LIFE GOES ON series
Twenty-five minutes to midnight, in the desert about seven miles out from the small town of Naco, Arizona. No moon was visible, it being the first night of the new moon; what little illumination was provided by the lights of the town, a faint glow on the horizon, and by the thousands upon thousands of stars twinkling in the sky. Sitting in the driver's seat of a Toyota Land Cruiser that quietly idled with its lights off, the veteran U.S.-Mexico Border Patrol Agent Victor Gonzales lowered his night-vision binoculars and sighed, "Awfully quiet, for such a prime Coyote night. Too quiet…"
"Coyote night?" rookie agent Robert Carney blinked confusedly. "Are they more active on moonless nights? I heard my landlord complaining about his cat being eaten by one last week…"
Victor briefly rolled his eyes. "I'm not talking about the four-footed kind, Rookie. Did you sleep through the Orientation briefing, or what? 'Coyote' is the latest nickname for the illegals' paid guides. 'Cause they can be just as sneaky, and they have just about as much morals, as a coyote—Hell, probably less morals, considering I know some folks that have made pets of coyote pups. I'm talking about the bastards that make a business out of smuggling people across the border. Some of 'em actually have sort-of good intentions, but for every one that's actually looking to help his countrymen find work in the U.S. there's a hundred others that'll take every last peso a group of peasants could scrape together, then lead them out into the desert and let them die of everything from heatstroke to snakebite to dehydration to hypothermia, trying to sneak across the border. That one who got away from the last roundup by running south of the border again was probably their 'coyote', and I'll bet you anything you can buy in town that he'll be out here tomorrow night or the night after with a new batch of poor half-frozen buggers just like the ones we brought in. 'Coyotes' don't give a damn about anything except making money, hand over fist… and they know they will, because every day of the year we get hundreds, Hell, thousands of people trying to cross illegally."
"I remember that much," Robert said rather huffily. It may have been his first real night on patrol, but he did remember the statistics on illegal crossings of the Mexican-American border, from the lecture his shift chief had given him earlier. And the desert between the small town of Naco, Arizona, USA and its mirror-image of Naco, Sonora, Mexico was one of the favored crossings for illegals. "So they do more guide work on moonless nights?"
"Mm-hmm. Makes it harder for us to see them, in between the areas lit by the stadium lights… unless we happen to be looking in the right direction with these," as he lifted his night-vision binoculars to his eyes again. "Speaking of which, son, I told you twice already I expect you to keep looking through those NVB's every second we're out here. Do I gotta glue 'em to your eyebrows or something?"
Robert the Rookie hastily raised his NVB's up to his eyes again, and resumed scanning the desert around them for signs of motion, of human life where humans did not belong. "You said a few minutes ago it was quiet. But our team has already found a total of three dozen immigrants tonight…"
"Rookie, I've personally rounded up that many before in the first hour after sunset! But Central hasn't reported a single hit from the underground sensors or from the local ranchers in well over an hour, and usually the teams are kept hopping from hit to hit clear till dawn." Victor scanned the surrounding terrain as he mused aloud, "I wonder if they've found a way to disable some sensors without triggering the failsafes…"
After a short silence from the passenger seat, Robert's voice said hesitantly, almost shakily, "Or maybe they've found a new method of crossing…"
"Rookie, the Rio Grande is over in Texas. There's no river around here that they can float down or swim across to avoid detection. And the earth here's no good for tunneling, like that smuggling route they shut down in Nogales last month; tunnels dug here are apt to collapse halfway through digging. And the coyotes know they can't smuggle their people through here in the trunks of their cars, like they do in Tijuana; not when the roads are slow enough we can take the time to check every car. So how the hell else are they going to cross?"
Victor snorted in amusement. "That's what comes of a college education; so much book-learning crammed into your skull it's squeezed out all your common sense. Think it through, rookie! The people who want to come to the U.S. from Mexico are looking for work, because they are dirt-poor. Most of them can barely afford the coyote's fees for crossing on foot; how the Hell are they going to afford an airplane?"
"I didn't say an airplane…"
Victor just rolled his eyes. "What then, a hot-air balloon!"
"Ah… No, they're not balloons…"
"Well then, what do you think they're…" Just then ,the exact words his rookie had used registered in Victor's brain, and he lowered his NVB's and looked sharply at him. "What did you say? Did you spot something?"
Robert wordlessly pointed with one hand at where he was aiming his NVB's with the other: off to the southwest, and upwards. Victor hurriedly but quietly opened the door and slipped out of the SUV, to train his binoculars in the direction Robert was pointing. "What am I looking for?"
"I swear to God, I do not know. But there's three of them, two big ones and a little one…"
"Where? I don't… Madre de Dios!"
"You see 'em now, huh?"
"I… I see them, but I don't believe my eyes!" Victor lowered his NVB's for a moment to stare fixedly at that same patch of starry sky with only his eyes, but saw nothing in that fashion; they were too far away to make out against the field of stars. So he lifted his binoculars back into position, and focused them in more sharply. "The… the biggest one is carrying a passenger…"
"And the last one in line is carrying some bundles in its hands. And I swear to God that the little one between them is carrying a teddy bear…"
"Pater noster, qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum…" 1
"Um… do we report this?"
"…No. Absolutely not. We are going to keep our mouths shut about this to everyone on shift, all right? The only one I'm going to talk about this to is Father Aguilar, after I say about a hundred rosaries… Or maybe I'll just get very, very drunk. Or maybe I'll do both…"
By unspoken agreement, they kept their NVB's trained on the bizarre flyers overhead until they had crossed well over the border to the U.S., and were out of their technologically-enhanced fields of vision. Finally, Victor lowered his NVB's and sighed. "I've been on this job for over ten years now, and I thought I'd seen everything. But after tonight… I tell you, rookie…
"THE TIMES, THEY ARE A-CHANGIN'…"
PART 1: BEST-LAID PLANS
By Kimberly T. (e-mail: kimbertow at yahoo dot com)
Goliath wears a tux!
Broadway goes on a diet!
And Demona is saved by humans!
(Author's note: in addition to the standard disclaimer—if I owned these characters, the show would still be airing!—I must inform you that a part of Demona's history that I've made reference to--the Paris Clan, and its tragic demise--is from the G:TGS story, "From the Heart" and is therefore the property of the TGS staff. Also, this story has been divided into multiple chapters due to its sheer size, and some items will have explanatory footnotes at the end of this section.)
Castle Wyvern, in the hour before dawn. Half an hour ago, just after the last patrol had returned, Elisa had arrived at the castle. Now she and Goliath were alone on the battlements, after Goliath had made it quietly clear that the rest of the clan was to stay inside and not interrupt them for anything short of Oberon's return.
Now, while gargoyles are highly social creatures, living in clans with strong interpersonal bonds, they do understand the concept and value of privacy. And obedience to the clan leader is one of the first rules drummed into each hatchling's head, shortly after it breaks shell. So when a clan leader tells everyone in his clan to leave him and his beloved alone for a while, normally, they would comply without question.
But when there's a bet going on…
"Ssshhh!" Brooklyn hissed to his rookery brother Broadway as he twisted his head to glare back at him. "I can't hear what they're saying when you breathe so loud!" Then he self-consciously patted the black bandanna he'd tied on to cover his white mane, plastered himself against the cobblestoned roof of the turret and slowly crept forward on his belly again. Turning his head so his beak wouldn't stick out over the edge of the roof, he peered with his left eye at the couple on the roof below and to the right, and strained his left ear to hear their words above the wind whistling past his perch. After another minute or so, he murmured out the other side of his beak, "He's talking to her about his bonding scent…"
Down inside the castle, Angela and Hudson were hovering behind Lexington, Angela still uncertainly holding a screwdriver in her hands, as he sat down in front of his computer and began typing rapidly while moving his mouse with his tail-tip. "Is it working?"
"Yes!" Lex crowed as the image on his monitor slowly shifted from a view of the city below them to an image of Goliath and Elisa on the roof, in a shadowed corner that was normally not within view of the cameras. Hacking into the security cameras' video feeds had been easy, but gaining control of the remote camera servos and being able to move them had required a little more work, with Angela as an extra pair of hands as he'd crossed wires and patched in cables. "We have visual! Now if I can only improve the audio…"
"We really shouldn't be doing this…" Angela began uncertainly.
Standing next to her, Hudson said with a wry grin and a thicker brogue than usual, "Nay, we shouldna. But I'll na speak of it to our leader if ye dinna…"
Lexington reminded Angela, "Hey, you were the one wishing we had a way to turn the cameras! I promise, I'll put nearly everything back the way it was when I'm done." Lex silently hoped they wouldn't pick up on the word 'nearly'. Lexington had decided early on, in his unofficial career as a spy on Xanatos, that no advantage should be completely turned away. He'd already inveigled his way into a few 'back doors' in Xanatos Enterprise's computers, so he could quietly, at Goliath's own bidding, monitor what he could of Xanatos' larger business transactions and projects under development. (Though the clan was very grateful to Xanatos for all the help he'd given them lately, after the many lies and betrayals the man had perpetrated in the past, they were by no means ready to fully trust him.) Though so far, Lex had found nothing to ring alarm bells; no purchases of grimorums or unusually named or shaped talismans, no secret build-up of yet another private army, not even any really cutthroat buyouts of the business competition, as near as he could tell. Lexington was almost ready to believe that Xanatos had finally learned how to play nice. He brought his thoughts back to the present as he tweaked the audio on his speakers and said, "He said something about bonding scents…"
"It's really a shame that humans have such a poor sense of smell," Angela mused. "She probably can't even tell she's marked Father already!"
Back up on the highest turret, Brooklyn's ears perked at the mention of his own name, and he wryly agreed with Goliath's assessment of what he might say about their leader's mated-but-not-mated status. 'SOLD, awaiting pickup by owner'… yeah, that fits! Then his ears really perked, and he hissed excitedly to Broadway, "She just said they should make it official!"
Down in the living room, Angela gave a little bounce and clapped for excitement as she and Lex heard that as well. Then Lex hurriedly hushed her as he said tensely, "Wait a minute; now he's asking about Father Sullivan…"
Standing beside Hudson, Bronx lifted his head and whined in confusion. Not quite understanding what all the fuss was about, and annoyed that everyone was paying attention to the little picture-box instead of to his doggish queries, he finally whuffed softly and slunk back to his usual cushion by the easy chair.
After a few more seconds of listening, "…they're not having a mating ceremony, they're having a wedding!" Brooklyn looked ruefully over his shoulder at Broadway as he whispered ruefully, "We owe Lex and Angela each a patrol duty…"
"Yes! I knew it!" Lexington crowed as he thrust a fist into the air.
"Look! Look!" Angela was almost dancing with delight. "He's even down on his knees to ask her, just like a human male!"
"Humph!" was all Hudson said, with a not-quite-scowl crossing his expression before it gave way to wry acceptance. "Well, the lass is human…"
"Quiet! I can't hear what she's… Well, she must have said yes, or Goliath wouldn't be grinning and roaring for joy now, and twirling her around like a little hatchling!"
Up on the roof, Broadway had dared to join Brooklyn at the vantage point and poke his head out over the edge as well, so he could see Goliath dancing with Elisa. "Aww…" he said with a foolish grin, "It's worth losing a bet with the others, just to see them so happy!"
"Yeah," Brooklyn said with a soft wistful sigh, wishing he had somebody to dance with like that. Then Goliath stopped spinning around with Elisa, and they hurriedly moved back from the edge before he came out of his obvious euphoria and spotted them. Brooklyn assumed his eavesdropping pose again as he murmured to Broadway, "I think they're setting a date now…"
And the next words out of Elisa's mouth were heard quite clearly by all the eavesdropping gargoyles without any strain, as she said loudly and incredulously, "You want it when!"
Down in the living room, Lex, Hudson and Angela traded mystified looks. "What's she all upset about?" Lex asked. "I mean, that's plenty of time, right? The mutates just did it for both couples in only a week…"
Angela shrugged back at him, just as puzzled. They listened in silence for a few more minutes as Elisa and Goliath talked back and forth, both trying to persuade the other. For every protest Elisa gave, Goliath had an answer ready, and finally she gave in and nodded, at which Goliath swept her off her feet again for another hug and kisses, before he turned towards the door to their living quarters. Lexington quickly shut down the surveillance before Goliath and Elisa could come in, and noticed just before the screen went back to his usual 'wallpaper' that two shadows had just detached from the highest turret: Brooklyn and Broadway, slipping away to sneak into the castle again, through that lower-story window they had used to sneak out in the first place.
When Elisa came into the castle on Goliath's arm and saw the expectant looks on the faces of the gargoyles they found there, as well as the wide grins they were trying to smother, she sighed and said, "Why do I get the feeling our private conversation wasn't as private as we thought?"
Goliath gave them all a suspicious glower as well, especially Brooklyn and Broadway as they came running up with wide grins on their faces, but he was simply in too good a mood to keep it up. And whether they knew it already or not, he couldn't help bursting out, "Elisa and I are to be married!"
Everyone cheered, and congratulated them. "That's wonderful, lad!" Hudson said as he came forward with a grin.
Goliath's answering grin as he clasped forearms with his mentor was a little apologetic. "I hope you understand, old friend; a wedding seems more appropriate for us than a standard mating ceremony." He cast a quick glance at Elisa as he continued, "But perhaps we can incorporate some of our own customs into it…?"
"Should be possible, if Father Sullivan's willing," Elisa answered with a shrug. "My folks told me once that when they got married, their wedding combined some Hopi traditions in with the Baptist ceremony."
Brooklyn rubbed his beak as he mused, "So it'd be part mating ceremony, part wedding… Would you say that negates our bet?" as he turned to Lexington.
"No way!" Lex said promptly. "You two owe us one patrol duty, payable on demand."
Elisa and Goliath together gave them all the evil eye as Goliath growled, "You were placing bets on our relationship!"
Chagrin was written large on the Trio's and Angela's faces, as they hastened to reassure Goliath and Elisa that no disrespect was meant. Just then, the phone in the living room rang, to the Trio's palpable relief as a means of distraction. "Och, I'll get it," Hudson said as he reached for it, since the phone was next to his favorite easy chair anyway. He sat down in it and picked up the receiver as he added, "At least, at this time of night, it's not apt to be another blasted telephone-merchant…"
Elisa stared at him, then up at Goliath. "You actually get telemarketers calling you!"
"Unfortunately, yes," the clan leader growled. "Xanatos explained to us that these people have computer programs attached to their telephones that select numbers at random; the fact that this number is not listed in the phone books does not deter them. When the first one called us, one evening three weeks ago, at first we thought he was a Quarryman making veiled threats against us with such talk about death and planning for the future; Lexington nearly challenged the man to show his face to us in honest battle, before we realized that he was trying to sell us a cemetery plot."
"Geez, thanks for the reminder," Lexington groaned as he covered his face, flushing dark olive with embarrassment.
Elisa clamped her mouth shut and forced down the giggles that threatened to escape, and once she was sure she'd forced them down she laid a comforting hand on Lex's shoulder. "Hey, I get those sort of calls all the time. At least you guys don't have to worry about telemarketers interrupting your sleep…"
Just then, David and Fox Xanatos came into the living room still wearing their Armani pajamas and Versace dressing robes, and with wide smiles on their faces. "Given the joyful ruckus we heard out on the roof a few minutes ago, am I to understand some congratulations are in order?" Xanatos said hopefully.
"Goliath and Elisa are going to have a wedding!" Angela excitedly told them, either forgetting or not knowing that the bride-and-groom-to-be should have had that privilege.
Xanatos immediately turned to his wife and said with a smug smile, "Pay up."
Fox rolled her eyes as she tugged irritably at the ties to her dressing gown. "All right, all right; I hereby owe you an entire week's worth of afternoon-playtime diaper changes. Sheesh!"
Goliath and Elisa glanced ruefully at each other, then at the already married couple who owned the castle. "I take it you two had also placed bets between yourselves on our relationship?" Goliath said with a grimace. Xanatos just grinned back unrepentantly.
While they were bantering, Hudson was quietly talking and listening to the phone in his hand with a growing smile on his face. Finally he spoke a few last amiable words into it, and hung up as he announced, " 'Twas Father Sullivan calling. I gave him the good news, not that it was a surprise to him either..." Elisa blushed and half-smiled as she allowed that it probably wasn't. "The priest will be coming by here tonight at ten o'clock, to talk with me about our customs and determine how this wedding is to be done. 'Tis the first true mating ceremony for gargoyle and human, and 'twill be a right challenge to find the best way to mix our mating customs and human-style ones. I assume ye both will be wanting to be here to offer your own opinions?"
"I'd like to, but my shift starts before then," Elisa said with a troubled look. "Can you call him back and reschedule for earlier?" Then a thought stuck her, and she sighed. "Actually, tell him Goliath and I would like to see you and him together the next night, right around sunset if he can make it here that early. Because first, we've got to let my family know…"
Telling her sister Beth about it was easy. Elisa merely called her sister up late that afternoon, told her that she and Goliath were getting married, then held the phone a little away from her ear as Beth crowed triumphantly, "HAH! Derek owes me a foot massage!"
Elisa sighed, "Don't tell me… you were betting on whether or not Goliath and I would get married?"
"Sis, we were betting on whether or not you'd be engaged by New Year's! So, when's the wedding?"
"A week from this Saturday. Can you make it? Goliath and I will see about getting the plane tickets mailed to you."
"…Sis, would you mind repeating that?"
"Which part, the date or the plane tickets?"
"Both. Did you say a week from Saturday? Sis, are you…"
"Yes, I said a week from Saturday, and no, unlike Maggie, I'm not 'in a family way'! F'rgodsakes, Beth, it's impossible!"
"Sis, so was going around the world in what was essentially a rowboat. But if you're not preggers, then why the rush?"
"(sigh) To Goliath, this isn't a rush, it's dragging your tail. Gargoyles don't usually have really fancy ceremonies; the two mates just stand up and say their vows to each other in front of the elders and rest of the clan, then… jump off the battlements together." Elisa decided to hold back the information about what happened after the newly mated pair jumped off the battlements; if she told Beth about mating flights, her utterly irrepressible sister would probably try to capture it on film. "Goliath wants us to have a human-style wedding for my sake, but since we were able to put together a double wedding in only seven nights, he doesn't see why we can't do a single wedding in only nine nights, especially since the chapel in the Labyrinth is already set up. And since you're probably the only one who'll be coming from out of town…"
"Ah. Well, I had plans, but they're nothing I can't put off for another week. I think I can even get out of all my Friday classes after 9:00 a.m., if I talk to my professors and arrange it ahead of time. So, did you say you're going to be sending me the plane tickets?"
"Yeah. Lex is going online tonight from the castle, since he's just jumping for a chance to help out with the wedding, and he'll buy them over the Net. Would you believe that the gargoyles even have their own credit card?"
"No way! How do they pay the bills? I can't see any of them holding down a nine-to-fiver…"
"Xanatos does. And before you say anything, it bothers me too that they're becoming indebted to him like that, but as Goliath pointed out, he's already providing their food and shelter. The gargoyles just figure they've basically made an alliance pact like they had back in the Dark Ages, with the original residents of Castle Wyvern; they protect the humans by night, and the humans protect them by day." Elisa grinned wryly, though her sister couldn't see it. "With the biggest difference being that they don't also provide fresh meat for the castle's larders now, since there isn't any real game in Central Park and the Xanatos family doesn't seem to be interested in pigeon stew."
Beth snorted in amusement, then changed the subject. "So, does Goliath understand the concept of bridesmaids?"
"Yes he does, and he's already agreed to having them and groomsmen. You want to be my maid of honor?"
"Like you even have to ask? Of course I do! Hey, has he picked a best man yet?"
"Yep; Brooklyn. It would have been Hudson, but we're figuring he's going to co-conduct the ceremony itself instead."
"…Does Brooklyn know how to dance? Never mind, I'll show him a few simple steps for the reception," Beth said cheerfully. Elisa was silently amazed at how fast her sister could adapt to the idea of being partnered with a gargoyle. Beth went on, "With the short notice, I'm assuming I'll need to provide my own dress. What's the style and color scheme?"
"Uhh… I'll have to call you back tonight with that info; I haven't decided yet."
"How about lavender? After all, that's the groom's color scheme…" (and Elisa could almost hear the saucy grin Beth had to be wearing just then.)
But Elisa had an answer for that one. "No, can't be lavender. Angela's already asked to be the other bridesmaid, and she's lavender already..."
At the same time that Elisa was talking to her sister, a meeting was taking place in Xanatos' office. Paul Manning of PM Investigations set a thick folder of notes and photographs on Xanatos' desk and said flatly, "I hope this is enough for you, because that's all you're getting from this corner."
Xanatos paused in his reach for the folder, and looked at Manning with one eyebrow cocked, as if he couldn't possibly have heard what he'd just heard. "I beg your pardon?" And there was just enough chill in the voice to make it clear to even the casual observer that he expected to hear a rephrasing of sentiments, very quickly.
So Manning rephrased it for him. "After this, I'm out of here. I quit. No more work on this case. Clear enough?"
"Quite," and the chill in Xanatos' voice could have frozen his espresso coffee. "May I ask why?"
"Because, Mr. Xanatos, as very fond of your money as I have become, I am even more fond of breathing."
That changed Xanatos' attitude in a hurry. "Has someone threatened you in regards to this case?" he asked sharply, as he flipped open the folder lying on the desk. In it were dozens of photographs of people, with pages of notes about each person clipped to his or her photograph. Most of the people pictured were wearing Quarrymen uniforms, taken at one of their rallies.
"Overt threats, no. But after the last meeting I attended, I started getting The Tingle." At Xanatos' expression, he explained, "You can call it a well-honed survival instinct; sometimes I get a tingle in the back of my brain, letting me know when I'm getting in too deep and the water's nearly over my head. I've learned to pay attention to that tingle, Xanatos. It's saved my skin more than once. My cousin Cleon didn't pay attention to his instincts until too late, and the case he was working on for another very rich businessman ended with me breaking the news of his untimely demise to his widow."
"I see," Xanatos said grimly. He gestured at the photographs again. "Would you mind telling me which of the individuals pictured here was setting off your… Tingle?"
"Which two of them," Manning corrected. He pointed to two of the photographs. "One of them is our head cheerleader, Jon Canmore/Carter/Castaway himself. The other is this man," as he pointed to another photograph, of a seemingly middle-aged man with aquiline features and silver-gray hair. "Oliver Grimm. He's definitely a major bankroller for the Quarrymen, and the main supplier of their weaponry. The two of them left together from the last Q-rally, and I was starting to follow their limo when the Tingle came on fast and strong. Strong enough that I broke off the tail on the spot, and I've been lying low for the past few nights while typing up everything to give to you. Best guess is, one of them was beginning to suspect that 'Michael Pennington' wasn't quite as enthusiastic a member of the Q-men as I've been portraying for the past six weeks, and they were thinking about taking action. Regardless of which one is the worst threat, I'm taking a vacation as soon as I walk out these doors."
Xanatos nodded slowly. "Very well, we'll call your work finished. See my secretary for your final check." Paul Manning nodded, and walked back out the office doors while Xanatos began looking over the notes the private detective had typed up during his limited investigation of Oliver Grimm. After a short while he looked up, unsurprised to see Owen Burnett standing there. "PM Investigations has pulled out, but we've gotten some good information about the Quarrymen out of him; enough for a start."
Owen nodded. "And your next course of action, sir?"
Xanatos separated out the photos and sheets of papers. "For the moment, we'll leave the small fry alone and concentrate on Jonny-boy himself, his lieutenants and the Q-men's bankrollers. Since Paul was clever enough to obtain a list of addresses to go with most of the names, I think we'll start by finding out which of these people have outstanding arrest warrants, and do our bit to extend the reach of the long arm of the law." He frowned. "Pity that probably won't work for Jonny-boy himself."
"Indeed, sir," Owen said blandly. "His current habit of changing his place of dwelling every week is most inconsiderate of him."
Xanatos shot him a dirty look, then picked up the photo and notes for Oliver Grimm. "This one we'll give special treatment to. I want to know everything you can dig up on Oliver Grimm, CEO of Kreuzung Technology, and his corporation. Stock reports, IRS returns, employee satisfaction surveys, the works. I'm just willing to bet we'll find something we can use to our advantage…"
After calling Beth came notifying Elisa's brother and sister-in-law, and making sure they could use the chapel in the Labyrinth for the wedding. Once Goliath had awoken and come to her apartment to pick her up, they went together to the Labyrinth. Elisa quietly mused to Goliath as they walked through the tunnels on their way to the central chambers, "At least Derek and Maggie already know about our (ahem) intimacy, even if Derek wasn't too thrilled for us. Compared to telling my parents, this should be easy…"
Goliath seemed about to say something, but chose not to, as they came into the central kitchen. As luck would have it, all the mutates and Claw's wife Dana were all in there together, amiably arguing over who had the better chili recipe. Derek spotted his sister and called out as he waved a spoon, "Hey, Sis! Come over here and settle an argument for us. Which of these two kinds of chili tastes better?"
Elisa took a deep breath. "Sure, Derek! I'll be happy to taste-test… After Goliath and I tell you what we came down here for."
All of them looked at the couple questioningly as Derek said, "Okay, fire away."
Elisa took another deep breath, then said, "Goliath and I are getting married." Then she waited for their reaction.
The reaction was immediate, though not quite what she had expected. Claw grinned widely, showing his fangs, as he dropped his spoon back into his chili, turned to Derek and held his hand out in an unmistakable gesture: "pay up."
"All right, all right; I hereby owe you one gliding escort duty," Derek sighed as he rolled his eyes. "And I owe Beth a foot massage next time she's in town…"
Elisa rolled her eyes as well as she groaned, "Has everybody been betting on us tying the knot!"
Maggie hid a felinoid smile behind her hand as she explained, "I didn't, but Claw and Dana made a bet with Derek, after your sister made one with him before going back to Arizona. Beth bet him that you would be making an announcement before New Year's Day, but Claw and Dana were sure it would come before Thanksgiving… Have you set a date yet?"
Goliath and Elisa told them the date they'd chosen… then had to explain that no, they weren't expecting a winged bundle of joy of their own already… And before they left, they had determined that both Elisa and Dana favored Derek's chili recipe (hot-hot) while Goliath and Maggie favored Claw's (mild, with more meat in it), and they had arranged for the wedding to be held in the Labyrinth's chapel next Saturday night. As they headed back out again, Elisa sighed and leaned on Goliath's arm as she said, "This is going so smoothly, it's almost scary."
Goliath blinked at her. "Why would it be scary?" Then he looked worried. "Elisa, if you are having second thoughts, please say so before we--"
"No, I'm not having second thoughts," Elisa said hastily. "But weddings never go off without some complications; it's one of those corollaries of Murphy's Law, like the checkout line in the supermarket next to your line will always move faster, until you get into it." At Goliath's mystified look, she just shook her head and said, "Just take my word for it. Sooner or later, we're going to run into a real problem. And maybe sooner than you think, because we still have to tell my parents…"
Picture this: a three-bedroom rambler in the middle of the suburbs; the sort of home that millions of perfectly ordinary families have raised their children in. Though the house is nearly silent, lights still shine through a few of the windows, indicating the inhabitants are still awake. And though no one is outside in the back yard, the back porch light is on.
Now come the soft whooshing sounds of massive leathery wings slicing through the night air, and the soft thump of a landing on the grass in the back yard. The dark shape just landed resolves itself into a massive gargoyle silently setting his human passenger down on her feet. The faint sound of a nervous swallow issues from her throat as she walks up to the back door, and hesitantly knocks on it.
The back door opens, and a late-middle-aged man with skin the shade of bronze and stern aquiline features looks out. He eyes his visitors for only a moment before silently ushering them inside. The human and gargoyle both square their shoulders and stiffen their spines before walking in through the back door. Once the door is closed, the back porch light is switched off, and all is quiet and still once more.
And two minutes later the quiet is broken by a voice wafting out through one of the windows, a feminine voice wailing, "Has everybody been putting bets on us?"
Half an hour later, Goliath dropped Elisa off in the alley right next to where her Fairlane was parked, so she could jump in and drive to work. "I'll give you a shout on the car radio once I've gotten Matt away from the stationhouse," Elisa said as she lifted her face up to gave him a quick kiss before running out of the alley.
Goliath turned the quick kiss into a slightly longer and more thorough one, and greatly enjoyed the slightly flushed and flustered look on Elisa's face when he finally let her go. "I'll be waiting," he rumbled as she ran.
Three hours later, Matt looked across his desk at his partner, who'd been fidgeting for the past few hours whenever she wasn't typing furiously, and made a decision. "C'mon, partner, we're going to lunch," he said loudly as he grabbed his coat.
Elisa jumped up like a spring had erupted under her chair, and grabbed her jacket as she said, "Greatidealet'sgo!" And was almost out the door before the last syllable crossed her lips.
Unfortunately, they weren't quite fast enough to escape Captain Chavez, who stepped out of her office and barked, "Maza! Bluestone! Are those files ready for review yet!"
"Almost, Captain!" Bluestone called out, after glimpsing the naked frustration on Elisa's face. "They'll be finished right after we get back from lunch!"
Chavez gave them both the evil eye that had earned her the moniker "The Dragon Lady" among the less respectful members of the precinct, even before she'd become a captain. "Don't you mean, before lunch?"
"Aw, Captain, you know I'm just a touch hypoglycemic!" Matt improvised on the spot. "If I don't get something to eat soon, my concentration will be shot, and I won't be good for much of anything!"
"And if my stomach growls any louder, the boys in the K-9 Unit will hear it and start joking about a mastiff in myguts again!" Elisa pleaded with her, almost dancing in place like a little kid in her eagerness to be on her way.
Chavez eyed them both keenly, then ordered, "Make it a fast lunch!" before returning to her office.
Matt promised they would, then almost sprinted to catch up with Elisa. Once they were in her car and pulling away from the station, he asked her, "Now that we're alone, just what the heck has been eating you all night? You've had the proverbial ants in your pants ever since the captain laid down the law about having our cases ready for review tonight!"
But instead of answering him directly, Elisa reached for the police radio mounted in her dashboard and switched it to the special setting Lexington had built into it when he'd modified it some time ago: the frequency she used for communicating with the gargoyles. "Goliath, we're outside now! I'm sorry, the captain had us tied up in paperwork… Where are you now?"
"Gliding directly over your car," Goliath's voice growled out of the dash, sounding more than a little annoyed. "Just pull into that alley up ahead on the right…"
"He's been waiting for us to come out for hours," Elisa moaned as she obediently pulled into the alley on the right side of the street. "Why did the captain have to pick tonight to be anal about our paperwork!"
"Probably because we've been neglecting it lately, and setting a bad example for the rookies," Matt said honestly as she stopped the car. "So what's up with the clan?"
Instead of answering immediately, Elisa got out and ran up to where Goliath was just coming down with a much heavier than normal thump, probably a way of expressing his displeasure at being kept waiting so long. Then they hugged, and Matt could almost see the tension oozing out of his broad shoulders as he snuggled her close, and the lines of strain likewise easing from her face. To draw such comfort from each other's embrace... He felt another jolt of jealousy, just as he'd felt nearly two weeks ago when he'd first realized they'd become lovers, but forced it down again. Elisa was his partner, dammit, no more and no less…
After a short while they broke apart from their hug and turned to him with a smile. "Come on over, Matt," Elisa called to him softly. "We've got news for you!"
"Are you sure?" Matt said warily, not yet moving from where he'd been standing the whole time they'd been hugging; right up against the Fairlane with one hand on the door handle, ready to duck back inside if he had to. "Remember what happened last time I came up to you two when you were hugging…" He himself remembered the incident all too vividly; for a few moments Goliath had looked and sounded like he wanted to rip one Matthew J. Bluestone into lots of little bite-size pieces.
Elisa blushed bright red and Goliath a deep purple, both obviously remembering the incident he'd been referring to. Matt had never gotten an adequate explanation for that, either; all they ever told him was that it had been 'a gargoyle thing'. "Matt, I assure you, that won't happen tonight," Goliath said, still blushing as he beckoned.
So he came over to them, and once he was within arm's reach of them, they dropped their bombshell. "Goliath and I are getting married," Elisa said with a smile as she rested her head against Goliath's huge biceps.
"And as our clan's next closest human friend, I would choose you to be one of my 'groomsmen', if you are willing," Goliath said with a wide grin.
All the breath whooshed out of Matt's lungs for a moment; some tiny corner of his mind wondered if this is what it would feel like if Evander Holyfield really had just given him a one-two to the guts. They were getting married! …And Goliath wanted him to be a groomsman! "Uhhh…. L-let me think about this for a moment, okay?"
"Of course," Goliath nodded.
Elisa smiled wryly as she looked at his undoubtedly stunned expression, and then said quietly to Goliath, "At least here's one person who hasn't been betting on us…"
After a few seconds, Matt took a deep breath, and shrugged his shoulders. "Well, why not? Sure, I'll be a groomsman. So, have you guys set a date yet?"
Elisa told him, "A week from this Saturday. …Dammit, Matt, get that expression off your face! No, I am not pregnant!"
Even though Elisa and Goliath could not attend to offer their opinions, Father Sullivan came to the castle for a talk with Hudson anyway. As Lexington typed busily away in the computer alcove, surfing the Net to find and buy the best round-trip plane tickets for Beth Maza, the priest and the clan elder sat down together with fresh hot tea to discuss the ceremony. "In a way, it's probably preferable that they not be here for this first meeting," Father Sullivan said with a wry smile. "It's best that we get our own inevitable arguing out of the way first, before they add to the clamor. If we can present them tomorrow night with our own suggestions for merging customs, and let them decide from that what will suit them and what needs changing, it may all go more smoothly."
Hudson eyed the priest with some surprise while absently reaching down to pet Bronx, who had given up on trying to get Lex to play tug-of-war with him and slumped back onto his cushion by the chair. "Ye say 'tis inevitable for us to argue? So far, I dinna think either of us has said a cross word to the other."
"Before now, my friend, we were merely learning of each other's cultures, and that was mostly on my part. I've been through something like this before, several years ago, when a young lady from my flock wed a young Jewish fellow, and his rabbi and I co-officiated the wedding. Rabbi Schulman and I had already been good acquaintances, long before the couple became engaged, and we'd studied and respected each other's traditions. But all weddings are emotionally charged times, and I'm afraid Ben Schulman and I had more than our share of disagreeable moments as we tried to merge our two ceremonies, with both Caroline and Aaron alternately insisting that this custom or that had to be observed, then insisting that their intended's wishes were more important in the very next breath. And then the mothers of the bride and groom got involved…" Father Sullivan shook his head with a wry smile on his face. "Before it was over, it wasn't only the fathers of Aaron and Caroline who were willing to buy those two plane tickets to Las Vegas, if they chose to elope instead!"
Hudson chuckled in appreciation. "Aye, I can understand that. To my way of thinking, the simpler the plan, the less chance there is of something going wrong. Though 'twas a right beautiful ceremony ye did for the mutate couples last month…"
Father Sullivan accepted the praise with due modesty, then asked, "You told me in our third talk that Goliath and Elisa aren't really the first inter-species pairing; that you knew of at least one other pair back in the Dark Ages who had forged a relationship. What sort of ceremony did they have?"
Hudson shook his head. "They didn't. The two I told you of kept their meetings very quiet, for fear of public disapproval; aye, nearly everyone in the clan knew about it, but we never said we knew, if ye catch my meaning." The priest said he did. "Back then, the humans of Castle Wyvern were slow to accept us, and many feared us and cursed us as beasts. If they had found out about those two, they would likely have looked upon them with even more disapproval than the clan. Moreover, I'm thinking now that their relationship wasn't as… as deep as Goliath and Elisa have gone. The two back then were lonely souls seeking sex an' companionship, but I dinna believe they truly bonded, not like Goliath and Elisa have done; didn't truly become mates to each other. Our two, now… I tell ye true, whatever ceremony we make for them will be a mere formality. They're already mates, in heart and mind and body, an' maybe even in soul for all I can tell."
Father Sullivan nodded, then looked around the room. Only Lexington and Bronx were present besides themselves, and Lex was immersed in his activities on the Net; still, Father Sullivan lowered his voice before asking, "And does all the clan fully accept them as mates?"
"Of course!" Hudson chuckled, "The younger lads and lass even had bets between themselves, as to what sort of ceremony Goliath and Elisa would choose! No worries on that score. I'm not so sure as to what Elisa's blood-relations will say to it, but… Ye must understand, to us, Elisa isn't just a human ally; she's clan. She's proven herself to us many times over, and even if she and Goliath were only friends, she'd still be clan to us, as much a one of us as if she still had her wings and tail."
Father Sullivan nodded and smiled, and took another sip of tea… and paused, with the teacup still at his lips. After a few seconds, he said, "Pardon me, but did I hear correctly? Did you say, 'as if she still had her wings and tail'?"
Hudson grimaced. "Aye, ye heard right. 'Tis a long story…"
The castle had another visitor before dawn, one they had been told to expect just a few hours before. Diane Maza arrived with her sewing kit and a determined expression, and immediately went to work. Just before the sun was due to peep over the horizon, she told Goliath with some exasperation, "No, no… If you're going to insist on doing it this way, then you're going to have to hold your left arm like this, and flex your right arm like this!" as she stood on the castle roof and shoved Goliath's limbs this way and that. "And lift that leg up again!"
Standing on the battlements, the rest of the clan fought hard to contain their snickers as they watched their leader standing in the middle of the roof instead of his usual high perch, staring bewilderingly at the comparatively tiny woman shoving him around like she was positioning an oversized department store mannequin. "But I don't understand why you--" he began again, as he tried to balance on just one foot and his tail while holding the other foot up in mid-step.
"Because I want this outfit to fit right the first time, not have to be refitted three or more times, and the clothing I'm making has to take all of a gargoyle's normal movements into account or you'll end up bursting seams at the worst possible moment! All right, that should do it. Now hold still!"
"You can do it, Father," Angela called out encouragingly from her pose, which was admittedly much simpler than Goliath's. All she'd had to do was stand back from the edge and hold her arms outstretched and wings slightly flared, presumably because her bridesmaid outfit would have a full skirt to cover her legs instead of trousers.
"Better do as she says, Goliath," Brooklyn said, unable to keep the grin off his face. (He'd been able to fast-talk his way out of posing for a groomsman outfit, by pointing out that if this wedding was to be a mixture of human and gargoyle traditions, at least one member of the party should be wearing traditional gargoyle clothes for the occasion.) "I hear it's real bad news to get on the bad side of your future mother-in-law…"
"Very, very true. Take it from one who knows," Xanatos said wryly, from where he was leaning against the entrance to the gargoyle living quarters. Although, considering his mother-in-law was Queen of the Fey, his case was a little more extreme than Goliath's…
Holding still as ordered by Diane, in a pose that looked more ridiculous than fearsome on the giant gargoyle, Goliath dared to turn his head just enough to give Xanatos a killer glare and a growling, "You're enjoying this, aren't you?"
"Moi?" as Xanatos gave him a wide-eyed look and a hand placed on his chest in a shocked manner. And the sun rose just then, freezing the tableau in place just as Xanatos admitted with a wicked grin, "I'm taping this."
"Humph!" as Diane gave Xanatos a raised eyebrow, but said nothing more to him directly. "Well, this should do," she muttered as she pulled her measuring tape and notepad out of her pockets and began taking measurements for Goliath's wedding attire. Owen had already quietly brought a small stepladder and a roll of masking tape up for her use, so she could reach Goliath's shoulders with ease and stick one end of the measuring tape in place as necessary for tricky measurements.
"Stone sleep does has its advantages," Xanatos mused aloud from where he was watching. "Because this is the only way the 'Big Guy' would ever hold still for inseam measurements…"
Diane paused in her measurements, and gave Xanatos a pointed look. "Don't you have a multinational corporation to run? Because if not, anyone still here and in flesh five seconds from now is going to be drafted as my assistant…"
Xanatos hastily departed.
Shortly after arriving in his office, Xanatos was mildly surprised to be notified that 'Lennox MacDuff' was calling him on an office line. "To what do I owe the honor?" he inquired after being connected.
"To the People for Interspecies Tolerance, of course," MacBeth informed him. "I trust you've already heard the tape of the last meeting…"
Xanatos flushed dull red as he admitted, "Yes, I have." He'd heard the recording MacBeth had secretly made of the meeting, and sent to the Aerie Building by special courier later that night. The recording had been made largely so the entire clan could listen to the half-truths, misdirections and white lies Brooklyn had spun about the clan's recent history, and keep their stories straight in the future. The truth had been altered not only to avoid the subject of Demona's immortality (which was shared by the man currently calling himself Lennox MacDuff), but to avoid the question of exactly why Xanatos' two-year-long… disagreement with the gargoyle clan had abruptly ended on the night his son was born. Xanatos himself had requested Brooklyn to do what he could to avoid that last question, as the brick-red gargoyle had gleefully pointed out afterwards, so he really had no basis to complain about the resulting impression of him that Brooklyn had left in the minds of the P.I.T. members. But if he heard one more smart remark about the dangers of getting drunk with business partners, or if his wife teased him one more time about his penchant for being duped or outmaneuvered by redheads of either species….! He forced himself to unclench his jaw, then said wearily, "If you're calling to tease me about supposedly waking up in bed with a hooker and a hangover, I warn you in advance I've heard seven different variations on that joke already, and I am not in the mood for #8."
MacBeth snorted in amusement. "That's not why I called, though now I'm tempted to make an attempt at #8 anyway. Count yourself lucky that I'm calling between classes, so I'm forced to keep this short. And in short, the P.I.T. could do with a corporate sponsor, and you seem the logical choice for it."
"Money for making pamphlets and commercials and for renting meeting halls, hm? I'll be glad to. How much do you want for a start, one million or two million? And what's the bank account number?"
"Ah, we're putting the cart a bit before the horse. While I'm currently actively helping the founders of the P.I.T., I prefer to keep a low profile where possible; that's why, beyond renting the meeting hall for the first few meetings, I shan't be spending any of my own fortune on their cause. And questions would be raised about how a lowly college professor was able to acquire so much money from a corporate giant with a single phone call."
Xanatos conceded he had a point. "So, you expect some of the students to do this the hard way by going up the corporate ladder of Xanatos Enterprises, but you're calling to make sure I make it relatively easy for them?"
"Not a problem. I'll discreetly let the receptionists downstairs know to give their call or letter a high priority, and where to direct them to for an appointment with a gargoyle-friendly department head. Anything else?"
MacBeth chuckled. "Not unless you can recommend a supplier of rotten tomatoes on short notice."
"It seems that, due to my popularity with my students, I've been invited as a last-minute replacement for a sick colleague, to be a judge for tonight's poetry reading: the 11th Annual Joyce Kilmer Memorial Bad Poetry Contest."2
"Ah, you've heard of it?" MacBeth's voice held a trace of amusement, at the note of sheer horror in Xanatos' tone.
Xanatos shuddered, though MacBeth couldn't see it. "The 1993 winners gave me nightmares for a week. My assistant Owen Burnett occasionally has a cruel streak; he takes perverse delight in attending the readings, and regaling me with word-for-word recitals of the year's winning entries when I'm stuck doing something important and can't escape." It was the one time of the year that Owen openly let his Puckish nature out to play… "Thanks for the advance warning; now I just have to find a good reason to ship him out of the country for a few days before 5 p.m."
MacBeth was still laughing when he hung up.
Another phone conversation was taking place across town, in the headquarters for Nightstone Corporation. Dominique Destine had arrived in her office a short while ago, in what her employees had determined (very, very quietly, never speaking above whispers even in the break room) was her habitual foul mood, but now she was smiling as she took her phone call. But it was not a very nice smile… "You're quite certain of this?" She asked her caller. "If I find even a single detail wrong… Mister Fanchon, you are staking your life on it. And possibly your family's as well; am I clear enough? …Very well. You'll find half of your payment wired to your account by noon today; the rest will follow after verification of your work." Then she hung up, and smiled nastily again.
Fanchon was a weasel through and through, detestable even as professional corporate spies went, but she had to admit his services had so far proven to be worth every penny they cost. It remained to be seen if his latest information was accurate, but if it was, Dominique might even include a bonus with the rest of his payment, for him to enjoy as he would… in the few days before he died. Along with the rest of his verminous breed, and all of humanity…
When Demona had last attempted to wipe out all of humanity, by using the bonding spell she'd found on the Medici Tablet to magically bond Sevarius' CV-1000 carrier virus to an industrial-strength cleanser three times more powerful than pure bleach, she had sought to create something so strong and lethal that it would destroy any living creature it came in contact with, in mere minutes. Only the gargoyles would have remained unaffected… if only that cursed fool Goliath hadn't smashed the one item that protected them from extinction, the Praying Gargoyle that had been created by a gargoyle mage from the long-deceased Paris clan. (Oh, Valjean! Why hadn't he listened to her, and not returned to Notre Dame! His trust in the priests had led to his entire clan being destroyed…) Once Goliath had smashed that sacred relic, Demona could no longer release the magically bonded 'purification virus'; not when it would mean her only living daughter dying right before her eyes…
She had only realized later that there really was no need for such dramatics, no need for a magically bonded virus that would kill every living thing, solely in order to rid the world of humanity. There were a number of diseases out there that were ultimately fatal to humans, but only to humans, and currently had no known cure. Many of them were so very lethal that they had better than a 90 mortality rate within the first week of exposure. Their only drawback was that most of them tended to have limited contagion capabilities; they could be successfully transmitted only by contact with body fluids such as blood or saliva. But Demona had the remedy for that; she had used only half of Sevarius' prepared stock of CV-1000 carrier virus in creating the 'purification virus'. All she really had to do was bond a sufficient quantity of CV-1000 to any one of those diseases, release it into the atmosphere, and wait for the casualty reports to start rolling in. And she wouldn't even need to track down the Medici Tablet, which had been left behind at St. Damien's after the final confrontation with Goliath and the Hunters, and had been missing from the rubble when she'd gone searching for it after her return to New York. No, for bonding the carrier to another organic virus, she would need only the services of Herr Doctor Sevarius again, to do a little genetic splicing. That, and a decent sample of a sufficiently lethal virus… Such as Ebola. And according to Fanchon, the CCDR (Center for Communicable Disease Research) at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons had recently received a shipment of Ebola from the National Center for Disease Control. They had received a controlled quantity of the lethal virus in hopes that the more brilliant minds among them could contribute to the nation's work for developing a working vaccine. It was really too bad for them that Demona had other plans for their sample…
Friday afternoon, Owen came into Xanatos' office with a dark blue folder in his hands. "The PR Department just reported that the P.I.T. has officially called for an appointment, and has been granted one with the head of Public Relations for 9:30 a.m. on Monday. And here is the information you requested on Oliver Grimm and Kreuzung Technologies, sir."
"Excellent, Owen," Xanatos said as he hung up the phone and gestured for the folder. "Let's see it." With any luck, Owen had unearthed some information on Grimm and his corporation that Xanatos could use in his campaign to reduce the threat of the Quarrymen to the clan. Every organization needed money for one thing or another, and hampering their cash supply was a good way to slow them down. Mr. Grimm would probably find himself too preoccupied to keep financing the Quarrymen's rallies and weaponry if he had to deal with a hostile takeover, an IRS audit and perhaps a little trouble with the local unions all at the same time…
Owen handed over the folder, but his face held an ever-so-slight frown on it, which wold probably have been an outright scowl on any other man. "I believe you should pay close attention to the first photograph in the folder, sir."
"Why?" Xanatos asked, even as he studied the photo. "What's so special about--ah. I see," and he did. The photo in question, evidently taken at a charity function a few years ago, showed a small pin on Grimm's lapel. A pin in the shape of a pyramid, with a tiny jeweled eye at the top. "Did you confirm this?"
"Yes, sir. It's legitimate."
Xanatos scowled. "Damn. If he's a member of the Illuminati…"
"Direct action against him or his holdings can not be undertaken without approval from the current Grandmaster for this continent," Owen finished as he adjusted his glasses. "Otherwise, there would be… repercussions."
Xanatos didn't have to ask what the repercussions would be; he already knew. In worst-case scenario, he and his family would be found in pieces strewn over most of NYC; however, it was more likely that they'd simply find themselves bankrupted virtually overnight. The Brotherhood of the Illuminati took their ties of membership very seriously. After a few moments in thought, he looked up again. "So direct action against him is out. But very, very indirect action that can't be traced back to us… See what you can find in here that's worthy of the attention of the IRS." Then a thought struck him. "No, cancel that, I'll do it myself this weekend. Owen, I need you to pack your bags for a weekend trip, as of about five minutes ago."
"We've got troubles in India, and I want you to take a firsthand look at them over the weekend. Here's what we've found so far, and I've got a gut feeling it's only the tip of the iceberg," as he picked up a green folder and handed it to him. "Be my eyes and ears over there, and see what more you can uncover and deal with. You have virtually full discretion, up to firing and hiring as needed. I've got an XE jet fueled and ready for you to leave within the hour."
Owen accepted the folder, but his eyebrows were raised. "This is rather short notice, sir. What have you uncovered?"
"It's all in the folder, Owen. I'd go myself, but Fox made me promise that I'd stay here this weekend. I think she has plans for me on Sunday," he said with a waggle of his eyebrows.
"I see," Owen said with a perfectly straight face. "Very well, sir. I shall depart immediately," and he turned around and walked out of the office.
Once he was gone, Xanatos leaned back in his chair and gave a sigh of relief. It had taken him the better part of the day to find a crisis in their organization that really was large enough to barely, just barely warrant flying Owen out on such short notice. But it was worth the expense of the trip, and the disruption to his household's weekend schedule, to be assured of no abysmal poetry readings being sprung on him sometime in the next few weeks…
Friday evening, Father Sullivan came over again immediately after sunset, and he and Hudson gave the happy couple their views on how a combined gargoyle-human wedding ceremony might be conducted. To everyone's quiet relief, the ceremony Hudson and Father Sullivan had worked out was acceptable to both Goliath and Elisa without a quibble. "This should satisfy even my mom," Elisa mused with a half-smile as she looked over the 'script' for the ceremony that Father Sullivan had written down the night before.
"Do you think this will, too?" Lexington said as he scampered over to them with a sheet of stiff white paper in his hand and a hopeful expression.
Elisa accepted it to find it was a wedding invitation, announcing the wedding of Elisa Maza to Goliath of Wyvern, and giving the date, time and place. "This looks pretty good, Lex! Did you make it?"
"Yeah, I've got a Printshop program on the computer that's great for stuff like this. Owen left a stack of the special paper and envelopes for them by my printer, before he left on his trip this afternoon… Oh, and you should see this website I found last night! It's a gold and jewelry dealer, that sells custom-made wedding rings!"
"Excellent work, Lexington," Goliath said with warm approval. His expression turned rueful as he admitted, "I had wondered how we would manage the choosing of rings, since we can hardly walk into a jewelry story together."
"Not to mention, the average jeweler isn't going to have rings in your size in stock," Elisa said wryly as she caressed the back of his enormous hand, over twice the size of hers. "Well, Lex, let's take a look at this website…"
In less than half an hour, they had surveyed the website and decided on the style of ring they wanted—a golden band with an engraving of a Celtic braid running down the center—and Lexington was measuring Goliath's and Elisa's fingers by wrapping them with a piece of string and making marks with a pen, and holding the marked string against a ruler. "And it only costs an extra ten percent of the total, for a rush order that'll be done and delivered in time for the wedding," Lexington said happily as he typed in their measurements, and the numbers for the credit card that had been issued to 'G.G. Wyvern'. (The G.G. stood for Garth Goyle; even Xanatos occasionally had a weakness for puns.)
"And once the invitations are printed up, we can begin delivering them," Goliath said with a smile. It was as he'd told Elisa, shortly after they'd set their wedding date; with all the clan not only approving of their mating but helping them with the ceremony, the wedding would run as smoothly as fine linen. Elisa really had nothing to worry about…
"If you like, I'll be happy to take your invitations to the Labyrinth with me, when I visit there tomorrow night," Father Sullivan said from where he and Hudson were still enjoying their tea.
"When we visit there," Hudson corrected genially. "Bronx has been acting a bit testy lately, and I'm thinking he needs another visit with Delilah." Lying on his cushion by Hudson's chair, Bronx lifted his head at the mention of his name, and whuffed as if in agreement with Hudson.
Just then, Broadway called everyone, including their guests, in to the dinner he had put together; a good hearty beef-vegetable stew and home-baked biscuits, just the sort of hot filling meal to enjoy before a long night of patrols or police business, or after a hard day of running a multinational corporation or minding two magic-wielding children. Father Sullivan gave the meal high marks as well, before departing for his own home.
Soon after nearly everyone had departed, for patrols or their own pursuits, Broadway went back into the kitchen to serve himself one last helping of stew before putting the rest into containers to refrigerate, and noticed to his mild surprise and pleasure that Angela had gotten up to follow him. He smiled widely at her as she drew near, quoting, "'She walks in beauty, like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies…' Would you like another bowl, too?" as he lifted the lid off the stewpot.
Angela had smiled one of the sweetest smiles he'd ever seen on her face when he'd quoted Lord Byron to her, but then she hastily stepped forward and laid her hand over his, to keep him from lifting the lid all the way off. "Thank you so much, Broadway, my dear… But I don't need another bowl of stew. And… and are you really sure you need it?"
"Huh?" he stared at her in surprise and confusion.
"Did you want another bowl because you're hungry… or just because you like to eat?"
"Because if you're really, truly hungry, then by all means have another bowl, but otherwise… You see, my dear Broadway," as she looked soulfully into his eyes, "this ceremony for my father and Elisa has given me reason to think lately, and I'm concerned about the future. Hudson and Demona both told me what happens to females during the Breeding Moon…" She let go of the lid and backed slowly away, her gaze still locked to his as she continued, "When I awaken that night with my blood singing in my veins, I'm going to want to fly as far and fast as possible; it's instinctive, and for the first breeding season the instinct is overpowering. So it's going to be up to my mate to catch me…" She turned around then, and looked over her shoulder at him as her tail swayed invitingly. "Do you think you could catch me, Broadway dear?"
YOWZA! Broadway dropped the lid with a clatter and started to reach for her, then stopped with his eyes bulging—oops!—and hurriedly brought his wings forward and down to hide the tent forming in his loincloth. "Oh, honey, you'd better believe I'll catch you!"
"Are you sure?" Angela abruptly lost her coquettish air, and turned around to face him again, her wings caped and her face deadly serious. "Because right now, I can fly rings around you."
Broadway felt like he'd just been smacked in the face with a wet dishcloth.
Angela continued, "Dear heart, it truly pains me to say this, but you really need to lose some weight before next autumn. Not just for my sake, but for the sake of our future…"
She said 'our future'…Broadway swallowed hard, then stepped forward and reached a hand out for hers, his wings shivering with emotion and his heart beating triple-time. "Angela… Just so we're both clear on this… are you saying that you're choosing me?"
Angela put her hand in his, and smiled… and said, "After you lose some weight."
Broadway's heart dropped towards his toe-talons. "H-how much weight?"
"Oh, not a great deal of weight… just, say, eighty pounds or so…"
Angela smiled. "Broadway, you could lift that much weight with your smallest talon! Surely you can lose that much, if you really put your mind to it… A few extra laps around the city every night, cutting back on the extra helpings… I'll be glad to help you out in any way I can!" She scooted a little closer, her breasts almost brushing his chest as she murmured, "And after you've lost enough weight, after we're sure you can keep up with me, we'll have a wonderful mating ceremony…"
Broadway swallowed hard again. "Promise?"
"Promise." And she lifted her face to his, with her lips parted ever-so-slightly…
When Hudson came through the doorway a few moments later, he found them kissing while the stew bubbled merrily away. He smiled, and silently backed out again, to sit down in his favorite chair in the living room. He kept half an eye on the door while flipping through channels on the TV, and so he noticed when Broadway came through the door a little while later. He expected the young gargoyle to be grinning from ear to ear, so he was astonished to see how Broadway's tail was dragging and his head was hanging low. "Lad, what's wrong wi' ye tonight?"
Broadway heaved a great sigh, sounding as if all the troubles in the world had settled onto his blue-green shoulders. "Angela's put me on a diet."
"She… what?" For a fleeting instant, Hudson wondered if his hearing was deteriorating like his eyesight had been.
"She says we can't have the mating ceremony until after I lose some weight, so we can be sure I'll be able to catch her during the breeding season. So now I gotta lose at least eighty pounds before next autumn…"
Somewhat stunned, Hudson sat back in his chair and considered. For a moment he thought he'd better have a talk with Angela; she'd apparently gotten the wrong impression from their talks about the breeding season, when she had questions about it not long after arriving in Manhattan and Goliath had been too embarrassed to answer her. And Broadway had apparently not picked up on a few of the subtleties of breeding flights, even after witnessing not one but two of the Wyvern Clan's breeding seasons. (That wasn't altogether a surprise, though, considering that the normal one had happened when the lad and his rookery siblings had still been hatchlings, and they'd had no mates to join in the one triggered by the Night of Two Moons, the one that had nearly taken everybody by surprise. Thank the Dragon that at least that one pair of watchbeasts had known and shown them ahead of time, as watchbeasts always do, or that unexpected breeding season would have thrown the clan into an even worse turmoil than it had.)
Aye, Angela would be instinctively driven to fly as far and as fast as she could during her season, but a female could override those instincts to some small extent; just enough to slow down a little, if her mate had a slower-speed wing configuration. Female web-wings nearly always had to slow down a trifle, unless they were mated to web-winged males. Not to mention, Broadway's wider wingspan and deeper chest meant he had more endurance for gliding than Angela; he could just stay on her tail until she tired and slowed down, though considering how much energy a female had when the Breeding Moon arose it would be a long, long chase. Broadway didn't need to go on a diet so much as they needed to have a few practice chases.
But then… the lad really did have a lot of excess weight on his frame. Nearly everyone in the clan had commented on it from time to time, but so long as Broadway was reasonably effective as a warrior--and he was--they had let the matter slide rather than take action. But if Angela had come up with motivation for Broadway to seriously try to lose weight… "Well, lad, if ye've only got till next autumn, then ye'd better start tonight. And ye can start with a lap or two around the entire island…"
Saturday night, the Cyberbiotics Air Fortress II was on station out over the Atlantic Ocean, three miles out from Manhattan, conducting testing on remote-piloted bathyspheres and robotic deep-sea explorers, and producing precise and detailed maps of the ocean floor. Halcyon Renard looked up from the monitor currently showing the remains of a century-old shipwreck, when another monitor beeped for his attention; radar had picked up on objects approaching the airship. He studied that monitor, blinked, and looked again as he saw a hang-glider and two gargoyles gliding together out to the Air Fortress.
"It appears to be the gargoyle Goliath, another gargoyle and your daughter, sir," Preston Vogel said in his usual emotionless voice.
"And the smaller gargoyle… has my grandson strapped to his back!" Renard said as he stared at the monitor in disbelief. Then he turned to Vogel. "Disable the portside auto-defenses, bring the Fortress about by 60 degrees and open the docking bay so they can see it clearly." He'd rather his unexpected but not unwelcome guests entered in a civilized manner this time, rather than being dragged in by cybots or burning a hole through the roof.
Fifteen minutes later, he and Vogel were down in the docking bay and waiting patiently while Janine--Fox Xanatos to the rest of the world, but she would always be his daughter despite how much she'd hurt him over the decades--shrugged herself free from her glider harness, and Goliath carefully removed Alexander from the backpack-sling that the smaller gargoyle, who resembled nothing so much as a giant green flying squirrel, had worn strapped to his back. Janine accepted Alexander from Goliath's hands with a smile, then approached her father and planted a kiss on his bald head. " 'Evening, Daddy. Thanks for opening the docking bay for us."
"What brings you all here, Janine?" Renard said bluntly, though he reached his wrinkled hands out to take Alexander from her and set him in his lap. Regardless of the reason why, he intended to enjoy whatever time he had with his grandson, whom he saw so rarely; he'd made it perfectly clear to all parties that the night Alexander had been born had been the first and only time he would ever set foot inside the Aerie Building.
"I just wanted to see you again," Janine said lightly, with a somewhat hurt look to her eyes that he would imagine anything otherwise, even after she'd tried more than once to wrest Cyberbiotics away from him by guile or force. "And since Goliath and Lexington wanted to come out here anyway, I thought we'd all visit together."
The web-winged gargoyle cleared his throat and stepped forward, holding out his hand. "Uh, Mr. Renard, we're never really been introduced; I'm Lexington. And I and my rookery brothers, and Hudson too, wanted to apologize for our actions against your company two years ago." He cast a glance at Fox as he said, "I think you know why we did what we did, but we're still responsible for our actions, and we're sorry about all the trouble we caused."
"Apology accepted," as Renard calmly took that four-fingered hand and shook it. "And I want to thank you, and the rest of your clan, for your actions in helping to save my grandson." Save his grandson from his own ex-wife, and that damnable Fey overlord she'd gone running back to… He firmly shoved such thoughts aside again, for the thousandth time, and turned to Goliath. "How is your clan faring these days?" He knew as well as the rest of the city did that they were living in that castle atop the Aerie Building again, though he'd scarcely believed it at first.
"The clan does quite well, actually," Goliath rumbled, with a raised eyebrow at Janine as if he couldn't quite believe it either, considering how much trouble she and David Xanatos had caused them in the past. Kneeling beside her father's powered wheelchair, Janine firmly ignored them both and concentrated on the finger that Alexander was holding in his tiny but firm grip.
"Good. But if ever you need shelter or my aid in any way, feel free to ask. And the young lady, Detective Maza?" as he remembered the darkly attractive young woman he'd met in Prague.
Now Goliath's face split in an ear-to-ear grin. "She is also quite well. And that is the main reason why we have come out here tonight," as he reached into a belt pouch, pulled out a white envelope and handed it to him. "To invite you to our wedding."
Renard almost dropped the envelope, as he stared at the gargoyle in utter shock. "Your…wedding?"
"You heard right, Daddy," Janine said now as she looked up from Alexander, shifting her head to stare him directly in the face. "They're not just having a mating ceremony; Goliath loves Elisa so much, he's agreed to a human-style wedding! And it's going to be next week's Saturday night, in the Labyrinth… Can you come?"
Renard looked at his daughter's face, and was astonished again. Astonished at the sheer naked pleading in her eyes, in the eyes of his daughter who had never truly asked for anything from him since she'd left home. (Stolen from him, yes, by trickery or electronic skullduggery or by outright physical theft, but never just asked.) But now, the pleading in her eyes… He could almost read her thoughts in her tense, worried and pleading expression, as she stared at him. Please, Daddy, I know what you're thinking; that Goliath isn't human, and Elisa would be committing bestiality if she married him; not only illegal, but immoral. But they really love each other, and Goliath thinks of you as a friend, and he wants you to come, and please please please don't ruin this for him…
Renard took a deep breath, then another. He had survived countless indignities at the hands of doctors, in trying to keep his failing body alive over the decades. He had survived the years of pain from watching Janine live her insane and immoral life. He had survived finding out he'd been unknowingly married to a Fey for over twenty years. He could survive watching a travesty of a marriage being performed, and keeping his opinions firmly to himself. For his daughter's sake… "Next Saturday, you said?"
Goliath nodded, still smiling. "Yes, at 9:00 p.m. in the Labyrinth. They've built a chapel there," and his smile twisted wryly, "and all parties seem to feel that it's neutral territory."
"The Labyrinth?" Renard echoed, as he forced his trembling fingers to open the envelope. "Surely you don't mean the maze in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens…"
"It's actually what used to be the old Cyberbiotics underground lab complex, Daddy," Janine put in again. "The people living there now have nicknamed it The Labyrinth. It's sort of a homeless shelter now, with a few mutates and gargoyle clones living there too…"
"Oh, really?" Renard arched an eyebrow at them all. "And do the current owners of those laboratories know about this? Because Cyberbiotics sold that property nearly two months ago, to Towleky Industries…" The property hadn't actually been on the market, but when Towleky's representative had come to him Renard hadn't hesitated for long. The sale had put the company ledgers more firmly in the black, after the large sums they'd paid the city to clean up the damage the Air Fortress II had done when crashing into Central park, the night of his grandson's birth.
"At really a much higher price than it was worth, considering all the renovating it would take to make it a research facility again. But we wanted to be sure we outbid anybody else who might be sniffing around it," Janine said with a wry smile. When everyone turned astonished eyes on her, she shrugged and said, "Well, David didn't want some stranger to come wandering in someday and kick out all the people who live there, so we created a few shell corporations and just bought it from you that way. And yes, Daddy, I know I could have just asked you for it, but David wanted to sort-of apologize for the mess he made too…"
"And he thought he could anonymously apologize with his checkbook, eh?" Renard said dryly, after ruefully absorbing the fact that he'd been tricked by Xanatos yet again. "Well, I suppose I could expect no better from him."
Janine frowned. "Daddy… He's trying. We're both trying…"
Renard sighed, and nodded. "Yes, daughter. And I'm proud of you for making the effort," as he reached his withered hand up to touch her cheek. And his heart hammered in his chest as, for the first time in far too many years, she held his hand to her cheek as a tear--a tear!--glistened in the corner of her eye. Times were changing, indeed! His hellion daughter was reforming; her ambitious husband was, at least, evidently developing a conscience…
And a human and a gargoyle were getting married. He turned back to Goliath. "Saturday, at 9:00 p.m. I'll be there. I assume the parking garage entrance is still working?" Then he smiled wryly. "And I don't suppose the bride has registered for china patterns anywhere…"
A short while later, Renard had Vogel give Goliath and Lexington a walking tour of Air Fortress II, so he and Janine could talk alone. Renard eyed the excited way Lexington scampered after Vogel and mused quietly to Janine, "That one seems to have an interest in modern technology."
"Lexington's a technophile to the core," Janine said with a smile. "Inviting him out here is like giving a typical human kid a day pass to a Hershey's chocolate factory. But he's great with kids, too; he'll happily baby-sit Alex nearly any time we ask. He was a real godsend during the worst of the teething last month."
"Hmph. I could've used a gargoyle babysitter when you were that age…" Father and daughter shared a fond smile, before returning to the object of their mutual adoration. "Well, grandson, let's see these new teeth your mommy's so proud of… Well, now; six teeth already! Such a precocious boy you are…"
"Yes, he is!" Janine said proudly. Then her smile turned wry. "Even Puck says so."
Alex babbled gleefully into the tense silence that settled between the adults for a few moments. Then Renard said abruptly, "Have you heard from her lately?" He knew Janine wouldn't have to ask which 'her' he was referring to.
"Not since That Night," Janine said grimly, and he didn't have to ask which night she was referring to either. "Daddy… Looking back now, can you… Well… Did Mom ever do anything… Fey-like that we just didn't pay attention to?"
Renard sighed. "Cold iron. I had always thought it was just a ladylike quality of hers, that she wore gloves with her dresses and always let me or someone else open the car doors for her. But looking back, I think she did it mainly to avoid accidental iron poisoning."
Janine smiled wryly. "Well, at least I didn't inherit that from her." She gently stroked Alexander's downy-soft hair as she worried aloud, "Alex may have, though. Puck says that the stronger the magic-user, the more cold iron can affect them. Alex's human heritage should prevent him from being killed or seriously hurt by just touching iron or hearing an iron bell, but it'll make him incredibly uncomfortable, and possibly even painful, and definitely hamper any spell-casting he might need to do to protect himself. So we've had to be careful that all the cold iron we've put up around the castle isn't within his reach."
Renard nodded grimly. "Good thinking. Have you thought of planting…"
"Sage, rosemary, thyme, and St. John's wort, in the arboretum and in every other window box. Puck keeps going into sneezing fits if he gets too close." She sighed. "I… I just wish…"
Renard patted her hand. "I know. (sigh) I know. But…" He gestured at his own withered, decrepit frame, ensconced in the powered wheelchair. It had been nearly twenty years since he'd been able to stand on his own two feet… But he'd adapted, learned to make do. There were times when the pain, the frustration of dealing with his physical shortcomings and the near-palpable sensation of dying by inches had nearly driven him mad with despair, but… "We adapt, Janine, and we keep going. For as long as we can."
Tears glistened in the corners of her eyes again. "Thanks, Daddy," as she impulsively reached down to hug him. "You keep going as long as you can, and I'll do the same, okay?"
"Of course, sweetheart," he said with his own teary smile. It has been so long since she'd let him call her that… He settled back into the chair to balance Alexander in his lap again, letting the baby play with his fingers. Never mind what magical power the child might manifest someday; he'd already done the most miraculous thing possible, in bringing a stubborn old man and his even more stubborn daughter closer together, on friendly terms for the first time in far too many years. He smiled and turned Alexander around so the baby faced forward, and reached for the chair controls. "Let's go catch up to the others. Come on, grandson; let Grandpa give you a ride around his airship…"
While Lexington and Goliath were with Fox and her son out at the Cyberbiotics Air Fortress, the rest of the clan went on their patrols of the city, or visited the Labyrinth in the company of Father Sullivan. And, for two of the members, on another mission as well… "Time for an early break in our patrol," Brooklyn said to Broadway with a grin, as they soared over a section of the city well known to them.
"Yup," Broadway agreed with a return grin as he pointed at an apartment building below them, with windows lit up here and there. "And we're in luck; it looks like he's still at home." And without further ado, they landed on the fire escape outside the apartment belonging to Matt Bluestone.
Still cooking his dinner when he heard the now familiar knocking on his window, Matt smiled as he turned the burner down a few notches and went into his living room. He opened the window and nodded to Brooklyn and Broadway as he said, "Hi, guys! What brings you by tonight?"
"Goliath and Elisa told you about the wedding, right?" Brooklyn said eagerly. "And since you're a groomsman… Want to help us plan the bachelor party?"
A few hours later the group of visitors left the Air Fortress, with Alexander sleeping soundly while nestled in the special 'kiddie-pack' Lexington had made for carrying him while gliding. Gliding alongside him in her hang glider, Fox smiled down at her son as she said fondly, "Sleeping like an angel…" Goliath quietly agreed, while Lexington craned his neck to smile fondly over his shoulder at the baby as well. No matter what conflicts the gargoyles might still have with the Xanatos family, the protection and adoration of their sweet little son was one subject they could all agree on.
When they were close to the shores of Manhattan, Goliath veered away from the group. "I'm off to see Jeffrey Robbins now. Lexington, be sure to call Angela and alert her as you approach the castle, so she can assist Fox's landing if need be."
Not liking the thought of needing assistance from anybody, even if the air wasn't her natural element, Fox glared at Goliath's retreating back and grumbled, "Big purple worrywart." Lexington snickered as he overheard that, but privately agreed.
A few minutes later, Goliath landed on the shore just outside Jeffrey Robbins' Long Island estate. Alerted by the sound of his opening the gate, Jeffrey's dog Gilly appeared at the sliding glass door and barked in both alert and welcome as he came up to the patio.
"Hello? Who's there?" Jeffrey asked as he appeared next to Gilly.
"It is I, Goliath," the gargoyle said genially as he approached the door. "Good evening, Jeffrey. I hope I'm not interrupting anything…"
"Not at all; I was stuck on a tricky passage anyway, and looking for an excuse to take a break. What brings you by here tonight? Is anything the matter?"
"No, nothing's the matter," Goliath replied with a smile as he pulled a slim tube out of his belt pouch, and pulled the cap off one end to let a rolled-up piece of paper slide out. "Hudson sends his regards; he's off visiting some other friends of the clan tonight." After shaking Jeffrey's outstretched hand, he carefully placed the roll of paper in it as he continued, "As you are also a valued friend to the clan, I came to give you an invitation… to my wedding."
Jeffrey automatically grasped the roll of paper placed in his hand, even as his jaw dropped wide open. "To your wedding! Now this is an honor! Who's the lucky girl-'goyle? The only one I've met so far is Angela, and I was under the impression that she's your daughter…"
Goliath coughed in embarrassment. "My apologies; I had thought Hudson had mentioned our unique relationship, during your visit the other night. No, the female I love is Elisa Maza, a human. Thus we are having a wedding, rather than the traditional gargoyle mating ceremony."
Jeffrey froze for a moment at Goliath's words, then said, "O-kayyy… Well, I hope you will both be happy together." He decided that after accepting that magic truly did exist, and after deducing that his friend Hudson was actually a gargoyle, the concept of a gargoyle and a human in love wasn't that much more of a stretch of the imagination. He unrolled the paper Goliath had given him, and ran his sensitive fingers across its surface. "Well, this is thoughtful; an invitation in Braille!"
"Yes, it was Hudson's idea," Goliath said proudly as he glimpsed the surface of the scroll, covered with carefully printed block letters, with rows of raised black dots in different configurations directly beneath each printed line. "He and Lexington spent a good deal of time last night researching the Braille letters, transcribing the invitation into Braille and carefully pressing each dot outwards with the tip of a pen from the other side."
"You are… cordially invited to the wedding of Elisa Maza to Goliath of Wyvern…" Jeffrey read aloud at first. He gave a brief, wry smile but didn't say aloud that for all their painstaking efforts on his behalf, somewhere along the way they had misspelled 'cordially'. He finished reading it silently, then said, "Next Saturday night, hm? I'd be honored to attend. This address at the bottom …"
"It's a church, yes, though the wedding will actually be held elsewhere. When you arrive there, someone will escort you to where the wedding is actually being held."
"I'd be honored to attend. And I must say, I'm most curious to meet the woman who's captured a gargoyle's heart…"
"Elisa is a very special person," Goliath said with a smile that even Gilly, if she could speak, would have described as lovestruck. "She would have accompanied me tonight as the invitations are delivered, but she's with her mother as they work on the wedding attire…"
Elisa jerked and swore under her breath as she stuck herself with the sewing needle for the umpteenth time in the last three hours. Her mother heard her anyway, and gave her a raised eyebrow, but otherwise said nothing as she made chalk marks on the cloth she was using to make Goliath's tuxedo before reaching for the scissors.
Elisa absolutely hated sewing; she'd been known to throw a blouse into the Goodwill bin for nothing more than a button that had come off, instead of taking the time to sew it back on. Their mother had drilled the basics of sewing and mending into all her three children, but only Beth had really taken to it, and she was still a few thousand miles away in Arizona. But since Elisa was the one getting married, her mother had decreed, in that tone that said she'd accept no arguments, that she would help out with making the attire for the wedding party.
When making the wedding attire for the Labyrinth's double wedding, sewing a specially-designed wedding dress and two tuxedos for the mutates from her own handmade sewing patterns, Diane Maza had done virtually all the work herself. Though all the sewing had been done in her apartment, Elisa had been drafted only as an errand runner; running to the store for more supplies when the sewing machine needle broke again or they ran low on cloth, thread and buttons or other notions. This time, Diane's work was much simpler, since Elisa was going to be wearing her mother's old wedding dress; Angela's bridesmaid dress, backless and full-skirted, had been bought off the rack at the same time as her sister Beth's dress; and Matt was renting his groomsman's tuxedo. (Elisa had stood in for her sister when she and Diane had gone dress shopping that afternoon, since she and Beth were very close to the same height and size. And her mother had given her a lavender leotard to wear, padded a borrowed bra with wads of Kleenex and made her stand on a short stack of catalogs when modeling for Angela's dress. The saleslady had given them some strange looks, but had mercifully refrained from asking questions; this was New York City, after all.)
This time, the only really difficult task Diane had set for herself was sewing a tuxedo to be worn by a creature over seven feet tall that walked on tip-toe, and with wings and a tail to boot. But last time, Diane had taken the entire week off from her work at the local grade schools, where she tutored children in reading and writing, in order to devote all her time to preparing for the wedding. This time, with the other tutors that worked alongside Diane either home sick or on vacation, Diane hadn't felt right in abandoning her post yet again, which meant she could only sew at night and on the weekends. Which meant that she expected Elisa to help out and make the work go faster on at least one of her nights off, and when she'd made her expectations clear Elisa hadn't dared to say no. Even if she still hated sewing…
Elisa stuck herself yet again, this time with a pin, then tossed aside her work in a sudden fit of temper. "Just shoot me and get it over with! I swear to God, I'd rather be in the middle of a crossfire with Tony Dracon's men than see another sewing needle, ever again!"
Her mother shook her head and tsk'ed at her. "Elisa, all you have left to do is baste that seam together for fitting. It's not all that difficult…"
"Well then, why don't we get Angela out here to help? She does embroidery, even!"
"Elisa Maria Maza…"
Even though she was nearly twenty-seven years old now and had been living on her own for years, That Look, the patented Mommy Glare, still had power over her. Elisa sulked as she picked up her work again, "Okay, okay…"
Down in the Labyrinth, Hudson looked on as another female struggled through a hard task that many would have found easy, though not involving sewing needles. Delilah frowned and nearly crossed her eyes as she stared hard at the pages of a book and slowly read, "…'I will look for her until I find her,' said Mr. Bird. He looked high. He looked low. He looked… ev… evereww…"
"Everywhere," Hudson helpfully supplied. He privately admitted to himself that it felt good to be able to help someone else with their reading skills, after his own struggle to master the skill over the last two years. He still had trouble with a few words, but his skills far surpassed those of the clones, most of whom had just finished mastering the alphabet in the three months since they had come down here, and had just barely started on stringing the letters together to make words. Delilah, though, had far outstripped her brothers and was beginning to truly read on her own; Thailog and that nasty Dr. Sevarius had indeed given her more brains than her brothers, though how great the difference between them was had yet to be seen.
A short while later, Delilah finished reading the well-worn copy of "The Best Nest", and Hudson praised her for her efforts. Hollywood and Malibu, who had been sitting quietly while petting Bronx between them and listening in, agreed that she'd done really well, and they were glad Mr. and Mrs. Bird were happy with their nest and their new chick.
Delilah grinned wide at their praise, then frowned a little as she reopened the book and flipped to a page near the middle. She asked Hudson, "Do we need all this stuff for a nest for my egg?" She absently rubbed her belly, which was now much more noticeably swelling with the egg forming inside her, as she read from the book, "Hay, and straw, and string, and stuffing, and horse hair, and man hair…"
Hudson chuckled. "Nay, lass, ye don't need all those things. Back in Scotland, we used just plain dry straw for cradling our eggs in the rookery."
Maggie, who'd come in while Delilah was flipping through the book, gave a wry smile as she heard that. "Now that's going to be a challenge to find, here in Manhattan. Back in Ohio, I could have gotten a bale of hay or straw just for the asking from one of the local farmers outside of town, but in this city…"
"Aye, I see yer meaning," Hudson agreed wryly. "With no peasants or farmers raising crops hereabouts, fresh hay is likely as hard to find as fresh honey."
"What about just piling up some old blankets to make a nest? I mean, if that's good enough for puppies and kittens all over the country, it should be okay for an egg."
Hudson nodded slowly. "All that's needed is to keep the egg warm and dry; any blankets ye can spare should do well enough, mayhap even better than straw would." His eyes had flickered to Maggie's own swelling belly as she spoke, and he wondered fleetingly if he'd misread that book on how human babes were made, the one he'd found in the castle library after the clan had learned Maggie was expecting. From what he'd read and the pictures he'd seen, a human mother who was only three months long shouldn't be swelling quite so quickly. But with her waistline a little larger for virtually every one of his weekly visits, Maggie seemed to be developing almost as quickly as a gargoyle female making an egg…
"That's good," Maggie said amiably, unaware of Hudson's thoughts. "Anyway, kids, it's time for dinner! Brentwood and Burbank are setting the table for you; don't forget to wash your hands!" Maggie called after the three clones, because they had already leaped to their feet and stampeded out the door, heading for the communal kitchen and dining hall with Bronx barking at their heels as he galloped after them.
Hudson chuckled as he picked up the book Delilah had tossed aside at first mention of supper. "Full-grown they may be on the outside, but they're still hatchlings at heart."
"That they are," Maggie agreed as she accepted the book from Hudson, and tsked over the fresh ding on a corner. "And just as hard on their books and toys as regular kids, too. And we don't have that many intact books down here, either; a lot of the ones we find on our scrounging expeditions have pages missing, or they've been soaked through by the rain and the ink has run. It's at times like this when I really miss my library card."
Hudson paused at her words, just as they were about to head out the door after the clones. "Ye're looking for more books, then?"
Maggie nodded, a little embarrassed. "The kids could use some good reading material… and really, so could I, and a lot of other adults down here. But we don't want to ask Mr. Xanatos for such a luxury, not after he's already providing us with food and clothing, and jobs for those people who can handle them."
"Aye, I can understand. But the books I'm thinking of," as Hudson stroked his beard in thought, "dinna belong to Xanatos…"
Sunday mornings were relaxing times in the Xanatos household. The gargoyles were all asleep on their perches, and the Aerie building down below them was nearly empty, with the few personnel who were working fully aware that they were not to disturb the castle residents for anything short of imminent nationwide disaster. David and Fox Xanatos were taking full advantage of the opportunity to sleep in, secure in the knowledge that Anne Marsden, their new nanny, was on hand to take care of their son Alex when their little emperor deigned to wake up. And when Fox woke up first, and whimsically decided that this time Beauty would awaken her slumbering Prince Charming with a kiss, well… they found a good reason to stay in bed a great deal longer. When they finally got out of bed, they argued amiably over who got to use the shower first, and finally settled the matter by showering together. Which led to getting back into bed for a while…
Finally, a little after noon, they wandered into the kitchen to find something for their mutually rumbling stomachs. Bless Broadway's big heart, he had left some homemade waffles and sausages on a platter for them to reheat, and a pitcher of fresh-squeezed orange juice. "Y'know, David, maybe we should just hire Broadway to be our personal chef," Fox said thoughtfully as she watched the sausages reheating in the microwave, seemingly mesmerized by the carousel's turning and the rotating victuals. "I bet the IRS would be happy to give him a TIN (Taxpayer Identification Number, number given to resident aliens working in the US—ye author), so long as they get their percentage of his paycheck, and then we'd be able to present the gargoyles to the public as ordinary working stiffs and taxpayers, if not actually citizens."
"That's not a bad idea, actually," David mused as he stroked his beard, while waiting for their special Colombian blend of coffee to percolate. "And we could hire Lexington as a computer specialist, and the rest as, say, security consultants… I'll bounce it off the legal department on Monday, and if they think we can get away with it I'll present the idea to Goliath and company Monday night. Bless you, my dear, for having brains as well as beauty," as he gave her a quick smooch.
They ate their breakfast in the breakfast nook with companionable banter that threatened to send them back to the bedroom, but never quite got there for the third time. They were just putting the dishes in the sink to soak when the intercom mounted on the wall beeped for their attention. David frowned at it as he saw the light indicating they were being called from the Aerie Building's front desk. "For Pete's sake, don't people realize this is supposed to be a day of rest?"
But Fox looked suddenly hopeful. "Maybe it's Daddy? When we left him last night, he did say he might possibly drop by the castle again someday…"
Personally, David didn't really feel up to a visit from his father-in-law just then, but he knew better than to say so, considering how Fox was trying to mend fences with him. "But if it isn't him, it had better be a national emergency," he grumbled as he went over to the intercom and thumbed the switch to turn it on. "Xanatos here."
"Good afternoon, Mr. Xanatos," a male voice came smoothly over the intercom. "I trust this isn't too much of an inconvenience for you?"
David and Fox traded sharp glances; the voice on the other end of the line did not belong to anyone on their weekend security team. "Who is this?" David barked into the microphone.
"Oh, how rude of me not to introduce myself right away," the voice said smoothly--far too smoothly, in Fox's opinion. The tones of a man who was in complete control of a situation, though in a place not his own…. "And I suppose it really can't be expected of you to remember me solely by voice… Norman Duval, at your humble service."
Who? Fox didn't know the name. She looked at David, to ask him if he knew this man… and gasped, as her heart skipped a beat.
All the blood had drained out of David's face, leaving him so pale beneath his perpetual tan that he looked a sickly shade of yellow. And his eyes were wide with… fear.
Fear, from David Xanatos, the man who had faced down kings and presidents and even Fey demigods!
But even as she stared, David licked his lips, swallowed and spoke, his tone as light as if he were greeting a fellow corporate executive. "To what do I owe the pleasure, Mr. Duval? And by the way, may I ask as to the whereabouts of my employee at the front desk? Have you seen him, perchance?"
"Ah, yes, I have, as well as your doorman. A Mr. James Hathaway, and a Mr. Frederick Niles," Mr. Duval said, sounding as if he was reading the names off of something… such as their employee badges. "Neither are the most agreeable of fellows, I'm afraid. But I do believe their last meals had some disagreement with them, as well… Perhaps they'll feel better after a few days."
The mercenary in Fox translated that to read: Niles and Hathaway were out of the picture, probably unconscious and possibly rendered comatose by means unknown, but still alive. And since both were loyal employees of Xanatos Enterprises and well versed in security measures, and the castle hadn't been alerted of a security breach before he called, Mr. Duval was no doubt very good at whatever it was he did. And dammit, now the name "Duval" sounded familiar to her, but she couldn't remember from where or when.
Duval continued, "As to why I've come here, Mr. Xanatos, I'm afraid that after you failed to return my last few calls in a timely fashion, I rather thought a face-to-face meeting was in order."
"I quite understand. And while I have left messages with your secretary while you were out, I do apologize for not making more of an effort to speak with you directly before this," David said soothingly.
"Oh, it's quite all right. I should like to come up now, if you and your family are quite decent…"
"Ah, I'm afraid my family isn't here at the moment; they're spending the weekend with my father-in-law, so he can spend more time spoiling his grandson rotten," David lied smoothly. "But I'll gladly meet you in my office, in… ten minutes?"
"That will do," and there was no doubt about the trace of amusement in Duval's voice. Fox knew, as surely as she knew of the turquoise tattoo over her own eye, that the man was perfectly aware that she was listening right beside David, and her husband was lying out of sheer desperation and desire to protect his family. Which meant, as if she hadn't already figured it out, that this man was a threat to her and their son.
"Then I'll see you there." And David reached out and shut off the intercom, then drew a deep, shuddering breath. "Oh, God."
"David, who is this man? And what can he do to us?" Fox realized her voice was shrill with tension, and hated herself for sounding so 1950's-housewifey.
Instead of answering, David abruptly pulled her into a hard embrace and a deep, passionate kiss. After resisting for a microsecond, Fox hugged him back and kissed him hungrily, understanding that David thought it just might possibly be their last kiss ever. After a few seconds, David broke off the kiss to tell Fox with his eyes darkly serious, "Fox, darling, go to the nursery; I need you to protect Alex, keep him safe from whatever may happen. And if we come out of this in one piece, please kick me in the head if I ever even think of sending Owen away on a made-up business trip again."
"But David, who is this man?"
David's face was as grim as a death mask, as he ran for the bedroom to throw on some decent clothes before his unexpected meeting. "Mr. Duval is the Grandmaster of the Illuminati."
Down in the nursery, Anne Marsden was playing with her charge Alexander and her daughter Bethany together. At first Anne had found it slightly disconcerting at first to realize that, though Alex wasn't quite six months old and had yet to say any coherent words out loud, he had the capacity for understanding language that rivaled a three-year-old's. That was apparently a result of the telepathic link that Puck had forged between himself and Alex, in order to facilitate the young quarter-Fey's lessons in magic. (Anne had the private opinion that when Alex did start talking, he'd skip right past 'mama' and 'ball' and the standard one-word beginnings, and go right into full sentences like "Well, why can't I play on the ceiling?") For right now, it was very convenient in that Anne could read a book to them both at the same time, and have nearly the same level of interest from both. And right now she had both children giggling until they were practically in stitches, while she provided all the sound effects for the Dr. Seuss classic, Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You?
After Anne had finished the book and changed Alex's stinky diapers, Bethany asked, "Can we play Magic-Catch now, Mommy?"
"Yes, you may, Bethany, and thank you for asking so nicely!" Anne said approvingly as she picked up a rubber ball from one of the many shelves of toys in the nursery. Anne was a firm believer in promoting good manners by thanking and rewarding children for polite behavior. "And since you asked so nicely, you can go first this time. Catch, Bethany!" as she tossed the ball high into the air.
Since Bethany had already been using True Sight, though uncontrolled, even before coming to live at the castle, she had picked up basic levitation with relative ease; within five days of arriving, she had been able to lift that ball into the air, just by watching and listening when 'Uncle Puck' reviewed Alex's levitation lessons with him. (As Puck had explained regretfully, the geas binding him let him use his powers only to teach or protect Alex. But there was nothing to prevent Bethany from attending the lessons as well, and learning alongside him…) After grasping the basics, she moved swiftly into the finer points of levitation, and practiced with simple games. The ball arced high into the air well away from where Bethany was sitting, but as she stared at it the ball abruptly curved in midflight, better than Gaylord Perry's best spitball, and zoomed right into her waiting hands.
"Very good, Bethany!" Anne praised her, and held her own hands out. "Now send it back here…" Bethany did so, the ball arcing out of her hands and straight into her mother's. "Well done! Your turn, Alex; catch!" As she tossed the ball into the air again. This time, it performed another apparently impossible curve in midair and fell right into Alex's waiting hands. "Very good, Alex! Now send it back…" and the ball went back and forth, with Anne frequently varying the angle and speed of her toss but the children almost always intercepting it in midair, catching it and sending it back for another toss. When they'd first begun playing this game, the children had thought it was great fun to send the ball wildly all over the room and watch her chase after it, since she didn't have magic for catching. But she had eventually persuaded them that it was more fun to send it straight to her hands every time, by holding her hands at different heights and angles and challenging them to put the ball right where her hands were, and applauding when they got it right. "Very good! Let's see you send it to my hands when they're way down here, Alex!" as she bent nearly double to hold her hands bare inches off the floor. The ball snapped straight into her grip in a grounder that Casey Stengel would have been proud of. "Ooh, nice one!"
Playtime ended abruptly when Fox came running into the nursery with a grim expression and a pair of loaded Glock 9mm's. "Anne, we've got a situation going on," she said without preamble as she slapped the ball away and thrust one of the guns into Anne's stunned grip. "When I leave the nursery, it's going to go into lockdown mode; you'll be sealed inside with the kids. With any luck, either my husband or I will be reversing the lockdown and opening the door in an hour or so. But if anybody else comes through that door first, shoot to kill." And with that, she turned and ran out the door, slapping a recessed button next to the door.
"B-but I can't handle a gun!" Anne tried to protest, even as a solid steel panel came down from the ceiling and slammed into place in the doorway. With ominous sounds like rolling thunder, previously hidden steel panels slid down over the nursery windows, cutting off the afternoon sunlight even as the overhead lights came on, illuminating the room in a suddenly harsh yellow glare. "I've never even fired one before," she whispered in dismay. "Oh, Lord… No, Bethany, oh, honeys, please don't cry," as Alex and Bethany both began wailing, frightened by the change and by the tension in the air. Anne gingerly put the gun down on a high shelf, well out of the normal reach of both Alex and Bethany, and hoped that the steel in it would prevent the children from trying to levitate it. Then she got down on the floor with her charges and tried to comfort them with hugs and whispers of reassurance. "It'll be okay, I'm sure everything will be okay soon…. Sshhh, sshhhh…" But she bit her lip as she calculated the distance between herself and the gun, and wondered if, when the time came, she'd have warning enough to get to the gun before the seal lifted completely. And skill and courage enough to aim and fire it…
After sealing the nursery, Fox ducked into a shallow alcove, and disappeared. At least, it might have looked that way to anybody who didn't know about the secret passages that enabled those who knew about them to move about the castle undetected. After the 'Lost Nights', when they'd determined that Demona had been hiding in the castle the entire time Xanatos had been formulating a plan to counteract the 'stone-sleep-at-night' spell she had cast on the city, she, David and Owen had gone through the castle with a fine-toothed comb. They'd found, to their surprise, four different secret passages threading through the castle that hadn't been recorded in the basic castle floor map that had been drawn up back in Scotland, before the castle had been transplanted stone by stone to Manhattan.
It just boggled the mind that, during all the work that had been done in labeling and diagramming each stone of the castle, taking everything down, transporting it all across the Atlantic and setting everything back up again on top of the Aerie Building, and installing modern amenities such as electricity and plumbing, no one had ever once said within the project manager's hearing, "Hey, look at this, a secret passage!" Or at least so he had claimed, when David and Owen had questioned him about it. (But David had fired him anyway, figuring that if he hadn't deliberately been withholding information from them, then he'd been neglecting to supervise the work site properly.)
They didn't use the passages often, not wanting to alert the unknowing to their existence; David was a firm believer in the concept of knowledge as power and not giving away any advantage he didn't have to. But Fox deemed that today was a day to use every advantage she could get her hands on, against the man that had her husband running scared. David had wanted her to stay in the nursery with Alexander, as the last measure of defense for their son. But as far as Fox was concerned, the best defense was a strong offense…
Using the secret passage, she sprinted to the monitoring room that was the 'nerve center' of the castle's security and defenses. From this room, they could use the security cameras to see not only the entire exterior of the castle and the interior of nearly every room and hallway in it, but the interiors of the elevator that connected the castle with the Aerie Building below it. As Fox dropped into the monitoring room's center seat, she activated the monitor screen for the elevator's camera, while flipping open one of the many panels covered in bright red plastic and warning signs for better access to the bright red button below it. David had actually balked a bit when she'd told him she'd wanted that button installed, but she'd explained that she hadn't survived years as a mercenary without learning to make all entries into the command base secure in case of emergencies. Pressing that button would detonate the explosive charges she'd attached to the roof of the elevator cab, severing the cables and sending the cab and whoever was in it screaming down to the bottom of the shaft. And head of the Illuminati or not, if this Mr. Duval was carrying a weapon or bringing along henchmen she didn't like the looks of, he was going to go bye-bye…
The remote indicator for the elevator indicated that it had risen past the forty-seventh floor already, and was still rising. The monitor for the interior flickered to life… and showed nothing. Nothing except the lush, red-and-gold motif carpeting and wallpapering of the elevator. It was empty? Mr. Duval must have been anticipating this move, and sent the elevator up as a distraction while he and his lackeys approached by some other means. Fox used some words she didn't normally use around her son's tender ears while she activated every exterior monitor and the ones for the emergency fire stairs, scanning for the intruders' approach. Nothing on the east or north sides… Ditto on the west and south sides… The fire stairs were clear…
While she was still scanning, the elevator arrived at the level of the castle and the doors opened. Fox's attention was momentarily caught by the doors' movement, shown on the security monitor for the hallway directly in front of the elevator, which came on automatically whenever the elevator was in use. She flicked her eyes to that monitor, then flicked them away and continued scanning, then turned back and stared when that same camera showed a …shimmer in the middle of the hall. No foreign objects were visible, let alone a full-grown man, but the view seemed to subtly ripple… It was as if a miniature heat wave was moving through that hall, and the heat-ripples in the air were distorting the view as it moved along.
A cloaking device. Shades of Star Trek, Fox thought to herself as she stared at the monitor. Either that, or they were being visited by Casper the Not-So-Friendly Ghost… She swore again, as she scanned the control panel for the infrared camera setup. It was supposed to have been put in for the last interior upgrade, but she'd been in Australia with Mother while that had been going on and had missed the briefing…
She finally got the infrared cameras and their special monitors activated, just in time for the ripple effect to stop in front of David's office door, open it and proceed in; the monitor clearly showed a man-sized warm body going through the door, so it wasn't a ghost they were dealing with. Then she caught a glimpse of her husband's hand outstretched for a handshake, and heard his voice, picked up faintly by the hallway's audio pickups: "Mr. Duval; a pleasure to see you again…" So David could see him, but the cameras could not? What the Hell was going on?
Fox switched to the monitors for David's office, and the infrared camera clearly showed the man-sized warm body that was Mr. Duval sitting down in one of the seat in the office, as the warm body--a much warmer body, too--that was her husband resumed his seat behind his desk. She activated the audio pickup for David's office, figuring that she could at least listen in on the conversation, even if she couldn't see the mysterious Mr. Duval for herself. And she heard… nothing but static. Just white noise… Dammit, did their visitor come with his own personal bug-scrambler? …Or was David doing this, because he didn't want this conversation to be taped?
Inside his office, David silently cursed himself in salty language he hadn't used since he'd stopped working on his father's fishing boat, for not responding to the Illuminati's 'requests' concerning the gargoyles before it came to this. Then he looked across his desk at the man sitting at ease in his chair, and wondered just how a man who looked so utterly nondescript could get his palms to sweating. Norman Duval appeared to be in his late thirties, at most; thinning hair, mild eyes, slender build, the sort of man that most people would utterly forget within ten seconds of passing him on the street. Utterly forget, if they did not know that they were in the presence of the most powerful man in the Western Hemisphere… David firmly told himself that to show fear so early on would definitely be a weakness, and schooled his features back to a calm smile as they exchanged the usual pleasantries over the weather and Duval's trip. Then he asked, still smiling, "So, what brings you to my humble abode?"
Mr. Duval's equally pleasant smile faded, as he remarked, "To business, then. Mr. Xanatos, I'm afraid you have a bit of a problem…"
An hour later, Mr. Duval arose from his chair as he said pleasantly, "Thank you for your hospitality, Mr. Xanatos. I'm so glad we had this little chat…"
David Xanatos arose from his chair as well, looking as haggard as if he'd run down the fire stairs all the way to the lobby, and possibly even back up again. He groaned, "So am I, sir."
"Oh, there's no need to put yourself to any trouble, I can find my own way out," Mr. Duval politely protested as David came around his desk, to show him to the door.
"Oh, but I insist; it's only proper for fulfilling my duties as a host," Xanatos said firmly, as he showed his guest to the door, and then to the elevator. Only once the elevator doors had closed and the floor indicator mounted over them showed the cab moving back down again did he slump against the nearest wall, then slide down it to end up sitting back against the cool stones, sighing with mingled exhaustion and relief.
Fox appeared next to him in less than a minute, looking half-wild with suspense, frustration and concern. "David, what happened!"
David sighed again, as he tugged on her hand to pull her down to where he was sitting. Once she was curled up next to him, looking anxiously into his eyes, he said, "I just negotiated the hardest deal of the decade. And I came out on top, more or less… Well, not on the bottom, anyway."
Fox looked at him gravely. "What are the terms of this deal, exactly?"
"Which do you want first, the good news or the bad news?"
"The bad news."
"The bad news is, I can't support the gargoyles in their quest for acceptance any more. I can't support the P.I.T., I can't do a damn thing about the Quarrymen or about anybody else who has an unhealthy interest in them, and I most especially can't lay a single finger on the Q-men's main bankroller, Oliver Grimm, or any of his corporate holdings."
"And the good news…?"
"The good news is, my head is not going to end up on a pike any time soon, Xanatos Enterprises is probably not going to be rendered bankrupt overnight, and I can keep you, Alex and the rest of my family safe. And so long as the gargoyles are within the castle walls or perched on the battlements, I can keep them safe too. But any time they leave the castle, to go on patrol or see the detectives or anything else, they're on their own."
Fox stared at him. Her David, meekly accepting limits like that? This was not the same risk-taking man she had married; not the same man who had told her to send Hyena and Jackal on a mission that had nearly cost him his own life—twice!—just as a ploy to get Elisa's brother Derek firmly entrenched in his camp as his personal bodyguard. Not the same daredevil who had taken on Demona as a temporary business partner to further his own ends, knowing of her pathological hatred of humanity and the likelihood of her killing him with her bare talons when she was through with him. How had he changed so much…?
Not how: who. Who had changed him so much… and the answer was in the nursery. Alexander. For the first time in his life, David Xanatos had somebody small and helpless depending on him to keep him safe. Somebody he loved as fiercely as any father could love his son… And that meant that, for the first time in his life, David had something he couldn't afford to lose, couldn't even afford to risk. It was unfortunate that the gargoyles would have to be risked instead.
When Elisa came up to the castle shortly before sunset, Xanatos let her know that, due to 'circumstances beyond his control', his potential aid to the gargoyles was now restricted solely to providing them a safe roosting spot for the day. Elisa eyed him with a strong element of disbelief… mixed with sympathy. "Y'know, before tonight, I'd have figured that there was nothing that fazed you, not Demona, not Coyote, not even six months behind bars. Your ego was too big to even comprehend that someone could seriously threaten you. But my years as a cop have taught me how to tell when a man is scared, or has been recently… And Xanatos, you've been scared bad."
"Thank you so much for your assessment, detective," Xanatos said with heavy sarcasm. Then he sighed again, resuming the same depressed look he'd been sporting before she'd come in. "I hate being hobbled like this… but I've no choice. I can't even begin to tell you what sort of damage could be done, to my family and my business, if I stepped outside the bounds set for me by…"
"By the Illuminati," Elisa finished for him, looking annoyed. "What the hell is it with you secret society types, that you're afraid to even say the word out loud to anyone who isn't a member?"
"Not afraid, just hesitant," Xanatos said defensively. Then he tried to joke, "After all, what good is it to have a secret organization if nobody keeps it a secret?"
The joke fell flat. "Maybe a lot of good, if it was a little less secret and a little more honest in its dealings," Elisa retorted. "No matter how much you say the world sometimes needs an unseen hand pulling strings, you can't tell me that the Illuminati doesn't have a dark underbelly, doings that would be flat-out criminal--or out-and-out evil--when exposed to the light of day. Back when he was still openly investigating them, Matt told me about their probable links to organized crime, and he'd probably barely scratched the surface…" When Xanatos said nothing in reply, she sighed irritably and turned her back on him. "Don't worry too much about the guys when they're on patrol, Xanatos; that's my job. And we'll find a way to deal with the Quarrymen without your help. As for the P.I.T…"
Now Xanatos was able to muster a fainthearted smile. "Actually, we have an idea about that already. Fox is on the phone to her father right now, and…" The sound of stone crackling was heard as he spoke, and Elisa waved off the rest of his words as she ran out to the battlements to greet her fiancé and his family.
When the gargoyles finished their nightly shedding of stone, roaring and yawning, Elisa briefed them on what Xanatos had just told her, and the gargoyles looked disappointed, but not particularly worried or afraid. As Goliath explained to Xanatos when he tried to apologize for having 'let them down', "All we have ever asked of you is what this castle had always been to us before; a safe haven for roosting during the day. Patrols have always had an element of danger, even before the Quarrymen came to exist; acknowledging that danger and accepting risks are part of being a warrior. Though the danger has increased considerably from when we first awakened in this time, and far more from when we were threatened by Vikings and marauding bands attacking the castle, we will adapt and survive as best we can." Then he turned to the others and began assigning patrols for the night. Once that was done and he had arranged for himself and Hudson to take the last patrol of the night, he turned to Elisa with a smile. "Are you ready to travel, my love?"
Elisa finished pulling her gloves on and brandished the white envelope she'd had put in her jacket pocket. "Got the last invitation right here. And I already called ahead to make sure he's home tonight, so he's waiting for us," she added as Goliath swept her off her feet and sprang off the battlements with her in his arms.
Xanatos watched them go, then went into the nursery, picked up his son and just held him close, breathing in his innocent baby scent, as he'd been doing off and on ever since Duval had left, and as he'd probably be doing even after Owen returned, due back just after midnight. He hadn't told anyone that there had been an additional price tag on his family's safety, and on keeping a safe haven for the gargoyles: a favor. A debt that his son was expected to pay… One day years in the future, when Alexander was far more trained in the use of his magic, the Illuminati would require him to cast a spell. Just one spell, and Duval had assured him that it would not directly result in anyone's death. But beyond that, he had no assurances, and he hoped to God that he hadn't just sold his or his son's soul to the Devil in return for his family's safety…
Jon Castaway smiled in satisfaction, as he leaned back in his chair and twiddled the pen he'd just used in checking his Quarryman roster. By contrast, Oliver Grimm came into the office looking as though he'd been sucking on sour lemons all day. Castaway asked him, "Why the dour look? We now have four working hovercycles and eight men fully qualified for handling them; though they haven't the range or speed of the helicopters, they're even more maneuverable when dealing with the New York skyscrapers, and now we can take our battles to the skies again. And once we've destabilized their safe haven…"
"That's not going to happen," Grimm told him abruptly. "For the moment, David Xanatos and his corporation can not be touched, at least not by direct means."
Castaway swung his feet back down to the floor and stared at him. "What? But the other day you said…"
Oliver Grimm gritted his teeth, looking as though he would like very much to take a bite out of somebody. "Without going into details, and you would be advised not to ask, I have learned that if I used my business and financial resources to shake up Xanatos Enterprises or hire an assassin to take out the man himself, there would be dire repercussions. And at the moment, I am not yet braced to handle those repercussions." He added, half to himself, "Though one day, I will be, and when that day comes…"
"Repercussions from whom?" Castaway asked bluntly. "Who would be twisted enough to give protection to such an traitor to humanity as David Xanatos?"
Oliver Grimm stared at him hard. "I'll say this only one more time: Do not ask."
Castaway was the first to drop his eyes from that stare, but covered his apparent moment of weakness by picking up the papers on his desk. "Even so, we have the hovercycles, we're replaced the lieutenants and fighters that were lost in that initial raid on the castle, and the squads now all know better than to engage any traitorous civilians directly and tarnish our good name. All we need now is--"
"A sighting!" a Quarryman lieutenant said as he excitedly burst into the room without knocking. "Sirs, we have a confirmed sighting, of your biggest quarry!"
"Where?" Castaway barked as he jumped to his feet. "And is anyone tracking?"
"Walters and his team are shadowing, sir, as per your standing orders; target is moving south on Broadway!"
"Excellent!" as Castaway grabbed his Quarryman hood out of a drawer and donned it while ordering, "Assemble the first hovercycle team!"
Goliath and Elisa enjoyed their glide across the evening sky despite the chilly temperatures that had engulfed the city lately. Goliath told her how his visits with Halcyon Renard and Jeffrey Robbins had gone and passed on their regards and best wishes, and listened (trying hard to keep a look of sympathy on his face, instead of an amused smile) as Elisa bitched about helping her mother sew the wedding attire. Finally, he said amusedly, "If all these wedding preparations are truly upsetting you, it's not too late to go back to the castle and simply have the traditional mating ceremony instead…"
"Are you kidding! If we eloped now, my mother would kill us both! …Besides," Elisa told him with an evil grin, "if I had to suffer through sticking myself with all those pins and needles, I want you to suffer through wearing the finished product."
Now he gave her a concerned look. "My Elisa, I had no idea you could be so vengeful…"
Eventually, they reached their destination: the stately mansion that, according to the city, belonged to a man named Lennox MacDuff. Though Goliath had been out here before more than once, it was the first time Elisa had actually been out to the mansion, and she eyed it appreciatively. "Looks pretty fancy… and in remarkably good condition, considering how you told me it had been trashed twice in battle, before we went on our World Tour. MacBeth must have socked away a lot of money over the centuries."
A light shined in a room with French doors leading out to a balcony, as MacBeth had arranged with Elisa when she had called earlier; it was his upstairs study, just off the upper level of his magnificent library. They alit on the balcony and knocked on the French doors, and an easy chair facing a fireplace swiveled around to show them MacBeth, smiling as he got to his feet and ushered them inside. "Come in, come in! I must say, it's a pleasure to see you both for a purely social occasion for once."
"That it is," Goliath said as he proffered his hand with a smile. The smile grew wider when MacBeth instead grasped his forearm in the traditional warrior's handshake preferred by gargoyles. Elisa offered her hand as well, and found herself blushing when MacBeth bowed and courteously kissed the back of it, as he would for a noble lady from a medieval court. (Goliath's gaze sharpened for a moment, but he quickly relaxed.)
MacBeth urged Elisa to take off her jacket and gloves and be comfortable, since the roaring fire in the fireplace kept the room toasty-warm, and urged them both to sit down, Elisa in another chair and Goliath on a sturdy bench that MacBeth had brought in for the occasion. Once they had seated themselves, he passed around a platter of sliced cheeses and crackers that he had prepared for their visit, and offered to pour for them from a bottle of wine that was nearly a hundred years old.
"You'd be wasting it on this mundane palate," Elisa said ruefully. "The few times I do drink wine, it's more apt to come out of a box than a bottle." To be honest, most of her drinking experiences had been drinking beer and margaritas with her buddies on the force, on the rare occasions that they would get together for a barbecue or a promotion party. But she still accepted a goblet containing a few sips' worth of the fine wine, while Goliath accepted a goblet containing a more generous portion.
MacBeth looked relaxed and happy as he sat back down in his chair with his own glass, and expressed again how pleasurable it was for them to come see him on a purely social occasion; it was a rare experience to have friendly acquaintances who knew him for who and what he truly was, and accepted him without a qualm. "To be painfully honest, I haven't let down my guard to speak freely with anyone since before the American Revolution. I try not to add to the regrets in my long life, as I've accumulated so many, but I do regret that my first encounter with your clan was for the purpose of an assault and kidnapping."
"At the time, you had good reasons to suspect we were involved with Demona," Goliath said with a hand raised to forestall further apology. "Once the clan understood that you were actually seeking our mutual enemy, we bore you no real grudge for it." Then he frowned. "Although our second encounter, over the Scrolls of Merlin…"
MacBeth frowned as well. "If I'd known the bloody things were merely diaries, I'd have left them alone, I assure you. But after hunting Demona for over fifty years without success, I was quite hoping the scrolls would give me a means of magically ending my immortality. Or, failing that, provide a spell that would either bring her to me directly, or track her down beyond any hope of evading or escaping."
"Wait a second… did you say you'd been hunting Demona for just fifty years?" Elisa asked confusedly. "Then…"
"Oh, she and I had encountered each other twice before that," MacBeth said, understanding her confusion. "Once back in medieval Prussia, in the mid-fourteenth century as I recall, and again in Paris during the Terror, their Revolution." He sighed. "The first time, I tried to kill her to end our lives, for the Plague that was sweeping through Europe at the time and slaughtered entire villages had destroyed all those I'd come to care for in that era, and I was sick of seeing death on everyone's face but my own. And the second time, she tried to kill me, though at the time I could not allow it; I was with a family of minor nobles, good people, and doing my best to smuggle them safely out of the slaughterhouse their country had become." He shook his head. "There were times in the last fifty years when I cursed myself long and hard for not just letting her rip my throat out in that Parisian alley."
"Demona actually sought to kill you, and end her own life?" Goliath said with a skeptically raised brow ridge.
"Aye, I could hardly believe it myself," MacBeth said with a nod, his eyes unfocused as he looked back into his memories. "I remember thinking at the time, that her shrieks had as much grief and despair as rage and hatred in them… Mayhap the Terror killed someone she'd been close to. The maddened peasants laid waste to most of Paris and the surrounding countryside, even attacking the cathedrals, and I had heard rumors that a clan of gargoyles once made their home in the spires of Notre Dame…"
Goliath lowered his head and closed his eyes in pain, at the thought of yet another clan being wiped out by a mob. Elisa cast a glance at him, then decided to move the subject along a little. "So you're saying that, for most of the past centuries, you were both willing to, um, just live and let live?"
MacBeth nodded. "Yes, though you may find that hard to believe, considering our enmity. And it's true that, considering what she's done to me, and what she thinks I'd done to her, there will always be hatred between us. But no, we don't continually and actively seek the death of each other, and ourselves. You see, there are times when the weight of centuries seems too much to bear…" He remembered to his shame how once, a few centuries back when he'd had no clue where Demona was hiding, he spent nearly forty years seeking oblivion in the bottom of a wine barrel. "But at other times, I'm able to… how shall I put this? Find a certain satisfaction in living for the moment. And in doing what I can for the betterment of others; currently, in teaching at Columbia University." He gave a twisted smile. "While, coincidentally, doing my best to clear my good name with the students and faculty there, and correct the impression that damned playwright gave of myself and my family."
Elisa's lips quirked in a wry smile. She knew exactly which 'damned playwright' MacBeth was referring to, and privately thought that while it was true that Shakespeare had gotten MacBeth's tale completely wrong, he'd have a better chance of scooping out the Atlantic Ocean with a plastic toy bucket than of clearing his name with the world at large; 'the Immortal Bard's influence could be found everywhere. But rather than say that, she said as she reached for another slice of cheese on a cracker, "Speaking of students, we wanted to thank you personally for the work you're doing with those students in founding the P.I.T., as well as for being the first to speak up for the gargoyles, on 'Nightwatch'. It really means a lot to us all…"
" 'Tis the right thing to do," MacBeth said with a modest nod, " to speak up on behalf of those who are not yet allowed to fairly speak up for themselves. Although Brooklyn gave an excellent accounting for himself last Tuesday night… And though I am aiding them when they need it, the credit for founding the P.I.T. lies solely with the students."
"Still, we thank you for what you have done," Goliath said gravely, as he too helped himself to more victuals. "And we had another reason for coming out here as well. We came to invite you…" as he looked to Elisa, who smiled and pulled the white envelope out of her pocket on cue, handing it to MacBeth, "to our wedding."
MacBeth nearly dropped his glass and stared pop-eyed at them both, with his jaw dangling near his chest and his accent thick as molasses from sheer shock. "Ye're to be wed! In all me centuries, I've ne'er heard o' the like!"
Both Goliath and Elisa lost their smiles at his disbelieving words, and though they were still in their separate seats, they automatically leaned closer to each other as distressed couples often will, subconsciously reaching for mutual comfort and to present a united front to the world. MacBeth observed their subtle actions, and had lived long enough to recognize them for what they were and what they meant… and had lived more than long enough to develop a very good talent for covering up gaffes. He said swiftly, "Not just a simple mating ceremony, but a proper wedding? Ye must have found the most open-minded priest on the continent!"
Both Goliath and Elisa relaxed and smiled again, though the smiles were wry. "Actually, I think we did," Elisa said. "And the wedding's next Saturday night, in an underground shelter we call the Labyrinth. Can you come?"
"Hmm… Saturday night," MacBeth said while running his fingers through his beard, pretending to think about his schedule while very subtly giving Elisa's figure a quick once-over. (Well, she didn't appear to be noticeably pregnant…) "Aye, I've no other obligations that night that I can't put off, for something as important as this. And will you be giving me a map or guide to this Labyrinth?"
Goliath opened his mouth to reply, but just then a high-pitched beeping came from a panel mounted on the wall nearby, which slid open to show a row of lights and indicators, and a blank monitor screen. One of the lights was blinking, and as MacBeth looked it over he said, "That's the security system for the aircraft hangar; I've an intruder!" He tapped a few keys on the panel, but the monitor stayed blank and he growled, "And they've shut down the cameras at the entrance!" He reached under his easy chair to produce a laser pistol from its hidden holster as he said, "Pardon my rudeness to you, my guests, but I've a few uninvited guests to see to…"
"We're coming with you," Elisa said bluntly as she checked her own gun in its holster (Off-duty or not, she carried her gun more often than her American Express card.) Goliath rumbled an agreement as his wings flared.
MacBeth knew that even if he told them to stay put, this pair would come after him anyway. "I'll not say no to someone watching my back, or faster transport to the hangar than my feet can carry me." And very shortly Goliath was leaping off the balcony with MacBeth under one arm and Elisa under the other, and gliding towards the hangar on his estate.
They had worked out a rough plan of attack by the time Goliath dropped MacBeth and Elisa next to the side door leading into the aircraft hangar, and continued his glide up to the hangar's roof. Both well-versed in martial arts, the two humans bent their knees to absorb the impact of landing from a moving object a few feet up and managed to stay on their feet. They gave Goliath a count of five to get into position at the roof's skylight, as MacBeth punched in the code to unlock the door. On five, he kicked the door inwards and he and Elisa charged in with guns high and ready to fire, while Elisa shouted, "Police! Freeze!"
With Goliath at the skylight and ready to dive in at the first sign of danger, and with a police-issue .38 and a fully charged laser pistol between them, they were ready for the average unsuspecting burglar, breaking in just in hopes of finding something portable worth stealing. They were more than ready for vandalizing teenagers, causing trouble just for something to do and the forbidden thrill of flaunting authority and breaking the law. But they weren't quite ready for the sight that greeted them…
A family of raccoons, all chittering angrily and squealing at their intrusion as they scampered away from the garbage can they'd tipped over and the garbage they'd scattered, next to the giant hangar bay doors.
Elisa stopped dead in her tracks and gaped at the raccoons, while MacBeth covered his face with one hand and groaned something in old Gaelic that sounded vaguely self-derogatory. After a few seconds, a heavy thump just outside the door and a deep chuckle heralded the arrival of a highly amused Goliath. "I have heard of these creatures being referred to as 'masked bandits'," he chuckled as he came inside, "but somehow, I doubt an armed confrontation or arrest is in order."
Elisa snorted in amusement as she reholstered her gun. "I sure as heck won't be filling out the paperwork for this bust. But how'd they get in here, and what shut off the security cameras?"
MacBeth sighed as he walked over to the garbage can the raccoons had tipped over and righted it, then went over to one wall that had a soft but high-pitched whistling coming from it; the whistling of wind from outside. He pointed to the junction where wall met floor, and to the baseball-sized hole that had been chewed in the wood, then to the scraps of fur next to a wire conduit that had been visibly chewed through. "Very likely some rats chewed through the wall a short while ago, and another through the insulation on the wires powering the cameras. While that rat probably died for its troubles, tonight the raccoons widened the hole it had made for getting inside in the first place, ate the carcass and continued foraging, tripping the motion detectors." He shook his head angrily. "I should drag that incompetent Banquo back here by the ears and show him this, and rehire him just long enough to dock the repairs from his pay. It was his habit of throwing the remains of his lunches out for the vermin to eat that brought this hangar to their interest in the first place!"
Elisa gave him a wry smile. "What, you mean you're not a cute-and-fuzzy-animal-lover?"
MacBeth gave her a sour look as he said, "Young lady, you have absolutely no idea of the damage those 'cute and fuzzy animals' did to my prized rosebushes this past year…" Suddenly his eyes went wide as his body tensed, and his next breath was a gasp of pain.
Both Goliath and Elisa were instantly on alert. "What is it? How are you hurt?" Elisa asked sharply, while Goliath swiveled his head to see if something more menacing than raccoons had sneaked into the hangar after all, and had fired a silenced projectile at their host.
But MacBeth shook his head and waved off Elisa's concerned hand, even as he winced. "No, no, I'm fine… I just wasn't expecting it." He gingerly moved his left arm and shoulder, then shook his head and sighed even as he flinched again. "After all these centuries, I've learned to tell the difference between my pains… and hers."
There was no need for either Goliath or Elisa to ask the identity of 'her', and the alertness level for the happy couple instantly increased by a factor of five. Elisa drew her gun again and held it ready as she scanned one side of the hangar, and Goliath's eyes flared white and his wings flared out as he scanned the other. "Where is she! Can you point to her?" Elisa barked to MacBeth, while Goliath roared into the darkness, "DEMONA! SHOW YOURSELF!"
The corner of MacBeth's mouth twitched upwards in a wry smile. "Och, relax, both of you. She's nowhere within sight or shouting distance, I'm sure of that much." He frowned as his eyes unfocused for a moment. "Somewhere between a mile and four miles away; perhaps closer to four miles, I'd wager, judging by the intensity."
Elisa reholstered her gun, but she and Goliath exchanged an uneasy glance; the shore of Manhattan was just over three miles away. Goliath turned on his communicator and growled into it, "All warriors on patrol, report your status!"
Lexington and Angela reported in, in calm and even tones; Lexington and Brooklyn had just averted a mugging, and while the would-be victim had seemed more wary and uneasy than grateful for their efforts on his behalf, he hadn't screamed and run off either. Angela and Broadway had seen no action at all since they'd started their patrol, nearly half an hour ago. "Is something the matter, Father?" Angela asked curiously.
"…No," Goliath said slowly, not wanting to bring the subject of Demona with Angela just then. Instead, he lied uneasily, "I just felt a shiver in my wings, and wanted to be sure all was well."
Lexington must have accidentally-deliberately thumbed the transmitter switch on his communicator again, because they heard a faint echo of Brooklyn's voice, muttering something about "pre-wedding jitters." Goliath scowled at that, but decided not to say anything about Brooklyn's guess; he had a sinking feeling that the more vigorously he denied it, the more they would disbelieve him. Instead, he turned his communicator back to its standby mode, then turned back to Elisa and shrugged, while recaping his wings about his shoulders again. If the patrols hadn't already encountered Demona, there really wasn't any more they could do at the moment.
Elisa wasn't willing to let the matter go just yet, and asked MacBeth, "Can you tell which direction she's in?"
MacBeth cocked an irritated eyebrow at her. "Do I look like I have a ruddy weathervane on my forehead? …Och, I suppose it's a reasonable question. No, lass, I can't tell what direction her pain is coming from. Only long centuries of painful experience have taught me the limits of how far our link extends… when it comes to pain, that is. A death is a different matter."
Elisa eyed him with morbid curiosity. "If you don't mind my asking, how far does it extend?"
MacBeth sighed wearily. "About a league and a half… in American terms, a little less than five miles. At the very limits, I'll feel whatever pain she feels rather dimly, as if merely a memory of pain from long ago. But the closer we are in distance, the more intense it becomes, until when we're within shouting distance of each other, perhaps fifty yards, my pain is just as intense as hers, and vice versa. There are no limits to the grasp of death, though, however slippery that grip is for us both; I canna bear to think of how many times I've experienced its cold touch without warning, and when far away in places no gargoyle has ever been." He shook his head. "I'll thank you not to ask for details on that regard."
"No problem," Elisa repressed a shudder. And so did Goliath; as a warrior, he'd always known that someday he would die a violent death, for rare indeed was the warrior that survived to old age. But to die and come back, sometimes as a result of your own actions or environment but sometimes for no reason you can see or hear, again and again and again… it was a wonder MacBeth wasn't irreversibly insane, after all these centuries. Or perhaps he had already walked through the lands of madness, so far he'd eventually come out the other side. Unlike Demona, who seemed to be still mired in madness in her quest for revenge on the entire human race, not to mention himself and his clan for their continuing efforts to thwart her.
MacBeth winced and frowned again, as his eyes unfocused briefly. Then he sighed and turned to face Goliath, and his accent was noticeably stronger, either due to the stress of feeling faint echoes of Demona's pain or just due to being reminded of her existence. "Wherever she is, th' blue bitch has found enemies anew. Faint it may be, but I know a bullet or stab wound to a leg when I feel it, whether mine or hers."
Goliath frowned. "A wound to the leg? From your movements earlier, I had thought it was perhaps to the arm or shoulder…"
MacBeth shook his head. "I didn't speak of that one, because I'm not so certain of the source. 'Tis a difference in how our bodies are put together, that makes certain injuries harder to relate. But I've a feeling that the first injury was to her left wing. Then a hard landing on her left side, after falling out of the sky…"
On the grounds of Columbia University's main campus, Demona shrieked in mingled rage and pain as one of the bullets being fired from overhead ripped through the meat of her right thigh, and threw the brick she'd just grabbed with all her strength. She'd been weakened by her other wounds, but she still outperformed an Olympic-class shot-putter; the brick shot upwards and glanced off the rotors underneath the hovercycle that was hovering thirty feet overhead. The impact damaged the rotors enough that the hovercycle began pitching wildly as it fell out of the sky, and the Quarryman riding it screamed in panic as he was thrown off.
The man on the remaining hovercycle shouted in alarm as he broke off his pursuit of Demona and swooped to catch his buddy before he splatted against the ground. The second rider caught the first by an arm, but the extra weight unbalanced his 'cycle and he too began pitching wildly, even as he fought to drag the first rider over the seat to center their weight and stabilize their flight. Demona used the distraction to escape, limping as fast as she could into the shadows of the ivy-covered lecture hall nearby. Once she'd found concealing cover for a few moments, she panted harshly as she examined the wound in her leg, and then the damage to her wing; the rent in the membrane from an earlier bullet burned like fire, with the broken vane caused by falling hard on that side throbbing in agonizing counterpoint. She cursed under her breath at the humans, not just for wounding her but for ruining her plans to annihilate them all.
She had been so close! She'd used the floor plans Fanchon had provided to slip into Columbia University's Center for Communicable Disease Research (3) with ease, with a vial of colored water to substitute for their precious deadly Ebola virus. Bypassing the electronic lock on the door to the crucial lab had been laughably easy with the equipment she'd brought form Nightstone, and after that it was almost child's play to make the substitute and slip back out again, with a vial of that lovely lethal virus clutched in her talons. But just after she'd cleared the building and gained altitude to head back to Destine Manor, she'd heard the shouts of men coming from behind her… from both above and below. She'd turned to see eight men wearing dark blue hooded uniforms running across the lawn below her, and two more mounted on hovercycles and closing fast. Quarrymen!
Demona had heard of the Quarrymen, upon her return from Paris; the organization apparently came into existence after that fool Goliath and the rest of his clan were captured on film as they abandoned their home, after it had been destroyed by the Hunters. The news of an organized mob of gargoyle-hating humans didn't surprise her in the least; she'd seen the like before, too many times in her centuries of existence. It had been such a mob that had destroyed the clan living in Germany's Black Forest, back in the fourteenth century, and the clan living atop the Notre Dame in Paris back in 1793…. Dominique Destine had sent an employee to attend a Quarryman rally and report back on every last detail of what took place there, and the employee had described a stone statue of Goliath being shattered by hammers before the crowd's very eyes. Sitting behind her desk after reading the report, Dominique had smiled as she'd thought that if these humans actually succeeded in killing Goliath, they would be doing her a favor… but now they were chasing her! Demona had realized as she'd dodged the first bullet being fired at her that she really should have had a bomb planted under the podium at that rally, before it came to this…
She'd managed to evade the first few shots fired by the hovercycle riders as they chased her across the campus of Columbia University, but the fourth or fifth shot had ripped through her wing, sending her spiraling wildly to the ground. And not only had she broken her already damaged wing and severely bruised her side upon impact, but she'd broken the vial of virus! It had fallen out of her grip upon impact and shattered on the hard sidewalk, and the virus-containing solution had spilled out onto the cement. The temperature was barely above freezing tonight, and still dropping; by morning that solution would probably be frozen, and the virus completely dead and inert, utterly useless to her. And that had been the only sample of Ebola known to exist in the Tri-State area… Now she had nothing suitably lethal to bind to the carrier virus! The knowledge that she'd been thwarted yet again hurt almost as much as her throbbing wing.
A powerful flashlight shone into the shrubbery, the bright light stabbing into her night-sensitive eyes, and she unconsciously snarled in protest even as the flashlight wielder shouted, "There she is!" The Quarrymen's ground crew had caught up with the chase and joined in the hunt for her. Hatred burning even brighter than her pain, she blindly launched herself out of the bushes at the wielder of the light, talons out and slashing. From the scream of pain she heard as her talons ripped through cloth and the flashlight spun away, its beam strobing crazily across the landscape, she knew she had wounded him. She wanted to keep slashing until her vision cleared, to be sure the wounds were fatal, but for now she decided on the better part of valor, and dropped to run on all fours.
Normally Demona was fast enough in her four-limbed gallop to match an Olympic-class sprinter, but she was hampered by her wounded leg, still bleeding profusely, and weakened by the pain from her leg, wing and abused ribs. But she managed to keep an almost steady pace as she loped across the campus, and kept barely ahead of the squad of men chasing her… not noticing that their numbers had been reduced by more than the one man she'd wounded. And even if she had noticed, she wouldn't have been able to do anything to prevent their reappearance; she heard the roar of engines as she dashed through an alley between buildings, and saw two Quarrymen on their matching dark blue motorcycles as they roared around the corner of a building and stopped, blocking the other end of the alley.
Stopping and getting off their cycles while they charged up their hammers was a mistake, as Demona swiftly taught them. Rather than slowing or turning, she lunged straight for the rider on the left, barreling into him at full speed with talons out and fangs bared. As she'd hoped, instead of swinging his hammer he instinctively flinched and threw his arms up in front of his face, when he saw an enraged blue demon going straight for his throat. His hammer flew out of his grasp as she knocked both him and his cycle over while leaving deep bloody slashes in his arms, but as she rolled off him and prepared to run again the other rider attacked. His hammer was uncharged, but it still carried one helluva whallop as he swung it into her side, the force of impact cracking three ribs as it sent her sprawling. Lying dazed on her back, struggling to stay conscious and to get breath back into her lungs again, she watched as the Quarryman twisted the handle of his hammer and charged it up, then came forward with the grim stride of an executioner.
Demona waited until the very last instant, until the hammer-wielder had committed to his swing, before rolling swiftly to one side. The pinions of her broken wing screamed with renewed agony as she rolled across them, and sharp daggers of pain dug into her vitals from her cracked ribs, but she managed to avoid the hammerblow and get back onto all fours, and lashed out with her tail as she did so to sweep that Quarryman off his feet. Snarling and sobbing with pain, she nonetheless managed to resume her staggering four-limbed run away from his rapidly approaching comrades, dodging across the neatly manicured lawn to head for the nearby dormitories. If she could get her talons on a couple of resident students, and use them as hostages… Surely these humans would let her go rather than see any youngsters die right in front of their eyes!
"Ohmigod, Cindy, come quick!"
The screech rang out from the room Cindy Sanders shared with Lucy Landingham on the fourth floor of their dorm at Columbia University, and Cindy hurried back to her room from the communal bathroom, nearly dropping her toothbrush and toothpaste in the process when she tripped in her too-large fuzzy slippers. "What, what is it?" she panted as she ran inside.
"I think it's a gargoyle! A real gargoyle, not just somebody in a costume!" Lucy shouted as she leaned out the window and pointed. "And it's being chased by gangsters or something!"
"A gargoyle, here at Columbia!" Cindy jammed into the windowframe beside Lucy, and leaned out so far that Lucy grabbed her nightshirt so she wouldn't fall out and go splat. "Ohmigod, you're right! And those creeps chasing it, they've gotta be the Quarrymen! The gang that crashed the first P.I.T. meeting, and put Mary and Maddie and half the people there in the hospital!" Other windows popped open on their floor and below them, with other ladies attracted by the commotion and leaning out to see what was happening, and they heard what Cindy was saying. Some of them were also friends of Mary Simmons and Madelyn Printemps, two of the founders of the fledgling People for Interspecies Tolerance, and while they didn't all believe their theories on gargoyles actually being people, they sure as Hell didn't believe in people getting away with beating up on their friends.
"Jeezus, Cindy, they've got sledgehammers!" Lucy's eyes went wide with fear. "Th-they're trying to kill it!"
"You mean kill her," Monica May reported tensely from the next window over, as she peered through the binoculars she usually used to spy on the guys' dorm across the way. "That's a girl gargoyle down there, unless the guys got boobs too! And I think she's been hurt!"
"We gotta help her!"
"Yeah, but how! They're armed! What are we supposed to do, throw our textbooks at them?" Monica's roommate Josephine asked sarcastically.
Everyone jittered and muttered in agitation for a moment, before Cindy snapped her fingers and said, "I got an idea! C'mon, Lucy; Jo, meet us in the hall!" as she popped back inside. She grabbed her two-inch-thick chemistry textbook, and the two of them dashed down the hall, down to where the fire-fighting equipment was mounted into the wall. Josephine joined them just as Cindy swung the textbook spine-first into the glass covering, and it shattered with a satisfying crash.
Demona was within a hundred feet of the dorm when her path was cut off abruptly by the Quarryman on the remaining motorcycle, who swung his hammer at her like a polo mallet as he cut in front of her. He overbalanced as he did so and tipped over his cycle, yelling as he slid with it several feet over the wet grass before stopping with one leg trapped under it, but Demona hardly noticed. He'd managed to connect, just a glancing blow but fully charged and enough to set every nerve in her body on fire with agony. She screamed and finally collapsed, talons digging into the earth as she spasmed in aftershocks.
Her head was roaring like an entire clan of gargoyles, and every limb quaked uncontrollably, but she managed to turn her head as she sensed humans approaching her. The five remaining Quarrymen, all coming up with hammers high and ready. She wished she could see beneath their hoods before they killed her; then when the curse that bound her life to MacBeth's revived her, she'd take great pleasure in hunting them down and killing them with their families.
"This is the end, Demon!" the leader said triumphantly, as he raised his hammer for the killing blow. "My family has waited a thousand years for this moment!"
"Hunter!" Demona snarled, or tried to, but all that came out was a slurring garble. Now she knew what the third Hunter brat had been up to while she was away! If she could only—
If Jon Canmore had been planning to say any other words of triumph, they were washed away, as was his hammer, by the jet of water that arced down and hit him square in the face and upraised arms.
"GOT HIM!" "Yaayyyy!" "Get the others, too!" "Third floor, get your hose!" "Yeah!" "Let's wash these creeps right out of our hair!" "(Jeez, Stephie, can't you ever stop punning?)"
At first, Demona could only stare in disbelief at the jet of water that swept over the other Quarrymen, knocking them back and off their feet, away from her. Then, as she became aware of the clamor of female voices, she slowly turned her head to stare in equal disbelief at the dorm she'd been heading for; nearly every window was filled with young women looking out and cheering, as two from the fourth floor wielded a fire hose on the Quarrymen. They… they were defending her!
Behind her, two of the Quarrymen ducked and dodged the jet of water as it swept over them, and started shouting at the dorm women to stop it, and what did they think they were doing? They had a monster to—WHOOOOSSHHHH and whatever else they were going to say was washed away when the second hose came into play, this one aiming at their legs and hitting them hard enough to bowl them over.
"That one's for Maddie!" The second pair of hose-wielders shouted triumphantly, while others yelled, "You leave that gargoyle alone!" "Go on, get out of here!" "And don't ever come back!" "Go soak your heads!" "(Jeez, Stephie, how corny can you get?)"
Fire sirens wailed in the distance, coming closer; the humans must have set off the fire alarms when they'd grabbed and turned on the hoses. Demona decided that now was an excellent time to get out of there, while all the Quarrymen were sprawled on the grass, coughing up water, sputtering and cursing futilely. She unsteadily got to her hands and knees again, and began crawling on all fours until she felt she had recovered enough to break into an unsteady four-limbed run again. Some of the females in the dorm shouted invitations for her to run inside, saying they'd protect her, but she wasn't about to take that chance; she ran into the shadows of an alley instead, to climb and find a safe hiding place amongst the rooftops until her wounds healed. But she paused halfway to the alley, and shouted over her shoulder at the students, "Thank you!"
"She spoke to us!" "They really can talk!" "This is so cool!" "You're welcome!" and other glad shouts followed Demona, as she fled into the shadows.
TO BE CONTINUED…
1 : For the non-Catholics in the audience, the shaken Border Patrol agent was reciting the first few phrases of the 'Paternoster', the Lord's Prayer in Latin.
2 : No, I didn't make that up. Columbia University's Philolexian Society once counted Joyce Kilmer, author of the infamous poem "Trees", as not only a member but as its vice-president. So every fall, they hold a Bad Poetry Contest in his memory, and gather to read their own grotesque verse to each other. (In this author's opinion, "Trees" wasn't really all that bad; a little lame, but not horribly so. But some of the poetry that some of the students in past years has come up with, has been… Let's put it this way: If you've ever read "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", that group of aliens known as the Vogons, that tortured Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect half to death with bad poetry readings, would be proud. ) The contest is typically judged by a panel of Columbia professors, ones noted for both their literary tastes and their strong stomachs. The contest is not limited to members of the Philolexian Society; all members of the Columbia community are invited to submit up to three works, or simply to attend, to heckle the contestants and throw tomatoes. (And somehow it just seemed appropriate to have, lingering at the back of the crowd, this serious-looking fellow with pale blond hair, glasses and an almost emotionless expression standing there with a pad of paper and pen in hand, scribbling down the most revulsion-inspiring ones for later use.)
3 : Yes, I made that up. Columbia University does not have a Center for Communicable Disease Research, though it does have a College of Physicians and Surgeons. And even if such a center existed at the university, they absolutely would not be keeping something as deadly as Ebola under such lousy security.