telling me something again, and he must have a good reason for it. If he's got a plan, though, I don't know what it is. Or at least I hope I don't know what it is, because I'm really not keen on playing sacrificial lamb.
'You wouldn't hurt her,' Llwnw assures him smugly. 'Even if you were armed. And you won't let me hurt her either. I can walk out of this room in her body and send her on a killing spree that makes the Nemesis murders look like a Sunday School picnic. And I will, unless you give me a reason to stop.'
The Doctor is silent a moment, his head bent. Then he looks up, his eyes searching mine--or perhaps just Llwnw's, in the vain hope of seeing some flicker of Jessica Reislander behind them. Whatever he sees, though, it doesn't seem to encourage him. His shoulders slump a little, and he puts a hand on the corner of the desk as though to steady himself.
'Very well,' he says.
I want to scream No!, but so help me, I can't. My mind is overwhelmed with Llwnw's gloating exultation, my arm feels like it's on fire, and in that moment of despair I do something I haven't done for years: I start, silently but fervently, to pray.
Stop that, Llwnw tells me, but with my last measure of defiance, I refuse. This could get ugly, but the Doctor interrupts:
'Still, you'll have to understand that I can't give you complete access to my mind. There are secrets there that aren't mine to keep or give away. And if you try to touch them, I won't be answerable for what happens to you.'
He speaks lightly, but there is an underlying menace in the words, and even Llwnw seems taken aback.
'I'll take what I can get,' says the alien, in the silky voice I have already learned to hate, in spite of--or more likely because of--the fact that it's mine.
'All right, then.' The Doctor steps out from behind the desk, takes a deep breath, squares his shoulders.
'Oh, no. That's too far away. Come closer.'
The Doctor looks surprised--which tells me a third thing he wants me to know, even if I'm still not sure why. Still, he takes a couple of steps forward.
'Hold out your hands,' commands Llwnw. 'Both of them.'
'You already know I'm not armed.'
'Just do it!' snaps the creature, and the Doctor, blinking a little, complies. His fingertips barely touch my forearms, forming a rough bridge.
Something shifts inside my head, nauseatingly, and a wet thread oozes out my left nostril and down my face, like a cold purple nosebleed. As before, the stream is thick and full of weird muscular lumps, and it hurts even worse coming out than it did going in, because it seems to be taking about ten times as long. But worst of all is the shame, knowing how disgusting it must look, especially to the Doctor who stands less than three feet away, watching the whole process.
I open my mouth, and for the first time in five minutes a sound that is not Llwnw's comes out of it--a little, shuddering sob of tearless but abject humiliation.
Up to this point the Doctor's expression has been that of a martyr, sad but resolute. Now it changes, and in the blue eyes I see a flash of anxiety and even a faint embarrassment, as though he's decided to do something he's not quite sure about. I only have a second to wonder what that is when he says in a peculiar breathless voice, 'I'll make it easier for you,' and his hands close around my forearms and, just like that, his mouth comes down over mine.
That probably sounds romantic. It isn't. For one thing, the whole time Llwnw is slithering out of my nose; and for another, I would hardly call it a kiss in the first place, it's so dispassionate. Kind, yes, and gentle, but restrained beyond belief: almost inhumanly polite. I'm prepared to accept that the Doctor might not find me desirable, and that he's merely trying to do me some sort of favour; but this goes beyond mere condescension into the realm of the utterly bizarre, like a man kissing an orange or somebody else's pet iguana. If I didn't understand before that the Doctor came from another planet, I realise it then.
At any rate, the kiss succeeds on one level at least: I'm shocked by the sheer unexpectedness of it. Llwnw is equally startled. We're connected now, all three of us. There's a flutter of recent memories, vague at first, then yielding to clarity and meaning: a tall blue box, a sceptical-looking woman, a young man with carroty hair. Another flash of thought startles me with the answer to a question I'd almost forgotten I'd asked.
It's nearly over now. I can feel Llwnw's eagerness conquer his exhaustion as he pushes the last of himself into a new and powerful mind. The pressure of the Doctor's lips against mine suddenly intensifies and for a moment it's almost like a real kiss except that at the same moment his left hand whips down to my wrist, yanks it sideways, and squeezes my finger against the trigger.
The force of the explosion rips us apart, the Doctor crumpling against the desk while I stagger back, the gun still smoking in my hand. Horror freezes me rigid as I watch the Doctor slide with agonising slowness over the corner of the desk to collapse on the office floor. I have never seen so much blood in my life.
With a wet squealing sound Llwnw bolts out of the Doctor's ear, congealing in a lumpy puddle on the carpet. Then the whole gelatinous mass solidifies and I find myself looking at a figure barely eight inches tall, squat and misshapen, like a child's Play-Doh statue of a dwarf. It staggers drunkenly toward me, gurgling words in a language I've never heard before and fervently hope I never hear again. It grabs for my ankle--
With an incoherent sound of fury and despair, I shoot it. The gun kicks and roars again, and again, and again, until there are no bullets left, and my arm feels like it's going to come off at the shoulder. When I open my eyes, there's nothing left of Llwnw but an inky blotch on the carpet.
I clench my left fist deliberately, calling on the pain to keep me from throwing up. It works, but only just. The Mennonite woman, who has not moved the entire time, starts to cry and babble in German, but I ignore her. I throw away the gun and drop to my knees on the sodden carpet, reaching for the Doctor.
* * *
His face is white, his mouth open and gasping. A heart shot, it has to be: I can't believe he's lived even this long. I press the heel of my hand against the wound, trying desperately to stanch the flow of thick, orange-red blood, but knowing all the while it's hopeless.
'No… isn't.' The words are faint, but definite. 'Two hearts. Get… message. Turlough.'
The memories he gave me are still fresh in my mind, and I know who Turlough is. But how on earth am I supposed to contact him in Washington, D.C.? I open my mouth to object, but the Doctor, weak as he is, anticipates me.
His dimensionally transcendental time-ship has an e-mail address. Of course it does. I'd laugh at the sheer glorious absurdity of the thing, only I'm too busy fighting back tears. The cleaning lady must have finally pulled herself together enough to get up and run, because I can't hear her sobbing any more, just my own.
The Doctor's wet hand folds over mine. 'Jessica. All… right. Just… message.'
One desperate, nearly hysterical minute later, I manage to find Netscape Mail on the office's computer. As the weak voice behind me croaks out instructions, I type the long e-mail address, forcing my sticky fingers to get every character right. The body of the message is even trickier, with a complex set of co-ordinates that seem to involve a good deal more than three dimensions. He makes me read it back to him, slowly, then nods with an effort when I ask if it's okay to send.
As far as I can tell, the message goes through. I slump back to the floor beside him and lift his head onto my lap, no longer crying, but the sharp edge of grief in my throat is somehow even worse. His eyes are closed again, his expression drawn but oddly peaceful, and I stroke his nice new haircut, the only decent thing I've given him since we met. If it hadn't been for me, I can't help thinking, none of this would have happened….
Then I frown, and the thought stops short. If it hadn't been for me, things would have happened differently. Maybe they'd have been better, but it's just as possible that they'd have been worse. As it is, the Doctor's not dead yet, and neither is the little girl or the punk kid or the Mennonite lady, or anybody else in the city except Janelle, whose death the Doctor seems to have laid on his own conscience. A lot of people have been scared and a couple of car owners are going to have spectacular insurance claims, plus I don't want to think about the bill for cleaning this office, but it's nothing that can't be fixed. And Llwnw won't be riding people like Clarence Mortensen or Muriel Harris, or me, any more.
'Good… girl,' breathes the Doctor.
Whether he's reading my thoughts or just a good guesser, I don't know, but I find those words oddly comforting.
I sit there for what seems like hours, with the Doctor's body getting colder and his whispered assurances fewer, until at the very end I'm sure he's dead and I'm sitting there only because I'm too frightened to move. Somebody's called the police and the sirens sound like they're almost at the door, and it occurs to me belatedly that they're going to think I'm responsible, if not for the whole crazy thing, at least for a significant part of it. After all, my fingerprints are all over the gun.
The gun. It's still lying there on the floor, and I can't bear to touch it. Not only because it's right in the middle of the wet patch that used to be Llwnw, but because it's the answer to a question I'm sorry I ever asked. If the Doctor had merely admitted in so many words that he never missed a shot, I'd have told him his attitude made no sense. But when it came from his mind--the wrenching ambivalence of that disclosure was more than enough to silence me forever.
* * *
The TARDIS arrives, with a wheeze and a thump, just as the police begin pounding up the stairs. We barely manage to dematerialise before they burst in. Even after that, things are pretty tense, and it's days before any of us are sure the Doctor will make it--but in the end, he comes back to life.
And so do I.
My name is Jessica Richardson. I have a degree in sociology and anthropology and another degree in criminal psychology, and I work as an advisor with the Vancouver police department. My hair, I am pleased to say, is a handsome shade of auburn which goes right down to the roots. All of which I owe to the Doctor, and although something in me knows I'll never see him again, I also know I'll never forget him.
The Doctor, on the other hand, is a busy Time Lord with an enormous store of memories and experiences, and a great many things on his mind. So, having looked after me and said goodbye to me, will he forget me?
But only until the next time he picks up a gun.