Connor walked the streets of Paris, accompanied by legions of ghosts. Although he wanted to be focused - no, needed to be focused - he found it impossible to rein in the thoughts freewheeling through his mind. Duncan killing Richie. Cassandra, the witch who'd haunted the woods, now terrorizing Duncan with visions of evil. Methos, who may have told him part of the truth, but in his own way had probably not told him all of it. Paris, the old jeweled city, stretched around him for miles, every darkened corner full of malice, every holy acre a potential hiding spot for Duncan.
Methos had suggested two likely places where the younger Highlander might have sought refuge, but Connor had his doubts about both. The barge would be too full of heart-wrenching reminders of Richie. Likewise, Darius' church would only stir up horrific images of the priest's murder. Still, Connor found it impossible to detour around St. Joseph's, and reached the corner across from the church just as its bells struck the hour of midnight.
The peals resounded against ancient stones and bounced along the cobbled tiles of the street before fading in the stillness of the medieval town. Connor blinked - cobble? medieval? - and rubbed at his eyes. The lines of stones resolved into shadows on asphalt, and he shook off the odd weariness that made him think that for a moment he'd been transported back in time. He glanced up at the church's roof, remembering a time when he, Methos and Darius had sat out on the eaves with a bottle of wine and spoken of life and women. That time seemed like a faded page in an old book he'd put away, yet it was only fifty two years in the past.
Connor turned and headed south, toward the river. Duncan tended to withdraw after the deaths of loved ones, pulling away from all of civilization to grieve in privacy, punishing the world for causing him heartbreak and punishing himself for allowing it. Connor knew that path and had walked it more than once himself, though he'd decided it really didn't help much. Duncan might still be in the city, stunned by his own actions, and if so, Connor had a small chance of finding him. If he'd already left, though, if he'd gone trekking off to the mountains or desert or somewhere equally remote, then Connor might end up searching for centuries.
Well, he didn't really have anything better to do anyway.
The small chapel he walked toward had, a hundred years earlier, been part of a larger church in a prosperous neighborhood. Now it stood alone in one of the worst neighborhoods of Paris, at the end of one of the city's darkest and loneliest alleys. Connor passed huddles of vagrants, a few tired prostitutes, two or three drug addicts with wild eyes and a sour stink on their clothes. He shied away from a row of garish neon lights and went through a maze of tiny streets with the same unerring sense of direction that had always guided him in the past. He felt another Immortal before he reached the barred doors and filthy steps of the tiny stone building. A hatch no bigger than a loaf of bread swung open and a small, oval-shaped face peeked out at him.
"It's me," Connor said, in Turkish. "Connor."
The face disappeared as the wood clicked shut. After a moment, the door swung open on silent hinges. A nun in the traditional habit of the 1920's unlocked the gate. She looked about fifty years old, and her gray hair hung in a coiled braid down her back. Her head came no higher than Connor's breastbone.
"Hello, Melena," he said, embracing her tiny figure. "Is he here?"
Connor followed her inside the gloomy and cold chapel. The only light came from a half-dozen thick, yellowed candles in tarnished holders. He knew the place well. The walls and ceilings had been painted by masters, even though their vibrant colors now lay muted under layers of soot and age. Fine details spilled from one majestic panel to the next, each scene a mystery that explored the glory of God. The small solid gold crucifix hanging above the altar looked unimpressive, but it had seen the coronations of kings. The chapel only had room for a dozen pews, each at least a hundred years old, and Connor found Duncan curled up and sleeping on the first one like a child who'd run away from home.
"Did he tell you?" Connor asked Melena.
She nodded. Her hands fluttered like tiny birds before she quieted them. Connor and Duncan had both tried to teach her sign language over the centuries, but she'd refused. Perhaps she felt no auxiliary system of communication could replace the tongue the Greeks had cut out of her pre-Immortal mouth. Giving Connor a little nod, she stepped away behind the altar with near perfect silence and grace, leaving him to his task in private.
Connor took a deep breath and put one hand on Duncan's shoulder, prepared to fight if his clansman woke up violent or confused or, as Methos claimed, beset by insanity.
Duncan's eyes opened, but the rest of him remained perfectly still.
"Connor," he said thickly. He sounded confused and lost. His expression looked hollow, and dark circles of exhaustion ringed his eyes. "Is it you?"
"Yes, it's me," Connor said.
"Are you real?"
"As real as anyone else."
"Good. You can take my head . . . "
Duncan's eyes started to slip closed again. Connor shook him until he opened them again.
"I'd sooner cut my own heart out than cut off your head," the older Highlander said roughly, deliberately shading the words with the harsh, beloved accent of their ancestors. "Pull yourself together. There's work to be done."
Duncan shook his head wearily. "You don't know what's happened."
"Of course I know. What do you think, that I magically appeared here in Paris? Methos told me. Now get up before I drag you up. Stop whining like a child."
Genuine hurt broke through Duncan's lost expression - a hurt so deep and fierce it nearly made Connor flinch. But it disappeared almost instantly, sublimated under a layer of hopelessness.
"You don't understand - "
"Of course I understand." Connor grabbed Duncan by the scruff of his coat and hauled him upright on the bench. Surprised, maybe a bit angered, Duncan slapped his hand away and retreated against the hard wood, shaking his head.
"You don't know what I did - "
"You killed Richie."
Duncan bent over slightly, as if Connor had punched him in the stomach. His shallow breathing grew faster. "Yes."
"Did you mean to?"
"No! Of course not - I thought he was someone - no, something - else. But it doesn't matter. I'm the one who did it - my stroke. My sword."
Connor grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him slightly. "You didn't mean to do it. Hold on to that, if you can't hold on to anything else. Don't blame yourself for making a mistake."
Duncan broke free and shot upright to his feet. "A mistake?" he cried out. "Is that all I did? Made a mistake?" He paced in front of the altar, anger spilling out of him like rushing water broken free from a dam. "A mistake, like forgetting to pay the electric bill? Like sending someone a birthday card instead of a Christmas card? Like feeding dog food to the cat? Some little error in judgment, some little quirk to laugh about later?"
"No one's laughing, Duncan - "
"I chopped off his head!" Duncan yelled, bringing himself to an abrupt stop, his arms open wide. The anguished words echoed against the ancient stones. Duncan's voice dropped to a hoarse whisper. "Don't you see? There's nothing I can ever do . . . to fix that. To bring Richie back."
"No," Connor agreed, from where he sat on the bench. "But you can avenge him."
Duncan snorted humorlessly. "Seek vengeance against myself?"
"No. Against the force that drove you to such confusion. Against whatever made you think Richie was your enemy."
Duncan stared at him silently, his eyes filling with tears. He turned to the altar before they could spill down his face. His coat hung larger on him than Connor remembered, and his shoulders had slumped beneath an enormous unseen weight.
"I killed my own student," he said, his voice barely audible.
Connor rose and went to him. He put his hand gently on Duncan's shoulder. "Either you did deliberately, or you did it by mistake. I'll never believe you did it deliberately. As for the mistake - nothing will bring Richie back. When the time is right, we'll mourn him properly. But for now, you've got to move forward and keep it from happening to anyone else."
The younger Immortal didn't answer. Connor turned him so that they stood face-to-face. Duncan's tears fell freely and silently, and his whole body trembled. Connor held him tightly, overcoming Duncan's stiffness and resistance until he accepted the comfort and strength.
"I know," Connor said. "I'll miss him too."
"You didn't love him . . . "
"Not like you did. But he was my family, too."
They stood there, holding tight, as Melena moved around the edges of her chapel and extinguished all but the last remaining candle.
"That's it," Richie said, shivering in strong winds off the river. He gestured toward the long, dark hulk anchored against the choppy water. "Mac's barge. Here, take my key."
"Are you sure this is wise?"
"Five minutes," Richie said. "You go in, you make a few phone calls, you come out. I'll keep watch from out here. Grab some rolls or cookies or something on your way out, okay? I'm starving. And if you see a sword, grab that too."
Margaret knew that if she ever grabbed a sword, she'd probably cut all of her fingers off by accident. She pulled Gisele's flashlight from her pocket and gripped it tightly. If she got to keep just one souvenir of this insane trip to France, it would probably be that tiny four inches of black plastic. "I feel like I'm breaking and entering," she complained.
"I've done that - this is nothing like that - now will you please go?" Richie said, nudging her forward.
Margaret walked toward the barge with as much of a reasonable, steady pace as she could manage. She wondered if it might be wiser to sprint toward the vessel - or, better yet, race off in some completely different direction. When she found Gisele again, she intended to strangle her. Margaret closed the distance between herself and the barge and made her way cautiously up the gangplank. Only when she inserted Richie's key in the lock did she stop to consider the strangeness of standing outside Duncan MacLeod's French home. He, Tessa Noel and Richie Ryan had shared this home for a winter and spring before returning to Seacouver and being struck down by tragedy.
Could Richie really know Duncan wasn't home? What if they'd been too far to sense him? The last thing Margaret wanted was to walk in on the grieving Scotsman. Richie seemed convinced there wasn't another of his kind in close proximity, though, and she'd have to trust his judgment. Not that she really had much of a choice - she did need to use the phone. Hopefully the Highlander wouldn't mind extra long distance calls on his monthly bill. She would call Jack, who could have his service disconnected to prevent MacLeod from ever tracing it back.
But she couldn't call home, the one thing she wanted to do more than anything else. She'd promised to call when she got settled in "New York" and was hours overdue. Bill and the kids would be frantic.
You'll think of some new lie, she reassured herself. They'll never know you flew all the way to Paris.
She turned the lock and doorknob and stepped inside. Cold air wafted up from the dark interior. Using her flashlight, Margaret picked her way down a short flight of steps. A lavatory and small galley stood to her left. She stepped down again into the living room and found a sleek black phone on a coffee table. She snatched it up and dialed Jack with a shaking finger.
While it rang in the States, she couldn't help but examine more of the interior of the barge. It looked stark and masculine, cold, utilitarian. If she'd lived there, she'd have to redo all the colors and decorations. Maybe add some plants.
"Greetings," Jack's voice said in her ear. "You have reached the voicemail and pager of - "
Margaret groaned. She didn't want to page Jack. If any of her reckless decisions should lead to a Watcher investigation, the last thing she wanted was Duncan MacLeod's phone number on Jack's phone account. She hung up and, reverting to a very old nervous habit, began to chew on the end of her fingernail. She would have to Lambert Industries directly. Gisele might not like what she was doing, but surely she wouldn't refuse to return Margaret's passport, wallet and belongings.
She had just started to dial when the lamp in the corner switched on. Margaret whirled and dropped the receiver at the sight of Connor and Duncan MacLeod, the two Highlanders, standing not ten feet behind her. They looked tall and strong and deadly, with almost a thousand years of killing experience between them.
"Well, if it isn't the woman from the plane," Connor said. "A little lost, are you?"
The rules of Immortality seemed simple to the very young. The Game, the Gathering, the injunction against Holy Ground. The odd, shivery feeling that accompanied the presence of their kind, a built-in warning system. Methos often saw new Immortals embrace such rules as clean, hard absolutes, never thinking to dig at their crumbly edges until a few shades of gray flaked away. For instance, it wasn't against the rules to fight on Holy Ground, only to kill. And although the so-called "Buzz" did alert other Immortals, it was still possible to follow someone without tripping that sense of awareness.
It had taken him a few decades to hone his skill at it. He couldn't dampen his Buzz, but he could follow someone at a distance and keep them from being aware of it. The technique involved extreme caution and an internal awareness of the faint stage preceding the alarm - a dip in his own body temperature. If he felt that, he knew he had just seconds to fall back before both he and his quarry felt the full effect.
The trick wasn't a secret - any Immortal could learn it, given enough patience and practice. The man who'd started trailing Connor when he left the hospital did it well enough. Methos did it better. The three of them proceeded through Paris, an odd nocturnal parade of Immortals stringing around corners and trailing in shadows. Methos couldn't tell who it was following Connor, only that he seemed of medium height and weight and wore a short brown leather coat.
Cassandra had somehow engineered the tragedy at the racetrack, even if Methos still wasn't sure exactly how. She had tricked Duncan into killing Richie and probably even followed Duncan into the night, to kill him or capture him for her own nefarious purposes. Connor's quest to find his clansman might already be doomed to failure. But just like Joe, Duncan unfortunately rated as a secondary consideration. Finding some trail back to Cassandra was the most important thing.
Lost in contemplation, Methos almost edged too close to his quarry. He stepped back at the last moment. Connor had led them to Darius' church, an obvious first choice, but he hadn't gone inside. The Highlander then walked to a decrepit old church in the red-light district. He emerged from its old stone depths some time later with Duncan in tow - a surprise to Methos, but then again, he should never have underestimated Connor MacLeod.
The two Highlanders went back to Duncan's barge. Methos caught a brief glimpse of the Immortal following them. With no great surprise he recognized the young-looking Arab one who'd been with Cassandra outside Joe's flat. The strange Immortal adroitly slipped into shadows by the bridge. Paris lay dark and quiet all around them, the city gone to sleep at last, the wind cold and sour off the Seine. Methos moved to take up position further down the riverfront and ran straight into the preliminary sensation of yet another Immortal hiding in the darkness of an underpass. Just how many Immortals were there in the area, anyway? Enough to start a mini-Gathering, perhaps.
Stumped for a suitable hiding place, uncomfortably caught near a wide expanse of sidewalk, Methos started to retrace his course back through the park he'd crossed just moments earlier. He'd gone no further than three steps when a violent shiver seized him head-to-toe as surely as if he'd dropped into a vat of icewater. He instinctively reached for the comforting hilt of his sword as he whirled, determined to face the cause of such coldness.
Alexa smiled at him, her face soft in the moonlight, her eyes black as night. She wore a mere slip of a dress, and he could see the sweet outlines of her breasts.
"Adam," she said, her voice tinkling like a distant buoy across the ocean. "I've been looking for you."
Richie watched Margaret climb onto the barge. He wished he could follow her, climb into Duncan's big old bed, and just go to sleep for a few days. Weariness tugged at every corner of his brain, weighing down his limbs and making it hard to even stand straight. His stomach growled like an angry caged animal.
"Come on, come on, come on," Richie muttered under his breath. Little puffs of frost followed each syllable. He should have told Margaret to grab some of the petty cash Duncan always kept in a cookie jar in the galley. With luck, once he'd sent his Watcher on her way, he could find an all-night cafe or bistro. After that, he had no idea. All plans for the future stopped at the dream of two hot roast beef sandwiches and a giant chocolate milkshake.
Figures appeared in his peripheral vision. He turned and squinted. Two men walked out of the park and headed toward the barge. Connor and Duncan. He could barely make out their features, and the distance between them was too far to trigger the buzz of recognition. He almost stepped forward, almost called their names, but a sudden dark thrill of fear held him back. He tried to shake it off - what in the world did he have to fear from Connor or Duncan? - but instead the dread grew worse, an icy turmoil of panic.
"Richie," someone called behind him - a woman, her voice furtive and frightened. "Come here. I need your help."
He whirled in shock. He knew that voice. He carried it with him always, in pleasant memories of the antique store and awful nightmares about a dark street, a mugger, gunshots.
"Tessa!" he said, even though he knew the woman behind him was not and could never be Tessa Noel. She was dead, forever gone, ripped from his and Mac's life with stunning finality. Icy shivers raised ripples of goosebumps under his shirt and he took a step backward at the sight before him.
"No," he whispered, shaking his head. "You're not real - "
Something hard slammed into the back of his skull, sending him spinning down a tunnel of blackness away from Tessa's blurring image.
"Oh," Margaret said in surprise, unable to articulate anything more. Her brain went absolutely blank. Watcher training had done little to prepare her for being caught in an Immortal's home. Being caught in Duncan MacLeod's home to be more exact, by MacLeod and his clansman Connor. Her mouth went dry and her hands began to shake. She clasped them together tightly, and tried to think of a reasonable defense. Nothing came to her.
"Who are you?" Duncan asked, sounding tired but angry. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm sorry," she blurted out. The next words tumbled out faster than she intended. "I had to use the phone - Richie gave me his key - "
Duncan's face tightened. "That's a lie."
Connor lifted his chin, appraising her with cold ruthlessness. "You'll have to do better than that. Richie is dead."
"But he's not - I'm his Watcher - he was at the racetrack and he's outside now - I know this looks bad but I swear it's true - "
She babbled like an idiot, unable to stop herself. "It was a trick by Cassandra! It's all some kind of trick."
For a moment the two men stared at her with no trace of belief or mercy. Margaret had visions of her own body floating in the Seine. Not that she truly believed either MacLeod enjoyed killing mortals, but it wouldn't be the first time an Immortal killed a Watcher. She wished she could have said goodbye to Bill. To her children.
"How do you know about Cassandra?" Connor asked. "Tell the truth."
"Richie told me! I'm sorry, I know you think he's dead, but he's outside - he said he'd keep watch - "
Duncan turned abruptly away. For a moment she thought she'd upset him beyond the capacity to speak or even look at her, but then she realized his attention had swerved to the bedroom area.
"No," he said, as if speaking to someone she couldn't see. "I don't believe you."
Connor turned. "Who are you talking to?" he asked Duncan.
"Don't you see him? Horton." Duncan abruptly lunged toward a hanging display of swords on the bulkhead and ripped down a rapier. He yelled, "I won't let you trick me again!"
Connor saw nothing to inspire Duncan's attack. Part of him urged him to try and talk Duncan out of the hallucination, but a more pragmatic side seized hold of Margaret's hand and pulled her toward the hatch. "Leave here now," he said. "Stay away from us and out of this affair."
"But Richie - " she protested.
Connor hesitated. He didn't know what game she was playing, but Richie was dead - wasn't he? He heard Duncan give a battle-cry and watched his kinsman violently attack a post. The madness that must have gripped him at the racetrack had started all over again. Connor pushed Margaret out the hatch and up into the cool brisk air of night, following at her footsteps. "Leave!" he commanded sharply, even as the thrill of another Immortal's presence sang out clearly and forcefully in his body and jerked his attention to the waterfront.
He saw Methos walking calmly and slowly from the dark part of the riverfront toward the low stone wall overlooking the Seine. He seemed oblivious to the presence of a black van only a dozen yards away from him. Two men were loading a limp body into the side of it. A third man, an Immortal, stood by the van's front door. A tall streetlamp clearly illuminated the scene. Connor's stomach dropped as he caught sight of familiar features and short blond hair on the one being dumped into the vehicle.
"That's Richie!" Margaret exclaimed in dismay.
Methos walked calmly and purposefully to the wall, pitched over its side, and landed with a splash in the river.
"Stay here," Connor ordered, and tore from the barge's deck with sword in hand. Events had rapidly spun away from him, but despite Duncan's hallucinations and Methos' unusual swim, he knew he should first see to the cause of rescuing Richie from that van. As Connor left the gangplank, the Immortal standing by the van door raised his right hand and locked gazes with him.
All sense of purpose fled Connor's body. All ideas of rescue disappeared. A strange, empowering calm took hold of his senses, freeing him from urgency and adrenaline. A peace unlike any he'd ever known washed through him, and he smiled.
"Come with me," the man said, without moving his lips.
Connor climbed obediently into the back of the van.
Alexa smiled at him. The sunlight on the beach gave her face a healthy glow, and the fragrant breeze hinting at salt and jasmine ruffled her hair. Her dress had become a demure bathing suit that camouflaged how skinny and wasted she'd become in the final weeks of her disease. She held out her hand and urged him to join her in the water.
"It's so lovely here," she said. "Thank you for bringing me. Come, let's swim."
Methos resisted for only a few seconds. He knew that she was not real. He knew that the Seine riverfront near Notre Dame had not turned into a beautiful Mediterranean beach. He knew the dead never rose again. But he wanted to believe otherwise in all three instances.
He went to her slowly, took her warm hand in his.
She smiled. "Isn't it a gorgeous day?"
"Yes," Methos agreed, his heart filled with an old grief. She had died too young. He'd gone to epic lengths to save her, all in vain. Love had always been the cruelest joy of Immortality.
"I'm so glad to see you," Alexa whispered, and put her head against his shoulder.
He looked down fondly and saw no hair, no skin, only a bleached and pockmarked skull.
A giant ocean wave rolled over him, drenching Methos with its cold and oily sheen. He instinctively kicked upward, coughing on a chestful of water, and in bewilderment broke to the surface sputtering out an awful taste. The Seine swirled around him, MacLeod's barge only a few yards away, the golden light of Notre Dame furthur up the river. A woman leaned over the stone wall above him.
"Adam?" She called down. "Adam Pierson?"
Methos kicked towards the ladder embedded into the river's wall and grabbed hold of a rusting rung. "What the hell?" he complained, and remembered Alexa, the beach, grief. After regaining his breath he climbed the rungs laboriously. The woman helped him over the side.
"Who are you?" he asked, as water dripped out of his soaked clothes.
"Margaret Allen," she said. "We've met, remember? At Joe's?"
A Watcher. Just what he needed. Methos yanked his coat off and let it fall in a sodden heap to the sidewalk. "What's going on?"
"You walked into the river," she said hesitantly. "The men in a van took Richie and Connor. Duncan is on the barge, attacking something."
She was obviously crazy. Methos pulled off his shoes next, and peeled away two ruined, mismatched socks. Embarrassment at having fallen for Cassandra's tricks made his cheeks burn. "Nonsense," he snapped. "Richie's dead. I saw the aftereffects of the Quickening myself."
"Nevertheless," Margaret answered, sounding somewhat brittle, "he's alive. But they took him. And Connor."
He spared her a close look. She appeared sincere enough, and maybe not crazy after all. Methos barely remembered meeting her back in the U.S., but Joe had spoken well of her and she'd done a reasonably good job of following Richie around. How she'd gotten to Paris was another story, and one in which he had no particular interest yet.
"You said MacLeod is attacking something?"
She nodded, and he realized how exhausted she looked. Exhausted and scared.
"Well, let's see if he's finished," Methos proposed, starting toward the gangplank. He had no particular desire to be MacLeod's next target but hoped Cassandra had finished with her shenanigans for the night. He approached carefully, Margaret a few feet behind. He sensed another Immortal, but none greeted him at the hatch. Methos went below deck and found the vessel full of torn pillows and sheets, ripped furniture, wrecked paintings. Someone had slashed through them all, and the likeliest candidate sat on the deck in the middle of a pile of down feathers.
"Methos," Duncan said, his voice heavy with grief. "Horton. He was here. Oh, god, I'm insane."
Duncan covered his face with his hands and began to weep silently.
Methos would have preferred it if the Highlander hadn't just given away his identity to a Watcher. In retrospect, he should have just left her outside. But he was tired, too, and allowed a few mistakes. He glanced at Margaret, who was busy surveying the wrecked inside of the barge and seemed to have entirely missed Duncan's comment. Well, he'd just have to worry about it later.
"I think what's best," Methos said, gingerly stepping through the wreckage and removing a fallen rapier from Duncan's side, "is if someone made some tea. Margaret, do you think you could do that?"
She stared at him blankly. "Tea?"
"Tea," Methos confirmed, and directed her to the galley. He took an afghan that had survived in two big pieces and draped them over the Highlander's shoulders, but didn't try to console him just yet. Methos retired to a corner of the bedroom and quickly, efficiently stripped out of his soaked clothes. In a drawer he found a pair of jeans too narrow to be MacLeod's. Richie's, probably. Methos donned them and slipped on a borrowed shirt as well. Only then did he go and urge Duncan to get off the floor and take a seat on the sofa.
"I don't know what's real and what's not anymore," Duncan said, his eyes downcast, his face shockingly pale. "Was Connor here? I remember he came to the church . . . "
"Yes," Methos said, feeling an unexpected stab of pity for the Highlander. "Connor was here. He's not at the moment, though. What did Horton say to you?"
"Threats. Gloating. Saying I killed Richie - and Connor, too. Did I?"
"No, you didn't."
"Positive." Methos didn't mention that Connor might be dead anyway.
Margaret appeared with the promised tea and a plate of sandwiches as well. "I apologize for just helping myself, but I'm starving. It's been a long night."
"Yes," Methos agreed. "It has."
He reached for a sandwich himself, surprised at the hollow emptiness in his stomach. How long had it been since he'd eaten? Methos vaguely recalled a ham and cheese croissant Connor had brought from the airport. Duncan made no move to touch his tea or the food but instead sat locked in his own private misery.
"The demon," he muttered. "It's everywhere I turn."
Methos said, "There are no such things. It's Cassandra who's been doing all this."
"Richie did say she was involved," Margaret volunteered. When both Immortals gave her sharp looks she said, "I swear I'm not lying! He was being held prisoner at the racetrack. He said he'd been kidnapped, that Cassandra had arranged for some other Immortal to lose his head."
Methos hesitated. He had seen Richie's corpse himself - but it had disappeared upon his return to the concourse. He had seen the aftereffects of a Quickening - but it could have been anyone's. He hadn't felt Richie's presence after Duncan's abrupt departure, but if the younger Immortal had been dead at the time, he wouldn't have.
Duncan shook his head. "Richie's dead. And you'll never make me believe Cassandra is behind all this."
Methos turned his attention back to the Highlander. "Why?" he challenged. "Are you telling me it's easier for you to believe in a demon than in a spurned woman? You remember Kristin, don't you? Or any of the dozens of other women who've turned against you in the past?"
Duncan's gaze lifted and locked on Methos with the slightest flicker of hope. "But how . . . "
"She has the power to influence minds," Methos reminded him. "That includes you, Landry, his granddaughter, Richie, anyone. Although, I'm surprised at exactly how much power she seems to have - more than ever before."
To be truthful, he was mostly surprised at the power she had over him. Even knowing Alexa had been unreal, he'd followed her image into the river. Cassandra's mental persuasion had never worked before on him, neither in the wild and ancients days of the Four Horsemen nor in the dark days of Bordeaux.
"Maybe she has help," Margaret volunteered. "Someone who can also do what she does. There was an Immortal in Seacouver who could create visions - his name was John Garrick."
"Roland Kantos," Duncan said. "Cassandra's old student. He could, too."
"They're both dead," Methos reminded him. "You took their heads, right?"
Duncan nodded. His chest deflated and he looked down again in obvious despair. That had not been Methos' intention - if anything, he theorized that perhaps by taking their heads Duncan had absorbed some of their ability - but that direction of speculation could wait.
"Just because they're dead doesn't mean there aren't more," Margaret said. She hesitated before asking in a tremulous voice, "May I ask why she hates you, Mr. MacLeod?"
"It's an old story," Methos said, unwilling to admit that Cassandra hated more him than she hated Duncan, hated him more than anyone on the entire planet. He decided that enough was enough - he had no intentions of putting another mortal life at stake in Cassandra's game, and although Margaret seemed intelligent and reliable, he really knew nothing about her. He stood up and said, "It's very late. We appreciate all your help, truly we do, but let me call you a taxi to send you to your hotel. Where are you staying?"
Margaret's cheeks turned pink. "I'm not staying anywhere. When I went to the racetrack, the Watcher with me - Richie's Paris Watcher - took off with my wallet, passport and suitcases. She didn't approve of my getting involved. I don't have anywhere to go."
"I see." Methos should have known better than to assume he could just pack her off into the night. Nothing in his life was simple. "Well, I know a small place near Les Invalides that always has a spare room, and the owner is a friend of mine. You can stay there. I'll loan you the money until you get your things back."
"Thank you. I appreciate it."
With several hundred soggy francs in hand, Methos called first a taxi company and then his old friend Isaac. They'd been friends since the fourteenth century, although he didn't mention that to Margaret. When the lights of a car appeared on the waterfront outside he started to walk Margaret out. She stopped at the door, clearly mustering her courage.
"I'd like to help you look for Richie and Connor," she said. "I may not know Paris, but there must be some way - "
"Richie's dead," Duncan said from the sofa. "What you saw was another trick. A hallucination."
Margaret opened her mouth but Methos put his hand on her arm, silently dissuading her from argument. Duncan's refusal to consider that Richie might be alive was probably one of the last defense mechanisms left to him. If he believed her, and Richie did turn out to be nothing more than a vision, the Highlander would be further crushed. Better not to get his hopes up in the first place.
"It's too dangerous for you to help any further," Methos told Margaret. "Look what happened to Joe."
"What happened to Joe?" Duncan demanded.
Methos sighed. "I'm sorry. He's had a heart attack. He's in the hospital."
Duncan looked stricken at the news. Methos wished he'd kept his mouth shut. The night just kept getting worse and worse. He walked Margaret to the taxi. She didn't say anything until he opened the car door, then blurted out, "Adam, are you sure you can trust MacLeod? From everything you've said, it sounds like she can control him. She can control you, too."
"I know." Methos said. "We'll have to do the best we can."
She asked the question he'd been dreading. "Why did MacLeod call you Methos earlier? Isn't that the name of the legendary Immortal, the one who's lived the longest?"
"It is," Methos acknowledged. "MacLeod tangled with him in the past. He must have been hallucinating about him as well as Horton."
Margaret nodded, apparently accepting his explanation. "Adam, do you believe me about Richie? Do you believe he's alive?"
Methos hesitated. "I don't know. For MacLeod's sake, I hope it's true."
Margaret slid into the back seat. Methos double-checked with the driver that he had the right address and watched the Peugeot drive away. It occurred to him that she had just taken the last of his money. He made a mental note to stop by an automated bank machine sometime in between fighting hallucinations, tracking down Cassandra and saving Connor. Methos scanned the dark night, uncomfortably aware that he'd left Duncan and his sword alone inside the barge. Maybe not such a good idea, that, given Duncan's latest activities.
He returned to the light and warmth inside and found Duncan sitting in the armchair. He'd poured himself a glass of Scotch. Methos found a beer for himself and sat down, exhausted and drained. He had no idea of where to look for Cassandra. No theory of how to stop her. And all too many bad ideas about the fate of Connor MacLeod. The temptation to flee the entire mess came back to him, the pattern of centuries past.
"How do I know it's you sitting there?" Duncan asked. His free hand curled into a fist, then flattened against his thigh. Piercing brown eyes pinned Methos to the cushions. "How do I know you're not just another hallucination like Allison or Kronos?"
"You saw Kronos?"
"Yes. Here in the barge. In full battle paint."
A cold finger poked Methos squarely between the shoulderblades. "In real life, you never saw Kronos in battle paint."
Duncan's eyebrows lifted. "You're right," he murmured.
"There's your answer, then," Methos said, pleased with himself for solving at least a small part of the puzzle. "Cassandra is not above making mistakes. If you see something that doesn't quite fit - if I were sitting here drinking a Diet Pepsi, for instance - then you can suspect something amiss."
Duncan's gaze darkened. "Now's not the time for jokes, Methos."
The ancient Immortal sobered. "No, it's not. But we've both got to pay very close attention to what's going on if we have any hope at all of defeating her. If you see something that doesn't make sense, it's probably Cassandra's doing. Likewise with anyone you know is dead - they don't roam the earth like zombies, MacLeod. They don't rise and talk to us."
"No," Duncan agreed softly. "But sometimes they haunt us anyway."
Now that sounded like the old, melancholy Duncan MacLeod that Methos knew so well. With a silent toast to the memory of his own loved ones who'd died, Methos sat back on the sofa and drained the rest of his beer in silence.
A face stared at him. Young, smooth, with color and features indicative of an Arab background, such dark and fathomless eyes - Connor couldn't help but stare back. But the eyes grew so large and forceful that he had to blink. When his vision refocused, he found himself in a bright, dank, windowless stone room, literally hanging from his wrists. Manacles over a thick overhead beam kept him suspended. Connor's bare feet flailed for purchase and found the floor. He stood stripped of his coat, sword and boots. Two fair-haired mortal thugs appeared in the doorway, dragging an unconscious Richie in by his heels. Behind them walked a dark- haired, leather-clad woman that Connor immediately assumed was Cassandra, and at her heels came a young-looking Immortal with the Arab features Connor so vividly remembered.
"You're back with us," Cassandra said, a tiny smirk on her face. "Enjoy the ride?"
Connor had no memory of a ride or journey of any kind. He remembered being on the riverfront, but nothing after that except for some odd dream about the youth on the other side of the room. He didn't know exactly what to make of that.
"You're the witch," Connor said. "The Witch of Donan Woods. Duncan's ex-girlfriend."
The smirk disappeared, replaced by an icy aloofness. "Your clansman means nothing to me, Connor MacLeod."
"I don't believe that." Connor allowed himself a long look at Richie. "What does the boy have to do with any of this? Haven't you had your fun with him yet?"
Cassandra's smile returned. "On the contrary. My fun with him is just beginning."
She lined the tip of her black leather boot with Richie's side and gave him a short, swift kick. Richie jerked and groggily opened his eyes. Connor could see him peering up at Cassandra, trying to keep fear from his expression but not entirely succeeding.
"Join us, Richard," she said. "We've been waiting for you."
Richie's gaze slipped to where Connor stood chained to the overhead pipe. Connor tried to look encouraging, but in his own hopeless position he didn't have much confidence to project. Cassandra motioned to one of her men, who dragged Richie to his feet. His jacket and shoes had also been removed.
"Who was the woman with you?" Cassandra asked. "The mortal."
"My mother," Richie answered defiantly. "We were shopping for a Mother's Day gift."
Cassandra nodded almost imperceptibly to the man behind Richie. With a swift, fluid movement he drove a short knife into the young Immortal's back, severing his spinal cord. Connor tried to leap forward to help, but the unyielding irons kept him in place. Richie sagged immediately back down to the floor with a startled grunt and landed on his side. Cassandra crouched in her skin-tight leather pants and shirt and cupped his face between her sharp red fingernails.
"Not a good answer. Now, would you like to try again, or should we just puncture your body in every single way conceivable?" she asked.
Richie's mouth worked soundlessly for a moment. His bright blue eyes filled with unshed tears from pain, fear, shock. Cassandra's thug pulled his knife out but Richie remained paralyzed on the floor.
Cassandra stroked his head. "It's not a hard question. And probably not very important. Still, I'd like to know. Would you like for us to set your face on fire? Would you like to smell your own skin charring?"
Connor rattled his chains to draw her attention. "I'll tell you. First let the boy go."
"Oh, no," Cassandra said, rising. "His release is not an option. But if you tell me, I won't have to torture it out of him."
Connor wondered how Duncan had managed to fall in love with such an obviously unbalanced, dangerous woman. "She's no one important. A Watcher."
"Watchers," Cassandra said in distaste. "A meddling bunch of busybodies with nothing better to do than spy on others. What would a Watcher be doing on Duncan's barge?"
"Using the phone."
Cassandra lifted her eyebrows. Without turning, she ordered, "Rip Richie's kidneys out and leave them on the floor."
"No!" Connor said sharply. "It's the truth! She had to call her headquarters."
Cassandra raised her hand. The man who'd been lifting Richie's shirt in preparation for his gruesome task stopped. The Witch of Donan Woods studied Connor intently. "If you're lying, I'll cut off your genitals and make you eat them raw."
Connor's brain ignored the threat, although his groin did shrivel at the very idea. "I'm not lying. She was no one important."
Richie had recovered marginal use of his limbs. He pushed himself up from the floor but didn't try to stand. "What do you want with us?" he demanded, still defiant, but with a shaking voice.
"From him - " Cassandra indicated Connor, " - nothing. Yet. I do like the idea of Duncan fretting about the possibilities, though. It twists the knife a little deeper. From you, Richard. . . "
She lifted a finger. Her henchman advanced on Richie with startling swiftness while Connor watched helplessly. The young Immortal struggled and cursed as they pinned him face-down on the floor and pulled his arms behind his back. One started looping a length of rope around Richie's right arm, from wrist to just below his shoulder. Connor, who recognized the ordeal to come, lifted an ice-cold glare to Cassandra.
"The boy never hurt you," he growled.
"He killed one of my men," she replied. "I need to teach him early on that he can only kill those I tell him to. All pets must be trained early on, with a firm hand."
"I'm not your goddamned pet!" Richie yelled.
One of her men grabbed a fistful of his hair and slammed his head into the floor. The sick thudding noise of bone hitting concrete made Connor wince. Richie's face screwed up in pain and his body went limp but he didn't completely lose consciousness.
"Of course you are," Cassandra soothed. "You're my little plaything. We'll have centuries and centuries together. But first you must learn to obey me."
The largest of her men tied a second piece of rope to Richie's left wrist and laced it through the corresponding loop on his right one. He pulled the rope tight, lashing Richie's hands together at the small of his back. He went back to the left arm, threading the rope around with methodical care, and again tightened it through a right loop. Connor looked away as red began to pound through his vision. He heard Richie groan sharply. The boy's pain had begun to intensify. But it would get worse. It would get very much worse.
Connor looked at the youth standing behind Cassandra, the one who had made no movement or sound since entering the room. He didn't look pleased at Richie's torment, but he didn't make any objection, either.
When the man finished, both of Richie's arms had been pulled together, his shoulders bent so far backward they nearly touched, his whole body bowed with strain. Anguish filled his face. His eyes locked on Connor, as if somehow the older Immortal could help. Connor held his gaze steadily, offering as much silent support as possible.
"There," Cassandra said brightly. "Are you learning yet?"
Richie squeezed his eyes shut. "Go to hell."
She wagged a finger at him. "That just earned you another fifteen minutes. Care to go for a half hour?"
"Fuck you," he growled.
Cassandra lifted her right foot and pressed her leather boot down on his neck, grinding the stiletto heel into soft flesh. Richie's face went sheet-white. Cassandra said, "You're stubborn now, but soon you will be so well-trained you'll be throwing yourself at my feet to beg my favor. Defy me, and I'll punish you twice as hard; please me, and you'll find infinite reward."
Connor lifted his chin. "Is that the type of woman you are? You get your sexual thrills by tormenting children?"
Cassandra smiled. "You have a better suggestion?"
Connor didn't blink. "Yes. Let me free and give me my sword. We'll see how thrilling things get."
Cassandra did not appear afraid in the slightest. "That's an interesting proposition, Highlander. But I don't think so. I'm having too much fun doing things my way."
She lifted her foot from Richie's neck. He gasped in much-needed air as he twisted helplessly in the ropes, his features stark and drawn. Connor's chest ached at the sight. He'd watched men be tortured before - total strangers, often, but sometimes close friends - and each time more and more of their pain gouged into his heart. Sourness rose in the back of his throat and he had to swallow before he vomited. He could do absolutely nothing to help Duncan's protege, only bear witness and plan for the moment he ripped Cassandra's Quickening from her still-warm body.
"You're all mine now," Cassandra told Richie. "Suffer in that knowledge as well as those ropes."
Her henchmen freed Connor from his manacles and started to pull him from the room. Richie called out his name.
"I won't be far," Connor vowed bitterly. "Do you hear me, Richie? I won't be far."
They took him down a long hallway. Before they reached the other end, Richie started screaming. Connor lashed out at his captors and landed two solid punches before a sharp blow to the side of his head sent him reeling. He was only marginally aware of being shoved into a dim, moldy-smelling room. When he fully recovered his senses he found an empty room devoid of any windows, furniture or amenities. A solitary hot water pipe ran up the wall in one corner, and an old light fixture on the ceiling gave off a dull glow.
Connor did two complete sweeps of the room, but the only way in or out of it was through the thick wooden door that had been locked behind him. It had no interior doorknob or hinges and wouldn't pry free of its jamb. After a string of particularly strong Gaelic curses, the Highlander retreated to one corner and tried to focus himself. Based on his clansman's hallucinations in the barge, Connor didn't think Duncan would be coming to the rescue anytime soon. Methos had last been seen walking into a river, and probably wouldn't be much help either. Connor would have to fight for his and Richie's freedom on his own. He had no doubt that if Cassandra didn't kill him, she'd end up deploying her sadistic skills on him as well as Richie. He'd had enough of that in one lifetime already, between the Sassenachs and Nazis and a dozen different enemies -
Connor clamped down on the bitter images of his past. Reliving his own ordeals would not help anyone. He stewed over wild plans for escape until the scrape of the door brought him to his feet. Two of Cassandra's men brought Richie in, while a third kept a .38 gun trained on Connor. Richie could walk, but just barely. As soon as the thugs released his arms he fell to his knees. He started to pitch forward to the floor, but Connor caught him before he got far. Richie landed against the Highlander's chest with a small grunt. He stank of blood and sweat and tremors wracked his lean body even as Connor tightened his hold.
"He's no match for her," one of Cassandra's men said. "None of us are."
As soon as they left, Connor lifted Richie away a few inches and studied his wounds. The ropes had left deep, awful burns in his arms at even intervals. His hands had no circulation in them. The injury to his back had healed to a think pink scar, but it had yet to disappear. A small discolored lump marked where his head had been slammed into the floor.
Connor knew that Immortals healed at different speeds, and that weariness and hunger both could affect the process. No mark on Richie's skin would eventually remain, no injury would permanently hamper him, but in the meantime he would not enjoy his body very much.
Richie's eyes were open, fixed on nothing Connor could see. He hadn't said a single word yet.
"Richie?" Connor asked. "Are you here with me, or somewhere else?"
Richie heard Connor speaking to him but had no inclination to respond. The too-fresh, too-raw, too-awful memory of the rope torture whirled ceaselessly through his mind, a ferocious internal storm. Although he knew he'd been freed, that he'd been temporarily reprieved, that Connor had replaced Cassandra, he couldn't make himself believe any of it. Reality shifted in and out, red-hot fire in his arms replaced by Connor's careful touch, the Highlander's concerned expression swept away by Cassandra's leering smile. The pain blasting through his body like a furnace competed with the ice-cold, arctic temperature of the room, crushing him with contrast.
"Come on," Connor urged, his voice muffled in Richie's ears. "Say something."
He had nothing to say. His entire vocabulary had been driven away by screaming. New mortification washed through him like acid - humiliation at being so weak in front of Connor. The Highlander would have taken everything Cassandra threw at him with a stoic expression and shrug of his shoulders.
"Come back to the here and now, Richie. I need your help."
Richie tried to turn away from the stinging sarcasm - Connor couldn't possibly ever need or want his help with anything - but he was too weak to move away. He squeezed his eyes shut, a soundless sob working up through his chest. He felt himself gathered in Connor's arms and pulled to the other Immortal's chest. He held himself rigidly still, irrationally afraid of more pain to come.
Connor said, "You're safe now. Try to relax."
Relax? Impossible. Not with his arms being pulled out of their sockets by the unrelenting tension of the ropes - No. That was the past. His arms hung loose and damaged at his sides, not entangled in the unforgiving knots. They would heal. But he couldn't feel his hands, and knew circulation there had been cut off entirely. The tissue had already started to die.
"Hands," Richie blurted out, opening his eyes. He tried to jerk away again.
Connor held him securely. "What about your hands?"
"Dead." The awful implications of that made him dizzy, and Richie sagged against Connor's chest. "Can't . . . lift a sword."
"Not at the moment, no," Connor agreed. "But since we have no weapons anyway, it's not worth worrying about. Give it time."
"You don't understand," Richie said miserably. Resting against Connor made him feel ridiculous, like a baby, but the softness of Connor's shirt and the warmth radiating out of him gave Richie a small scrap of comfort. He could settle for scraps, especially since it looked like he'd lose both of his hands . . .
"You're a little confused right now." Connor shifted slightly beneath him, muttering something unintelligible in Gaelic. "And heavier than you look. Go to sleep. Your body needs rest."
If he lost his hands, Duncan wouldn't teach him. Other Immortals would point and laugh. Disturbing images of amputation followed Richie down a little black hole. He didn't think he actually slept, but hovered somewhere in between oblivion and memory. A mad tingling in all of his fingers brought him to groggy awareness sometime later.
"Welcome back," Connor said.
Richie sat up and pulled away. He examined his hands and arms. The slow healing progressing up his limbs tickled and itched, but he knew scratching wouldn't help. He felt drained and confused, not entirely sure of his surroundings. "What's going on?" he asked, his throat raw and hoarse.
"Not a lot. You look better."
Richie wondered if he were joking. As usual, Connor's expression gave away nothing. The young Immortal felt a whole new flush of shame and discomfort as memories of Cassandra's punishment returned. He scooted back against the wall, not far from Connor but with a definite distance between them. He let his arms hang loose, his hands limp in his lap.
"This pipe is warm," Connor advised, patting the metal beside him.
"I'm not cold," Richie said. Not true. The chill and dampness in the room easily slipped past his shirt, and goosebumps prickled along his back. He just didn't think the cold was very important on top of all their other problems.
"I'm cold," Connor admitted.
Richie didn't answer.
They sat in silence for a few minutes until the older Immortal offered, "Did I ever tell you about my friend Thomas Dooley? He was my student in the early 1800's."
"Is he still around?" Richie asked bleakly. "Does he still have his head?"
A second's hesitation. "No."
"Then I don't want to know."
Richie didn't enjoy being so blunt, but he didn't think he could listen to any stories at the moment - especially not with his shoulders in knots, his stomach aching in hollowness, his throat so dry it could just as well have been coated with sandpaper. His eyes felt swollen, and he wondered with self-disgust if he'd cried in Connor's arms.
"Maybe I'll save Thomas for another time," Connor answered, sounding stiff and hurt.
Richie rubbed at this face. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. Please tell me about your friend."
"No. Now's not really the time. You just remind me of him, that's all. Quick on your feet, strong in your actions, and braver than you think."
Richie shot Connor a dark look. He didn't need a patented MacLeod pep talk. What he needed, in order, was a seven-course meal, a very hot shower, a soft bed, and a hole to crawl into for about a hundred years or so. Bitterly he said, "It doesn't take courage to get kidnapped, stabbed, rescued, kidnapped again, and - "
He stopped abruptly. He couldn't force himself to say the next word. Connor said it for him.
Richie fixed his attention on the cement floor. "Yeah. That."
Connor thought about his own experiences at the hands of the Nazis, the ordeals he'd undergone before Methos managed to implement a rescue. He remembered how he'd felt afterward - thoroughly vulnerable, as if every one of his defenses had been ripped away by searing hot claws until he stood naked and shaking before the cruel eyes of the world. He knew no words could truly comfort Richie. Only time could heal his psychic wounds - time, and the knowledge his tormentors had been defeated.
"Tell me what happened at the racetrack," Connor proposed.
In mostly monosyllables the younger Immortal recounted a tale of being kidnapped and held captive until his female Watcher had rescued him. From there they had gone on to the barge.
"I saw Tessa," Richie confided, his voice low. "I swear it looked just like her."
"It was a trick," Connor told him.
"I know, but still . . . " Richie fell silent for a moment. "What about Mac and Methos? What do you think they're doing now?"
"Looking for us," Connor lied confidently. "They'll find us."
Richie wrapped his arms across his chest. "I sure hope you're right."
Connor didn't answer.
Margaret stumbled out of her taxi thirty minutes after leaving the barge. The "small place" that Adam Pierson had sent to her was so tiny an establishment the driver had coasted by it twice. The hotel owner, a little old man wearing a red sweater and yarmulke, greeted Margaret at the front door like a long-lost member of the family returned from years of absence.
"You must be very tired," he said, pulling her inside out of the chill. The small lobby had red velvet drapes and golden wallpaper. Leather armchairs sat before a flickering fire in an ancient marble hearth. "My name is Isaac. Adam told me you were his very special friend."
"I suppose," Margaret said, fighting back a yawn that threatened to split her jaw. "I'm sorry if we woke you."
"I hardly ever sleep. This way, my dear," Isaac said, leading her up a short flight of stairs to a corridor with only three doors in it. He inserted a brass key in the first lock and entered with his hand already reaching for the light. Margaret followed wearily. The room wouldn't win any awards for luxuriousness, but its spartan furnishings and tidy cleanliness would do just fine. Margaret eyed the pillows with deep longing but forced her gaze away.
"I don't see a phone," she told her host. "I need to use one urgently, to call my family in the U.S."
"But you're exhausted! Surely they'll understand if you wait until morning - "
Margaret put her hand on Isaac's arm. "Please. It's very important."
He frowned and fussed but eventually led her to his cramped office behind the front desk. He excused himself and left her in privacy. Margaret sat in a lumpy overstuffed chair and picked up the receiver. She knew calling would be dangerous. Her mind was so numb she could barely even remember her own name. But she couldn't let Bill or the kids worry any further. With a shaking finger she dialed the numbers. The connection rang once before someone snatched it up.
"Hello?" Karen asked.
"Hi, honey," Margaret said. Tears unexpectedly welled in her eyes as she realized how far from home she was, how separated from her children. Homesickness churned her stomach. "It's me."
"Mom!" Karen squealed. "Where are you? How's New York? Dad's been worried all day because you didn't call - "
Margaret took a deep breath. "I'm fine. How was school?"
"I only got a B on my history report, but Scott got a C on his math test! Isn't that worse?"
"Shut up, Karen!" Scott's voice yelled in the background.
The phone clicked as Bill picked up the extension. "Margaret? Is that you?"
"Hi, Bill," she said weakly.
"Karen, let your mother and me talk. Hang up."
"I want to talk to Mom!"
"Hang up, Karen," Bill ordered. Karen said her goodbyes and left the line. "Margaret? Are you there?"
"Right here. How was your day? How are things at home?"
"Margaret, where are you? You're not in New York."
For a moment, surprise startled all thoughts from her. How could he know? Was he bluffing? She hedged her answer. "What do you mean?"
"You didn't call all day. I've been going crazy! I called Jack, I called your travel agent, I even called the taxi company that took you to the airport last night. They told me they dropped you off at the international terminal. Did you hear me, Margaret? The international terminal."
With a sharp pang of resignation Margaret realized some of her lies had finally come back to her. For several long seconds she entertained the thought of fashioning more, but her talent for deception had disappeared.
"I'm sorry," she croaked out.
"Tell me where you are," Bill insisted, his voice angry but controlled. "Tell me where - and tell me who you're with."
Who she was with? Margaret would have laughed if the idea wasn't simultaneously ludicrous and pitiful. Her husband thought she'd run off with another man. And why not? The true explanation - that she'd jetted off to Europe and become entangled in a bitter fued between people who lived forever - sounded insane. She couldn't expect him to believe that. She couldn't expect him to believe anything she said.
But she had to try.
"I'm not with another man," she said, her voice steadier than her hammering pulse. "I didn't mean to hurt you. I'm in Paris, but I'll be coming home soon. I promise to explain everything then."
"Maybe I won't want to hear it then, Margaret. Tell me now. Tell me what's so important you'd turn your back on your family."
"I didn't turn my back - "
"You lied!" Bill shouted over the distances between them. "You lied to all of us."
His blistering anger shamed her. She had no reasonable defense, no clear and convincing explanation. Cut as deeply as if she'd been pierced by a sword, she fell back on truth.
"I've been doing it for years," she whispered, and hung up.
Methos didn't remember going to sleep, but when he opened his eyes he found gray daylight pouring through the barge portholes. He'd curled up in the armchair and a dozen sore places protested the decision as he unfolded himself from its confines. He blinked at the wall clock and realized he'd only had five hours of rest. No wonder his head felt stuffed with wool. Duncan, who'd last been seen on the sofa, was nowhere in sight. Methos heard the flush of a toilet and the run of water. The Highlander emerged from the bathroom rubbing a towel across his face. He hadn't showered or shaved, and he looked like hell, but he seemed lucid.
"Get up," he said. "We've got to find Cassandra and Connor."
Methos scratched his head and fought down a yawn. "You have some brilliant insight into where they might be?"
"No," Duncan admitted. He sounded much stronger and clear-headed than he had the night before as he said, "I know where to start, though. We have to find out about any Immortals with powers like Cassandra's."
A reasonable line of thought, and one Methos had already considered. "I was with the Watchers a long time. I've never heard of anyone else with those kinds of powers."
"You never systematically searched, though, did you?"
Methos sighed. "No. But don't forget, I'm not in the Watchers anymore. I can't just waltz back in and do a search in the library stacks, you know."
Duncan pulled off his shirt, wadded it into a ball and threw it into a corner. He yanked a fresh one from a drawer and dragged it down over his head and the thick muscles of his shoulders. "What about Joe's laptop? He has access to the databases."
Methos supposed that was an idea, but he couldn't convince himself the answer lay in a string of computer data somewhere. "What about Cassandra's friends here in Paris? Don't you know any?"
"She never mentioned anyone. What about her Watcher?"
"She doesn't have one."
"Because she killed the last one. It's corporate policy not to assign a new Watcher to someone that dangerous. Besides, who'd want the job?"
"There must be someone who knows something!" Duncan said vehemently. "Damn it, Methos, I won't let her kill Connor."
Methos gazed at him calmly. "Does that mean you accept that it's Cassandra behind all of this? That there are no demons, and that you're not tasked with saving the world?"
Duncan hesitated before answering. He sat on the edge of his bed and pulled on first a pair of thick woolen socks, then two black boots. "What you said last night makes sense," he finally admitted. "About her hating us, about her powers . . . you really believe it's her?"
"I know it is."
Duncan met his gaze squarely. "There are no demons."
Not a question this time, but a statement. An acknowledgment. The return of reason. Methos felt a heavy weight lift from his chest. "What about Richie?" he asked.
Silence. Duncan wouldn't meet his gaze.
In a low voice Duncan said, "I don't know. I can't . . . let myself hope for much." He lifted his head and took a deep breath. "How are we going to find them? Are there any other Watchers who might have been around last night?"
"Connor's Watcher is probably still in New York - I doubt the local office even knows he's here. Your Watcher is Joe, and he's obviously unable to help. Richie's Watcher has already told us what she knows, what she saw - "
Methos stopped talking abruptly as a new idea popped into his mind. A long shot, perhaps, but he knew of one other person who might have been watching the events of the previous evening unfold.
"What?" Duncan asked. "What are you thinking?"
"I'll tell you while we're driving," Methos said. "Get the car keys."
After the fight with Bill, Margaret cried herself to sleep. She tossed and turned restlessly in the unfamiliar bed, her jumbled and chaotic dreams replaying his anger, her shame, the loss of trust. Other ghastly images made guest appearances - the disembodied corpse at the racetrack, Richie with a knife buried in him. Jet lag further confused her body, and when she woke after just a few hours she found herself unable to fall asleep again. Bleary-eyed and dog-tired, she showered briefly, put on the same clothes she'd traveled in and walked next door to a small bakery for plain croissants and strong black coffee. With Adam Pierson's money wadded in her pocket she took a cab to Joe's hospital. The thick morning traffic moved sluggishly along the main boulevards, allowing her glimpses of famous monuments and buildings, but she felt no excitement or thrill at all.
She didn't think Bill would file for divorce before she even returned home, and she knew her husband was a reasonable man. All she had to do was break her Watcher oath and explain everything to him. Immortals, the Game, the Gathering, her own double life . . . having already broken any number of rules in the previous twenty-four hours, she suspected the ultimate breaking of her oath wouldn't be so hard after all. And her family was certainly worth it. Bill would understand, eventually. Her family life would be restored. She would give up the Watchers - that seemed only fair, a just punishment for both violating her vow and lying to her husband for so long - and settle for a job with far less drama and adventure.
Simple solutions. Not difficult at all. But part of her already grieved for the loss of the life she'd known, the grand secret of which she'd been a part. The world would seem more dull and less colorful. She could return to her PTA meetings without having to worry about Richie's date with an Immortal four times his age; she could juggle housework and errands without having to lie about her job and co-workers. A much more simple life, all in all.
The taxi stopped for a red light. Margaret caught sight of a young man walking on the sidewalk. For a startled moment she thought he was Richie, but as he turned she saw the resemblance was only fleeting. She worried about what has happening to him. Had Cassandra already killed him? Did she have more devious plans in store? And what about Connor, with whom she'd shared that very long airplane flight? What fate had befallen him?
Weighed down by those questions and her own dull misery, Margaret paid the taxi driver at the hospital and went in search of Joe's room. She expected to find him hooked up to awful machinery and on the verge of death. But when she reached his room, she saw only an IV line and a small oxygen tube as evidence of his illness. His complexion had a gray shade to it, but his chest rose and fell with reassuring regularity. She took his hand and held it gently.
"Joe, you're going to be okay," she said. "I know you will."
They'd shared so many years of being Watchers together, so many tales and late nights and secrets. Seeing him hurt more than she'd thought it would. The reality of his illness, strong worries about Richie and Connor, the fight with Bill and overall exhaustion made her start to cry. An elderly nurse entered the room to check on Joe's IV, and Margaret tried to hide her tears.
The nurse patted her arm in sympathy and said, in French, "It's all right, dear. Your friend should recover soon."
It took a moment for Margaret to translate the words in her head. "From a heart attack?" she asked between sniffles.
A frown crossed the nurse's face. Not a heart attack, she said in French. "Poision."
"Poison?" Margaret squeaked, using the English translation of the word. "Someone poisoned him?"
The nurse fetched the doctor, who seemed reticent to talk to Margaret until she flat-out lied and claimed to be Joe's niece, newly arrived from America. He spoke in long sentences about some kind of test or other, a series of lab results, a poison that simulated the effects of a cardiac problem, an antidote. Margaret tried to keep up with the explanation but found herself rapidly falling behind.
Joe's voice startled her as he rasped out, "I'm fine . . . "
She turned back to him with a wide grin. "Joe!"
"Hey," he said. He didn't sound very strong, and his eyes were only half-open, but he squeezed her hand weakly as a sign of encouragement. "What are you . . . doing here?"
"Just thought I'd drop by," she said, nearly giddy with relief. Margaret kissed his forehead. "Thought you could show me the sights. I hear the Eiffel Tower is nice this time of year."
Joe managed a tiny smile, but he was obviously tired and still not recovered. The doctor and nurse checked him over before leaving the two to their privacy. The older Watcher murmured, "MacLeod . . . where is he?"
"He'll be here soon, I'm sure."
"Richie . . . "
"Don't worry about any of that," Margaret urged. She adjusted his blankets and plumped his pillow a little bit. "Just rest."
"Amri . . ."
"Poisoned me . . . said he had no choice . . . got into my room. Methos was . . . drunk . . . passed out in the other room."
She knew she should urge him to sleep. But curiosity and the sense of important information locked in Joe's brain got the better of her. The second mention of the name Methos also snagged her attention, but she put those questions aside for the moment. "Amri who, Joe? Does he work with Cassandra?"
Joe's eyes opened further as he made an obvious effort to speak. "Said . . . he had to do it . . . she controls him. . . he doesn't want to . . . "
"Did he tell you where Cassandra is?" Margaret asked.
"Cluny," he said, and slipped away to sleep.
Cluny. The Museum de Cluny, near the Sorbonne. Not as famous as the Louvre, but she knew it contained an excellent collection of medieval art, furniture and artifacts. Margaret found a payphone in the hall and dialed the number she remembered seeing on the back of Duncan MacLeod's phone. It rang three times before his answering machine picked up.
"Hi, I'm not home. Leave a message," Duncan's voice said in her ear.
"Joe's awake," she said without preamble. "He said something about the Museum de Cluny, about someone named Amri."
She hung up.
She would not go to the Cluny. She had no business there. She couldn't possibly even think of going up against mind-controlling Immortals. If Richie, Connor, Duncan and Adam Pierson couldn't resolve the situation, then a mere mortal Watcher, an American housewife far from home, had no chance at all.
"Oh, hell," she muttered, and went to find a cab.
Two of Cassandra's mortal henchmen brought in a tray of bread and water for the prisoners and departed seconds later without a single word. Connor's watch had disappeared along with his socks, shoes and jacket. He wondered if it was breakfast time. His own internal clock told him morning had come, but in the windowless room he couldn't be sure. Richie, who'd been curled in a ball and dozing restlessly, woke at the noise and eyed the tray suspiciously.
"What if it's poisoned?" he asked.
Connor bit into a roll appreciatively. "I'll take my chances."
Richie followed his lead. They ate quickly and in silence. Connor thought Richie looked better, although still subdued and locked in his own private thoughts. The approaching buzz of an Immortal made the younger Immortal stiffen in alarm. Connor's stomach did a quick twist as well. He expected to see Cassandra when the door opened, but instead the young-looking Arab walked in alone and unarmed.
"What's the Gathering?" he asked shyly.
Connor hadn't expected such a question at all. "The Gathering?" he repeated, stalling for time.
"I've seen it in your thoughts. But I don't know what it is."
Part of Cassandra's strategy became clearer to Connor. She had surrounded herself with disposable mortal thugs and one Immortal sidekick she kept ignorant. The Witch of Donan Woods was supposed to have many magical abilities but as Connor remembered the events on the pier and his strange dream, he thought it possible the young-looking one before him had strange powers too.
"What's your name?" Connor asked.
"Do you know what you are?" Connor asked.
"Immortal," Amri answered, sounding pleased. His expression immediately dropped. "But I'm not good with a sword. She says some people just aren't, and that it's no use trying to teach me."
Connor frowned. "She? You mean Cassandra?"
"My mother," Amri nodded.
Connor didn't know what to say. He didn't think Cassandra was truly Amri's mother - no one knew where Immortals came from, or how they came into being. But she'd obviously deluded him into believing her, into believing possibly anything she said.
"How old are you?" Connor asked.
"Not old," Amri said. He studied the tips of his shoes. "Twenty. But I'll be twenty-one in a few weeks."
Richie made a small noise, but didn't say anything. Connor did the math and figured that Richie was older by just a year or so. Richie had benefited from a loving mentor who'd taught him about the Game and Immortals. Amri had been sheltered by a woman obsessed with vengeance who refused to even teach him swordwork.
"I'm sorry she hurt you," Amri said to Richie. "She . . .likes to hurt people. I don't know how to stop her."
"Help us," Connor said quickly, but before he could ask for more a door clanged somewhere down the hallway. Two different thugs returned.
"You shouldn't be here," one said harshly to Amri. The Immortal flinched as if struck and immediately left. Connor wondered what methods Cassandra had used to make him so quick to obey, or if he was naturally shy and intimidated.
"Your turn again," the second thug said to Richie.
For a moment, Connor thought Richie might make them fight to take him. He sat rock-solid on the floor, chewing on the last of their breakfast rolls. His expression didn't change at the announcement - perhaps he'd been expecting it. After several long seconds he climbed to his feet and gave Connor a cocky look.
"Save my seat, will you?" Richie asked, his voice steady.
Connor nodded, unable to think of any clever retort.
Cassandra's men took him away.
continued in part 3 . . .