Puck Teaser
by Christine Morgan
christine@sabledrake.com / http://www.christine-morgan.org

Author's Note: the characters of Gargoyles are the property of Disney and are used here without their creators' knowledge or permission.
Mature readers only, please.

#62 in an ongoing saga.



He had his face buried in her hair, nuzzling behind her ear and humming softly as he did so. It felt delicious and tickled at the same
time, and between the two she was squirming around so much that she couldn't get her key in the lock.
"Haven't you got that door open yet?" he murmured.
"I'm -- eek! -- working on it!"
"Or I could just take you here in the hall."
"Wouldn't the neighbors love that!" The key slid home with a suggestive motion that made Birdie Yale think of what else would be
sliding home, and fairly soon, too.
The apartment was dark except for the glow from the artificial fish tank, where plastic angel fish swam the same pattern endlessly.
"Teej!" she called. "You home?"
She batted playfully at MacBeth's hands, which were busying themselves under her short velvet-trimmed capelet. He found the
slim spaghetti straps that were the only things holding up her gown, and began sliding them off her shoulders.
"Teej?" Birdie called again, louder.
Still no answer.
"Good, he's gone."
"Will he be walking in on us this time?"
"God, I hope not, I think it gave him a complex catching us like that."
"You must admit, it was unusual. I'd never heard of the 'Paul Revere' position before."
"Sorry it hurt your back."
"And you never did explain what you meant by 'one if by land, two if by sea.'"
They got into the living room without letting go of each other. Birdie used her elbow to hit the lightswitch, dropped her evening bag,
and quit resisting as MacBeth undid her capelet and went back to work on the straps.
"Does that symphony always get you like this?"
"What?"
"You've been humming it all the way back."
He chuckled. "I hadn't realized. The first time I ever heard that piece was a very ... memorable evening. Ever since, it's had a bit
of an effect on me."
"Do tell!"
The top of her gown fell to her waist, revealing the bustier she had on beneath. It narrowed her waist a bit, but best of all it pushed
everything else up and out. The sight of so much creamy skin, complete with rose tattoo on the left, momentarily made MacBeth forget
what he'd been saying.
"The symphony? First time you heard it?" she prompted.
"Ah. Oh. Yes. It was in Salzburg. I was escorting the daughter of a Prussian aristocrat, heiress to a substantial fortune, by all accounts
one of the most prim and proper young ladies in all of Europe."
Birdie's grin widened. "Until she met you, am I right?"
"Not exactly." He tugged at the fabric bunched around her waist, and the gown fell the rest of the way off. Aside from the bustier,
she had on garter and stockings and heels, all very classy and elegant, satin and lace ... but being Birdie, she was also wearing bright red
panties with "If you can read this, you're getting closer" written on the front in gold thread.
MacBeth laughed approvingly at the sentiment and almost lost track of his story again. "Ahem. As it happens, the lady in question
was secretly a lewd minx."
"Like me."
"No, secretly," he stressed. "We sat in her father's private box at the concert hall. Visible to all. Except that the front wall made it
so that no one could see below here." He held his hand at mid-chest level. "Before I knew what was happening, she was reaching into my
lap. She had the most agile fingers I have ever known. And all the while, she kept an utterly demure expression. Only the faintest blush and
the fact that she fluttered her fan somewhat more rapidly than necessary could have given her away."
"What about you?"
"I had to pretend to be quite fascinated in studying the program."
"And that symphony was playing."
He nodded. "But enough about the past."
"I agree. Hang on a second."
"What are you doing?"
She pawed through the mess on top of the stereo and held up a CD. "Mozart's Symphony for Sex in D-minor."
As the music began, MacBeth swept her up into his arms. She squealed in protest; the last guy who'd tried that had dropped her
unflatteringly on her well-padded keister. Broadway might've been able to manage, but their relationship had never gotten that far.
MacBeth carried her down the short hall to her bedroom. Not only did he keep from dropping her, he didn't smack her head on the
doorjamb or knock down any of the stuff hanging on the walls. She sank her fingers into his hair and pulled his face to hers for a steamy kiss.
Her bed was a roomy double, the down comforter bunched around the foot and the sheets in disarray. There were two pillows, and
the nightstand on the far side had acquired a litter of man-stuff -- spare change, ticket stubs, one of his tie-tacks, etc.
There was a similar assortment of hers at his place. They didn't talk about it, or about any other sort of arrangements. It was kind of
comforting just having things the way they were.
She helped him out of his tux and he finished undressing her, taking their time. He was the most skillful and considerate man she'd ever
been with, could drive her wild with nothing more than his voice. Definitely something to be said for centuries of practice!
Much later, the bed was in far more disarray. She stretched languidly beneath him, liking the feel of his weight pressing her down. He'd
told her once how much he relished a woman that a man could actually lay on without getting prodded by bony edges.
"Wait, wait," she murmured, clasping her thighs around his hips as he shifted to withdraw.
"If I weren't immortal you'd have killed me by now," he groaned, but complied and commenced a slow rocking. He was spent, softening,
but still firm enough to rub against her in just the right way.
"Just a little ... more ... oh, there, oh, ooh, yes!" Another set of sweetly tingling waves raced outward from her loins. Then all of her senses
flashed their overload warnings, and she knew if she kept going, she'd cross the line between extreme pleasure and oversensitized discomfort.
She let her entire body relax, rolling her head on the pillow and sighing in contentment. MacBeth moved beside her, echoing the sigh.
"You are insatiable, woman."
"Not true. I'm sated now."
"I should hope so."
"Sex is like a hot fudge sundae."
He raised his head long enough to look questioningly at her. "Oh?"
She smiled. "Yeah, you don't take the spoon out of the dish until you've gotten every last bit of the good stuff."
"I see."
"Which reminds me ... with the mix-up at the restaurant, we didn't have time for dessert. Good thing I have the fixin's!" She stood up too
fast, making her head swim and her legs go wobbly.
He met her in the living room. She swept a pile of T.J.'s magazines onto the floor and put a carton of Dreyer's French Vanilla, a jar of
fudge, a can of Reddi Whip, and a couple of spoons on the coffee table.
"Bowls?" he asked.
"Bowls. Right." She started back toward the kitchen, then paused and looked saucily at him over her shoulder. "Or we could just make
them on each other." She twitched her bottom at him for emphasis.
"I think you're challenging me, Ms. Yale."
"Maybe I am."
"Is there no man you can't seduce?"
"I don't know ... haven't failed yet!"
He glanced down. "The thought of freezing cold ice cream there doesn't do much for the libido ..."
"How about just the fudge?"
"How about we just use you for the dessert dish?" He popped the lid off the Dreyer's.
"Fine by me!" She sat sideways on the couch and leaned against the arm of it, one foot on the floor, the other bent with the knee resting
against the back cushions.
MacBeth picked up a spoon and scraped it across the surface of the ice cream, slowly, so that a graceful curl rolled into it. He and Birdie
eyed each other smokily as he tilted the spoon and let the ice cream fall onto her.
It was cold where she was warmest, the contrast making her gasp. He followed it up with a few more scoops, then drizzled fudge. Then
he shook the can of whipped cream and sprayed a cumulus cloud. He regarded his artistry for a moment.
"Good enough to eat," he said, and bent to do just that.
If T.J. walked in now, Birdie inwardly snickered, the poor guy really would freak out.
That was her last clear thought for a while, as she got lost in the cold-warm-sliding-melting decadence of what MacBeth was doing.
By the time he was done, they were both a mess, and headed for the shower together. First he soaped and rinsed her, then she did the
same for him ...
And then the damn phone rang as she was about to rinse him off.
Birdie swore. "I forgot to turn on the machine."
"Go on and answer it. I'll just finish in here and then we can get some sleep."
She hopped out, toweled off, wrapped it around herself in a sarong that left a peekaboo up one side like a dancing girl, and dashed to
the phone.
Only to find that it was for T.J., one of the guys from Pitbull's reminding him that the darts championship was coming up in two weeks.
Birdie promised to give him the message, and made a mental reminder to put a few bucks down on their team. They hadn't lost a meet
since T.J. joined; luck, they called it. Yeah, luck, right. Luck and a little helping of magic.
She was just getting ready to head back into the bathroom when a shadow landed on the fire escape and a claw tapped on the glass.
A huge grin tried to surface and Birdie struggled to force it down.
"Heya, Fergs," she said as the window opened to admit a swirl of February air. "Hang on, lemme put something on."
"Okay," Aiden said from behind the curtain.
Birdie quickly donned an oversized flannel shirt, a men's 3X Extra-Tall that fell most of the way to her knees. "'Kay, I'm decent."
A grey crest parted the curtains, followed by the rest of Aiden. As usual, she was toting her tote bag and wearing the heart-shaped
pendant Lex had given her for her birthday, way back when she'd still been human.
"I came by to pick up those videos," Aiden said. She looked at the items on the table and the hot fudge splotches on the couch without
comprehension. "Ebon and Gabriel and the kids are coming over for dinner tonight."
"Sure, I'll get them for you."
It was mean, she knew it was mean, but there were times when you had to say what the hell and have fun. Served Fergs right for not
believing her, anyway. Oh, Aiden had never come right out and said, "Birdie, you're full of it," but Birdie knew that was just what she thought.
So she took her time tracking down the three videocassettes, and just as she was about to give them over, the shower turned off.
Aiden's gaze flicked inquisitively that way, then back to Birdie, taking in the wet hair on her friend. A pair of question marks came up in
her eyes. Birdie pretended not to notice.
"Oh, here, I better rewind that one," she said, reaching.
"Um, that's okay." A hesitant sort of blush was starting to darken Aiden's pale grey hide.
"You're out of shampoo," MacBeth said, emerging from the bathroom in the short bathrobe that Birdie had given him because it showed
off his legs. His head was bent and he was toweling his hair vigorously.
Aiden's eyes widened so much Birdie almost heard the bones of her sockets creak.
MacBeth lowered the towel and saw her. "Good evening, Miss Ferguson."
"Eep," Aiden said.
Birdie never did find out what Fergs was going to do, because just then a larger shadow blotted out the light coming in through the
living-room window, and then it exploded inward. Curtains flapped up like the wings of a big startled bird.
MacBeth's reflexes saved the day; he tackled both Birdie and Aiden in the same motion and all three of them landed behind the couch
just as shards sprayed the room.
Looking under the couch, Birdie could see a stray sock, one of her lipsticks, an empty pop can, and beyond that, a pair of blue taloned
feet digging into the carpet.
Aiden, spurred by modesty rather than safety, darted away from the mostly-exposed skin of her former history professor and leapt to
her feet. She eeped again, this time in alarm. "Jericho!"
"Step away, little one. I'm here for MacBeth."
"I'm here," MacBeth announced, standing. "Leave the girls out of it."
"Hey!" Birdie protested, popping up as well.
The sight of MacBeth ignited Jericho to fury. He batted the coffee table aside as if it were made of cardboard. The hot fudge broke
against the raised lid of T.J.'s toolbox and dripped inside.
Birdie had time to think Oh, he's gonna have a shit-fit over that! before MacBeth and Jericho met in the center of the room like
two storm fronts.
There were times when Birdie's mouth went of its own accord. "Ooh-la-la, battle of the hunks!" she crowed, even as she looked
around for a weapon.
"Birdie, this is serious!" Aiden shouted. She made a tentative grab for Jericho's arm, but he shoved her away easily and paid no
attention to the accidental claw-marks she left.
The two combatants slammed into the bookcase, then rebounded and there went the fishtank. Plastic angelfish lay on the rug without
flopping. MacBeth's robe, only loosely tied to begin with, was now completely open.
"You can't kill me," MacBeth pointed out.
"The last thing I want," Jericho answered, "is your death!" He threw MacBeth against the wall hard enough to knock everything off
the nails. More glass smashed as framed pictures hit the floor.
Birdie grabbed the nearest thing at hand -- the can of Reddi-Whip. She thumbed off the lid, shook it, and hollered. "Hey! Big Blue!"
He looked, and she let him have it right in the face. Sploosh!
Jericho reeled back, roaring in outrage. MacBeth stepped, pivoted, and kicked. His foot connected in a solid crunch, and Jericho
flew tail-first out the window, taking the curtains with him rod, rings, and all.
Aiden ran to look down, while Birdie picked her way through the broken glass to MacBeth. He had shards stuck in his feet and left
bloody prints, but Jericho had only punched him around some, nothing serious.
"Hovercraft!" Aiden cried out.
"Demona's?" MacBeth asked, wincing as he started pulling glass from his soles before his flesh healed around it.
"I don't think so! If it's Quarrymen, they're incognito. They've netted him, they're hauling him in!"
"Good!" Birdie gave MacBeth her towel.
"Somebody ought to do something."
"Pardon us if we don't volunteer," MacBeth replied dryly.
"When did you get on his bad side?" Birdie asked.
MacBeth shook his head. "I've no idea what provoked this. Demona and I haven't crossed paths in months."
"He said he didn't want to kill you ... so what did he want?"
"Oh, gosh, I can't believe I'm doing this," Aiden said, as she started to climb onto the fire escape.
"What, Fergs?"
"Well, he's being kidnapped. It could be the Quarrymen, or it could be someone new with a gripe against gargoyles, and whichever it
is, someone's got to find out."
"You are not going after them," MacBeth said in his stern why-isn't-your-homework-done voice.
Aiden quailed but shrugged apologetically. "Sorry, but I've got to do something. Nobody else will. He's still a gargoyle, after all. At the
least, I have to tell Demona what happened."
"Tell Demona!? MacBeth stood, forgetting his injuries and nudity, to stalk two paces toward the cringing female.
She couldn't take it any more. With an abject squeak of shame, Aiden sprang out the window and crouched on the rail of the fire escape.
"Fergs! Fergs, hey, this is a dumb thing you're doing!"
"I know. I'll get the videos later, okay?"
"Forget it; I'll take them over to the castle. I have a meeting with Owen on Thursday anyway."
"With Owen?" Aiden's brow ridges raised curiously. "Why?"
"Testing the new voice-recognition programs." In Xanatos' voice, she added, "I've been working on it," and as Fox, she said, "I think
I'm getting pretty good."
"Aiden!" MacBeth squeezed in beside Birdie. "Aiden, listen to me. Going to Demona is a mistake. If you must tell someone, tell your clan."
"Why? They won't help either."
She hopped backwards into the air, letting an updraft catch her, and despite her concern, Birdie had to admire the easy grace with which
she did it. Not bad for someone Brooklyn practically had to push off the battlement her first evening as a professional gargoyle.
Then she was gone, her small silhouette headed for the Nightstone Building.
MacBeth sighed in exasperation and shut the window. It didn't help much; the other one was a gaping ruin through which the cold wind
whistled.
"She'll be okay," Birdie said. "She and Demona kind of get along."
"I find that hard to believe."
"Maybe it's a wizard thing. Or maybe it's just that Aiden's so damn nice, nobody can be mean to her."
They looked around the destroyed living room and it was Birdie's turn to sigh. "And I thought it was a pit before ... my renter's insurance
doesn't cover acts of gargoyle, either. Damn. And I was planning to snuggle up on your chest and fall asleep."
"You still will," he said. "We just need to take care of this first."
They went to work, and soon had the worst of it cleaned up. Flattened cardboard boxes and plenty of tape blocked the window hole. Birdie
just shoved the contents of T.J.'s entire toolbox into the dishwasher, added extra detergent, and hoped for the best.
MacBeth chuckled to himself. "Now, there's a man I'd bet you couldn't seduce."
"Who, T.J.?" Birdie laughed. "Nah, he's cute and all, but it'd just be too weird. He's more like a brother."
"No, not T.J. --"
"Jericho? Count me out, pal!"
"Owen," he said. "Owen Burnett."
Birdie stared at him, then fell into a chair howling. "Owen! Oh, God, wouldn't that be a hoot and a half! Me and Owen!"
"If anyone could resist your considerable charms, he's the one."
"Don't be so sure. I've caught him looking a couple of times when he thought nobody would notice."
"Oh, really?"
"And it's not like he doesn't; he and Miss St. John didn't get two kids from the good ol' stork, you know."
"Are you saying you could seduce him?"
"I'm saying it wouldn't be impossible, yeah. Why? Daring me?"
"What sort of a gentleman would dare his mistress to seduce another man?"
"Didn't you ever watch Dangerous Liaisons?" She caught herself. "Mistress? Hey, if that's what I am, aren't you supposed to be
paying my bills?"
He ignored that. "It would hardly be appropriate for me to dare you."
"A bet, then?"
"Birdie!"
"What, jealous? You started this."
"I'm not jealous. And I'm not betting." He dumped a panful of broken glass into the trash, grinning back at her. "Besides, you'd fail."
"Oooh!" She threw her arms around him and tickled his ribs, as always eliciting no reaction. "Jeez! Most people are ticklish, you know."
"Yes ... I know!"
"Yow! Quit it!"
"You started this," he mocked.
"I wouldn't fail," she argued, twisting in his grasp. "But I don't want Miss St. John gunning for me."
"Afraid?"
"Well, we could make it a contest. I go after Owen, you go after Cordelia."
MacBeth snorted. "I think not."
"Who's afraid now?"
"Besides, you do have a point. It would be rude to interfere in their relationship. It seems tenuous enough, and an affair might damage that."
"I wouldn't actually do it," she said, pinching his butt. "What sort of girl do you think I am?"
"Should I answer that?"
"Skip it. And skip the rest of this mess." She kissed him soundly. "Let's just go back to bed."

* *

Birdie sauntered into the Aerie Building's lobby as if she owned the place. She waved to Breckenridge as she headed for the elevators,
and rode up with a trio of Asian businessmen in charcoal-grey suits as far as the 38th floor. The rest of the way, she had the car to herself.
At midday, Fergs and clan were sound asleep, so there was no point in popping up to the roof to say howdy. Sometimes it was
inconvenient to have best friends that slept the day away.
Owen's office was deserted, so she made her way to Xanatos'. The door was ajar, and she could hear both the big dude and his right
hand man within.
She peeked and saw Owen sitting with his back to the door, bent over a pile of papers. Xanatos was opposite him, fingers steepled
against his goatee in a pose of lordly thoughtfulness.
The challenge-dare-bet of the other night came to her, and she suppressed a snicker. The impulse was impossible to resist (not that
she had much success in resisting impulses).
In Fox's smoky-throaty voice, she said, "Hello, David darling."
Xanatos looked up but Owen didn't. Birdie put a finger to her lips -- shh!
Amusement glinted in his dark eyes as he instantly assessed her intent. "Hello, dear," he replied.
"Mrs. Xanatos," Owen acknowledged, still without looking up.
Birdie walked up behind Owen, bent over so that her chest brushed his shoulder, and blew into his ear. "Mmrrrowr!" she purred,
still in Fox's voice.
He jumped in his chair and his pen skidded across the topmost paper. A split second later, he was back to his emotionless self, turning
to regard Birdie with a severe frown.
Xanatos couldn't hold it in anymore and burst out laughing.
"Owen, the look on your face!"
"Gotcha!"
"I beg to differ."
Xanatos held up the paper, which had an ink-edged slash ripped on the diagonal. "Oh?"
"Faulty pens." He threw the one he was holding in the trash.
"Come on, admit it, I got you."
"I was not fooled."
Birdie and Xanatos looked at each other, and chorused, "Bullshit!"
"It wasn't as good as I hoped, though," Birdie added. "I mean, I did hear something wham the underside of the desk, but I think it was
just his knee."
Owen had adopted his usual expression of long-suffering disdainful patience, just waiting for the smartasses to have their fun and finish
up so he could get back to work.
She winked at Xanatos and he winked back, and she could see why MacBeth hadn't dared her to seduce him because the game would
be over before it was even begun.
Not that there was a game.
Because there wasn't.

* *

It walked among humans as if it were one of them, and only those who came too close or were sensitive of spirit sensed its fundamental
difference. They left a cleared space around it while they bumped and jostled and cursed at each other.
Did it blend in? It tried, wearing clothes as they did although the cold and the half-melted ice falling from the sky did not cause it
discomfort. The garments felt heavy and strange, restricting its limbs, chafing its skin, but it was adapting.
Its target would be alert, it knew. The slightest strangeness might serve to warn. It would have to do its best to be as a human,
indistinguishable from others, until it was ready to act.
Should it imprint now? Would that help?
How would it choose? It hadn't been prepared for so many humans.
They came in all shapes, sizes, colors. What was most normal? What was least suspicious?
Some of them stank of disease and death, others bloomed with vitality. They smiled and scowled and laughed and shouted, a dizzying
whirl of smells and sounds.
Wait --!
There!
Was that --?
It would not mistake that scent.
It pushed through the nearest group of humans as rudely as it had seen them do to each other. Some of them cursed at it now, as if it was
part of the group, but most shied away.
Yes, there was the scent. Mixed with another ... puzzling ...
It understood.
That human was not the false face, but carried the false face's scent.
Fresh ... recent.
Could the human lead it to its target?
Or ... better yet ...
It followed.

* *

Birdie kicked off her shoes and reached for the phone.
The answering machine light was blinking. Two messages, one from T.J. saying that he was going to be gone until Monday; there was
some sort of hotshot robotics conference in Detroit and the old guy wanted Teej to go with.
"Whatever works for you," she said to the recording.
She'd been over to Renard's place all of once; it reminded her of whichever millionaire had been so germophobic that he'd turned his
house into a sterile environment. Who had that been? Hugh Hefner? No, that was dumb, talk about the furthest thing there was from a sterile
environment! Howard Hughes? Yeah, maybe that was it ... they'd done a Simpsons spoof of it, that much she remembered.
Her mind quit rambling and snapped into focus as she heard MacBeth's shiveringly delicious voice. He had to go to London on business
this weekend, did she want to go along?
"Do I want ... what kind of question is that?!"
She called him right back, got his machine.
"I'm already packing," she told the tape. "And for the record, I spent the whole day doing test-runs on Owen Burnett. He was pretty
flustered by the time he finally threw me out. You'd lose that bet, mister!" She made exaggerated kissy noises into the phone, then added,
"And lemme tell you, hot and heavy flirting all day's left me plenty warmed up. By tomorrow, I'll probably be out of control."
London! She'd only been there once, and then not for very long, courtesy of Fergs' misadventures with Hecate's Wand.
Passport. Oh, hell, where was her passport?
Good thing she was between jobs, not counting this little experiment for Xanatos. There was no boss to make excuses to. Her parents
were in Hawaii, so she didn't have to explain to them that she was going away for the weekend with an older man ... a much older man ...
As she rooted through her bedroom, half-packing and half-searching for her passport, she grinned to herself as she thought about the
day's work.
She'd been able to fool the voice recognition program about 1/3 of the time, and in between, she'd had Owen practically squirming. Flirty
jokes, innuendo ... she had been on a roll, baby! And the more he tried not to blush, the more he tried to avoid her gaze, the more inspired
she'd been.
Good thing she hadn't really been trying to get at him! Poor guy wouldn't have stood a chance.
Wonder what it'd be like if I did ...
Don't even go there, Birdie-girl.
Aww, why not?
Just as her internal dialogue was getting interesting, she heard someone try the knob on her front door.
She paused, passport in hand, and listened.
Knob, turning back and forth in short arcs. It was locked, but she hadn't thrown the deadbolt or put on the chain.
Birdie rolled her eyes. As if it wasn't enough that a psychotic gargoyle had to come busting in the window the other night, now she had
some jerk trying to break in.
"Oh, get lost!" she barked irritably at the door.
The rattling stopped and she heard the thump of feet on the hall carpet. Kid, probably. Scared him off.
She headed to throw the bolt, but then the footsteps reversed, sped up, and she knew what was going to happen with just enough time
to jump back out of the path of the door's swing.
A shoulder collided with it, the lock snapped, the door flew inward, and then he was in her apartment. Some creepy-looking dude in jeans
and an orange vinyl windbreaker, wearing a white baseball cap pulled down so low the brim rested on top of his sunglasses. Sunglasses, inside
and on a sleety February day.
"Stop right there, asshole," Birdie said.
He didn't listen, only swept the door closed behind him and advanced toward her. No gun, no knife, must be a junkie stoned out of his
gourd, oh well too bad he could tell it to the social worker.
She stepped up fast and went to slam her knee into his crotch or his gut, and slashed at his face with the corner of her passport holder --
good stiff plastic, though rounded instead of cut on a sharp point.
The creep didn't even try to defend himself. Her knee hammered into his groin and she knew right away that something was wrong with
him; she encountered neither the soft give of flesh nor the armor of a cup. It was like driving her knee into a wall of hard rubber.
At the same instant, the passport holder whacked him in the face and knocked his glasses off.
Before she could make sense of what she'd seen, he pushed her so hard that she reeled backward -- no, screw that, she flew backward,
all the way across the living room without tripping over anything, wham! into the wall where the pictures she'd only recently re-hung came
clattering down.
Birdie gasped for breath, a sheet of pain reaching from her shoulderblades to her butt, a cap of it knitted tight over the back of her head.
The creep came closer. His nose wrinkled and relaxed, wrinkled and relaxed, and she could hear him snuffling like a basset hound. Snuffling
at her, then nodding to himself as if in confirmation.
He extended his hands with his fingers splayed. Yellow-grey strings shot from them and struck her, vaguely warm and gooey.
Revolted, she tried to lunge away but the strands held her in place like superglue.
Big-league weird, she thought distractedly. With a capital 'weird.'
More and more of the snotlike gluck plastered her. She was cocooned from the neck down, and now there was a new twist -- she had
lost all sensation wherever the stuff touched her. Paralyzed.
She yelled.
Or tried to ... her mouth opened under her own control, but no sound came out.
Still breathing, heart going like crazy, but nothing else worked.
Some of the gluck had gotten in her hair and webbed her to the wall. All she could move were her eyes and mouth.
The creep stood there, swaying slightly, looking at her.
With no other options, she looked back.
Now she could get a better look at what had been concealed behind the shades. No eyes at all. The skin just ended at the eyebrows
and cheekbones, and the spaces between were smooth waxy hollows, mucky grey in color.
He closed in.

* *

Even Owen Burnett could be persuaded to take an afternoon off.
Or ordered to.
Which had been the case today. Because he'd volunteered to play chauffeur this evening, Mr. Xanatos had insisted he spend the rest
of the day relaxing.
So here he was on a snowy Friday afternoon, browsing the bookshops and antique stores with his umbrella furled under one arm.
"Hey, sexy."
He didn't jump this time. Just took a slow breath and released it in a resigned sigh. "Birdie."
"You don't seem very happy to see me."
He glanced at her and let one skeptical eyebrow be his answer.
She was dressed even more outlandishly than usual. Shiny-tight black leather pants, harlot-red sweater (and all too obviously worn with
no bra underneath), a trampy faux-zebra coat with an absurd collar of maribou feathers, too much eyeshadow, and what looked like every
piece of junk jewelry she owned.
"I follow you around all day and this is the greeting I get?" she teased, hooking her arm through his and bumping her hip against him.
Owen cleared his throat and made an effort to distance himself from her. They were drawing stares, oh, were they ever, him in his plain
cashmere topcoat and suit-tie combo, her in what she was in.
"You've been following me?" he asked, letting his disapproval show.
"What's the matter, afraid I'm a stalker?"
"Aren't you over this silliness yet?"
"Silliness? Is that what you call it?"
"That is, in fact, what I call it. You were a trial yesterday, and you are well aware of it."
"You make it sound like you didn't have fun."
He steered her out of the bookstore, and his breath made a visible puff of laughter in the frosty air. "Fun? With your distractions, it took
us three times as long to test the program as it should have."
"You," she said, emphasizing it with a sharp tap in the middle of his tie, "need to loosen up. C'mon, let's go find us a drinkie-winkie or
something."
"At one in the afternoon?"
"This is a global society, so it's got to be cocktail hour somewhere in the world."
"I think not."
"Spoilsport. Guess I'll have to keep following you around, then."
A group of young executives, waiting on the corner to cross the street at the end of their lunch, looked knowingly from him to Birdie. She
sensed their scrutiny and rewarded them with a sultry look and a flick of her tongue across carmined lips.
Owen groaned inwardly. This was worse than yesterday!
"I do not want you following me around," he said. "It's inappropriate on several levels."
"That's what makes it so much fun."
He mustered his most daunting frown and turned it on full force.
"Or," she said blithely, totally unaffected, "we could just skip the smalltalk and find a hotel room."
He stopped short, right in the middle of the street as the light changed. A car swerved around him, with a honk and a bellowed obscenity.
"Joking!" she said, seeing the look on his face.
He started walking again.
"Maybe," she amended.
"Birdie, enough."
They reached the sidewalk safely.
"Really, though ... don't you ever think about it?"
Owen coughed. "Certainly not."
"Not even a little?"
"No."
"Why not? You only go for skinny blondes?"
"My personal life is --"
"Dullsville. You need some spice. And if there's one thing I've got, it's spice."
"It's best for all concerned that our relationship remain on a perfectly professional level."
"Hmm, that sounds to me like an admission of temptation," she said, eyes twinkling.
"Far from it."
"What's the matter?" She lowered her voice. "If it's your secret ..."
"That has nothing to do with it."
"Because it doesn't bother me. In fact, well, you know ... I'm kind of ... intrigued."
"Neither I, nor my alter ego, is in the least bit interested," he said firmly.
"Why don't we ask him?"
He scoffed and picked up his pace. "If you'll excuse me, I'm needed back at the office."
"As it happens, I'm going that way myself. Hey, there's a thought ... mighty long elevator ride, isn't it?"
If all else failed, he might have to fend her off with his umbrella ... "This joke of yours has gone on far enough, Birdie."
"How do you know it's a joke?"
"It could hardly be anything else."
"Try me."
"Hey, mister!" a woman's voice hailed cheerily. "That girl bothering you?"
Owen had never been so glad to see anyone. "Hello, Detective Maza."
Elisa approached from the direction of the cart where her partner was paying for a cop-lunch of hot dogs and chips. "Hi, Birdie. What's
the deal, you trying to get picked up by Vice?"
"Hi," Birdie said shortly.
"Everything okay?" Elisa asked, her gaze shifting between them.
"Fine," Owen said.
"Yeah. Well, gotta go, places to do, people to be." Birdie produced a funny smile, and hurried off as Matt Bluestone jogged over,
breath pluming around his head like a smokestack.
"What's up?" He handed Elisa her hot dog.
"Good question." Elisa looked to Owen.
"Nothing," Owen replied. "Just a ... disagreement."
He watched the zebra-coated figure until she was out of sight.

* *

"Settle down," Brooklyn advised. "You're pacing holes in the floor."
"You'd be nervous too, up there with all those people staring at you," Angela said, pausing in her pacing only momentarily. "Why'd I
let Fox talk me into this?"
"You're going to be great." He tried to put his arms around her, but she was on her way again, tail swishing edgily, talons clicking
against the entry hall's tile.
"They're going to hate me."
"No they're not."
"What if there are Quarrymen in the audience?"
"Look at the way they dress. What would they be doing at a fashion show?"
"Hunting me!"
"Nobody knows you're going to be there. It's Fox's big surprise. No Quarrymen. Models, photographers, and rag-trade people."
"I can't believe Goliath is letting this happen!"
Brooklyn laughed. "Yeah, right, he's going to tell you no? After you gave him that list of reasons why you had to do this, how it would
be beneficial to the clan and to all gargoyles, help bring us favorably into the public eye, like Ebon did with Scarlet Angel, all that stuff ... if he
had tried to forbid it, you would have blown up all over him."
"But --"
"They were good reasons, mate-of-mine."
"If it's such a great thing I'm doing, then how come it's just me?"
He brought his wings forward to clasp wing-talons with her. "Because you're the most beautiful gargoyle, that's why. You're going to get
up there on that runway and be the star of the show. Outshine every one of those human models. You'll be gorgeous, you are gorgeous, and
you'll do clan and kind proud."
She smiled a little. "And because Elektra chickened out."
"Can you blame her? I mean, I got nothing against Elektra, she's pretty and all, but compared to you ..." He took her hand and kissed
his way from fingers to wrist, and began moving up the inside of her forearm. "Humans have been scared of us for too long. Let them be
jealous for a while."
"Jealous?"
"Sure. When your picture's on the cover of magazines, looking so incredible and sexy, all the women are going to be wishing they were
you." He puffed out his chest. "And all the guys are going to be wishing they were me!"
Fox breezed in, looking like a model herself in a slinky sheath of emerald green slit high on both sides. She had a heap of garment bags
draped over one arm.
"Angela, good, there you are. Ready to go?"
"Come with me," Angela pleaded, turning to Brooklyn.
"Huh?"
"Come with me! Sit in the audience or backstage or something, but be there!"
"It's the least you can do," Fox said.
"Uh ... okay." He gulped, thinking about that roomful of reporters and photographers, and rubbed at his beak self-consciously.
Fox gave him the garment bags and herded them both into the elevator. Xanatos joined them a few floors down, crisply turned
out in black tie.
Brooklyn glanced down at himself -- loincloth and belt as usual -- and then at Angela. She hadn't put on any of the truly fancy
creations yet, but was wearing a soft silver-white backless cocktail dress that fastened behind her neck and fell in rippling lines to just
above her knee-spurs.
"Are they going to let me in?" he asked.
Fox's lips curved slyly. "I anticipated this. The outfit in the top bag is for you. You can change in the car. There might not be time
once we get there."
"In the car?"
Angela giggled.
"You could have warned him," Xanatos said, amused.
"And give him a chance to weasel out of it?" Fox said.
They reached the parking garage. One of the limos, midnight-black with nearly opaque windows, was waiting only a few feet from the
elevator doors. Owen Burnett stood beside it, the buttons on his slate-grey chauffeur's uniform kicking back little sparkles from the overhead
lights. His performance as he moved to open the rear doors was only slightly flawed by the cell phone at his ear.
"What was that all about, Owen?" Xanatos' tone held a mild rebuke.
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Xanatos," Owen said stiffly. "Miss Ferguson called down from the castle only moments before you arrived."
"Is something wrong?" Angela hesitated. "Maybe we shouldn't be leaving --"
"Oh, no you don't." Fox pointed firmly to the car door.
"What did Aiden want?" Brooklyn asked.
"She was inquiring if I knew the whereabouts of Ms. Yale."
"And do you?" Xanatos asked with a sardonic lift of an eyebrow.
"No." Owen plucked the garment bags from Brooklyn and stowed them carefully inside the limo. His every motion stated that the matter
was closed.
"Why would Aiden think that you would know?" Angela slid into the back seat before Fox had to push her.
"That's a very good question." Xanatos crossed his arms and looked expectantly at Owen, clearly enjoying this.
"Apparently, MacBeth contacted Miss Ferguson when he was unable to reach Ms. Yale. Detective Maza reported that she and I saw
Ms. Yale in the park today, behaving somewhat peculiarly. Consequently, Miss Ferguson wondered if I might have known something about
her destination after the park."
"Behaving peculiarly?" Brooklyn echoed.
"Detective Maza's words. I failed to notice anything amiss." He very pointedly checked his watch.
Fox took the hint. "It'll probably be all taken care of by the time we get home. If not, we can worry about it then. Come on, Brooklyn.
The top garment bag. Shake your tail."
Grumbling, he sat beside Angela and unzipped the plastic case. A simple but stylish black suit was inside, altered to allow for wings and
tail and his habitual hunched-over posture. The shirt was pearl-grey with tiny buttons that he couldn't manage with his claws, and the tie lay
there like a dead snake.
"I'll help with the tie," Xanatos offered, seeing his expression of doom and gloom.
"Do you want me to open my wings as a privacy curtain?" Angela asked, giggling again.
Brooklyn stared across the limo's interior at Fox, who was enjoying his discomfort every bit as much as Xanatos had enjoyed Owen's.
"Aw, to hell with it," he mumbled, and started undressing.

* *

"What? Sorry. Amber's trying to get the phone," Elisa Maza said.
"You said she was acting oddly. In what way?" MacBeth repeated.
"Well ... I don't know ... she didn't stick around long enough for me to figure out what was up. That's what was weird about it. The
minute she saw Matt and me, she got a funny look and took off. Guilty, almost."
"Guilty? Birdie?"
"Tell me about it; she didn't even look guilty that time I found her and T.J. in a stolen Quarryvan. But it left me with the really strong
-- Amber, stop that, sweetie -- feeling that she didn't want to have anything to do with us, didn't want us to know what was going on. And
that's not the Birdie Yale I'm used to."
"Nor I."
He heard a crow of victory, followed by a babble from which the only words he could discern were Gramma, car, and cookies.
Elisa came back on. "Sorry again. Anyway, she was dressed kind of wild even for her, and when I first saw her, she was ..."
"What?"
"Never mind."
"What was she doing?"
"Look, MacBeth, I don't know what you two have got going on, and I don't think I really want to, and it's not my place to --"
"You say she was with Burnett?"
Silence couldn't really have qualities of temperature or emotion, but Elisa's did -- a rather hotly embarrassed pause.
MacBeth nodded. "She was flirting with him. You needn't hide it. I'm aware of her new hobby."
"What?" Elisa blurted.
"In a way, it's my doing. I made the mistake of ... well, not betting ... not daring ..."
"What?!" Louder now, mimicked by a childish "Wot? Wot?" in the background.
He coughed. "I know how it sounds --"
"No. Wait. I was right before. I really don't want to know."
"Very well. I won't trouble you further. I'm sure it's nothing to worry about."
"Yeah. Birdie's not exactly renowned for her sense of responsibility. But if she is missing, the police --"
"No need for that."
He hung up and looked at the mute phone. Despite his words to the contrary, he was more and more sure that there was something
to worry about.
Or was it a compensation, his own mind deciding that she must be in trouble rather than face the possibility that she had somehow
become dissatisfied with him?
No. Avoidance was not Birdie's way, any more than guilt or subtlety. If she was tired of her dalliance with him, she'd let him know in no
uncertain terms.
Therefore, something must be wrong.

* *

Owen Burnett passed unnoticed through the chaos that was the Visions of Spring fashion show, heading for the parking garage that
adjoined the convention center.
No one paid any attention to one who was so obviously a servant, not when there were so many other crises at hand -- personality
conflicts between designers and models, last-minute problems with outfits and alterations, clashes with the stage manager over scheduling,
a group of demonstrators who had gotten past security (fur was back with a vengeance this year), countless more.
There was also the small matter of Fox literally bumping into the swimsuit model she'd once held at gunpoint. Owen wasn't sure which
was Fox's greater offense, being here, or the fact that she hadn't even recognized Rayana until introduced ... though most likely, that had
been a bit of pretense on Fox's part. The photos from that incident had not only put Fox behind bars but catapulted Rayana into the spotlight;
she was now as much a household word as Tyra, Claudia, and Elle.
And then there was the gargoyle issue. Though Angela and the others were of the firm belief that her appearance here would come as a
surprise to the audience and the whole wide world, Fox had in the name of showmanship leaked the news.
On his way back to the car, Owen passed a pair of painfully-thin young women in wispy white linen. The effect wasn't so much alluring
as alarming; they looked like disinterred skeletons still in their winding shrouds.
They were snippily discussing Angela, after having gotten a glimpse of her backstage, and what bemused Owen the most was that they
had more to say about her 'thunder thighs' than her wings and tail.
Shaking his head, he retreated to the quiet shadows of the parking garage. Close enough to respond if things did get messy, but able to
relax with a good book and some big-band music (a secret taste that not even Xanatos knew about) rather than watch arrogant supermodels
strut around in clothes that no right-thinking person would want to wear.
He walked three steps past the beat-up pink Mustang before the penny dropped.
The existence of two such cars went far beyond the unlikely. He turned around with a resigned sigh and approached what T.J. called
the Birdmobile.
It was empty, though the hood was still warm.
Get in the limo and go, he thought.
That sudden impulse for flight startled him. It was only Birdie, coming on strong but not meaning it, some sort of game she'd cooked up
in that warped little head of hers. Why on earth should he be scared of meeting her ... down here in the dark ... alone ...?
No reason. No reason at all.
And yet ... a clammy dampness, not quite sweat because Owen Burnett simply did not sweat, but dampness nonetheless, had broken
out on his brow and the back of his neck.
Was he tempted? Was that it?
Now that had to be one of the most absurd thoughts he'd ever had.
Tempted? Impossible. Unnerved, yes. Who wouldn't be, with someone like Birdie coming at them in full-on flirt mode? But if anything,
that sort of behavior turned him off. Cordelia's aloofness was much more to his liking.
Not that he had much of a basis for comparison ...
What was this? Some sort of insane mid-life crisis? If he was going to start chasing girls half his age (relatively speaking), he could
certainly do much better!
She was probably inside right now looking for him, wanting to embarrass him in front of Xanatos again as well as anyone else that
happened to be nearby. Fox would kill him if he was in any way responsible for ruining the evening.
He should go in there, find her, and get her out before she caused trouble. And he would be on his own, too; couldn't count on help
from either Xanatos or Brooklyn in this regard. They both thought she was funny.
Right. Go in, find her, suffer whatever indignities she heaped on him in the time it took to lead her away from people, and then send
her home.
That was the best course of action.
So why wasn't he doing it? Why was he heading for the limo, even hurrying, and clutching the keys in his pocket with near-panicky
tightness?
Because ...
He had a reason. A good one.
If he could just think of -- aha! Because if she didn't find him, she would give up and go away, probably only creating a minor scene.
All he had to do was lay low in the limo until she drove off, and he'd be free.
Yes, a much better plan for all concerned.
He paused at the driver's side door ... if she came looking for him, all she'd have to do would be to peer through the windshield and
there he'd be. But the windows in the back were darkly tinted.
As he opened one of the rear doors, he was suddenly sure that she would be entering the garage at that very instant and see him. He
looked back over his shoulder as he folded himself into the seat.
No sign of her.
Relieved, he closed the door and locked it, and slumped down.
"Hey, sailor ... new in town?"
Owen bolted upright with a small cry trapped in his throat.
She was there, right there, in the car! Sitting across from him with a huge smirking smile. Squashed into a magenta tube top and a
shiny vinyl mini-skirt.
Something struck him as wrong, some tiny nagging detail, but it was overwhelmed by all the other big glaring details. Such as her presence
here, and the way she was leaning over to put her hand on his knee.
He jerked away before she could touch him. "Birdie!"
"What's the matter? Worried about your virtue?"
"How did you get in here?" Even as he asked it, he knew it was a useless question; she had no scruples and thus must have lifted a copy
of the key.
She didn't answer, only scootched forward on the seat. He was running out of room, pressed into the corner, and to get to the doorhandle,
he'd have to push past her.
Why was he so damnably afraid?
Afraid?
The moment he identified it as fear, it ran all over him like a hoard of spiders. As she reached for his knee again, he reacted, slapping her
hand away so hard that her knuckles struck the window with a sound like walnuts cracking.
Owen saw, then, and knew why he was afraid.

* *

MacBeth told himself that he was overreacting.
It didn't stop him from letting himself in and going up to the apartment.
He knocked, first normally and then loud enough to draw a bleat of complaint from the busybody down the hall.
"Birdie!" he called.
No answer. He tried the knob and found it locked ... but there was a freshly splintered scar in the wood. The sort that would be left by
a door being forced.
And there was a strange smell, acrid and sour.
He unlocked both knob and deadbolt. The door swung a few inches and caught up short on the chain. The strange smell intensified.
MacBeth threw his shoulder against the door. Wood and metal squalled. He did it again. No good. The chain was too sturdy.
Beyond worrying about what the busybody down the hall might see or do, he pulled a small energy pistol. He set the business end under
what he could see of the chain, aiming up toward the ceiling to avoid firing blindly into the dark room.
Bright blue light sizzled, the acrid smell was momentarily overpowered by the hot odor of melting metal, and his next slam against the
door snapped the chain.
He struck the light switch, and his blood seemed to freeze in his veins.
The shock lasted less than a second and then he was crossing the room, gun at the ready.
Birdie was stuck to the wall, all but her head encased in ropy gluey strands of a yellow-streaked grey substance. Her hazel eyes stared at
him so blankly he was sure she was dead, until she blinked and they cleared and unmistakable wild relief rose up in them.
Her mouth moved silently; he didn't need to hear to know the shape of his name on those lips.
All of his senses told him that they were alone. Whoever or whatever had done this was no longer here. Though it put him in mind of a
movie he'd seen, making him check quickly around for bulbous egg-shapes.
He touched a strand and his finger instantly went numb, as if it no longer belonged to him, useless meat stuck there on his hand.
The prudent thing to do would be to pick up something and use it to peel the mess away from Birdie. Instead, he pointed the pistol at a
thick mass of it farthest from where he judged her body to be, and fired.
The results were most gratifying. The gluey mess smoked and dissolved away into a foamy puddle on the floor. Birdie fell away from the
wall, right into his waiting arms.
"We got a little bit of a problem," she gasped.

* *

Owen looked from something that should be there but wasn't to something that was there but shouldn't, and understood.
"You forgot the tattoo," he said. "And the navel ring, for that matter."
The skin on the backs of her knuckles had split to expose not flesh and blood but a yellow-grey wetness.
"Who sent you?" Owen demanded. "Who is your master?"
The not-Birdie hissed like a scalded cat and lunged at him, locking its hands around his throat.

* *

Her voice gradually recovering, Birdie told him about the creep that had broken into her apartment.
"I knew he wasn't normal when he shot that crud out of the ends of his fingers. Then he came at me, and I thought he was going to kill
me, but he stopped a few inches away and sort of swayed, like a cobra. And then ... he ... morphed. Like in the movies. Into ... something
like an alien that you see in all the abductee sketches, only if a six-year-old made it out of Play-Doh. Plain grey Play-Doh. With eyes ... I
noticed the eyes before when his shades fell off, just blank hollows. Little slit for a mouth. The skin he'd been wearing fell off and turned to
goop."
He held her while she spun this totally wacko story, held her and it felt so good; just to feel anything again was a treat after spending
a night and a day pasted to the wall of her living room, able to hear the messages coming in on the machine but unable to respond.
"Then he morphed into me," she went on, the astonishment almost as fresh recounting it as it had been when she'd wound up looking
at her own mirror image. "In this totally whory outfit. Talked like me, too ... and it even knew stuff, as if it could read my mind, but it wasn't
quite right."
"Where did it go? What did it want?"
"It locked everything up, and then it went out. Oozed out. Like an amoeba," she said, stomach rolling as she remembered what it had
been like to watch herself bonelessly melt and flow through the tiny crack under the door. "But I don't know where it went, what it did, anything!"
MacBeth got a way somber look that Birdie didn't like at all. "I think I might."

* *

(Flashback)
Elsewhen, and elsewhere.

Deep in the dark, something stirred.
The call?
The call. After so long, the call.
It rose slowly and awkwardly, unused to moving its body. The mound of dust that had covered it fell away in clumps and clouds.
Come to me!
The call, the summons, undeniable.
It shuffled from the cave, through lightless tunnels without being blind, through the dank chill of the underearth without being cold.
She was waiting for it, and it collapsed at her feet in obedient awe.
"I have a task for you, my pet," she murmured. "Lord Oberon has denied me permission to personally avenge my brother's
destruction ... but Lord Oberon has forgotten you, and cannot command you even if he remembered."
It quivered eagerly at the prospect of serving.
"This is the scent of the one you seek," she said.
It breathed of what she offered and bobbed its head.
"And this is the scent of the false face that conceals the one you seek."
It breathed again, marking the differences.
"He will be well-defended, and has many strong allies. You must separate him from them, take him alone. But if it comes to battle, I
give you this. It contains the seeds of the Sisterhood."
It accepted the box she gave it, a box made of bone set with gold and small banded red stones. Things rattled within as it folded the
box into itself for safekeeping. Then it waited, humble before her, listening to the soft whispers of her movements as she bent over it, aware
of how its blank facelessness must look to her perfection.
"Earneau was a fool," she said, more to herself than to it. "But I will not tolerate this insult."
A warm, moist touch slipped around its neck and raised its head. It dared look upon her, shivering at the sight of glittering cat-slit eyes
and the masses of hair that surrounded her in shifting, glistening coils.
"You cannot walk among mortals as you are. Take this form --" it felt its body begin to alter as she spoke, "-- but imprint if it suits the
purpose."
It looked down on itself and saw that it now wore the shape of a human male, neither fat nor thin, neither tall nor short, still gross and
clumsy compared to its mistress.
"Now go," she told it. "Go and do my work, and you will be rewarded."

* *

Owen's lungs were on fire.
The thing looming over him had given up its mask, reverting to the Lifeclay from which it had been formed. It was dull grey in color,
sheathed in slimy yellowish ooze as the last of its mock-skin sloughed away into sour-smelling foamy residue.
The hands at his neck had changed, the fingers melding seamlessly together and the thumbs expanding, stubby bifurcated tentacles
sprouting from the thick wrists. Constricting. Strong.
He struck at it, but its body was solid, no nerves, no organs, no weak spots.
Owen quit trying to pry its grip from his throat and reached awkwardly around its bulk. Hidden compartment in the door panel ...
where was it, where?
He found it and fumbled it open. His fingertips brushed the handle of the laser, groped for it, knocked it to the floor.
An encroaching field of blurry darkness was seeping in, blotting out his vision. His lungs weren't burning anymore; they were cramped.
If that laser was the only weapon in there, he was done for.
He touched something else, recognized it by feel as one of Fox's toys, and curled the haft into his fist. A deft flick of the thumb and
shake of the wrist sent the sheath sliding off the end, leaving him with seven inches of titanium steel with a micro-diamond edge.
Just one chance at this ...
He slashed as close to himself as he dared, the blade passing a hair's breadth from his chin. It went through Lifeclay forearms as if they
were made of water, meeting next to no resistance.
Owen threw himself sideways and drove both legs out, hitting the thing in the midsection. It barely budged, but he was shoved across
the seat to the passenger-side door.
He opened it and tumbled out onto the concrete, rolling away from the limo and kicking the door shut as he did so.
The thing's appendages were still clamped around his neck, but they were softening, beginning to steam.
He peeled them loose and hurled them to the ground, sucking air in huge welcoming gasps despite the pain that made it feel as if he was
trying to swallow a wad of barbed wire.
The limo shook and rattled. Owen got his keys from his pocket with the speed of a stage magician and pressed the automatic locking
button. Then the armor-defense button, for good measure. Metal sheets dropped to cover the windows and encase the tires, completely
plating the vehicle.
"Yo, Owen!"
Right behind him! How had it --
Owen whirled and struck, going on pure gut-driven impulse.
Brooklyn sprang back and stared in disbelief at the long gash down the sleeve of his suit-jacket. Beads of blood welled up along a
laddered scratch on his maroon skin.
Blood. Normal red gargoyle blood.
"What the hell are you doing?" Brooklyn demanded.
Owen made a rasping noise, coughed through his bruised and swollen neck, and tried again. "Pardon me, I thought you were
something else."
"You cut me, you son of a -- hey, what happened to the car? What's going on?"
The limo began to rock and shudder in earnest. Glass shattered inside the shell of metal. The horn bleated once, sounding surprised.
"There is an assassin," Owen explained, not able to manage more than a ragged whisper. "I've trapped it, but I don't know for how long."
"Who's it after?" Brooklyn hastily stripped off his jacket and shirt, giving himself better wing and arm mobility.
"Me."
Something slammed against the roof from within and bulged it in a volcanic cone. A piece of armor plating cracked and flaked off like
a piece of stone skin.
Brooklyn sidestepped the jagged-edged chunk and turned wide eyes on Owen. "Is there time for a plan?"
"Certainly. Do you have one?"
"I was hoping you did," Brooklyn said.
Owen flipped open a small panel on the back of the black plastic remote attached to his keychain. "Take cover. I'm initializing the
auto-destruct."
"Auto-destruct, hey, that's pretty good, I get it, auto -- whoa!" Brooklyn realized that he was standing there alone, Owen having
already ducked behind a Caddy two ranks of parked cars away. He bounded into motion.
"Three, two, one," Owen counted, and pushed the button just as a split opened and shapeless Lifeclay began surging through.

* *

"Where is he?" Fox glared accusingly at her husband. "The show starts in five, and I will not send her out there with one earring!"
He didn't try to point out that he couldn't possibly be at fault; he'd been right here the whole time and had no way of knowing what
was taking Brooklyn so long. Nor did he make the mistake of suggesting another pair of earrings. He'd seen Fox like this before. Everything
had to be exactly perfect, just as she'd envisioned it, or there would be Hell to pay.
"I'll go see what's keeping him."
Angela paid no attention, looking from the mirror to the jar of Vaseline. "Why do I have to put this on my teeth? They shine enough."
"Humor me," Fox said.
Glad to have a diversion though he'd never admit it, Xanatos escaped the dressing room and threaded his way through a forest of tall
artfully made-up women.
His mission was simplicity itself. Find Brooklyn, find the missing back of Angela's platinum-and-diamond earring, return the second to
Fox before she had a complete nervous breakdown, and take the first out front where they could sit and watch the show.
Not a problem.
Until the world exploded.
The blast knocked Xanatos off his feet, and the angular frames of the models did nothing to cushion his landing.
The glowing and smoldering front half of a limo punched through the wall, sailed over the jackstraw pile of people, and kept going. As
it passed above him like a comet, Xanatos had a brief but very clear view of the license plate. A ferocious obscenity jumped from his lips.
The remains of his limo went through the curtains, setting them ablaze. It touched down and rolled on the long T-shaped runway,
gutterballed off the side, and came to rest atop Ralph Lauren's table with one half-molten wheel rim revolving slowly.
People were running, screaming, and carrying on in all the ways that might be expected in the wake of such a dramatic interruption. In
the midst of it all, Fox came charging out of the dressing room with Angela on her heels, both of them looking ready to take on an army.
Xanatos met them at the immense smoking hole in the wall. Beyond and slightly below was the floor of the parking garage.
"Where's Brooklyn?" Angela cried.
"What happened?" Fox shouted.
He didn't answer because he didn't know, and led the way through and down. Car alarms were sirening in deafening concert, water
was spitting from the sprinklers and sizzling on superheated bits of metal, vehicles had been thrown all over the place like toys scattered
by a giant child.
"Owen!" he called.
"Brooklyn!" Angela drowned him out.
They came around a Jaguar and a Mercedes that had been remade into some bizarre modern-art sculpture and there was what was left
of Xanatos' limo. The force of the explosion had snuffed out its own fire, but the shell of the car was blackened and cloven and resembled a
tin can that had been blown to bits by an M-80.
Clots of charred grey gelatinous slime were splattered around and throughout the wreckage. Angela regarded these with barefaced horror.
"You don't think ..." she began, and trailed off because it was too ghastly to contemplate.
Someone groaned, loudly and in pain, from behind a silver Cadillac that had been tossed ten yards and upended against the side of a
photographer's van. The silver car creaked and shifted, then slid and smashed down on its driver's side.
A head with backswept horns over sooty and sodden white hair poked up to peer at them.
"Brooklyn!" Angela screeched in joy.
He limped to her, wincing as she hugged him but not pushing her away.
A second groan drifted from behind the Caddy. Owen groggily pushed himself to a sitting position as Xanatos and Fox dropped to their
knees beside him.
"Is it destroyed?" he croaked urgently.
"It's destroyed," Xanatos said, glancing over his shoulder at the ruins of nearly half a million in automotive excellence and custom
modifications. "Mind telling me why?"
"No, the Lifeclay, the assassin," Owen struggled to elaborate. His throat was ringed with angry scarlet welts, darkening in places to a
deep violet. "Is it destroyed?"
"What's he talking about?" Fox muttered in an undertone.
"Oh, hell," Brooklyn said wearily. "Didn't I see this in a movie?"
They all looked.
The clots of grey stuff were quivering, moving. Dripping from the ceiling and oozing over torn and twisted metal. Flowing together, lavalike,
slow at first but then terribly fast. It pooled on the floor and rose up from the center, taking on a humanoid form.
"Explanation," Xanatos said grimly.
Owen lifted his gaze to Fox. "Only magic can finish it."
"Then get on with it!"
He shook his head. "I can't."
Xanatos squeezed his wife's hand. "You can do it, darling."
The thing, the Lifeclay thing, regained full cohesion and moved toward Owen with implacable and relentless intent. Xanatos unthinkingly put
himself between them, while Fox furrowed her forehead in agonized concentration. A heartless flicker of washed-out green momentarily
brightened her eyes, then vanished.
"Not one more step," Xanatos told the thing.
It had been moving sluggishly, but when it lashed out at him, it did so with a speed that caught him off-guard. A tentacled arm clubbed
him aside.
He heard Fox call his name, saw her hair swept up by a sudden wind. Emerald light flared in a nova around her.
The magical energy arced between Fox and the Lifeclay creature. Blinking and shielding his eyes, Xanatos peered into the center of that
bright fire and saw its shape begin to run like candlewax. It was a malformed lump again, then a puddle, then a steaming morass of white
bubbles getting washed away by the deluge from the sprinklerheads.
"Done," Owen sighed, and let his chin fall forward to rest against his chest.

* *

Rayana Fredericson was getting really, really tired of this.
Two in the morning and the police still weren't finished.
How long did it take, anyway? It was only a bomb investigation, and it wasn't as if they had to defuse anything, because it had already
gone off.
What were those Quarryman people thinking? There were innocent bystanders here! Innocent bystanders with important careers! Never
mind getting killed; suppose that someone got a scar! Or a broken nose! That sort of thing could be the absolute end for a model!
Okay, so maybe gargoyles didn't belong in this industry, that was a given. And if anyone deserved to have her car blown up (too bad she
wasn't in it!), it was that bitch Fox. But really!
So here they sat, with nothing to do. How many times were the police going to question them when it was plain that none of them had seen
anything? Maybe the policemen just wanted another chance to talk up close to a real live model.
Tyra walked past, caught up in an agitated phone call to her agent. She didn't notice as her foot struck something small and white and
round, sending it rolling toward Rayana.
Rayana bent and picked it up, thinking it was a pearl, that someone's necklace had snapped.
But it wasn't a pearl. It was too heavy, feeling like stone but looking like ivory. And it wasn't a bead, because there were no holes in it.
Just a little stone ball that could have fit on her pinkie nail without touching the cuticles, with some sort of a design etched into it.
She held it close to her eye, trying to make out what it was. A feminine sort of shape, but wearing a bulky outfit with overblown shoulderpads.
Strange.
But interesting.
Instead of dropping it, or asking around to see if anyone had lost it, Rayana decided to keep it as a souvenir.

* *

She had dressed carefully for the occasion -- jeans and a baggy Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, about as far from provocative as you could get.
Owen still looked up apprehensively as she marched into his office. The back brace prevented him from moving fast enough to flee, but he
did roll the chair back a little.
Birdie plunked down a stuffed teddy bear holding a coffee mug, said mug containing a spray of flowers and a plastic sign proclaiming "I'm
Sorry" in big red letters.
"I owe you one major apology," she announced.
"No ... it was an unfortunate coincidence of timing."
"Uh-huh, tell me another one. That critter used me to get to you, and if I hadn't been being a smartass, it never would have gotten close
enough to put those bruises on your neck."
"You couldn't have known."
"Look, Owen, would you quit trying to make me feel better? Either accept the goshdarn apology or yell at me and call me an irresponsible
teasing twit, pick one."
"As I understand it from MacBeth, the responsibility wasn't solely yours. He claims he put you up to it. And Mr. Xanatos claims that he
encouraged it. In this matter, Birdie, the blame spreads in so many directions as to be meaningless."
"So you're gonna take the bear?" The teddy wore a mournful expression and even had a felt tear depending from one of its shiny soulful
eyes.
"Apology accepted."
"Still pals?"
"Were we before?"
"You know what I mean."
"Yes, I do." He held out his hand and she shook it gingerly.
"How's the back?"
"Better. Doctor Fielding informs me that the dislocation is on the mend."
"Alex and Fergs couldn't patch it up for you?"
"They were able to take care of the worst of the bruises," he said, touching his neck.
"You know the part that's really embarrassing?"
"What?"
"That you thought that thing was really me. I mean, come on!"
One pale eyebrow rose smoothly. "Perhaps it could be a lesson to you."
"I am not that bad."
"It was certainly convincing at first."
"Well, not much I can do about it now. I'm just glad you're not going to hate me over this."
"Not at all. On one condition."
"Oh, there's always gotta be a condition. But okay. Name it."
"Just don't do it again."
"You've got a deal." She grinned. "Besides, it wasn't working. If I did want to seduce you, I'd have to try a different tactic."
"Birdie," he said warningly.
"Which I won't, which I won't. Cool your jets."
"I'm glad that is settled."
"Me too. Thanks. There is one thing ..."
"What now?" he asked warily.
"Who sent it? Who'd you annoy bad enough that they'd send that thing after you?"
His face grew somber. "I'm sure I'll find out eventually."

* *

Elsewhere

Tchambleau vented her fury in a howl, the tendrils of her hair lashing frenziedly.
Her servant, annihilated!
The seeds, lost!
Or ... were they?
She hadn't sensed their destruction, and she would have, even from here. The seeds must have survived. Some of them were bound to
find their way into the hands of women.
The Sisterhood would be reborn upon the earth.

* *

The End