She Who Watches, Part 1
She Who Watches
Part 1
by Sandra McDonald

Prologue:

The dead rose in symphony, ghosts as far as Methos could see. Silas and Kronos painted in their ancient battle colors, Alexa in the blue dress he'd bought her in Rome, Byron with a rakish grin frozen on his face. Hundreds of Methos' Immortal conquests crowded behind them, some carrying their own decapitated heads, others wielding shattered or failed swords. Thousands more mortal victims cried out in lament from all sides, filling his head with their anguish. He tried to cover his ears but his arms had frozen at his sides. The effort to block out the screeching and howls would be useless anyway, he suspected.

They're all your own ghosts, he told himself. Pulled from your own skull.

Seconds later he realized his error. Some of the dead hovering in the icy, dusty air of the large chamber had origins other than his own nasty past. Although he'd never met Tessa Noel, he recognized her from photographs in MacLeod's loft. Her wraith hung just inches from Duncan's upturned face, spinning slowly with a keening cry. The old woman in a Highland dress reaching for Connor with clawed fingers was probably some old flame resurrected from his memory. Richie Ryan's list of ghosts couldn't have stretched too far down the halls of history, but as he lay curled in pain against Duncan, a man wearing a sheriff's badge reached for the young Immortal.

"Brother!" Kronos called heartily, dragging Methos' gaze back to his own personal ghosts.

"We've missed you!" Silas bellowed.

Caspian, behind them, only glared.

This is madness, Methos thought. But powerful, seductive, mesmerizing madness. He, Richie and the two MacLeods stood like statues in the crypt, flesh and blood trapped in flickering webs of spectral light. A red fog seeped from the stone walls and drifted along the floor, rolling under the levitated feet of the ghosts.

Alexa reached for him. "Adam, why did you leave me in that hospital?"

Kristin Gilles knelt on the floor and raised her tear-stained face to him. "Who are you, that you could kill a woman so easily?"

Silas' expression turned dark with fury. "You were my brother . . . "

Icy hands reached for him, touched his face, pierced his thin layer of clothes. Trapped, Methos could do nothing but chant a silent litany to himself.

*Not real, not real, not real . . .*

All the while, he could hear Cassandra laughing.

***

Seacouver

Two days earlier

Margaret Allen - Meg to her old college roommates, Maggie to the nuns back at St. Mary's Prep - woke up early and padded downstairs to the kitchen in her old blue bathrobe and fuzzy green slippers. As she took the kettle from the stove and turned on the kitchen tap she looked out the window for the first streaks of daylight in the eastern sky. She liked being up before everyone else and always enjoyed the sense of peace and quiet that hung over her neighborhood in the pre-dawn darkness. Only in the earliest part of the day did she have time to relax in the absence of kids, husband, schedules, errands, chores and, of course, swordfights.

If only these dark, still hours could extend for the rest of the day, she wouldn't have permanent dark circles under her eyes. But soon enough, Bill would roll over in their big bed upstairs and slap the alarm clock into submission. He would stumble off to the bathroom already wearing a frown in anticipation of spreadsheets, account balances, dull presentations. The kids would sleep until Maggie roused them, then go back to sleep until she threatened them. Scott liked to wait until the very last minute before jumping out of bed, pulling on the same clothes he'd worn to school twice that week and dashing out the door. Karen would hole up in the bathroom, frantically balancing the needs of some forgotten homework assignment with the tricky art of applying just the right amount of makeup to pass her mother's inspection but still look presentable to the other girls in the eighth grade.

As the kettle heated, Margaret fed the family cat a bowl of canned food and retrieved the morning newspaper from the stoop. The headlines said nothing about decapitated bodies or unnatural lightning storms. With both Richie Ryan and Duncan MacLeod away in Europe again, Seacouver had settled down a little. Margaret missed her assignment - Richie was a good kid, young and impulsive but kindhearted. As kindhearted as an Immortal could be and still keep his head, she thought ruefully.

In any case, Richie had gone off on another of his periodic trips to France. Unless Margaret received an interim assignment of her own on some visiting Immortal in Seacouver, she would continue to receive vacation pay and enjoy some much-needed time off. She had plans for cleaning out the garage, painting the den and finally, finally taking all those plastic bags of outgrown clothing in the basement to the Salvation Army. Not very monumental aspirations, perhaps, but enough to keep her from missing Richie and her Watcher activities.

Margaret took her tea and the morning paper to the living room. For thirty luxurious minutes she relaxed on the old sofa, her feet propped on the coffee table, Grover purring on the armrest. At six-thirty she heard Bill's alarm go off and she took her cue to wake up the kids.

"Come on, sweetie-pie," she said, turning on Karen's light and wading through a pile of teen magazines to reach her daughter's side. "Up and at 'em."

Karen rolled over, away from her. "Sleep," she insisted.

"School," Margaret returned, automatically piling the magazines on the bookcase and picking up scattered clothing for deposit in the hamper. "Karen, it's time to get up."

She left her thirteen-year-old mumbling something about "a few minutes more" and went to Scott's room. Margaret didn't even bother to infiltrate that mess. Instead she just knocked and opened the door as far as it would go before running into obstacles - about nine inches. "Wake up, Scotty."

"I'm awake," said a groggy voice from underneath a mound of blankets, pillows, Nintendo games, books, and CD cases.

Bill met her at the doorway of their bedroom. "Do I feel a little hot to you?"

She automatically put her hand on his forehead. "Not really."

"Just a little," he said.

"You just took a hot shower."

"Different than that," he insisted.

Margaret counted silently to five. Over the previous six months or so, Bill had become more and more like his mother. A little fever, a little stomach ache, a little constipation . . . minor things, really, but frequent. Could he say, "a little hypochondria?" Some days she felt like she had three kids, not two.

She managed to get her entire brood out the door on time - Scott leaping for the bus already at the curb, Bill fretting about some imminent disease, Karen turning back only once for her math book. Margaret did housework for six hours, accompanied by showtunes on the college station and later talk shows on TV. She left home at two p.m. and swung by the office she and four other Watchers shared in a quaint brick building on Agoura Street. As far as her family and friends knew, Margaret worked as a title researcher and appraiser, tracking down property records, taking pictures of houses and investigating insurance policies. The pretend job with its flexible schedule provided a convenient excuse for the hours she spent doing Immortal research or watching Richie, and the sham company of Hudsons & Mull paid her wages out of Watcher coffers.

"Hey there," Jack said as she entered. He sat at his desk with his feet propped up. He had the phone up to his ear, but spoke as if someone had put him on hold. "How's the easy life?"

"Easy," Margaret answered with a smile. "How are you doing?"

He shrugged. "No kills last night. You know, some people say "The Gathering" is at hand, but it looks more like a PTA meeting to me."

Jack was one of the Watchers who enjoyed going above and beyond the call of duty. He liked offbeat assignments the best - he'd spent a few years on John Garrick, who'd been a brilliant if insane Immortal capable of driving his victims equally crazy.

"Oh, hi," he said into the phone before she could answer. "I was looking for information on an inactive bank account - "

Margaret tuned him out as she examined the short stack of phone slips on her otherwise bare desk. Her contract called for weekly updates to Richie's files and twenty hours of direct observation per month. Unlike other Watchers, she stayed strictly within the lines of her job description. She didn't try to witness every single one of Richie's kills, although she did note their names when possible for cross-referencing. She kept track of his general comings-and-goings, with whom he associated, where he banked. She knew his favorite hang-outs, Joe's being one of them, and that he sometimes liked to sit in the park by himself eating onion bagels and watching the world pass by.

She never gave in to the compulsion to help him hide his corpses, escape from the police or get out of a tough spot. She certainly did not sport one of the optional tattoos many Watchers inked into their wrists - how could she ever explain it to her husband and children? She'd taken an oath but never been through an initiation rite - they saved those old mystery ceremonies for supervisors and above - and had no inclination whatsoever to advance in paygrade or status.

And unlike Joe Dawson, she'd never made the acquaintance of her assignment. She'd never even spoken with Richie. Distance could not keep her, however, from developing a certain affection for the young, sometimes-troubled Immortal. He was just eight years older than Scott, and he'd already endured so much pain in his young life that her heart sometimes ached for him.

Jack hung up his phone and took a few gulps from a diet soda can. "Hey, I forgot to write it down, but Gisele called and wants you to call her back."

Gisele Pelisson was Richie's Watcher whenever he visited Paris. Although they'd spoken on the phone more than a dozen times in the previous few years, Margaret had never really liked her counterpart - she found the Frenchwoman too brusque and businesslike, too impersonal. Gisele looked on Richie as just another in a string of young Immortals bound to lose their heads sooner or later.

"Did she say why?" Margaret asked, a cold finger tracing a pattern on the nape of her neck.

"The Sphinx speak to vermin like me? Nah. But I bet she's going to tell you Ryan's on his way back home again and your vacation is over."

As in most other countries, all calls went through the regional headquarters to be forwarded to individual homes, cellular phones or voicemail boxes. No Watcher could look up another's home address or phone number, as a precaution in case the information fell into the wrong hands. Although it was late in France, Gisele might still be available, or she might have left a more specific message with the operator at headquarters. Margaret dialed the memorized number of a chateau outside Paris and listened to the odd-sounding double ring of overseas phones.

The operator picked up with a smooth sounding, "Les Industries Lambert, puis-je vous aider?"

Margaret wet her lips. She hated speaking in French, and didn't consider herself very good at it. She asked to speak with Gisele. "Est-ce que puis parler a Gisele, sil vous plait?"

"Et c'est de la part de?"

"Meg Allen," she answered. He asked her for Gisele's box number - a coded question asking for her authorization number. Margaret gave it to him.

"Patientez un instant," he said. Hold on for a minute. She heard a click, a minute of French music, another click.

"Gisele indique que vous pouvez fermer vos dossiers. Un etat final vous sera envoye bientot."

Margaret translated that word by word in her head. She wished she could speak French better, but she had no time for classes and used it so infrequently that there really was no good reason to study. Gradually the words formed a coherent sentence. Gisele had said that she could close her files, and that a final report would arrive soon.

Close her files. Final report.

Watcher doublespeak that meant her assignment, Richie Ryan, had lost his head.

Margaret's grip on the phone doubled in fear she would drop the receiver and break the connection, but no words choked out of her mouth. A final report? Richie, dead in France? Impossible. She knew denial was one of the stages of grief, but forced the thought right out of her mind. She considered herself rational and sensible. Surely if she knew the stages of grief, she could avoid them.

"Un etat final?" she asked, her voice only half its normal volume.

"Oui."

Silence on the line. Margaret imagined she could hear distant voices leaking from some other channel on the transatlantic cable carrying her phone call. Did they even use cables anymore, or was everything bounced off satellites? She didn't know. The world had changed a great deal in the previous twenty years.

"Dis Gisele que je dois parler avec elle," she said. *Tell Gisele I need to speak with her.*

He promised to pass along the message. Margaret hung up and sat down.

"Meg?" Jack asked. "What's wrong?"

"Final report," Margaret answered, and closed her eyes.

"Oh. Sorry. It's hard when you lose one."

He fell silent. Margaret fought the tears that came to her eyes and tried to quell the nasty spinning sensation in her head. Richie, dead. In that foreign land. And so young . . . Bright, stubborn, unsure, loyal, dead Richie. She would close out his file and he would go into the great archives of dead Immortals, a footnote to the Game. Aside from a handful of Immortal and mortal friends, no one would probably miss him much. Duncan MacLeod would grieve the most, but Duncan was old and accustomed to death.

She wondered who had done it. She didn't need to guess why.

Looking up at the clock, Margaret saw that it was almost two-thirty. Time to pick up the kids from school and take them to their dentist appointments. For a moment she couldn't reconcile her Watcher life with her normal one, and panicked at the thought of having to face her family and act normal. But that was nonsense. She couldn't duck out on her husband and children just because someone she'd never met had violently lost his life. Immortals died all the time - she knew that. They passed unseen into the history they'd witnessed for centuries or millennium, and few knew the difference. Neither she nor Jack nor Joe had ever thought Richie would be good enough to win the Game, but he deserved a longer life than just twenty two years, didn't he?

Before leaving the building she walked to the bathroom and splashed water on her face. The cold wetness did no good, and neither did a touch of makeup pulled from her crowded purse. Her red-rimmed eyes betrayed her instantly. She went down to her all-purpose, suburban-housewife minivan and sat in the driver's seat clenching the steering wheel so tightly her knuckles turned white. She needed to be composed when Karen and Scott saw her. She couldn't let them know she'd been crying.

But even as she pulled into the school's drive, the tears wouldn't stop. So she thought up a lie as an excuse. After fifteen years as a Watcher, she was very good at lies.

***

Immortal bodies processed alcohol faster than mortal ones. It protected them from long periods of incapacitation, Methos supposed, but the advantageous experience of it meant he didn't suffer much in the way of hangovers. Not even when he'd personally downed an entire bottle of Scotch while keeping an eye on Joe Dawson's consumption as well. They'd returned from the racetrack the night before to Joe's rented apartment in the fifth arrondissement and drunk themselves into oblivion, hoping to erase the image of Richie Ryan's headless body from their brains.

As Methos stumbled toward the bathroom he took a quick peek out at the gray, overcast sky above Paris. Perfectly good mourning weather, he decided. He used the toilet, ran his hands through his short hair and rinsed out his mouth with a minty-flavored mouthwash. Then he went to the living room and slumped in a chair beside the window, clad only in his pajama bottoms, depressed by all means of measure.

Not that Richie Ryan had been a good friend of his. He'd barely known the child. But Joe's grief ran true and deep and hurt Methos as a friend. The whole issue of MacLeod's insanity bore closer inspection - the man had killed his own beloved student, after all - but Methos decided he couldn't bear to look at that matter just yet. To examine MacLeod's situation would invariably reflect back on Methos himself. He'd known the Highlander had been acting strangely, but hadn't acted quickly enough on Richie's concerns.

MacLeod thought he'd been singled out to save all mankind from some ancient evil - a messianic complex if Methos had ever seen one. And Richie Ryan had died because of it.

But where was MacLeod? Fled off to some prison of his own making - a remote mountain monastery, an isolated island, a remote part of the desert? Or still wandering around the streets of Paris, hallucinating patches of red fog, talking to alleged demons?

And where the hell was Richie's body? After sharing an impromptu prayer over the young Immortal's lifeless body, Methos had led Joe to the car outside. He'd returned to retrieve the corpse only to find it gone. Only blood remained. Someone must have stolen the body, but whoever it was, he or she had been very, very careful not to leave a trail. Methos couldn't begin to imagine why someone would want Richie's body. The only people who'd known it was there were MacLeod, Methos, Joe, perhaps Ryan's Watcher, and that alleged demon.

Methos did not believe in demons. He did not especially believe in God. If pressed, he might concede a small, lingering belief in the cosmic force that separated matching socks from each other in the dryer, but on every other theological matter he remained even more glib. He was the world's oldest living man and he'd seen many strange things, but in his experience everything had a reason, a season, a time to every purpose under heaven, a time to be born, a time to die . . . some folk group had made the verses popular back in his San Francisco hippie days, although Ecclesiastes had put it to paper first.

Sighing, Methos closed his eyes and tried to focus his attention on the street noises outside the slightly ajar window. He thought he'd closed it the night before, but many details had blurred from the effects of liquor. He heard mostly car engines from the street below. The century before that, it had been horse-drawn carriages. Before that, mules and human feet. He wondered what a hundred years in the future might bring, but that speculation assumed he'd make it that far. As with a mutual fund, he reminded himself, past performance was not an indicator of future success.

Methos sank further into the cushiony chair and tried to imagine a plan for the day. He supposed he could go the barge, see if MacLeod was there, but then what? Confront him with his crime? Ignore it, as if it had never happened? Take the Highlander's head to prevent any future tragedies? That last option seemed highly improbable. Even if he wanted to kill him, even if he was stupid enough to assume some sort of role as judge and executioner so late in his life, he didn't know that he could beat the man. Of course, if MacLeod got it into his head that the alleged demon wanted Methos dead, or even Joe, then the ancient Immortal would feel no remorse about swinging his sword in defense.

He drifted off into a light doze, aware of the breeze through the window but content to let his thoughts float away. As he sank deeper he felt a small but persistent attention, as if a pair of eyes was staring at him from across the room. Unsettled, he told himself to stop imagining things. But the conviction grew, as did his awareness of a blind spot in his thinking - an area in his head covered by a shadow, as if something or someone stood there watching -

Methos' eyes snapped open. He had the sudden, urgent belief he couldn't breathe. He stumbled to the sill and threw the window fully open, drawing in great gulps of air. A dark figure at the corner below smiled at him

Cassandra.

Behind her, a young-looking Immortal man with Arab features, his expression inscrutable.

Before Methos could do anything more than drop his jaw in surprise, Cassandra and her companion whirled away and disappeared down an alley. Pieces of the puzzle fell into place like a blown-apart jet plane hitting the ground and reassembling itself. Cassandra. Methos raced toward his room and scooped up his sword. He pounded on the door next to his. "Joe! It's Cassandra! She's outside - "

The door swung open beneath his fist.

Seconds later, even as he groped fearfully for the telephone to summon an ambulance, Methos knew Cassandra had struck her second blow of revenge.

***

"I'm sorry about your friend," Bill said that night after dinner. He sat on the edge of their bed watching her fold laundry. Margaret's eyes still felt puffy, but she'd held herself together for most of the afternoon and had no intention of crying again.

"It just seems like such a waste, that's all," Margaret answered as she folded a pair of Scott's underwear into a tiny square.

"I don't remember you mentioning her much. Ellen, was it?"

Did he sound suspicious? Margaret couldn't tell. She thought she'd done a good job of inventing an old coworker at Joe's bookstore who'd met a sudden, tragic end in a car accident in New York. Just for good measure, she'd thrown in the fictitious woman's children as well. Morbid, but appropriately tragic to warrant tears.

"Helen. Helen Cooper."

"It's always hard when a friend dies," he said, sounding sincere, but his attention had already drifted to the television softly airing "Inside Edition" in the corner. Margaret took the kids' folded clothes to their rooms and found Scott sitting three inches away from the television watching MTV. Downstairs in the family room, Karen had appropriated custody of the computer. Grover meowed and rubbed up against Margaret's leg, in dire need of dinner.

"Karen, did you feed Grover? It's your turn."

"I will," her daughter answered, her gaze glued to the screen.

"Do it now. Your web-surfing can wait."

With a tragic sigh Karen heaved herself out of the chair and went to open a fresh can of food. Margaret picked up two dirty glasses that had been left on the coffee table and took them to the kitchen. She ran hot water into both and looked out the window at the dark night. She liked Seacouver despite the changes it had undergone - more highways, more houses, more everything. She generally considered her neighborhood safe. But the darkness outside echoed the sorrow in her heart and seemed full of hidden dangers and secret, onrushing pain.

Gisele had not yet returned Margaret's call. During dinner she'd thought of calling Joe in Paris. Surely he knew what had happened to Richie, or could find out. She knew where he was staying, and the call would take only a few seconds. But that would probably be intruding on his grief. She should just be a good Watcher and wait for Gisele's final report to arrive. After that, according to procedure, she could close out his files. Forget all about him.

Twenty two years old. No parents, no family. A lengthy juvenile criminal record that read, to her, like cries for help and attention. Once Duncan MacLeod and Tessa Noel had taken him in, Joe had put Margaret in standby mode. Older Immortals taking in orphans fit a classic profile. Margaret hadn't been on Briarcliff Street the night Richie and Tessa were killed, but Joe alerted her the next morning to Richie's change in status from mortal to Immortal. Alive to dead and back again at the impressionable age of nineteen. In the following weeks she'd watched him struggle to sell off Tessa's assets, a boy doing a man's job while his teacher grieved and took over a decrepit dojo on the east side.

She'd watched him try to emerge from MacLeod's shadow and find his own way in the world. Taking on Annie Devlin had been one of his first successes, even if Margaret herself had doubted his ability to win. She'd breathlessly observed their fight from a set of scratchy bushes above the lighthouse and battled poison ivy for two weeks afterwards. Mako had been his first kill and marked a point of no return. She'd heard his screams from the Quickening and watched him emerge shaking and disoriented only to leave town a few days later. She'd seen Richie grow over the years, even if his youthful face remained frozen in time, and admitted to a certain pride that her assignment had finally turned out to be one of the good guys.

Not anymore. Now he was gone. She would probably pick up an Immortal serial killer next, someone who took great pleasure in the hunt.

Maybe her years as a Watcher had ended along with Richie Ryan's life.

At ten p.m., just after she'd told the children to get to bed for the second time, the phone in the den rang. That line was only for her or Bill to use. She picked up the receiver. "Allen residence."

"It's me, Jack."

Margaret closed the door. Jack knew better than to call her at home about Watcher business - she had a pager for that. For him to telephone meant that his news was a red-hot emergency that merited the risk of being overheard.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

"It's Joe. In Paris. He's had a heart attack."

"What?" she demanded.

"He's in the hospital. They don't know if he's going to live. Can you believe that?" Jack sounded badly shaken.

The second blow of the day made Margaret sink into the nearest chair. She'd known Joe forever, it seemed. He'd trained her as a Watcher. He'd secretly loaned her money when Bill was out of work for three months. He had been the only real family she had on the west coast, even if they sometimes disagreed about the role and future of the Watchers. The thought of him alone in some hospital in France, dying and in pain, made her physically ill to her stomach. Her own father had died in a cold sterile room in
Boston, surrounded by machines and strangers.

"Are you there?" Jack asked.

"I'm here," she said. "Is anyone with him?"

"His cousin Adam. You've met him."

Yes, she knew his "cousin" - the code word connoted another Watcher. She'd seen Adam Pierson at Joe's bar a few times. A European fellow, charming in his own dry way, but she hadn't trusted him much. He seemed smarter than everyone else in the room, and she'd once seen him wearing a smirk that said he knew it.

"Jack, call Monica for me, will you?" she said suddenly.

"Monica? At the travel agency? You're not thinking of going over there, are you?"

"Yes," Margaret answered. "I'm going over there. Get me on the next flight."

"What will Bill say? You can't just leave your family - "

"I'm going," she said decisively, in the same tone she used when it came to overruling her children.

"You've never even been to France!"

"Jack, I'm going. You can help me with this or hinder me. Which do you prefer?"

He paused before answering. "All right. I'll help you. But you're really going to tell Bill you're flying halfway around the world to see your boss? Do you know how much money that's going to cost? You're not going to get reimbursed."

She thought of her husband upstairs, her children in their rooms. Of her quiet, orderly life in Seacouver and the beheading of Richie Ryan. She knew she was about to embark on a new path of lies, but saw no other way around the necessity of what had to be done.

"Tell Monica to book me through New York and hide the Paris connection," she said calmly, even though her heart beat like a bird trapped in a tiny steel cage. "I'll tell my family I'm going to the funeral of a friend."

***

The doctor looked startled at Methos' request. "Monsieur?"

"I said, test him for drugs. For needle marks. For something that would induce a heart attack in an otherwise healthy man." Methos didn't budge from where he stood in Joe's whitewashed hospital room, glaring at the physician. "He doesn't smoke, he watches his diet, he swims three times a week. He's no candidate for a heart attack."

The doctor tried to argue that cardiac problems could strike unexpectedly in even the most healthy of men, but Methos wouldn't stand for any of it. He'd seen Cassandra at the corner. He'd seen her because she'd wanted him to. She'd wanted him to because the delicious detail of knowing who was methodically shredding his life to little bits made the pain all the sharper in his chest. The window had been closed the night before and open in the morning. Someone had come into the flat, into Joe's bedroom. A mortal henchman, no doubt, someone Cassandra had hired for the purpose.

The doctor departed with a dubious shake of his head. Methos turned back to the bed and Joe. He lay silent and still, his face gray, his body violated by any number of tubes and needles in addition to the large, uncomfortable-looking breathing hose they'd shoved down his throat. An EKG beeped out his pulse, and the respirator clicked its reassuring operation from beside the bed.

"Joseph, I know you can hear me in there," Methos said, sitting down and patting the ill man's hand. "You're going to be just fine."

He didn't believe that for a second. Not with Cassandra running around doing her best to drive daggers into his chest. He should have seen through her scheme sooner. She had the ability to plant ideas in men's minds - a psychic advantage she'd been honing for thousands of years. It didn't work very well on Immortals her own age or older, but younger ones like MacLeod fell for it easily. The two had been lovers until Cassandra had forced him to decide between her and Methos in an old submarine base in France.

She must have taken MacLeod's command not to kill Methos as a humiliating rejection, and set herself on a path of revenge against the both of them. First she'd driven MacLeod to believe in a new interpretation of an old prophesy, and planted such violent, awful images in his mind that he'd taken Richie's head in confusion. Even if MacLeod still lived - Methos had new doubts about that - he would be forever haunted by the knowledge he'd killed the boy. Cassandra probably bore no grudge against Richie himself, but he'd made a convenient tool for her revenge. Joe seemed to be a pawn just like Richie, another sacrificial piece in her game.

MacLeod and Joe. Methos had few enough friends that the loss of any of them cut deeper than he liked to admit. The loss of MacLeod to craziness and Joe to mortal trappings hurt like a knife newly wedged in his gut. That pain reminded him why it had been the habit of centuries to stay alone, close himself off, retreat to books rather than people for companionship. He was too damn old to be feeling such fresh hurt.

Methos adjusted the sheet over Joe's body and sat back in his chair. He looked out the window at the overcast day. Just a few hours earlier, he'd been facetious enough to call it a good day to mourn. But no day was good for that. Methos' gaze shifted to a bad watercolor print hanging on the wall, an insult to French impressionism, and he tried to anticipate Cassandra's next move. Richie, MacLeod, Joe. Joe wasn't finished, though. A miscalculation of the proper lethal dosage of whatever she'd used on him? Or part of her plan? Methos would have to remain at his side to prevent him from further harm - there was no one else in Paris he trusted to the job - and that made him a sitting target as well.

Without backup, with Joe as a liability, he could very easily lose to Cassandra's scheme. She'd had months to strategize and make arrangements. He'd barely remembered to grab his wallet on the way out the door with the paramedics, and in his haste to dress he'd put on mismatching socks. Cassandra had never been a raging intellectual, but he'd always considered her vindictive and manipulative. She was the product of what he'd made. What he and the other Horsemen had shaped. Behind every one of her crimes was Methos' own shadow.

Now that was a depressing thought.

She had free will, though. She could have changed her direction at any point she chose. Instead, she'd set herself in motion against him, and he would fight her every inch of the way. But he couldn't stay in Joe's room and simultaneously scour Paris for her. He'd notified the Watcher bureaucrats of Joe's condition, and expected visitors from that quarter, but Methos trusted none of them.

Like it or not, he would have to drag someone else into this mess. Another Immortal. Someone who might have an interest in helping Methos in the causes of Joe Dawson and Duncan MacLeod.

Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod.

Methos borrowed the nurse's phone and dialed New York City.

***

Richie gasped for air and opened his eyes. Purpose flooded through him. He'd seen Horton drive by with Joe as his prisoner and had to save his mortal friend. A light blinded his eyes - a street lamp? a car headlight? - and he tried to stand. But his hands had been cuffed behind his back, his ankles similarly manacled, and a short chain between them kept him bowed painfully backward. He lay on cold concrete, confused, his chest hurting in an awful fashion, wetness running down beneath his shirt. He pulled and twisted at the metal restraints angrily.

"Hey!" he shouted. "What the hell's going on?"

"Make all the noise you want," a man's voice said in the darkness. "No one will hear you."

Richie heard no mercy in that tone. No hint of compassion. Not that he really expected any, given the current conditions, but he would have paid all of his money for just the tiniest hint of an opening. Some little clue this nightmare wasn't going to end as terribly as he thought it might.

He slumped on the concrete as much as the chains allowed, bile rising in the back of his throat. The light in his eyes hurt his head, and the cold air raised goosebumps up and down his back. The air reeked of something bad, of something rotting and sour.

"Who are you?" he demanded.

"Michel Colbert."

The name meant nothing to him, and the man was not an Immortal. Richie squinted down at his shirt, the tear in it, the dark red that stained the fabric. He'd been knifed in the chest. Oh god, he thought. Another sicko enemy of Mac's, determined to use Richie for bait or revenge. But what about Horton, Joe, the demon? Not to mention Mac, Methos, and the army cavalry due to appear at any moment.

The light drew closer. A battery lantern of some sort. It danced in mid-air before descending to a few inches from Richie's face. He couldn't see anything but the blinding white of it. Shivers ran through him, as much from growing fear as the cold. A large hand squeezed Richie's bicep.

"You're very helpless, you know," Colbert said. "I could do anything I want with you."

Richie couldn't think of a witty retort to that. No sarcastic repartee, no smart wisecrack. The smell in the room made his stomach churn, and he fought down a growing awareness of what it might be.

"Where's Horton?" he asked, his voice a hoarse whisper. "Where's Joe?"

Colbert snickered. "You actually fell for that, did you?"

Fell for it? But he'd seen the car go by with his very own eyes. He'd called the barge to warn Mac. To lure Mac into a trap? "Who are you?" he ground out.

"A friend of an enemy," Colbert said. "Maybe you've figured some of it out by now, eh, Ryan? There was no Horton. No Joe. You were brought here to lure MacLeod. And it worked. Cassandra made sure of it."

"Cassandra!" Richie echoed. God, he'd always thought she was a strange one, not suited for Mac at all. The bottom fell out of Richie's stomach as he absorbed the rest of the man's words. Sharply he demanded, "Where's Mac? What has she done to him?"

"Oh, don't worry. He's not dead. But he thinks you are. We arranged a little light show for him, and he fell for it."

The large hand lifted Richie, turned him, dumped him on his other side. The lantern lifted a few feet up. Richie fought the rush of blood in his head and focused on a lump not twelve inches away - a large headless corpse bloated with decay. The head that had been on it lay propped on the chest, eyes open in dismay, mouth twisted in a final grimace -

Richie nearly vomited. He could feel the meager contents of his stomach whirl around like the debris of a twister. He sucked in a deep breath and fought for control. He would not throw up on a corpse - he tried to wriggle backwards, to fling himself away, but Colbert held him firmly in place.

"Your friend MacLeod thought this was you. I wasn't here for the show, but I hear it went over quite spectacularly. He was a new one, you know - lost his mortal life just last week. Pity to lose his Immortal one so soon afterward."

Richie squeezed his eyes shut. "Bastard."

"Perhaps. My mother did have a way of getting around the neighborhood." Colbert's hand cupped Richie's face and lightly stroked his cheek.

Richie could make out dim details of his captor's features - dark eyes, neatly cropped dark hair, a long and straight nose. The smile on his face looked feral. The cold amusement in his voice was unmistakable. The young Immortal fought down a wave of revulsion.

"What now?" Richie asked. His heart beat so loudly and quickly he swore Colbert could hear it. "You fooled MacLeod. You've got me. Go ahead, take my head."

"Not yet," Colbert answered smoothly. Something metallic glinted in his right hand. "She still has plans for you. Be patient."

The knife flashed faster than Richie could track it, and something hard hit him in the chest. When he looked down, he saw only the carved wooden hilt sticking out of his body. Blood rose in his throat and his breath rattled. The knowledge that he would probably come back made dying harder, not easier - he had no lasting peace to look forward to, no permanent escape as an option.

Oh, Mac, he thought as the last of his strength ran away.

Don't let me die here.

***

Connor MacLeod put the phone down with a mixture of concern and confusion. The last person he'd expected to hear from in the middle of the night was his old WWII friend James Powell, also known as Methos. Methos had telephoned with the urgent request that Connor come to Paris immediately. The world's oldest Immortal believed Duncan to be in some kind of danger but wouldn't go into detail over the phone.

Well, Connor had flown at a moment's notice to other countries with less reason. Women, mostly. His only immediate regret was that the next flight to Paris had no first-class seats and he would have to fly coach. For Duncan's sake, though, he would have ridden in the cargo hold. The flight didn't leave until 6 a.m., which gave him at least a few more hours to sleep.

Rest proved elusive, though, as memories of the war and fears for Duncan clashed with any attempts at relaxation. Finally he rose, showered and threw a handful of clothing into a dufflebag. His sword went in a separate case for check-in. He called and asked Rachel to take care of the shop. Then he grabbed one of a dozen different passports he kept handy at all times and took a cab to Kennedy.

The United flight he caught had originated as a midnight flight in Seacouver, of all places. Connor found every single overhead compartment full, and the warm air on the plane smelled of stale sweat. One whiff of it reminded him of a dozen reasons why he hated flying. The Highlander made his way down the aisle, squeezing by a large woman in a leather pantsuit and two little kids with their feet sticking out. He found his aisle seat next to an attractive but tense-looking woman in her late thirties or early forties. She kept her attention focused exclusively on the hardback book in her hands. On her other side, a man with a laptop computer tapped diligently on the tiny keys.

Connor sighed, resigned to a long and boring flight. After take-off the flight attendants served something supposed to resemble breakfast. The woman beside him kept reading. She didn't turn the pages very fast but only had a few chapters left. Connor struck up an easy flirtation with the flight attendant with the largest breasts, but she only passed by his seat occasionally. He wished he'd thought to bring a book of his own, or something marginally more intelligent than the inflight magazine. He tried sleeping, but worry over Duncan kept him too keyed up, and the Disney movie that played on the overhead monitors was so horribly bad he wondered why anyone had ever bothered making it in the first place.

Three hours after take-off, the woman beside him finished her book, closed it and put in the pocket of the seat in front of her.

"Good story?" Connor asked conversationally.

She nodded.

"I thought his first was his best. He ran out of good lawyer stories fast."

She said, "Excuse me, I need to use the bathroom."

Connor obligingly stood in the aisle to let her pass. He stretched out the cramps forming in his legs and back from the hard seat and avoided looking out the window. When the woman came back twenty minutes later, she had both hands full of complimentary magazines stocked by the airline.

"Want one?" she asked, after she'd settled back down and fastened her seat belt.

Connor took issues of both "Newsweek" and "Time" and resigned himself to more boredom. When they reached France he bolted toward the front hatch. He greeted Orly airport like a dear old friend, indulged himself in a strong cup of coffee and two ham and cheese croissants to go, and took a cab to the hospital where Methos was sitting vigil.

The cab passed by the Velodrome d'Hiver sports stadium. Unwillingly Connor remembered a hot day in July, the cries of Jews being herded like cattle, the harsh words and vicious cowardice of the Nazi's wielding guns. He'd been to Paris numerous times since 1942, but he'd always managed to avoid this particular neighborhood. Bad memories resided there, nightmare recollections of the torture he'd suffered at German hands. Although the evening air was chill, Connor felt suddenly hot and claustrophobic. He rolled down the window to suck in fresh air. The cab driver, an Ethiopian, muttered something under his breath and turned up the car heater.

He found Methos' hospital, an old building in a quiet neighborhood north of the Seine. The vaulted ceilings, tall windows and wooden moldings inside the hospital reminded him of a convent. He passed one ward after the other full of sick and dying mortals. A nurse with clear green eyes directed him to the intensive care unit, and the supernatural recognition of another Immortal nearby brought him directly to Methos.

The ancient Immortal appeared unchanged, of course - the passage of fifty years reflected nowhere in his features. Worry marked his face, though, and he looked thin beneath his rumpled clothing.

"Thank you for coming," Methos said simply.

Connor nodded. "You said it was important. Here, eat something." The Highlander gave Methos the bag and took a curious look at the mortal in the bed. Recognition dawned a second later. "Joe Dawson?"

Methos bit off an edge of the croissant. "You know him?"

"We've met," Connor acknowledged. "In Seacouver. After Duncan's fiancee died."

"Tessa Noel?"

"Yes. I stood watch over Richie while Duncan was away. You know Richie?"

Methos' gaze darted away. "I did," he said quietly, and those two words told Connor an entire story.

The Highlander sat down in one of the room's two chairs, suddenly weary, stabbed by sadness. He'd last spoken to Richie three or four months earlier, but couldn't remember the details of the conversation. Although he'd really only been Duncan's student, over the years Connor had grown to think of the young Immortal as part of the family.

"Who did it?" he asked.

"That's a long story."

Connor pinned him with his gaze. "Who swung the sword?" he asked firmly.

Methos sighed. "Duncan. But he wasn't in his right mind, I swear it."

Duncan. Connor tried to absorb the news, but the idea of Duncan killing Richie made no sense whatsoever. He looked at Joe Dawson, lying in bed so close to death. His color appeared awful, and Connor didn't need a doctor in the room to know that only electricity and machines kept the Watcher alive.

"Tell me the whole story," Connor said, making himself as comfortable as possible considering the weariness in his body and ache in his heart. "I want to know everything."

***

The first thing Margaret did when she got off the plane in Orly was find the nearest women's room and almost collapse in the privacy of a stall.

I just spent six hours sitting next to Connor MacLeod, she thought, over and over again.

She'd recognized him the minute he boarded the plane. She'd seen a great deal of him in the days after Tessa Noel's death, when he'd gone to Seacouver to watch over Richie. Since then he'd visited the city twice. Seeing him walk down the aisle and take the seat next to hers had been horrifying. She didn't exactly fear him - that he could kill her with his little pinkie seemed beside the point - but she'd worried for the entire flight that she would blurt out something about Immortals, Richie, the Watchers. Her curiosity tried to get the better of her - was he on his way to France because of Richie's death? Because of Joe's heart attack? Did his Watcher know? Should she call the New York division when the plane landed and tell them?

She'd been on airplanes or in airports for almost thirteen hours. The time difference meant it was nighttime in Paris, when back home it would be early afternoon. She felt mixed-up and muddle-headed, bloated from the airline food, and confused by all the signs in French. Too many tasks lay ahead of her to indulge in self-pity, though. She called Jack, who'd promised to find some kind of affordable lodging for her while she was in Paris.

"Hey, how was the flight?" he asked.

"Just don't ask. Where am I staying?"

"Gisele Pelisson found you a room. She also said she'd meet you at the baggage claim for your flight. Look for a woman in a long black coat wearing a black hat."

Black coats and hats? Could her French counterpart possibly be any more cliche? Margaret followed a bewildering set of arrows until she reached the correct automated carousel for United. She found her battered old suitcase circling on its side with a large gash in it and two wheels hanging loose. She dragged it off angrily, hoping none of her underwear had fallen out for all the world to see. She wondered if it was even worth the effort to try and get the airline to pay for the damage. Two steps later she ran into a severe-looking woman with birdlike features and long, braided gray hair.

"Etes-vous Margaret?" the woman asked.

"Yes. I mean, oui. Je suis Margaret. Gisele?"

"Oui. Bienvenue a Paris."

The welcome to Paris sounded like the announcement of a funeral. Gisele set off at a brisk pace toward the exit, leaving her to drag her damaged suitcase along the concourse. Gisele's car, a small black Volvo, looked as severe and foreboding as its owner. Behind the wheel, though, Gisele proved to be a repressed Indy 500 driver. She whipped out into airport traffic so quickly that Margaret had to grip the armrest for safety.

"Don't go fast on my behalf," Margaret said.

Gisele shot her a look. "Quoi?"

Speak in French, Margaret reminded herself. She asked Gisele about Joe. The French Watcher hadn't been able to go to the hospital yet - she'd had to go either to the veterinarian or the podiatrist, Margaret couldn't translate which. Gisele proposed taking her directly to the hospital and then on to a room her aunt rented over either a car-repair shop or a lamp factory.

Margaret took a deep breath. She wanted to get to Joe's side as quickly as possible, but she knew once she got there she might not be able to leave for days. She also had the added worry that if Joe was also the impetus of Connor MacLeod's trip, she might run into the Highlander at the hospital. Would he understand that mere coincidence had put them in side-by-side seats? What did he know about the Watchers, anyway? Thoughts of the hospital aside, Margaret wanted to seize the opportunity of having Gisele at hand. Speaking slowly and with her best possible pronunciation, she asked the other woman to take her to where Richie Ryan had been killed.

Gisele didn't answer for four miles, but finally asked Margaret why.

Why, indeed? To torture herself? Nothing would bring Richie back. But seeing where he had died might bring a small measure of closure. She didn't know if Gisele would understand that.

In French she asked, "Have you ever had one of your assignments die before?"

Gisele's mouth tightened. Yes, she had, she answered. She said nothing beyond that. Afraid to press the issue, Margaret turned her attention to the dark city outside the car windows. She'd finally made it overseas, to someplace more exotic than Vancouver or Niagara Falls. All she could see, though, were low buildings and occasional neon signs. The air smelled different - both dirtier and drier than Seacouver - and Gisele's car engine sounded a little louder than the ones at home. They drove in near-silence for more than forty minutes before her host turned off into an empty parking lot and killed the ignition.

"Ici," Giselle announced. "C'est ici que ca c'est produit."

This was where it would happen. No, where it *had* happened. "Un . . . stade?" Margaret asked, fumbling over the word for stadium.

"Un circuit de course." A racetrack.

Margaret stared at the building for a long moment. "Comment vous savoir le . . . mort de Richie?

She'd asked Gisele how she could know that Richie was dead. Gisele's stony expression didn't change as she told Margaret that Richie had been walking alone near the river at night. Gisele had been ready to go home when she saw him start to act strangely - he'd run and shouted after something she couldn't see, made a quick phone call and sprinted seven blocks to the racetrack before them.

Duncan MacLeod arrived a few minutes later in his own car. The Quickening came shortly thereafter. Joe Dawson and Adam Pierson appeared at the tail end of the lightning show, far too late to be of use. Only MacLeod, Dawson and Pierson left the building. None of them had been carrying a body or sack, although Pierson held both MacLeod's katana and Richie's sword. Gisele had waited a half hour before calling Dawson on his cellular phone, and he'd confirmed the kill in a broken, grieving voice.

The toneless, flat description of events left Margaret cold through and through. "You're saying Duncan killed him?" she demanded. "Joe said Duncan killed Richie?"

"Oui." Giselle also added that it would not be the first time a mentor took his own student's head.

Margaret couldn't imagine any circumstances that would make MacLeod kill Richie. Still, she had to see the site for herself. She got out of the car. Gisele didn't budge.

"Aren't you coming?" Margaret asked.

Gisele's expression tightened, but she slowly exited the vehicle. Margaret was glad for the company, and even more glad for the Frenchwoman's flashlight. Together they found a half-ajar door in the north end of the building and squeezed their way inside, accompanied by the lonely sound of wind cutting through the overhead concourse.

Although the Quickening had long since passed, Margaret imagined she could still smell the faint odor of ozone and burned dust in the air. Sadness swept through her again at the thought of Richie meeting his end in such a gloomy place, so far from home. Had he gone bravely? Had he even seen his fate swinging toward him? Gisele's beam picked out scorch marks cut across the walls on the lower level, evidence of an Immortal beheading. They found large bloodstains near an escalator, but no sign of a corpse.

Gisele wrinkled her nose. "Quelle est cette odeur?"

Margaret had noticed the smell too, and had been trying not to breathe too deeply. She knew what the odor meant. As a girl scout back in Philadelphia, she'd once adopted an elderly woman in her neighborhood, helping her with light shopping and cleaning and companionship. Her final trip to the apartment had been after being away for a few days, and she'd found that same smell inside - the unmistakable stench of death.

"Let's go," Margaret said abruptly, afraid she might be sick. "I've seen enough."

She repeated herself in French. Without looking to see if Gisele understood, she turned toward the exit and found her way blocked by a large man who'd appeared out of nowhere.

"Ladies," he said, in a rather charming fashion. "Rushing off so soon?"

"Qui etes-vous?" Gisele asked sharply.

"Who am I?" he asked, flashing his teeth in a smile. "Who are you? This is private property. It's not open to the public."

Margaret lifted her chin defiantly. "We're lost. I thought we might find a phone in here."

"There are a dozen outside the entrance you came in," he answered. "Come now, you'll have to do better than that. Besides, you don't look like the type to carry swords - who are you?"

Margaret's Watcher instincts flared immediately - the stranger had to be mortal if he couldn't tell their status. But that he knew about Immortals in the first place - before she could think of a way to turn the questions on him, Gisele pulled at her to come away.

"Not so fast," the stranger said, and tried to grab a handful of Gisele's coat. The Frenchwoman struck out hard and fast with a karate blow to his sternum. He staggered backward, then lunged for her arm and tried to twist it up behind her back. Giselle slipped from his grasp with a sharp elbow to the side. He managed to grab her braided hair and gave it a powerful yank. Giselle's head snapped back. She drove out the palm of her hand, catching him flat in the middle of his face. The sharp crack of bone snapping rang through the air and he fell in a crumpled heap to the floor.

Margaret gaped at her in astonishment.

"I am always prepared for the worst," Gisele gasped in French.

She urged Margaret toward the exit. Margaret resisted. She'd seen a stairwell in the darkness behind the man and wanted to investigate. Instinct pulled at her strongly. She cautiously stepped around the limp body of the stranger.

"No." Gisele shook her head.

"Oui," Margaret insisted. Beside the stairwell was a large metal grate that looked scorched from the Quickening. The smell of death came most strongly from between its metal ribs. Margaret had no renewed interest in finding Richie's corpse, but she did want to know why the well-dressed, well-spoken stranger who knew about swords had chosen to hang out in an abandoned racetrack. She walked gingerly to the top of the stairwell and peered down into the darkness below. A small light shone brightly in a side room.

Her heart started to beat loudly and erratically. Margaret dried her wet palms on her slacks. She'd never wanted to be a secret agent, police officer or spy. She preferred her suspense in novels. She certainly hadn't left her family for this insane trip in order to slither around dark basements. But she descended the stairs anyway and stopped at the bottom to take in two sights - one gruesome, the other astonishing.

The gruesome one, a headless corpse, almost made her regret ever joining the Watchers in the first place.

But the astonishing one, the vision of Richie Ryan with his head still attached, temporarily wiped all regrets away.

***

Margaret did her best to ignore the awful corpse and focus, instead, on Richie Ryan.

"Mon Dieu," Gisele murmured from the doorway.

"You can say that again," Margaret whispered. The stench of the corpse beside Richie made her close her eyes for a minute to fight down the cold, sickly faintness washing through her body.

Gisele spoke several pointed sentences in French.

Margaret blinked and looked back down at Richie. She thought about the man lying unconscious one level up, the young Immortal's captor. She couldn't breathe properly, not with that rotting odor hanging like a curtain in front of her face. But she couldn't bring herself to move an inch, either.

Gisele took two steps forward. "Les Observateurs ne s'impliquent pas."

Watchers don't get involved.

Margaret didn't need any French Watcher to tell her that. She knew that according to regulations she should stand up and walk away. She was absolutely forbidden to pull that knife from his chest or otherwise get involved in Immortal affairs. That her very own boss had made it a habit of regularly interacting with his assignment - and several Watchers in Seacouver knew about Joe's transgressions - should have no bearing on her own actions.

Get up, walk away, leave Richie to fight his own battles, a little voice insisted in her head.

Margaret stood up. She nodded to Gisele without looking her in the eye. On shaky knees she followed the other woman up the stairs, past the unconscious man and out of the oppressive racetrack gloom into the littered parking lot. No stars broke through the city glow that reflected in the thin clouds overhead. Margaret knew she would regret leaving Richie until the very end of her days, but told herself that the Watcher oath had not been designed for her convenience or questioning.

Up until the minute she touched the handle of Gisele's passenger door, she thought she could keep her vows.

"I can't," she said, before she could censor herself. She looked directly at Gisele and said, in halting French, "If I had an adopted son who turned out to be Immortal, and a Watcher like me left him alone and helpless like that when she could have saved him - I'd kill her. I'd honestly kill her."

Gisele shook her head and told her again that helping Richie was against the rules.

"I have to," Margaret answered simply. "Rules or no rules."

She started back to the racetrack. Gisele got into her car and slammed the door. A moment later the engine cranked to life. Margaret refused to look back. Gisele drove away. Margaret's stomach turned into chunks of cold ice, and she fought the nearly overwhelming urge to run after the automobile, to cry out that she'd made a mistake -

"It can't be a mistake," she said to herself. She wondered, fleetingly, through her fear, if Joe Dawson had first stumbled from his vows in the very same fashion.

And she wondered how the hell she was going to survive in Paris with her suitcase and purse in the back seat of Gisele's car.

But before she could worry about that, she had to rescue Richie Ryan.

***

Methos told Connor all the facts and details he thought relevant, although he skimmed over his own role in the Four Horsemen. He couldn't risk Connor reacting like his clansman had - they had no time for raging moral or philosophical debates. When he had finished, Connor sat in perfect silence in the whitewashed stillness of Joe Dawson's hospital room.

Then he stood up and announced, "I'm going to find Duncan."

"No," Methos returned. "Duncan can wait. I need you to stay here and guard Joe while I look for Cassandra."

The Highlander raised his eyebrows. "You think I came to Paris to baby-sit? I'm sorry about Dawson, but I'm here because of Duncan. If what you say is true, and the witch of Donan Woods is doing something to his head, then I want to find him and get him somewhere safe."

"There is nowhere safe!" Methos said. "Connor, we don't even know if he's still alive. He asked me to kill him. When I refused, he walked away without his sword. Just how long do you think he'll last alone without the will to fight?"

"He'll last until I find him. I can't believe otherwise," Connor said. "I know where to look."

"The barge? Darius' church? Cassandra knows those places, too."

"Then I'd better hurry."

"Connor . . . " Methos growled in a low tone. Connor could be as infuriatingly stubborn as his clansman - a fact Methos had counted on, but which he still found irksome.

"I'll try to stay in touch. I hope your friend here gets better."

Connor left.

Methos went to Joe's bedside and watched the mortal sleep in a web of machinery and medication. "I'm sorry," he said, "but I have to leave you. If you were awake, you'd probably tell me to go ahead and not worry about it. MacLeod is a friend to both of us. But I don't know . . . I don't know if you'll be here when I get back."

Joe didn't stir.

"If you go on . . . " Methos found himself at a rare loss for words. He squeezed Joe's hand for a moment, taking no comfort from the coolness of his skin. "If you go on, Joseph, I hope you find whatever you believe in. You've been a good and noble friend."

He turned and left to follow Connor.

***

More afraid than she'd ever been in her entire life, Margaret crept back into the darkness of the racetrack. She knew she had to hurry - that man might wake up at any moment, might already be awake and waiting for her - but she wanted to be as quiet as possible, and each footstep sounded like thunder to her. She had only Gisele's flashlight to light the way, and she kept one hand cupped over the beam to limit its scope. When she peered around the wall to where they'd left the stranger she saw him flat on the ground, still unmoving.

All she had to do was creep by him, but her feet refused to move.

She thought of Richie, lying dead, but the image failed to motivate her. She thought of her favorite heroine in a series of novels by Diana Gabaldon. Claire Fraser would be brave. She'd slip by any number of bad guys to get to her beloved Jamie. But Richie was not Margaret's beloved, he was her assignment, and for a full moment she couldn't think of any good reason to risk her life, her family, and everything else she held dear for the Immortal in the basement.

Her father had been fond of an old Army saying that he'd brought back from World War II. Margaret had always thought it vulgar, and she'd never even repeated it in front of the children, but for the first time ever she found it useful.

Okay, Margaret, she said to herself firmly. Shit or get off the pot.

She stepped forward. Three steps, pause. Five steps - did he move? Her heart sounded like the giant throbbing drum of some African tribe celebrating in the bush. She skirted around him as much as possible, not even daring to breathe. His hand did not shoot out to grab her ankle, and he gave no indication whatsoever of regaining consciousness. She hurried past him and down the steps. The gruesome corpse of the slain Immortal did not bother her as much as it had earlier. Margaret crouched by Richie, wrapped both of her shaking hands around the knife in his chest, and pulled.

It moved, but just barely. She braced herself and tried again. It didn't exactly slide out, but she slowly managed to retract it through layers of muscle that held it as thickly and tightly as plywood. Once the bloody blade was fully exposed she flung the weapon to the ground. It landed with a dull clatter by Richie's hip.

"Wake up," she whispered, pinching his cheeks. "Come on, Richie. Recover."

She knew that it might take hours for him to come back to life, possibly even a full day. But then again, he'd once recuperated from a dive out of a ten-story building within minutes - she vividly remembered seeing his body hurl down through the night sky - and if he could do it once, he could do it again.

"Richie!" she said urgently. "Hurry up!"

No response. Margaret slumped back and sat on her heels. The basement's chill worked through her jacket and blouse down into her skin. She studied the way Richie was chained. She'd need the key to free him. With a shudder, she wondered if it was in the stranger's pocket. She couldn't imagine being brave enough to search him.

But no, there, in the corner, a dark gray dufflebag. Margaret went to it and hastily rummaged through the contents. A Thermos, the wrapped remains of a sandwich, a flashlight, a gun and an Eiffel Tower key chain. The gun made her pause. She'd held her father's old service revolver, but that had been plugged and made inoperable. The sleek, black weapon before her now looked very operable indeed. She switched her gaze to the small silver key dangling from the key ring. She inserted it in the lock on Richie's wrist manacles and nearly cried out with relief when the metal fell away.

Even after she removed the chains he remained curled in place, his muscles frozen in death. Margaret tried pinching his cheeks again, then slapped his face lightly. She had no idea if such measures worked on Immortals, but she had every reason to try.

"Richard Ryan, wake up this minute, or I promise we'll both be sorry," she said, in low and urgent tones, trying not to think how exactly like a mother that made her sound.

Richie gasped, his whole body convulsing for a brief second, his eyes shooting open, his expression nearly wild. He moaned, tightened into a ball, rolled spasmodically on the cold floor. He clutched both arms against his chest, obviously in pain. "Oh, shit," he muttered, over and over again, his voice hoarse. "Oh, I hate this part!"

Margaret fell back a few inches, unsure of what to do.

"Who are you?" he ground out, stilling himself, sweat gleaming on his forehead.

"I'm . . . Your Watcher."

She said it simply, aware once again of another oath falling by the wayside. Richie shot her a hard look - she knew that aside from his friendship with Joe, he held a scathingly low opinion of her organization. But she held his gaze, refusing to back away from her profession.

Richie pulled himself laboriously to his hands and knees. "Where are we?" he demanded, each word an effort.

"A racetrack. Do you remember what happened?"

Slowly he climbed to his feet. "Yeah, I remember," he said, swaying. "Where's the guy?"

"Upstairs. He might be back any minute. Can you walk?"

"As far as you can, lady," Richie answered firmly, although his color appeared shockingly pale in the lantern light. Between his ghastly complexion and blood-stiffened clothes, he looked like a lost extra from some cheap horror film. "Let's get out of here."

Margaret scooped up the dufflebag on her way to the door and fished for the gun. For a moment she considered keeping it for herself, but common sense ruled and she gave it to Richie. "This might come in handy."

"It might," he agreed grimly. He clicked off the safety and checked to see that it was loaded. "What's your name?"

"Margaret."

"Stick close, Margaret."

She would have stuck close anyway, without the admonition, if not for safety than to catch him if he keeled over. Margaret had seen severely intoxicated men stumble from her father's bar with more steadiness than Richie exhibited. His knuckles turned white as he clenched the stair railing for support, and she found herself leading rather than following.

"It's not much further," she coaxed. "Just a little way."

He may or may not have been listening to her - with his head bowed, she couldn't tell. But he made it up the stairs and to the first floor of the racetrack. The man hadn't moved on the floor. Richie used the toe of his boot to roll him over. He bent down and felt for a pulse.

"Dead," Richie said.

Margaret looked at the stranger's shattered nose and frozen expression. Surely Gisele hadn't meant to kill him - but her blow had struck too hard and accomplished too much. Before she could think anymore on the subject, she felt herself start to vomit. She turned away quickly, gulping in the stale, dusty air, trying to think pleasant thoughts. When she turned back, Richie had already started to search the dead man's pockets.

"Nothing," he said. "No wallet, no money. We've still got to get out of here fast - he wasn't working alone."

"Who else?" she asked.

He gave her an appraising look. "Cassandra," he finally said. "Know her?"

"Just things I've heard," Margaret admitted.

"You can tell me all about them later." Richie stood up, more steady than he'd been just a few minutes earlier. "Where's your car?"

Margaret couldn't help but look at the dead man again. "I don't have one. We'll have to walk."

"Do you have a cell phone?"

She shook her head. "But there are some outside."

The payphones outside the north entrance proved to be out of order, though. Richie hit and cursed at the last one they tried, and she automatically took a step backward. He seemed very much the angry young killer she'd seen in the months after Duncan's Dark Quickening, and nothing like the kindhearted adult she remembered fondly. Richie must have seen something in her expression, though, because he shook his head ruefully.

"Sorry. This hasn't really been my day." He leaned his head against the broken phone. "I'm starving."

"I think there's something in this bag - "

Richie shook his head. "Let's put some distance between us and this place first. Do you have any money for a cab?"

"No," she said glumly. "My wallet is in the backseat of someone else's car."

"And my wallet's disappeared. Well, that's what they made feet for, right?" he asked, without any trace of humor.

They walked across the parking lot toward the lights of a bridge. A light drizzle slanted out of the sky, dampening their clothes. Margaret smelled the oily Seine before she saw its rushing darkness. Richie found them a place under the bridge out of the rain, and only then did he accept the half-eaten sandwich from the bag. He tried to give her some.

"No," she lied, "I'm okay." In truth, her stomach had begun to ache with emptiness, but she thought he needed the food more. Richie sniffed at the contents of the Thermos, took a tentative swallow, and spit it out almost immediately.

"Really gross coffee," he said. He screwed the top back on and tossed the Thermos aside. "So, Margaret, are you going to tell me what happened, or are you bound up by some vow of secrecy or something?"

He couldn't have chosen worse words to reawaken the conflict in her chest. Margaret pulled her knees close and huddled into her jacket for warmth. "Why don't you tell me your version," she proposed reluctantly after a long moment. "I'll try to fill in the rest."

Sitting in the cold darkness under the bridge, they swapped stories. Richie volunteered what Michael Colbert had said about the Quickening and MacLeod. Margaret told Richie what Gisele had seen from the parking lot. She also told him about Joe Dawson's heart attack and how she'd flown over from the States to see him.

Richie shook his head vehemently. "A heart attack! I can't believe it. He's not old enough to have a heart attack."

"Even young people can have heart attacks," she answered. "I'm sorry. I know he's your friend. He's mine, too."

Richie shook his head again, his expression troubled. He looked off at something she couldn't see. A stale breeze kicked up from the river, rattling some paper trash and plastic wrappers littering the ground. Margaret had always dreamed of Paris, of seeing the Eiffel Tower and Louvre museum, but never once had she imagined herself sitting cold, hungry and exhausted at midnight beneath an old bridge in the middle of nowhere.

Finally she said, "There's something else you should know. Connor MacLeod arrived here on the same plane I did."

"Connor? That's good. Maybe he can help sort out this whole mess." The young Immortal abruptly stood. "Thanks for all your help. I probably owe you my life. If I see you around, I'll pretend not to know you . . . Watcher rules and all."

"Wait a minute!" Margaret scrambled to block his way. "Where are you going?"

"Find Mac. Find Connor. Find out who's messing with us. I also want to see Joe."

"But everyone thinks you're dead. And Cassandra is still out there. It's probably not safe for you to go back to any place she might be watching - the barge, your apartment, Joe's hospital room - "

"I'm not going to go hide somewhere until this all passes over!" Richie retorted. "Mac already tried to get me to leave town once."

Margaret swallowed on a small, cold lump of pride. "Richie, I don't have my wallet, passport, credit cards or any cash. Everything I brought with me, including my phone book, is in the back of Gisele's car. My family thinks I'm in New York. I don't . . . I don't have anywhere to go."

He hesitated. "Don't the Watchers take care of their own?"

"What do you mean?"

"If we get you to a phone, then you could call someone, right? They'd come get you?"

"I suppose so," she admitted.

"Then we'll get you to a phone. Come on."

Richie set off along the riverbank at a brisk pace. Margaret struggled to catch up. "But where are we going?"

"Mac's barge. It's about a mile from here."

"But Richie, she might be watching - "

"She'll be looking for me, not you," Richie said. "And Mac might be there - I can at least let him know I'm not dead. If he's not, maybe there will be some clue about where to look for him."

Unable to come up with a convincing argument or alternate plan, Margaret followed his lead.

***