Rating: Some profanity and violence
Synopsis: In 2007, Elena Duran visits Edinburgh and brings the Game home to Connor MacLeod's family.
This story arc continues in "Elena's Journey"
The Only Game in Town
by Vi Moreau and Parda
Prologue: A Raw Deal
New Year's Day, 2007
The Honorable Mr. Peter Bryce Shaw had been well into his second century when he discovered his passion for music: the graceful fluidity of Mozart, the magnificent grandeur of Beethoven, the precise power of Paganini. However, after countless lessons on a variety of instruments during the next hundred years, Shaw finally admitted to himself that he had no real musical talent. Oh, he could manage the technical aspects of a piece—reproduce the notes, follow the tempo and the dynamics—but his playing lacked élan. It had no feeling, no soul. He was doomed to listen, never to create.
There was, however, one type of music in which Peter Shaw excelled, and this afternoon he had the chance to play. Shaw examined his chosen instrument one last time: blond, handsome, well-muscled, perhaps twenty-five … and lying helpless at his feet, properly gagged and restrained. Shaw much preferred the challenge of an unfettered—or, even better, an actively resisting—opponent, but: "Nothing obvious or permanent," Shaw's employer had requested, and Shaw always took pride, and care, in performing well. A moving target left too much room for error.
So, immediately after entering the ostentatious Italian villa, he had disposed of the two servants and the lone bodyguard with tranquilizer darts, and then trussed up the playboy who had joined in a man's game and then so foolishly refused to honor his debts. But first, one last detail: Shaw bent over and extracted the gag, receiving a vehement, spittle-filled curse and a furious glare in return. Excellent. Shaw smiled, adjusted the fit of his black kid gloves, and commenced to play.
The subdued percussion of hard fists on soft flesh … the soft staccato of boots to the ribs, to the knees, to the small of the back, the kidneys so vulnerable there … it was a rhythm easily sustained, punctuated by harsh gasps and enhanced by the crescendo of moans, building so deliciously to the fortissimo of a scream, a descant of pain above the cracking of bones.
Shaw stopped himself after the fourth broken rib. A pity he couldn't continue to the final resolution, but "A warning, only," his employer had requested, and Shaw was certain that this Lorenzo Ponti had gotten the message "loud and clear," as those Americans liked to say. Shaw untied him and then, when Ponti attempted to get up, to actually strike at him—oh, how delightfully pugnacious of the boy!—Shaw allowed him his feeble attempt. Then he delivered a final stunning blow, leaving Ponti bruised and broken, but unbloodied, on the floor.
On his way out, Shaw stepped over the body of the butler in the atrium then gently shut the front door of the villa. His nondescript rental car awaited. After he had fastened his seatbelt, he considered his personal selection of CDs. Mahler, he decided finally, the Bernstein recording of the fifth symphony. Shaw was in the mood for something intense and stirring on this bright and chilly New Year's Day. The trumpet sounded its solitary call as he set off down the long drive, lined on either side by cypress trees, a symbol of everlasting life.
The funeral march was just beginning when Shaw turned onto the main road and caught a tingle of a different kind of immortality—one of his own kind was near. But the traffic was constant and the sensation faded immediately, so Shaw decided not to pursue. Besides, he never mixed pleasure with business.
Chapter 1: Reading the Cards
Friday Afternoon, 5 January 2007
"Get down!" Colin hissed, grabbing Sara by the arm and yanking her down with him as he dropped to the floor of the exercise room.
"Why?" she hissed back, pulling her arm away and punching him in the shoulder, but Colin knew she would stay down. Their dad had taught them that ages ago, back when they were little, and they were ten now (ten years and two weeks, actually), so they both knew the rules.
Colin pointed to the row of windows, just above their heads. "Somebody's coming."
"Really?" she asked. Colin nodded, and Sara grinned her most "evilly plotting mayhem and murder" grin as she rubbed her palms together, looking just like Calvin from the comic books, except with longer and darker hair. "Cool," Sara breathed. "The game can be for real." She scuttled over to the rightmost of the three windows, and Colin moved to the left. "Ready?" Sara asked, and when Colin nodded, they each cautiously peeked over their windowsill and looked down to the street three stories below.
A tall woman in a red cape down to her ankles and with a red scarfy-thing partway over her long, black hair was slamming the door shut on a taxi cab. As the cab drove away, the woman stood on the sidewalk, swinging a black backpack in her left hand and looking up at their house. Colin and Sara immediately dropped again.
"Do you think she saw us?" Sara asked, flat on her belly but with her head up off the wooden floor.
Colin considered the angles involved. "Nah. We weren't up high enough for her to see us from that far down. We're still safe. But did you see her eye patch?"
"Yeah, black, like a pirate! This is great!" Sara peeked over the windowsill again, and Colin did the same. "Beware, Grand Marshall," Sara intoned, as they watched the woman read the name "MacLeod" on the plaque attached to the porch railing and then climb the four stone steps to the front door. "The pirate-witch seeks entrance to the castle." The doorbell chimed far below, and Sara clutched at his arm. "She sounds a magic note! The door opens!"
The door had indeed opened, but the woman did not enter. She just stood there, waving her hands around. "Her powers are no match for the wards we have set to guard our home," Colin scoffed. "I remember well how you did chant the spells and draw the ancient runes, only two nights past when the moon shone full."
Sara wiggled with pride. "That was great, wasn't it?" she asked, dropping out of her role as Grand Sorceress of the Realm of Heryan. (They had ended up calling it "realm," because Sara absolutely refused to call it a kingdom, and queendom sounded just plain dumb.) "Even if Mom didn't let us stay outside very long."
"Well, it was midnight, and it was freezing cold."
"It had to be midnight," Sara countered. "And of course it was cold; it's January. And anyway, we're not in school right now, so why—"
"Shhh!" Colin interrupted, looking back down at the porch. "She's coming in!"
Sara gasped in dismay as the black-haired woman disappeared from their view. "The lady of the castle knows not of the danger! She's been ensorceled by the Scarlet Witch, to invite her into our home!"
"And the lord of the castle not here," Colin added grimly, and he and Sara exchanged a dark and portentous glance. "Quickly!" Colin commanded, leaping to his feet. "We must discover the witch's schemes before the lady of the castle is harmed!" He started for the stairs.
Sara grabbed him by the arm before he got past Dad's sword collection mounted on the wall. "Quietly!" she hissed. "And watch that fifth step from the top. It squeaks."
"I know that," Colin hissed back, shaking her hand off his arm and going for the stairs again. "I told you about it six months ago, remember?"
"Of course I remember," she said, shutting the door to the exercise room behind them as they started down the staircase. "I also remember telling you about the second step from the bottom four months before that. And about the creaky door at the farm, and about the hiding place in the stables, and about—"
"Shhh!" Colin said one more time. "We're almost to the second floor." They tiptoed down the next set of carpeted stairs in sock-feet, stepping completely over that squeaky fifth step, then gingerly seating themselves on the fourth step from the bottom and setting their feet on the third. That second step squeaked something awful.
The heavy wooden door to the parlor was open, which was good, because otherwise they wouldn't have been able to hear anything. The Scarlet Witch woman wasn't keeping her voice down, which was even better. Even so, Colin could still make out only some of the words.
"… don't want to get you involved in this, Alex. I … in Edinburgh … two days …"
Colin and Sara exchanged meaningful nods. The accent of the stranger was definitely not Scottish. Colin guessed she was Spanish or maybe Portuguese, but one thing was certain: the Scarlet Witch had traveled far, probably under a black pirate's flag, wrecking mayhem— Or wait … should it be wreaking mayhem? It couldn't be reeking mayhem, because that would be smelly. Well, anyway, the mayhem had been wrought. Colin went back to the story. The pirates had been causing mayhem and seeking blood and treasure, while the Scarlet Witch and her scurvy crew sailed the Seven Seas.
"Perhaps I should just leave him a note," the Spanish-sounding woman said next.
Sara mouthed the words "Black spot?" and Colin nodded eagerly. This was just like *Treasure Island* when the blind man had delivered the sentence of death to the old sea captain. Dad had been a sea captain, a long time ago, and he was definitely old. Really old.
Mom spoke next, her voice sounding farther away. "Not at all … I invited … Connor … be back soon …"
"… not involve Connor, either, I promise … may know someone I'm looking for, is all." That was the Witch again, on the trail of her prey.
Sara pointed to the hat stand in the corner of the front hall. The witch's scarlet cape was hanging on a hook, and her backpack lay flopped over on the seat. Sara raised a single eyebrow at Colin, putting on her haughty, mysterious "channeler of sacred powers" face. Colin wished for the thousandth time that he could move only one eyebrow, but both of his always moved together, so he settled for looking mean and lowering his eyebrows in a "black thundercloud of menace."
Sara's hands started moving in a pattern to set a magic spell, and Colin drew in a deep breath to mouth the silent words of power that would banish the evil outlander, then found to his horror that he absolutely had to sneeze. Sara waving her hands around had loosened all the dust that had stuck to her green and white sweater when she had dropped to the floor upstairs.
Colin struggled mightily. He took in great gasping breaths through his mouth. He rocked back and forth. He tried to yawn, to smile, to frown, to do anything that would wiggle that dust rabbit out from the back of his nose. He finally clamped his nostrils shut with one hand, and that seemed to do the trick, but now Sara was the one trying to be quiet, as she tried desperately not to laugh. She had both hands clapped over her mouth, but snorted giggles were escaping from between her fingers, and then all of a sudden Colin was trying not to laugh, too.
"Kids?" Mom called from the parlor. She sounded suspicious, maybe even a little mad, and Colin didn't have any urge to laugh anymore. Eavesdropping was definitely against the rules.
This game was over. Colin and Sara shrugged as they stood and started down the rest of the stairs. On the last step, Colin's sneeze finally erupted in a snorting hiccupy kind of noise that made Sara start giggling again. Colin wrinkled his nose at her ferociously, so that he looked like a Ferengi, then he put a cheery smile on his face and turned the corner into the parlor. "Hi, Mom!"
"We came down for a snack," Sara added. She and Colin stopped just past the door, checking out the scene. Mom was sitting in Dad's favorite chair, the brown leather wingback one by the fireplace. The woman in red—except she was the woman in black now, all black: black boots, black jeans, black turtleneck, black hair and (coolest of all) black eyepatch—was standing between the two windows of the front wall of the house. She was slender and tall, maybe even as tall as Dad. The toe of her left foot was tapping silently on the black fringe of the Turkish rug. Colin glanced at the second hand of the clock on the mantle then started counting the taps.
"Mm-hmm," Mom said, not sounding at all convinced, just when Colin had gotten to twelve taps. He checked the clock again; fifteen seconds had elapsed. So, that meant … one and one-quarter second per tap.
Mom stood and motioned Sara and him into the room with her eyes. They took four steps and stopped by the couch. "Elena, these are my children," Mom said, sounding more exasperated than proud. "Colin Duncan and Sara Heather. Kids, this is Elena Duran-Ponti."
"Call me Elena," Elena Duran-Ponti said, with a smile so bright and cheerful that Colin found himself smiling back. No evil witch-pirate could smile like that. Then, unlike most grownups, she held out her hand. A little surprised, Colin stepped forward and got a good, solid handshake from her, none of that slimy or deadfish stuff some people did.
"She's a friend of your Uncle Duncan," Mom explained.
"And of Cassandra," Sara put in, her eyes narrowed and her shoulders hunched like she was getting ready to tackle something, the way she always got when she was cranky.
"Yes, Cassi and I have been friends for many years, since before you two were born," Elena said. "When she and I went on our Mediterranean cruise this last fall, she told me how pretty you were—and how tall." Elena beamed at them both, and even Sara thawed a little under that smile. Elena held out her hand to Sara next, and after a second of hesitation, Sara took it and shook, too.
Colin looked at Elena again, more carefully this time. She wanted to talk to Dad, she was a friend of Uncle Duncan and of Cassandra, and Elena and "Cassi" had been friends for "many years," so therefore… "You're an Immortal!" he said, pleased with his discovery. Sara huffed out air through her nose and crossed her arms, looking crankier than ever. Colin didn't care. "Do you have a sword?" he asked Elena.
Elena looked over at Mom, who was looking kind of grim. "They found out about Immortals and the Game at Duncan's wedding at the end of September," Mom said to her.
Elena nodded then answered Colin. "Yes, Colin, I have a sword. I have many swords."
Just like Dad and Uncle Dunc. Cassandra had only one, and she hardly ever carried it around. "Do you have one of them with you?" Colin asked. "Can I see—"
"No swords without your father around, Colin," Mom interrupted immediately, before Elena could even open her mouth. "You know that rule."
Of course he did. That was one of the earliest rules he could ever remember learning, right along with "Don't pull the cat's tail" and "No shoes down the toilet" and "No pizza in your sister's hair."
"I just wanted to draw it," Colin explained to Elena. Then her left eyebrow went up, the one without the eyepatch—how come everybody else could do that except him, anyway?—and Colin realized he had to explain again. "Not draw it from its scabbard, draw a picture of it."
"Ah," Elena said, smiling again. "Perhaps later, when your father is home."
"Which should be in about ten minutes," Mom said. "He'll be back from his run soon."
"Is your eye missing or just not supposed to get any light?" Sara asked straight-out and blunt, being her usual battering ram of curiosity.
"Sara!" Mom said sternly, but Elena waved her hand.
"That's all right, Alex," Elena said then turned to Sara. "My eye is gone, chiquita."
Colin bit into his lip to keep from smiling, because that made Sara sound like a banana, and she would absolutely hate for him to be thinking that. He got himself serious by looking at Elena's eyepatch and wondering how the eye had been taken out. Dad had said stuff wouldn't grow back. "Were you a pirate queen, like Grace O'Malley in Ireland?" Colin asked.
"No, I'm pretty much a landlubber, but I was a bandit for a while," she added cheerfully.
"Like Robin Hood?" Colin asked.
"Well, I didn't rob from the rich and give to the poor. I just … annoyed the Spanish conquistadores in Argentina."
"Are you from Argentina?"
"Yes, I am."
So, he'd been wrong about her being from Spain or Portugal, but at least he'd gotten the language right. He wanted to ask if the person she was looking for was an Immortal, too, if she was going to fight him and maybe chop off his head, but if he asked that, then Mom would know that Sara and he had been listening in, and that would be bad. So instead, Colin asked Elena, "Why are you here in Scotland?"
"She's visiting," Mom answered for her, which meant Mom didn't want Colin and Sara to know. Then Mom said, "Kids, didn't you say you wanted a snack?"
Colin grimaced. Sara had been one to say that, and now Mom was using it to kick them out of the room. But it wasn't all Sara's fault; Mom would have come up with something even if Sara hadn't said anything. Mom was sneaky that way. He might as well make it good. "Can we have the rest of the Christmas cookies Grandma sent?" Colin asked.
"Not all of them," Mom warned. "They're my favorite, too."
"Come on, Sara," Colin said to his twin, who was silently glowering at the fireplace, and as they went through the library into the kitchen they could hear Elena asking about the fabric on the furniture. Chit-chat talk, designed to keep "the children" from learning anything interesting, like who Elena was looking for, and where and when and how she got that eyepatch. Colin kept listening anyway, just in case, and he and Sara moved silently in the kitchen instead of bamming cabinet doors around the way they usually did.
"… house is Georgian, like all of New Town," Mom was saying from the library. "Most of the furniture is Georgian, too, except for the chairs and the sofas, and the beds upstairs. Two-hundred-year old horsehair cushions aren't exactly comfortable."
"Or sturdy enough with children around!" Elena added with a laugh, and Colin nodded as he poured glasses of milk for Sara and himself. He'd actually sat in a chair at Aunt Rachel's antique store in New York once, and it had creaked and groaned, making him jump up right away.
Sara had set the cookie jar on the kitchen table, and Colin joined her there, claiming the chair with the most sunshine. Sara was scowling in the shadows. "What's wrong?" Colin asked, dunking a reindeer cookie feet first into his milk then biting off the legs.
Sara jerked her head toward the library door, even though Mom and Elena had moved back to the parlor and their voices were too quiet to hear. "Her."
Colin swallowed his mouthful of soggy cookie. "Mom likes her. And she's a friend of Uncle Dunc and Cassandra, too." Sara just glowered some more and savagely bit the head off a Santa Claus. "Geez," Colin said in disgust. "So that's why."
"You don't like Cassandra having Immortal friends."
"That's not true!"
"Well, you sure didn't like Cassandra going off with Amanda after Uncle Dunc's wedding."
"That's because I don't like her," Sara retorted. "That Miss Snarkity Queen of Slinkiness."
Colin hadn't thought Amanda was that bad. In fact, he had thought she was fun. Their big brother, John, had liked her, too. Sara gloomily dunked her Santa Claus cookie in the milk and held him there, watching as the feet melted away. Then she drank her milk. Colin shuddered and took another cookie, a holly leaf this time. "Elena doesn't seem snarky," he pointed out.
"She's like a newspaper."
Sara looked up, her narrowed eyes almost green instead of their more usual bluish-green-gray. "What?"
"You know," Colin said with a grin, "black and white and read all over."
Sara wrinkled her nose at his joke and objected, "But there's no white. Her skin's more like coffee with lots of milk."
"Her teeth are really white," Colin said.
"I guess," Sara said again and started eating another cookie. They munched in silence until Sara said, "Cassandra never told me Elena was Immortal."
"Well, of course not," Colin said in exasperation. "Immortals can't go blabbing other people's secrets around. Besides, Cassandra doesn't have to tell you everything."
"No worry about that," Sara said in disgust. "She keeps saying we're too young to learn the really good stuff."
Well, they were. But Colin decided that Sara didn't need to hear that right now. She wouldn't listen to him anyway. He knew. Colin reached into the cookie jar and pulled out a star one, then nibbled each of the five points down to the center. He had just popped the last bit into his mouth when Sara stood. "Where are you going?" Colin asked.
"The dining room, so we can see Dad come back," she said, and Colin hastily swallowed the last of his milk and grabbed one more cookie before he followed her from the kitchen. They had to step around boxes of half-packed Christmas ornaments to get to the windows that faced the street. More boxes sat on the long table; Mom had been working all morning on packing away the Christmas stuff. He and Sara each took a chair, kneeling on the seats to look out a window, with their arms folded on the backs of the chairs and their chins resting on their hands, like the lions on guard at the New York library, except with no tails.
The last of his last cookie was dissolving in his mouth when Sara said, "Who do you think she's here to fight?"
Colin shrugged. "I don't know. The only other Immortal we know in Scotland is Cassandra, and Elena won't fight her. How many Immortals do you think live around here?"
"I don't know, but I'm going to ask Dad when he gets back," Sara announced firmly.
"Here he comes now!" Colin said and leaned closer to the window to watch the familiar green-hatted figure in a gray sweat-suit and a loose white jacket coming down the hill at a slow jog, his cool-down phase. All of a sudden Dad's head went up, and his face twisted kind of funny for a second. Then he started running again—fast—right toward the house. "He doesn't look happy," Colin observed.
"No," Sara agreed. "He must have felt Elena being here."
"Then why is he pulling out his sword?" Colin asked, because Dad was pulling his katana out from underneath the back of his coat as he ran. The curved blade looked dull instead of shiny in the bluish shadows of the winter day.
"Because it could be a bad guy! They can't tell who!" Sara reminded him, and Colin felt incredibly dumb. "Elena must have felt him, too," Sara said. "I hear her getting ready to go outside."
"Right," Colin said, because he could hear Mom unlocking the front door. Dad was right in front of the house now, and Sara and Colin waved to him through their windows, but he only nodded at them once and kept going, only to stop suddenly at the bottom of the stairs. Mom must have opened the door. His sword went down, but he didn't hide it away, and he still didn't look happy.
Sara and Colin hopped off their chairs and yanked open the door to the hall. Elena and Mom were just stepping back from the front door, and Dad was close behind. He kicked the door shut behind him then tucked his sword back under his coat, instead of putting it away in the huge Oriental vase near the bottom of the stairs the way he usually did.
"Duran," Dad said, and the name sounded like he was grinding it between his teeth. "What do you want?"
"Hello, Connor," Elena said. "I want to ask you a question."
Colin lifted his eyebrows, both of them of course. Elena wasn't smiling, and Dad sure didn't want her here. Huh. Obviously, being a friend of Uncle Dunc and a friend of Cassandra wasn't the same as being a friend of Dad.
"Duran, you're in my home," Dad said, and this time the words sounded like the growl Colin and Sara got whenever they had seriously broken the rules. Colin automatically backed up, and Sara did, too. Their eyes met in quick agreement; Elena Duran-Ponti was in for it now.
She seemed to know it, because she swallowed once, but she didn't back up. Then Mom said, "I invited her to come in, Connor."
Dad nodded slowly, but he didn't even look at Mom. He just kept staring at Elena. "Did she tell you she was looking for someone?" Dad asked.
Now how had Dad known that? Colin wondered. But then, Dad always knew stuff that Colin couldn't figure out how he knew, like last week when he'd confiscated the flashlights that Colin and Sara both kept hidden under their mattresses so they could stay up late and read under the covers.
"Yes, but…" Mom stopped then, like she'd run out of words, and Mom hardly ever did that.
Sara and Colin exchanged glances again, suddenly realizing exactly how serious "looking for someone" was. The Game wasn't played for pretend. The Game meant swords and beheadings—for real. Elena might get her head chopped off and die. Colin swallowed hard, wishing he hadn't eaten quite so many cookies so fast. This wasn't just fun and exciting anymore.
"Business," Mom said, the word sliding out between her teeth, like a snake sliding across grass.
Elena turned and said quickly, "Alex, thank you so much," and she took one of Mom's hand in hers, not for a handshake like she had done earlier with him and Sara, but for a squeeze. "I must leave now."
"Yes," Mom agreed, not even arguing a little, but she patted Elena's hand and gave her a hug before she let go. Elena walked across the hall to get her scarlet cape. Colin always liked to make his shoes squeak when he walked there, but her rubber-soled boots made no noise at all on the marble floor. She lifted her cape off the hat stand with one hand then twirled the long cape around her shoulders, but one side of the cloth always stayed straight, and she had to tug at the other edge to get it to hang right.
Aha! Colin thought in satisfaction: her sword. No wonder she wore a cape. Dad's sword always made his coat look kind of lumpy. Elena was pulling on gloves, black of course, and then she took out her red scarf, wrapping it around her neck this time instead of over her hair. She picked up her backpack and slung it over one shoulder. Dad hadn't moved at all.
"It was good to meet you," Elena said to Colin and Sara after she was all dressed, and she smiled at them with the same bright and happy smile as before. Colin and Sara nodded gravely back, and Colin wondered if he'd ever get that chance to see her sword … or see her again.
Dad didn't take his gaze from Elena as she walked past him and out to the porch. "I'll be back soon," Dad said to Mom, and he gave her a quick kiss, the way they always did whenever they said goodbye, so that was OK. Colin relaxed a little, then Dad smiled at Sara and Colin and gave them a wink, and Colin relaxed some more. Dad wasn't going to have to fight anybody; it was Elena's turn.
"Lock the door," Dad said to Mom as he stepped outside.
"I always do," she said dryly, and she shut it behind him and slid the bolt home.
Colin and Sara always did, too. Locking doors was another of the unbreakable rules, and now that they knew about the Game, they knew why.
Continued in Chapter 2 - Queens High