Coventry

by Christine Morgan




Author's Note: the characters of Gargoyles are the property of Disney and are used here without their creators' knowledge or permission. All other characters property of the author. Mature readers only due to adult content and language. May 2002; 27,000 words.

#75 in an ongoing saga.


Las Vegas, Nevada
May 11, 2008

As the desert sky turned a glorious riot of rose, red, gold, and lavender, and a cool breeze picked up to blow the worst of the heat from the day, Godiva appeared on the penthouse balcony. She drew in a breath and let it out in a sigh of satisfaction, relishing the feel of the air moving against her bare skin.
Tomorrow. Finally, tomorrow.
She was tortured by a delicious mix of anticipation and apprehension. So much was riding on this. Her hopes, dreams, plans for the future. It had been a consuming passion to the exclusion of much of her other passions – dancing and sex chief among them. Tomorrow she would find out if her hard work had been justified, or if she'd been chasing smoke all these years.
Normally, the opening of a new hotel in Las Vegas wasn't that much of a big deal. Hotels, casinos, and restaurants came and went every month, it seemed like. Even the massive ones, the major, multi-million-dollar themed resorts had become so numerous and mercurial that another one was hardly cause for batting an eye.
Normally.
But as the finishing touches were put on Coventry, as the doors prepared to open for the first time and the guests who had booked reservations back when it was still in the planning stages packed their bags for the trip, a buzz of interest and excitement spread through the city. Up and down the glitz and neon of The Strip, out to the seedy motels with slot machines in their cramped lobbies, and across the casino floors where everything was designed by behavioral psychologists and sociologists to maximize gambling and minimize reality.
The Coventry was special.
Not because of its theme – Olde English was a motif likely to appeal mostly to the sorts of people who liked Ren Faires and Shakespearean festivals and dirty books about spanky governesses. It cheerfully mixed styles, from Elizabethan-era Tudor whitewash and wooden slats to gingerbread Victorian to Edwardian to Dickensian, in a sort of historian's hodge-podge nightmare.
The chambermaids wore long button-up dresses with aprons and mobcaps, the waiters looked like they'd be ready to cry "Alas, poor Yorick!" at the drop of a cue, and the waitresses were attired in artfully tattered rags meant to give them the waifish aspect of girls selling violets or matches from baskets on streetcorners. As if those waifs with their hollow cheeks and enormous eyes had worn high heels, push-up bras, and stockings. As if many of the clientele would know that the match girls of the era had more often than not really been older women masquerading as young girls, and catering to the depraved desires of the repressed and frustrated men of that day and age.
Nor was the Coventry special because of its shops, though they did differ slightly from the high-end clothiers and confectioners found in most of the other resorts. The exception, quite reasonably, being the largest Godiva Chocolates shop in the country. They peddled vintage clothing, antiques, old books and artwork, heraldic crests (overlapping slightly with Excalibur here), and portrait studios where guests could dress up in corsets or waistcoats and take home sepia-tinted photos as souvenirs.
The Coventry Hotel boasted many of the attractions that tourists had come to expect from Vegas. The grounds were lush, with wild herb gardens and an English hedge maze and a croquet court and a range for skeet-shooting, but there were also three swimming pools fed by elaborate waterfalls and fountains, a pond where ducks and swans could be found, and a modest amusement park with rides named after Dickens characters – the Oliver Twist rollercoaster, for example.
The perfectly retro discothèque did not even make a pretense of following the theme. It was one of Godiva's indulgences, hearkening back to the days of her youth. The days before the crippling car accident. Whenever she entered that room with its glitz and glitter, she was taken back to a simpler, happier-though-innocent time of her life.
The four restaurants ranged from a pub with lots of dark wood and imported ale and fox-hunting oil paintings on the walls to a Renaissance-era banquet hall to a buffet masquerading as a thatch-roofed marketplace. The lower level housed a museum of British history from the 1500's to the 1900's. There was an interactive tour through quarter-scale replicas of the throne room of Elizabeth I, Shakespeare's cottage on the Avon, the original Globe theater, and even a gaslamp-lit street in Whitechapel where Jack the Ripper had done some of his most grisly and famous work.
Upstairs, where the rooms were, the theme was continued in a less intense way. The rooms were equipped with all the modern conveniences, but many of the beds were four-posters or canopied, and the chairs were upholstered in a stiff brocade.
Extravagant shows had become almost as synonymous with Vegas as gambling, and the Coventry did not fall down in that regard. It boasted a revolving theater that would open with a montage of the most famous scenes from Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, Macbeth, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night's Dream.
The production numbers, flashy and gaudy, full of feathers and rhinestones and leggy chorus girls, would be presented in another theater. Would she be able to get the aptly-named David Copperfield to appear? Negotiations were still underway, but looked promising.
A third, smaller and somehow intimate while still having the capacity to seat over a hundred elite guests, would be reserved for those special occasions when the Coventry's owner performed.
She was the real reason for all the attention.
Godiva herself.
It brought a tingling flush to her. At times like this, it was all she could do not to tip back her head and scream triumph at the sky. They would come to see her, to adore and worship her. When she swayed and danced, she would own them. Men would give anything for a touch, sell their souls for a kiss … and for anything else, why, they would be hers completely.
She laughed. This was the life! The life she had always wanted, the life she had thought she would be forever denied. No one looked longingly at a crippled husk of a woman in a wheelchair, a woman more ugly than even the grotesque mockeries of stone gargoyles that snarled from churches and cathedrals. No one had ever looked upon Sabra Indrani with anything other than pity or disgust.
No more. Never again.
That hated body, that mangled ruin … the accident couldn't have ended her life more completely even by killing her. She had thought many times that she would rather have died. Until she got an unexpected second chance, seized it, and here she was.
Vegas was one of the most jaded cities in America. They had seen everything there, or so had been the general consensus. But when the news got around that a gargoyle had bought up a lot where another resort had gone spectacularly bankrupt, even the lifelong residents did a double-take. And when they got their first look at her, the double-take turned into a triple. Or, as was especially the case among the males, a fixed and gape-mouthed stare.
Heads would have turned even if she'd been human. That exotic fall of wavy golden hair, that haughty face with its inviting-challenging-pouty lips, and that body would have stood out in a place populated by some of the world's most beautiful women. Even if she hadn't been in the habit of wearing snug halters that fought a constant battle to tame her jutting breasts and jeweled belts from which sheer panels of silk fluttered revealingly around her legs, she would have drawn attention for her figure. A business suit couldn't have concealed it. Nor could a suit of armor, or a gunneysack. Wasp-waisted, flaring hips, deep cleavage, supple limbs … she was a shape to conjure with no matter what she wore.
When the rest was added in – the wings, the tail, the indigo-blue skin, the talons, and the backswept tiara of quill-like spines rising from her forehead – heads turned so fast and so hard that the local chiropractors should have clubbed together to send her a king-sized thank-you bouquet.
A gargoyle. In Las Vegas. No one knew what to make of it.
Oh, there had been a couple of sightings over the years, but these had been attributed mostly to the readily-available free drinks with which the casino bosses plied their customers, or the spectacular special effects that had come to be as at home here as they were at DisneyWorld. In general, gargoyles were still considered a New York phenomenon. Real, as had been proved many times over, but remote. Not something that the average Nevadan was apt to concern himself or herself with.
Until one came to town. She had confused them at first, being as visible by day as she was by night, but she brushed it off with a sultry laugh and a shake of her magnificent golden tresses and explained that most other gargoyles just preferred the night, because they didn't like to be noticed. Whereas she, Godiva, thrived on it.
From afar, anyway. She did not encourage close friendships.
No one knew where she came by the money to build the Coventry Hotel. There were speculations aplenty, most – particularly by women – uncharitable. The contractors only cared that her credit was good and her bonuses were generous.
The money. It still brought a smile to her lips, but it was a smile with hard edges. The money was as much hers as anyone else's. More. She had earned it.
True, she had enjoyed most of the earning … not all of her time at Nightstone had been spent utilizing her phenomenal computer skills. Skills that had become a hundred times easier thanks to Godiva's innate abilities. She'd made herself quite useful in other ways, far more pleasant ways.
Although she had just risen from a bed where her lovers still sprawled, senseless with bliss, the recollection of Nightstone stirred warmth in her loins and brought her blue-black nipples, already erect from the kiss of the breeze, to diamond-hard points.
She looked over her shoulder. The sliding door to her suite stood open, a gauze curtain billowing lazily in and out as if the room were breathing. She could see the bed, a double-king with no headboard and no posts, a vast expanse of rumpled pure-white satin sheets and feather pillows. One of her lovers was spread out in cruciform, arms to the sides, head lolling, the object of her delight resting against one thigh. The other was on his stomach, arms hanging to the floor, sweat drying to a glaze on his tanned, muscular back.
Neither of them looked ready for fourths. Godiva growled softly and ran her hands down the firm slopes of her breasts. She returned her gaze to the horizon, to the smear of light that was all that remained of the day. Night came very fast out here. The pinpricks of stars already sparkled in the fathomless black dome above.
Real gargoyles would be waking now, stretching and shedding the flakes of stone that would have protected them during the day. She was not bound by biology, and was glad. Her body could experience pain, and hunger, and other physical miseries if she allowed it, but why should she? Hadn't she suffered enough of that before? Since she had the power to pick and choose, to render herself immune from those woes, she fully intended to make use of it.
But she was glad that her mechanical body had the capacity for other sensations.
Nobody was the wiser. Nobody here, at least. Those who knew she wasn't a truly flesh-and-blood gargoyle had good reason not to spill the beans.
There was something to be said, though, for those flesh-and-blood gargoyles. As enjoyable as men were, she'd only had one encounter with a human that was as good as what she'd enjoyed with gargoyle males. They had an intensity about them, not to mention stamina and size and a sheer animal fervor that she found irresistible.
They had tails, too.
She shivered with pure lust. Tails. Well, she had one of her own, just as she had hands of her own and was limber enough to contort herself in ways that let her make creative use of her own mouth, but self-play was somehow never quite as fulfilling.
It had been years since Demona and Jericho.
She supposed that, in her way, she mourned them. She certainly missed them, and was still incensed that she'd never succeeded in getting more of Jericho than his admittedly fantastic tail. The rest of him, the best of him, the throbbing azure stiffness of him, he had reserved for Demona and Demona alone.
Some girls had all the luck.
Demona had been far more accommodating. She had a need that came close to rivaling Godiva's own, and for similar reasons. Deprivation led to it. In Demona's case, it had been deprivation of a thousand years, but Godiva considered her dry years more punishing. As Sabra, there had been nothing but dry years; she had been a virgin the night of the accident and stayed one thereafter … was probably a virgin still, unless Anton Sevarius was kinkier than Godiva knew.
They had been a perfect match, she and Demona. Birds of a feather. Ambitious, sly, and brimming with dark desires.
Godiva bit her lip as she remembered the times with Demona. Being in the bathtub together, making good use of the shower pulsation attachment. Or the time … the succulent time … yes … when she had gone to Demona by day, when she was Dominique. Smaller, weaker, so pink-white and soft, with that blaze of scarlet hair where gargoyles had none.
It did not seem strange to Godiva at all that Dominique's persona in bed had been so different from her nocturnal alter ego. As Dominique, she had to play the powerful executive, in total control, ruling her underlings with an iron hand. A lot of people in that position, mostly wealthy older men, enjoyed having the semblance of power taken from them.
She had sensed that need in Dominique. Her chosen name notwithstanding, she had been eagerly submissive, ready and panting with willingness to do whatever Godiva commanded. The memory of that heart-shaped ass stuck in the air, reddened in stripes not by blows of a crop but by expert lashings from Godiva's own spade-tipped tail, made the indigo gargoyle weak in the knees. She could still hear Dominique's plaintive whimperings, her head down and her face hidden by a torrent of red hair, wrists bound in the small of her back as she knelt on a velvet bench.
Oh … and then the way Godiva had reclined, regally, in Dominique's own chair and bade Dominique crawl to her on her knees. She had, and the fact that they'd been in Dominique's office with the door unlocked only added to the thrill. The secretary, Stephanie, could have come in at any time. Of course, Stephanie was one of Gustav Sevarius' mind-controlled puppets, and could be programmed to believe whatever she was told, but the initial shock on her face before the code words could have been given would have added spice.
"Crawl to me," Godiva whispered now, her computer-assisted memory flawless. "Crawl to me, you little bitch. On your knees for me. Yes, like that."
And Dominique had crawled, her breasts jiggling in the lacy cups of the bra that was the only garment Godiva had allowed her to leave on. Crawled to her place between Godiva's widespread thighs, bent, and applied her pert, clever little tongue to such good effect as Godiva encouraged her with croons and insults.
"My fine little bitch, yes, lick it, you love to lick it, don't you? What a slut you are, Dominique."
Something whirred in the region of her left ear, and she heard now as plain as she'd heard it then, Dominique's breathy reply.
"Yes, a slut, just a slut, treat me the way I deserve!"
"Beg me."
"Please!"
"Not until you've finished, you nasty little slut. Not until you've done your duty. Do it. Lick me. Make me come."
And if Dominique played resistance, Godiva's tail would whip out, and strike stingingly against her buttocks. Or Godiva's gold-tinted talons would close on Dominique's breasts, squeezing them, pinching the erect nipples. Or she'd seize a handful of hair and force Dominique's face against the moist, hairless slit and grind her hips. Only when Dominique had been reduced to wordless mewls and sobs would Godiva oblige, flipping her over and falling upon her with lascivious kisses and caresses, and the tail that had been a lash would coil and slide and insinuate itself between Dominique's legs and then flex-curl-undulate in that indescribable way.
Godiva shook herself, bringing her mind to the present with a gasp. She was still stroking her breasts, and shifting her weight so that the tender folds of her flesh rubbed together.
But try as she might, she didn't want to leave the past. She missed those times. She had been Nightstone's corporate whore as well as a computer expert. They would go away on executive retreats with the heads of other companies and Godiva would dance for them, and the subliminals that Gustav Sevarius had programmed into the music that accompanied her dance would suggest to them that they sign contracts and make deals very much to Nightstone's benefit. If one of them should come to his senses later and try to protest, all it would take was a copy of a video of what usually happened after the dance, and that would shut him up in a hurry. Or her. Dominique hadn't been the only female CEO to attend those retreats.
Yes, she had earned the money. Nightstone's fortunes had increased drastically because of her, and she felt more than entitled to her fair share. It wasn't as if she'd gotten her fair share of anything while Demona had been alive. Not of one thing, anyway. When it came to Jericho, Demona was as stingy as he was.
"He would have fucked me if she told him to," Godiva said petulently to the uncaring night wind. "He would have done it to please her, but I could have reaped the benefits. Selfish bitch."
It was stupid to still be mad about it. Demona was gone, Jericho was gone. They had both plunged into Hell on Devil's Night, when the entire Nightstone Building had imploded. She would never see either of them again. Had lost her chance at Jericho. She'd never be able to wrap her hands around that rigid length and ease it slowly into her …
No, not slowly. Jericho had been a hot-blooded young stud and it would have been rough, quick, urgent. All hard thrusting and guttural growls, and his hands would have gripped her hips so tight that they left marks.
She slid her palms down her belly and sank her fingers into her heat. Imagining Jericho. Imagining Jason, the first man she'd ever had, the only human to sate her need. Maybe because she had loved him, in a peculiar way. Loved him from afar, envied and hated him all at the same time, when she was trapped in Sabra, trapped in her chair, and he had regained his legs and his freedom.
Jason was dead now too. She remembered the desperate, surrendering cry he'd made when he threw himself on her and drove deep. It was the sort of cry a dying man might make, or one whose mind had finally torn away from sanity and gone whirling off into the far reaches of madness.
A confusing mix of emotions filled her. She didn't want to think of that night. Devil's Night, the papers had called it. Hundreds of deaths, millions of dollars in damage, and untold people pushed over the edge. The legions of Hell let loose to rampage through Manhattan.
She supposed her feelings would have been worse if she'd actually experienced it for herself. But Godiva had been one of the first casualties. All electronics and machinery, from electrical appliances to combustion engines, had shut down when that strange burning wall dropped from the sky and cut the city off from its surroundings. Godiva included. Thus, she hadn't witnessed any of the horror.
The last thing she had been aware of was being perched on a ledge outside of Jason's apartment. He wasn't there, not after everything that had happened with his brother nearly being gutted by Jericho in full view of dozens of Quarrymen, but she found something pleasant in just being able to peer in the windows.
Peeping Godiva, a reversal of the old legend as a matter of fact. No tailor giving himself eyestrain spending hours squinting through a slat in the shutters to view the lord's wife parading naked through town on the back of a white horse. Just her, looking in. Seeing the weird reflection in the glass of that violet beam shooting up from the top of the Nightstone Building and spreading across the seething sky like a bloodstain.
Then nothing. Blanked out. Instantly, with no warning.
She had revived on the floor of Jason's apartment in a spray of broken glass, cuts on her brow ridge and arms and legs. Her internal clock told her that she'd lost hours, and when she went to the broken window she had instantly seen what was wrong with the skyline.
Shock had overwhelmed her. The more she learned of the extent of the damage, the extent of the losses, the number she felt. But beneath it was a pragmatic, calculating computer of a heart that told her what she had to do. She could grieve for her lost friends – not that they were friends, not really; lovers in the basest physical sense but hardly friends – later.
Speed had been of the essence. Those few who'd known of her association with Nightstone would likely assume that she had been in the building when it went down. Cross her off as lost, destroyed. Until they had reason to know better.
It wasn't as if she'd committed a crime. Not technically. There wasn't any proof. And with Demona gone, nobody really knew the extent of Nightstone's fortunes. Cautious to the point of paranoia after that incident with her ex, Thailog, hacking into her finances and diverting them elsewhere, Demona had diversified her holdings and made sure she couldn't be felled by one blow again. Godiva had been instrumental in organizing that, and probably knew more than anyone but Demona herself about the complete fiscal situation and various projects.
Besides, she had earned it.
In the weeks and months that followed, while Godiva remained in hiding – as much as it was possible for someone like her to hide, especially when her appetites craved anything but isolation – she was aware of the efforts by the authorities to seize the remainder of Nightstone's assets. Lawsuits were coming in from all points of the compass. Anyone who had gotten so much as a bruise on Devil's Night wanted a hefty piece of the settlement.
Well, she had gotten the lion's share. As was only fair and reasonable.
Now all of her plans were coming to fruition. The Coventry was complete. Its doors were still closed but tomorrow night they would open. The staff had been hired, the kitchens and bars stocked, the rooms booked.
Tomorrow night, the guests of honor would arrive. And she would unveil a special surprise for Mr. David Xanatos.

**

Korgaald Glacier
June 3rd, 1998

Laser fire scored the ice, bubbling it into steam and water that froze again instants later in a shiny blue streak against the white.
"Turn and face me, you coward!" Coldstone cried. He leveled his arm laser against the shining silver form, but his sighting was off and his second blast melted a channel directly into the sheer face of the glacier that rose above him in a towering wall of ice.
Gears ground in his joints. The parts of him that were still flesh, or as close as they came, ached with the bitter cold as well as from the beating he'd taken.
How could they have blundered into such a trap? How could they have mistaken the tracks for anything other than a trick, luring them on?
The avalanche, triggered by well-timed bursts of fire from Coldsteel's internal weaponry, had swept them apart. Coldstone called out for his mate, his love, but hard granular snow choked him, clogged his throat. He was tumbled over and over. His wings, which he'd extended as an instinctive defensive reaction, were wrenched in their sockets.
When it had ended, he was entombed. Swallowed up. Cyborg or not, he still needed to breathe and only a tiny pocket of air shared the freezing darkness with him. As the chill seeped into metal and strange, stonelike flesh, a lassitude crept into his veins. It would be so easy to let go, to let his systems fail. Only science and sorcery animated him anyway. It was a half-life at best. Hideous and unnatural.
The only thought that kept him alive was of his mate, his love. The same science and sorcery that he sometimes so viciously cursed when he thought of his own atrocious lot in life did not extend to her. No, in her case the science and the sorcery were miracles that had saved her. Unbound her from the tortured existence they'd known when they shared this body with each other and with his hated brother. She had been given new form, sleek and golden, as beautiful in a gleaming different way as she had been when alive.
She needed him.
Coldstone surged against the muffling weight that held him down. He dug furiously at the snow, raking with razor-sharp talons. Finally, roaring in frustration, he'd triggered his jets, meaning to go up and out. But it had backfired – literally – and the jets had burned a chasm underneath him, deep and slippery-sided. He'd rolled into it, striking his head and denting the metal plate that covered part of his chest, and there he'd lain staring up at the shaft above.
The wall next to him groaned. A crack appeared, grew a tentative inch as if sampling the ice, and then leaped a jagged eighteen inches. The packed snow above trembled.
He got to his feet as carefully as he could, knowing that a single wrong move would bring tons of snow and ice crashing down on him. He would never be able to find his way out of that, not before he suffocated.
The housing of his arm laser had been crunched. He had to pry it up with a claw, then curled his fist and raised his arm up. Not straight, but ever-so-slightly at an angle. He fired off a red glare, blinding in the icy crevasse, and at the same moment activated his jets again.
The laser blast pierced the debris of the avalanche and Coldstone was close behind it as the jets propelled him up as if he'd been shot from a cannon. Sharp edges of ice scraped painfully against him but he was free, exploding out of his tomb in a shower of snow.
His left wing would not respond and his flight was short-lived before he came rudely back to earth. The landscape around him had changed so drastically he could hardly believe it was the same place. Only the shapes of the mountains around him and the indifferent stars overhead told him this was the slope. Its surface had been buried by several feet of churned blocks of ice and smooth sheets of white. As if someone had, not liking the scenery, run an enormous white eraser in a wide swath.
He looked frantically around for any glint of metal, any shine of gold. Or silver, if Coldsteel had lingered. That was anyone's guess, could be either way. He was a craven scavenger at heart, Coldsteel was, and wouldn't have the courage to confront them in a fair fight. On the other hand, he would not want to leave without being sure that his little trap had finished the job.
Then, to his horror, he'd seen both silver and gold. Coldsteel was there, the long ropy metal tentacles that sprouted from his wrists wrapped around Coldfire's inert body. She was caked with snow and hung in his grasp like a doll. Off-line. Unconscious.
More noise, more vibrations, could set off more avalanches. Coldstone didn't care. He went after, lurching on a leg that had locked into a stiff post because the knee-joint was frozen solid. Coldsteel wasn't much better off, for all he prided himself on his robotic form's ability to self-repair. They had nearly had him three nights ago. He'd only eluded them by the barest of margins, gotten far enough ahead to lie in wait with his avalanche all ready, and they had been so exhausted and so intent on the chase that they had walked right into it.
"Brother!" He made the word a curse, for Coldsteel had never been brotherly. Cunning and cruel, hoping to drive a wedge between him and his love back in the days when they'd had no names and needed none, hoping to convince Coldstone that the lovely female with the exotic split wings was only pretending to love him while she secretly dallied with Goliath, he had never acted as a true part of the clan.
The clan. That was a painful joke indeed. Their clan was dead, a thousand years dead, and of the survivors, one had turned to a greedy and selfish evil that had ultimately led to Coldstone's half-resurrection. She had even pitted him against the others, the scant handful who had escaped the massacre only to find their own clanmates became their worst enemies.
Even after sorting out the minds and souls that shared one body, there had been no peace for Coldstone and his mate. Nor would there, they vowed, for so long as their nemesis was still alive. It was a killing-vow, something never lightly done, something that they had not dared speak of with Goliath for he might have forbade them. And he was their leader.
Or had been. It didn't matter now. They were no longer of the clan. They were apart from the clan. If Coldsteel had been finished the night their souls divided, if his had been dispersed into ethereal fragments and disappeared forever, the remaining two could not have simply joined the clan. Too much had changed.
They had only each other.
He had only her.
And was not about to lose her.
"She will never love you!" he shouted, fighting his way through the drifts in the direction that Coldsteel was fleeing. "Haven't you learned that yet?"
"Do you think I care?" came the jeering reply. "I have her, that's what matters. I never wanted to win her, only to possess her. Only to take her away from you. And now I have."
Grimly, Coldstone fired his arm laser again. He compensated for the damaged sight and this time the fresh streak in the ice was only a yard from Coldsteel.
All three of them might meet their ends here, he realized. No one knew where they were, and whatever was left of them might never be found.
Coldsteel was struggling uphill, slowed by the drag of Coldfire's weight. He drove his hind talons into the ice like a mountain-climber's boot spikes, attempting to scale a sculpture that resembled a frozen waterfall.
Gold. Glinting and shining.
A glow. Like the dawn. As Coldfire's eyes opened.
She assessed matters in a flash, before Coldstone could even call out to her. Coldsteel felt her twitch in his coils and turned his head to face her, just as she thrust her palms at him. Fountains of flame billowed out from the nozzles in the heels of her hands.
For a moment, he was lost in the conflagration, a shimmering figure only half-seen. The ice wall behind him boiled and steamed. His talons lost purchase. His wings fanned out with metallic clicking sounds, but they were in worse condition than Coldstone's and flight was not an option.
As they fell, the coils relaxed enough for Coldfire to tear loose. She wheeled away from him, her wings functioning perfectly, and kept her flame trained on him all the way down.
He landed near Coldstone, snow hissing and bubbling in a cloaking fog. Coldstone seized up the nearest thing at hand – a chunk of ice that could have served as a support column. Coldfire, sensing his intent, cut off her attack as Coldstone ran at his fallen foe, the ice chunk held above his head.
Coldsteel had sunk to the chest, but the arctic temperatures were freezing the slushy puddle around him. He looked up, the plated lenses of his eyes irising wide.
Voicing a battle cry too furious for words, Coldstone smashed the chunk of ice squarely into his brother's upturned face. The ice shattered and Coldsteel's head snapped back so far and so hard that the back of his skull struck him between the shoulderblades.
Coldstone did not wait to see how effective that had been. He leaped and dropped with one leg outstretched, his foot catching Coldsteel under the chin on his arched, exposed neck. That would have killed any living being, either breaking the neck in a clean instant or crushing the larynx to slowly strangle. But even that wasn't enough. Coldstone whirled, and the heavy ball on the end of his tail, the ball that had been of solid bone when he was alive but was now a titanium shell around a bony core, stove in Coldsteel's temple.
The silvery metal body jittered. Tentacles thrashed spasmodically, retracting in fits and jerks into his forearms. A puff of smoke, quickly dashed to tatters on the constant glacial wind, coughed from the side of Coldsteel's head.
He sank into the half-melted ice, limp and motionless. Coldfire landed beside Coldstone, and though her golden mask of a face lacked expression, he could sense the grimness in her as she raised her hands again and unleashed the flame. More bubbles, more steam, more water running freely over the ice until it hardened in place like runnels of wax.
Then it was done. Coldsteel was buried, encased in a solid mass that was clear with veins of blue. His eyes, staring up at them, were blank and empty and lightless.
Groaning, Coldstone let his battered body collapse. Coldfire knelt at his side, touched his face with her smooth, hard fingers. His weary, distracted mind flashed wistfully to the memory of her skin, the warmth of her touch, the sweet scent of her. They had recaptured a hint of that when occupying the bodies of Angela and Broadway, but although they had enjoyed it, there had been something dishonest about the caresses. Something stolen, and unclean.
"We are free of him," Coldfire said. "Finally free of him."
"Yes." Coldstone despised himself for his show of weakness, justified though it may have been, and forced himself to stand upright. He curled his arm around her, trying not to notice the unyielding solidity of her shoulders.
"What shall we do now?" she wondered, gazing down with revolted fascination at Coldsteel. "Where shall we go?"
He heard the hope in her voice and knew what she wished.
"Somewhere warm," he said.
"Manhattan?"
Sighing, he looked into her isinglass eyes. "Could we truly be happy there?"
"Our clan is there –"
"They are not our clan any longer. They are a new clan now, one we are not a part of. Their ways have changed. We have changed. They would never be able to look at us without seeing the differences."
"Do you mean that we will never see them again?"
"No." He rubbed his knuckles against the metal shell of her brow ridge. "We will see them again. We will visit them. But their home is not ours. We must find our own."

**

Las Vegas, Nevada
May 12, 2008

A steady stream of limousines had been pulling up to the faux-cobblestoned, covered entrance of the Coventry Hotel ever since the official opening at 5:00 PM. The grand party wouldn't begin until 9:00, to give everyone ample time to arrive, settle in, freshen up, and have a good look around.
Reporters moved through the excited crowds. Only in Vegas would you see the mix of fashion – everything from casual shorts and t-shirts to evening gowns and tuxedoes. Flashbulbs popped, voices buzzed. From the casino came the enticing jingle and clamor of the slot machines, the whirring of the roulette wheels, the shuffle-snap of cards being laid out on the green felt of the blackjack tables, and the rattle of dice. Music more or less in keeping with the hotel's theme drifted unobtrusively from hidden speakers.
In the hotel's main restaurant, a lavish spread had been laid out on long tables covered in white linen. The crowning glory of the buffet was an ice sculpture, rendered in painstaking detail, of a woman astride a horse. The artful flow of her ankle-length hair concealed, but hinted at, her nudity.
The sculpture served as an unnecessary reminder of the elusive hostess they were all so eager to see. Godiva had yet to put in an appearance. Only when word reached her private suite of the expected arrival did she see to a few last-minute touch-ups of her cosmetics and take the elevator and the long, stained-glass hallway that led to the small but serviceable landing strip.
The vehicle there looked like the result of a marriage between a limousine and a Lear jet. It was a shiny obsidian-black, shaped like a rounded arrowhead with aerodynamic lines and windows tinted dark as sin. It had descended on a heated cushion of air and the thrusters still glowed a faint gasflame-blue in the heat ripples rising around the craft.
As ordered, as rehearsed, a sizeable portion of the staff stood ready, crisp in their new uniforms. Somehow, a few reporters had gotten wind of the event and they waited with ill-concealed avarice near the hotel's doors. Godiva thought of having Security throw them out, but relented. This was, after all, the photo op of the year.
The pilot's door opened in a winglike flair reminiscent of the classic DeLorean. A man, in a uniform crisp it made the hotel staff look rumpled, stepped down and turned pale blue eyes toward Godiva. She couldn't read any emotion on his face, but the spotlights struck twinkles from his glasses in a way that somehow seemed bemused.
He moved to the larger door that accessed the passenger compartment. It opened in another mechanical ballet of movement, rising and revolving as a stairway unfolded itself smoothly from somewhere in the undercarriage.
A new storm of flashbulbs erupted as billionaire David Xanatos, in an Italian tux that drew attention to his strong, lean physique, smiled a cocky, brilliant smile. His wife was on his arm, wearing a painted-on gown of emerald green woven through with threads of gold, her hair swept regally up and held with jeweled clips. On Xanatos' other side stood a boy of eleven, with hair like honey seen by firelight and a smile that, like his tuxedo, was a miniature replica of his father's.
They descended the steps and paused at the bottom as more people emerged from the limo-jet's interior. The next to appear were a striking brunette in a bold but elegant red and black pantsuit and a little girl, maybe nine or ten, with sable-colored hair and long coltish legs beneath a cashmere poncho-like garment.
A lone man came next, and Godiva felt a thrill of recognition. He hadn't changed at all, still carrying himself with the careful but rigid posture of an aging kommandant, dressed all in white with one gnarled hand clenched on the silver knob of his ebony cane. His eyes, still a vivid green, still piercing as an eagle's, met hers across the distance and a corner of his mouth curled.
The last one out of the vehicle drew nearly as much of a stir as had the Xanatos family. The female gargoyle had an ivory complexion set off well by her periwinkle dress, and her soft brown hair fell to her hips bound only by a circlet that rested above her nearly nonexistent brow ridge. As gargoyles went, she was among the best-known in the country: Elektra, who had danced with Daniel Harmond before he became President, whose mate hosted a popular late-night live cooking show, who had, along with Goliath, labored tirelessly on behalf of gargoyle rights.
She moved to meet the group, reclaiming the center of attention from the Xanatoses and the other gargoyle. BesideGodiva, Elektra's prettiness was like a Skipper doll to a Barbie, and Fox's revealing gown might as well have been a nun's habit.
The outfit was white, of gossamer so sheer that fine print could have been read through a double thickness of it, and floated around her like a cloud. It was made of a gathered panel that divided at the back of her neck and pulled taut against her breasts thanks to the diamond-trimmed sash that belted tight around her waist. The panels fluttered free from there on down, showing leg to the hip whenever Godiva moved. In the back, the gathered panel followed the length of her spine, between her wings, and split again above her tail.
She matched the diamonds on the sash with bracelets and anklets, and had dusted glittering diamond powder over her eyes, up the quills of her ridge, and in the V of her cleavage. Her hair was a glorious tumble, untethered and unfettered, swaying in counterpoint to her hips as she walked.
Godiva was gratified to note their reactions. Only the pilot – Owen Burnett, more stone-faced than any gargoyle ever was – and Gustav Sevarius seemed unimpressed. Sevarius made a slight shake of his head, a just what I expected sort of shake, and his thin lips pursed.
Xanatos took the lead, stepping up. "Godiva, as lovely as ever."
She returned his smile, hers playful, knowing that inside he was still aggravated. He did hate to lose, did David Xanatos, and hated even more being in a position where there was nothing he could do about it.
"David," she purred, leisurely offering her hand.
He took it, kissed the back, and while still bent over raised his eyes in a smoldering look that made her wonder, and not for the first time either, what it would be like with him. He would be an expert, skilled and debonair, more intent on her response than his … challenging her … seeking to gain some hold over her by giving her one earth-shaking orgasm after another.
It would almost be worthwhile. But he had a cruel streak in him, and if he knew she wanted him he would tease and taunt and gain power over her that way. Besides, she wouldn't put it past his wife to be packing a thermonuclear device in her evening bag.
"Ooh, Zaza, look! A castle! And a pyramid!"
The child, having no sense of ceremony whatsoever, tore away from the woman in the red and black pantsuit and ran to the railing around the landing strip. Beyond it, Vegas was a treasure chest of lights and magic. The beam at the top of the Luxor stretched to the sky, colored fountains played in front of Caesar's Palace, and the world's highest rollercoaster looped and dived to the distant sound of hectic screams.
"Jeez, Amburger," the boy said, rolling his eyes in a very adult expression of disdain.
"Amber," her mother called. "Come here."
"I want to go on the rides!" the girl declared.
"Later, honey."
"But Zaza, you promised!"
"I did, but not that it would be the first thing we did the minute we got here." Elisa Maza shared a wry grin with Fox Xanatos.
Godiva remembered her, all right. Not so much by personal interaction as by reputation. And envy. She had heard chapter and verse from Demona. The human detective this and the human detective that, and in the end what it all boiled down to was simple jealousy. Elisa had what Demona used to, and even if Demona didn't want him anymore (as she so often and vigorously stated, especially when Jericho was around), that didn't change things one whit.
Anyone who'd seen Goliath could certainly sympathize. Godiva had seen him on television, heard that rumbling sexy voice, and thought her CPU might just dissolve into goo. He was so male … Jericho took after him in all the important ways, Demona had mentioned. Thailog, too … there was another male that Godiva would have been more than happy to meet.
She had met Goliath, sort of. The memory, not a personal one but a stored file, was available to her. The bachelor party. She could also look through the files from the time when the Godiva body had been occupied by Anton Sevarius, but she didn't much like to. He was a nasty man even if he'd never done anything particularly nasty while being Godiva, and all the files seemed lightly coated with sleaze.
How had he adjusted to being Sabra Indrani, she wondered? Had Xanatos relented and given him/her access to the medical technology that would repair Sabra's crippled body? Or was he still trundling around in the hated wheelchair, still living with constant pain and ugliness? She hoped for the latter, uncharitable as it was.
Xanatos had relinquished her hand and Godiva turned to the rest with her arms outstretched, as if to take them all in an embrace.
"Welcome to Coventry," she said. "I'm so very glad you could be here."
"Wouldn't have missed it," Xanatos assured her.
A reporter had sidled close and seized the moment to jump in. "Mr. Xanatos, is it true that you're one of Coventry's private investors?"
"No," Xanatos said in a clipped, curt tone. He fixed the reporter with such a glare that the man, of a breed trained to press on despite rejection, slunk away cowed. Then and only then, his dark eyes heavy with meaning, did he look at Godiva. "Not as such, that is."
"David, David, David," she said, with a chuckle like a rich dessert. "None of the money used to build this hotel was in any way connected to you."
"You're still wearing something that belongs to my corporation," he said, and eyed her so blatantly that she almost had to fan herself.
"What, this old thing?" She cupped her breasts and inhaled, and observed with private glee how half the males watching all but staggered in place.
"I suppose you find it funny," Xanatos said.
"We can discuss this later." Godiva shrugged, which did more interesting things to her curves. "I'm sure you're all eager to see the hotel, and refresh yourselves before the party."
Elektra, rather demurely, approached Godiva. They studied each other for a moment, a shared secret hanging between them. Elektra was the other gargoyle to have been purposefully seen by day, the two of them supporting the idea that gargoyles chose to go about at night. It had been part of a sneaky campaign to undermine the Quarrymen – to make an apt pun – and convince the public that there was no point in smashing statues that were, after all, only statues. Such vandalism had gone way down once everyone realized the apparent futility of the effort.
"Thank you for inviting us," Elektra said politely.
Godiva favored her with an intimate, sisterly, utterly false little smile, then gestured to include the others.
"Let me show you to your rooms. I assure you, not all of my guests receive such personal treatment."
A snap of her talons and the staff hurried to the rear of the limo-jet, where Burnett had opened the cargo hatch. A veritable congo line of monogrammed luggage followed Godiva's processional as she led them into the hotel and to the upper-floor suites that were second only in luxury, accommodations, and view.
Someone was waiting for them in a hallway wide enough for two freeway-sized lanes of traffic. One red eye shone balefully, and his servos made a high-pitched hum as he came closer.
"Xanatos," he said, as if he tasted something bad.
"Coldstone," Xanatos replied in surprise.
"Coldstone?" Elisa pushed her way past Gustav Sevarius.
"Allow me to introduce my Chief of Security," Godiva said smoothly. "I believe you've already met."
"Where's Coldfire?" Elisa asked, looking around.
"On duty, monitoring the casino floor," Coldstone said, thawing as he addressed the detective.
"My Deputy-Chief of Security," Godiva added. She turned a smug gaze on Xanatos. "Actually, I believe they're both wearing things that belong to you, too. We'll have to remember that in our discussion."
"You …" was as far as he got before trailing off and working his jaw into a grudging smile. "Very good, Godiva. Very good."
"Yes. I am."
"What about Angus?" Elisa cut in.
"And Gabriel," Elektra said. "Is he here, too?"
Coldstone thawed even more. "They are with the rest of the clan."
"We are seven," Godiva said proudly. "Coldstone and his mate and their sons, myself, and a charming pair from Ishimura."
"Yourself?" Xanatos raised an eyebrow. "You count yourself as one of the clan?"
"The leader of our clan," growled Coldstone ominously.
Xanatos regarded them for a long, evaluating moment and nodded. "I see."
Godiva waited to see if any of them were going to come right out and say it. None did, not yet anyway. With a grandiloquent flourish, she opened the door to the first suite and ushered them in.
"Make yourselves at home," she said. "I have some other things to take care of, but I can't wait to see you at the party tonight."

**

Korgaald Glacier
April 19th, 2006

"Think they'll be able to make it?" Larry Burch asked.
His partner, Kelly Dagget, trudged up beside him and halted. They were both sweating despite the temperatures, encased as they were in space-age thermal blend fabrics. Goggles shielded their eyes from the sharp glare of the sun on the ice, and a clear substance like Chapstick was spread over every exposed inch of skin.
"Whew," Kelly puffed. She shook snow first from one snowshoe, then the other, and settled the straps of her pack more comfortably on her shoulders. "Well, we did, didn't we?"
"Yeah, but we started with a full night's sleep, a hot meal, and didn't have fifteen other teams breathing down our necks. And we haven't spent the past eight days rock-climbing, mountaineering, and kayaking."
"Haven't broken any bones," Kelly added. "Haven't had a sobbing nervous breakdown. Haven't even gotten into any arguments."
"There's always time for that."
She wrinkled her nose at him. "But I see your point. We made it. Whether or not they will is another story. It'll test them, that's for sure."
"And that's what makes good television."
"So says my father, and he ought to know."
Larry nodded. He'd worked for Burt Dagget for five years now, using his outdoorsman skills to help plot ever-more-challenging courses for the highly popular challenge show, Nature Hazard. Dagget was one of the kings of reality television, a competition that went on with tougher and tougher scenarios, pushing the teams to the limit of human endurance and beyond. Critics said that the competition between Dagget and his fellow adventure-race moguls wasn't going to end until someone actually died on camera.
No one had, though there had been some hair-raising incidents. Larry still got a queasy flutter in his stomach when he thought of the time that a New Zealand team had tried to take their mountain bikes down the short cut of a canyon. One of them had flipped ass-over-handlebars, come down on his helmet so hard the plastic split right in two, tumbled down thirty feet of loose rock, and fetched up at the bottom looking like a stick figure.
By rights, the man should have been dead, but he got up – blood coming from his nose and ears as well as the plentiful gashes and cuts that could be seen through the shreds of his clothing – and insisted on finishing the course. The team had placed eleventh, and they'd no sooner reached the finish line than he'd keeled over and spent eight months in a coma.
People said Dagget was a ghoul, a lunatic, someone who would have been right at home feeding the Christians to the lions in the days of ancient Rome, someone who would have been right there by Torquemada's side whispering inventive new ways to torture the heretics. But Larry had been with Dagget when they reached the bottom of that canyon, a medevac chopper already on the way, and seen Dagget's genuine concern. He'd wanted to end the race right then but the Kiwis wouldn't hear of it.
"Okay," Kelly said. She had been surveying the terrain while Larry was musing on old times. "This'll make a good spot for Base Check 9. Provided we can get down the other side of the glacier without killing ourselves. Want to press on or do you need a rest?"
"I'm game to go if you are," he said.
It was stupid, he knew, macho bullshit, but there was no way that he could be the one to ask for a time-out first. It didn't matter that Kelly, Burt's daughter, had been raised on this sort of stuff and was tougher than any ten men Larry knew. Tough or not, she was still a woman and his manly pride would not let him wuss out first.
She grinned at him, freckles and gingersnap-colored hair making her look all of fourteen. "Then let's get moving. Daylight's wasting."
They were plotting a course for a race that would take place later in the fall, when the days in the Northern Hemisphere lasted longer. Every hour of light would count for the racers, though the winners were invariably the ones who pressed on into the night, eschewing sleep. They usually came out the other side gibbering from exhaustion, fatigue poisons galloping gaily through their bloodstreams, and on or over the verge of psychotic breaks. Larry personally thought, though it was an opinion he kept to himself, that the odds of someone dying in an accident were good, but the odds of someone going section-eight and doing gross damage upon the person of another were even better.
And the castaway shows … you just knew it was only a matter of time before starvation, cabin fever, and the constant stress of the lies and head-games ended with the rest of the tribe not voting one of their number out but killing and eating them instead.
Kelly took one more photograph of the area. Except it wasn't really a simple photo, but a digital wireless jobbie that would instantly send the image to a monitor back at the main camp, where her father would be knee-deep in maps, applicant psychological profiles, and the tons of details that went into the prep work. And that looked like a holiday compared to the actual event, let alone the editing of the filmed footage to heighten the dramatic tension.
"On we go," Larry said, and struck off on a diagonal path that led toward a wall of ice. He went carefully, knowing how quickly and easily the solid-seeming ground could open up in a crevasse. The snow hid a lot of secrets.
"Hey," Kelly said. She had broken protocol, not following right in his steps but veering off a little. "See that?"
He bit back a reminder. She knew, of course she knew what she was supposed to do and if he reminded her, she'd only roll her eyes and tell him so. But this wasn't the first time she'd disregarded the safety drills. He was still trying to decide if it was just the Dagget overconfidence, camera disease (the delusion that nothing bad could happen to the one who was supposed to shoot the bad stuff happening to other people), immature cockiness, or a combination of the three.
She was looking at the snow-covered ground, sort of dusting/sweeping at it with her foot. Larry went over to her and forgot all about any possible retort when he saw what she had already seen.
It was down in a depression between two drifts of snow, or else the sunflash would have given it away even sooner. Not ice. He knew that even before he could identify – or his puzzled brain would let him identify – what it was.
"It's metal," Kelly said.
"Yeah."
"It's … a hand."
"Fuck that; it's a tentacle. Look at it. Jeez!"
"I am looking at it," she snapped. "I saw it first, remember?"
"But what is it? Looks like the damn Doctor Octopus."
The steel arm stuck up like that of a drowning victim going down for the third time. Its fingers didn't look like fingers at all but a metal nest of tentacles, four of them, each about eighteen inches long. The rest of it vanished into the ice at about the elbow, and when Kelly scuffed away more of the snow cover, they could make out a dim shape suspended below them in a mass of ice.
"Do you think it's …" Kelly tittered, as if knowing that what she was going to say would sound nutty as a bag of trail mix. "You know, a UFO or alien robot or something?"
"Well, it's 'something,' all right," Larry said.
He hunkered down, intending to poke the tentacles, and hesitated. That was the sort of thing you saw morons doing in the movies, and there'd be a pulse-raising musical score and then the tentacles would come alive like writhing steel snakes and grab him and he'd be thrashing and screaming and they'd either be edged or barbed and his blood would spatter all over the white scenery.
"Don't," Kelly said.
"On second thought, yeah." Larry straightened up, at a prudent distance. "What do we do about it?"
She aimed the camera. Microchips whirred. "I want to get a few more shots, from different angles. Help me brush the snow out of the way. But don't touch it. It might …"
"It wouldn't, though. Not really."
"Let's not take any chances."
They cleared away snow, and as the angle of the sun changed a ray of it fell across the patch of ice just perfectly to show them what was down there.
Kelly let out a low whistle. She tromped around, camera avidly sucking it up.
"It's some sort of robot, all right," she said excitedly.
"Like the ones they had in New York."
"That's what I'm thinking."
Larry stared through the rippling ice. He knew it was a trick of refraction and the light, but a chill that had nothing to do with being on a glacier slid coolly down his spine. He could have sworn the thing in the ice was looking back at him. That there was a dull, canny gleam of intelligence in its eyes, despite the obvious damage that had been done to its head.
"Dad is going to flip," Kelly chirruped brightly. "I bet he'll have to get people out here, chip this thing up. What a find!"
That face. That metal mask. And the hand. Reaching up. Struggling for freedom.
Larry remembered some old gothic novel his ex-wife had insisted on reading aloud to him – that habit of hers, along with his habit of staying out too late with the guys, had both contributed to the divorce. In the novel, there had been a character buried alive who had come to in his coffin, realized where he was, and successfully broke through the lid and clawed most of the way up to the land of the living.
"Damn thing's looking at me," he murmured.
If Kelly heard, she didn't reply. She had put the camera back into one of the many pockets of her quilted parka and was scribbling notes instead.
Looking at him. Damned if it wasn't.

**

Las Vegas, Nevada
May 12, 2008

"Are you going to be broody all night, David darling?" Fox Xanatos made a final adjustment to her hair and dashed on just a hint of FoxFire perfume. "I didn't come all this way to sit in a hotel room with you."
"There was a time when you wouldn't have minded," he said with the ghost of a grin.
"That would be another story." She embraced him from behind and looked over his shoulder through the window of their room. "If that's what you have in mind, I'll send Alex to have dinner with the others and we can spend our vacation right here in this room."
He chuckled, but it was hollow.
"Except," Fox went on blithely, "I can tell when you're not in the mood. So what is it? Godiva? You'd better not be having thoughts."
"Not those kind of thoughts," he assured her.
"None at all?"
"Why would I?"
It was her turn to laugh. "Didn't you design her yourself to be the ultimate sex fantasy?"
"I made some suggestions, yes."
"But you never sampled the wares? Any chef worth his puffy white hat will taste his creation before serving it to someone else."
David turned and gazed sardonically down at her. "You're barking up the wrong tree, my dear. I am perturbed about Godiva, and while it does concern her body, it certainly doesn't concern mine. She's blackmailing me, the minx."
"Because of Coldstone?"
"Precisely. I've spent the past – what, ten years? – trying to make it up to the gargoyles for my early lapses in judgement –"
"Trying to dominate and control them," she said.
"And also trying to put myself forth as an advocate, a friend, and a firm supporter of their species. The gargoyle rights bill that I worked on with Senator Harmond, the strings I pulled to help de-monsterize them in the eyes of the public, countless things."
"I think you've done an admirable job."
"But Godiva has the potential to ruin everything."
"I don't follow."
"She's the most highly visible gargoyle since Ebon, and people have for the most part forgotten about him. Elektra and Broadway are well-known, granted, but they're not on Godiva's level for sheer fame."
"Yes," said Fox with a touch of bitterness. "I still haven't forgiven her for scoring higher than me in VIP's 50 Sexiest Women of 2003."
"You were robbed," he said, but in an absent way. "The point is, Godiva has the fame, and the money, and the public spotlight. She's done a lot just by example to help the gargoyle cause and gain them popular acceptance. If word got out that she was what she is, that she's not a 'real' gargoyle … if word got out that I was responsible for the construction of that android body … think of the damage."
"How does Coldstone figure into it?"
"He's still none too fond of me. I can tell. He hasn't forgiven me for being involved with bringing him back to life in the first place, and my generosity with Coldfire didn't make up for it. He would probably be willing to talk about that. David Xanatos, friend of the gargoyle race now, but in his sordid past, he engaged in secret mad-scientist experiments on them."
Fox hummed thoughtfully. "I can see how that would be damaging. The only thing missing is that nasty affair with the clones. You could argue that they weren't recognized as a sentient species at the time and that cloning hadn't technically been banned … but … well, let's just say it's probably for the best that Ebon is off wherever he is and the rest of them didn't survive Devil's Night."
"The clones aren't the only missing element. Don't leave out the mutates, and the accelerated-evolution project … Godiva knows too much. It's my own fault, though that doesn't make me feel any better. She's got all that information, and if I don't give her what she wants, she'll use it. She's unscrupulous that way."
"I wonder where she could have learned it?" teased Fox. "Same place as Thailog?"
He gave her a look.
"So what does she want? If it's your body, blackmail or no blackmail she'll have to tangle with me."
"That'd be a sight," he said. "The two of you fighting over me. Would you do it in a wading pool full of Wesson oil?"
She returned the look. "Ha, ha."
"If only it were that simple. No … what she wants is her body. I spent millions researching, developing the technology, all of that. She's as much the property of Xanatos Enterprises as the Steel Clan robots."
"Not to mention Coldstone and Coldfire."
"But that's different," David said. "Maybe I initially intended for Coldstone to remain the company's property, but I relinquished that. As for Coldfire, that was purely a magnanimous gesture on my part."
"And here I've always thought it was just a way of trying to get back into Goliath's good graces."
"A beneficial side-effect. I owed the clan, you know that. They'd saved our son."
She put a hand on the side of his face. "I know. I think it was a grand thing that you did. Many grand things. You welcomed them back into their home, helped Goliath's favorite brother regain his true love, so many things. Godiva's another story. She was a party favor."
"An expensive party favor, until Sevarius got into her. But the point of it is, if Godiva tells the world all about it, they're not going to look at me in a vary good light. That's bad enough, but it will damage everything we've spent years trying to accomplish. We can't afford to bring back the panic and suspicion of the Quarryman era. If Godiva is revealed as an android, if people find out about the experiments, they'll start to wonder if any of the gargoyles are the genuine article or if they've been tricked all along. I can't let that happen."
"What can you do?"
"Soak it up, I suppose," he grumbled, turning back to the view of Las Vegas spread out across the desert floor in an array of lights. "Accept the loss of a valuable piece of equipment and let Godiva go her own way."
"It burns you, though."
"She gets away with the Godiva body scot-free, she diverts millions out of the Nightstone accounts before anyone even thinks to check, and I can't do anything about it without risking what we've all worked so hard to do."
Fox massaged his shoulders. "Then I guess you should do that, let it go."
"It's not just the money."
"Of course not. She got around you, the bitch. I know how you hate that."
"She got around me, and she'll gloat about it."
"Who says she'll have much of an opportunity? You know you've never liked Vegas all that much anyway."
He nodded, reluctantly but unable not to see the wisdom in her words. "There is one thing I wonder about, though. How in the world did she hook up with Coldstone and Coldfire? The last I'd heard, they had gone off with Angus and Gabriel to find another home for themselves in the wilderness. How'd they end up here?"

**

From The Los Angeles Examiner, April 30th 2006:

BURT DAGGET, DAUGHTER, DIE IN SHOOTING SPREE
Violent rampage leaves eight dead; gunman escaped.
By Amy Hoff.

The San Bernardino ranch that was home to Dagget Productions, the company responsible for the popular Nature Hazard adventure race show, was the site of a murderous spree Saturday. Eight people including the show's creator Burt Dagget and his daughter Kelly, died from gunshot wounds. Four others were injured and remain in critical care at area hospitals.
Eyewitness reports say that the shooter was Larry Burch, an outdoorsman and contract employee who had been working with the Daggets. Police sources are unwilling to confirm or deny this information but state that they are very interested in questioning Mr. Burch, who has not been seen since the incident.
The deadly episode apparently began Saturday afternoon, during a meeting with the show's planners and technical staff. Burch allegedly pulled an automatic machine pistol from concealment and began firing randomly.
"He looked like a crazy man," Bill Jackson, a sound technician, told this reporter. "His face was red and inflamed, and his eyes crackled like little balls of lightning."
Anyone with further knowledge of this crime or the whereabouts of Mr. Burch is urged to contact his or her local police department immediately.
The tragedy took place only one day before the Daggets were scheduled to hold a press conference to reveal something that had been discovered on a recent expedition to Korgaald Glacier, which was to have been one of the settings for this fall's Nature Hazard. "It's a spectacular discovery," Burt Dagget told Daybreak Coast to Coast hostess Elaine Kristen last week. "You'll have to see it to believe it."
(continued on A-13)

**

Las Vegas, Nevada
May 12, 2008

"You've done rather well for yourself, my lamb," Gustav Sevarius said, sipping at a glass of sherry.
Godiva crossed her legs. "So have you. Made cozy with Xanatos, I see."
He raised a thin shoulder in half a shrug by way of answer.
"I suppose he didn't leave you much choice, did he?" she went on. "Made you an offer that you could hardly refuse. What's he got you doing for him now? Still in the mind-control biz?"
"Not as such. The focus of my research has shifted toward seeking cures for mental illness."
"Of course," Godiva said. "Now that there's federal money in it."
"Now that, at last," he said in a tone of mild but stern correction, "the government is acknowledging that the ailments of the mind are every bit as real and treatable as the ailments of the body."
The old lizard, as Demona had called him, hadn't changed a whit. He still had the accent, buried but there. If his white hair had thinned, it wasn't by much, and the lines on his face had not advanced much. She did a quick calculation and pegged his age at almost ninety and he did look it, but the hard shine of those emerald eyes was still sharp as ever.
"I'm surprised that Xanatos would have anything to do with you," she said. "You know what a goody-goody he became. Mellowed by fatherhood and all that."
Sevarius shrugged again in disinterest.
Godiva, nettled at failing to get a rise out of him – and the day that she couldn't get a rise of one sort or another out of anyone with a Y chromosome was a cold day in Hell – tried another tactic. With her sweetest smile, her most syrupy voice, she asked, "And how is your dear brother?"
Direct hit, but the only outward signs of it were a tightening of Sevarius' pruned lips and an almost imperceptible narrowing of the eyes.
"Fine," he said. "I'll be sure to tell him that you inquired."
"He couldn't make it? Or does he prefer 'she' after all these years?"
"In a body so wasted and sexless as that, does it matter?" he countered, scoring a hit of his own.
"I take it, then," said Godiva, biting off each word, "that Xanatos hasn't been forthcoming with any medical miracles."
"Not as of yet."
"What about your nephew? Samson, wasn't it?"
"They have reconciled. My brother's aim now is to find a remedy for Samson's condition. If the mutation can be reversed, the bone damage can be repaired."
"Which should also come in handy for that wasted, sexless body he's stuck with."
"In which you stranded him."
She rose in a swirl of hair. "Well, wouldn't you? Who wouldn't? I had everything to gain and damned little to lose. Except maybe my soul, but that's right, you don't believe in souls. So, from where I'm standing, it's all profit."
"At the expense of another."
"Oh, that's rich. What have you ever done that wasn't at the expense of another? Using people for lab rats, taking away their freedom of thought –"
"I did not come all this way to debate with you on the ethics of behavioral modification," he said.
"Why did you come?"
"To see how you were enjoying your ill-gotten gains."
"Well, I am. What of it?"
"Nothing," he said, but he seemed amused.
"What?"
"Let me merely say that from a psychiatric perspective, I find you endlessly fascinating."
Godiva tossed her head, determined not to give him the satisfaction of her anger. "I'll bet you say that to all the girls."

**

Death Valley, CA
June 6th, 2006

There was no gold in them thar hills, not much of interest except borax nowadays and even that wasn't much worth a prospector's time. Nobody in their right mind, folks thought, would want to live in a shack out in God's frying pan, a shack with a corrugated-metal roof that glared in the summer sun like a madman's eye.
Varney York was in his right mind, though, you bet. He wasn't wild about his living conditions but they beat the heck out of prison, which was where he'd be if he'd been a little bit slower loading what he owned into the back of his Pontiac and hitting the open road. Even the computer, the fucking computer that had gotten him into this mess in the first place.
Right now, the computer might have been a space heater for all the good it did him. The shack had no electricity, no phone line. Just as well. If it did, they'd track him. Even if he used some other name, they'd track him.
Bastards.
They'd never find him here. It was hundreds of miles from his last known address and in such a different climate that it might as well have been another planet. The dryness of the air sucked all the residual coastal moisture out of him on the first day, and by now he was sure he'd be unrecognizable. They'd gotten pictures. Video, even. Some nosy neighbor had poked a lens out the window and got him as he was leaving. Maybe because of the screams. The little shit had screamed like a girl.
He couldn't get online, but he did have a battery-operated portable television with a long spindly antenna, and when the weather was clear – when wasn't it? – he could pick up most of the L.A. stations. Had a radio too. And on his twice-weekly trips into town, if two streets of run-down buildings could be called a town, he always dropped by the cinderblock box that served as a dinkwad county library to catch up on the papers.
That was how he figured out who the guy was. The guy in the broken-down Jeep.
Varn had been aware of him for the best part of an hour. Nothing much was ever moving out here on the sand and the hardpan, except the occasional strutting scorpion or tumbleweed bouncing by on its way from hoot to holler. A car of any sort was enough to catch his eye. A car that was inching along the rutted track that used to be an old mining road, belching steam or smoke from under the hood … well, around here, that was front-page news.
He stayed where he was, though, sitting in the shade outside the shack because it was cooler there and the occasional gritty gust of wind cooled the humid jungle of his armpits. He wasn't feeling neighborly. That Good Samaritan stuff was crap.
The guy from the Jeep, just a man-shaped blotch at this distance, started toward the shack anyway. Sure he did. Where else was he going to go? Town was twenty miles, and he had to be able to see the tin roof winking in the sun like a heliograph. Here he came, doubtless hoping for a phone. Or maybe an expert mechanic with nothing better to do than hang around a shithole like this all the livelong day, why not?
The closer the guy got, the more edgy Varn became. He didn't know why at first, chalking it up to his instinctive resentment at having to play host to some idiot who broke down in the middle of nowhere. Then it occurred to him that maybe the guy would know who he was. Maybe he was a cop.
No … if the cops were going to find him, they weren't going to send in one man on foot. Not for him. Not after the papers had trumpeted the gory details of his crimes. Had there been one mention, even a hint, that the little shit had it coming? Dream on! No, the press made him out to be the bad guy, didn't that just figure?
If the cops knew where he was, they'd come in force. Helicopters, maybe, buzzing out of the sky like wasps and stirring up stinging dust devils. They'd assume he was out here armed to the teeth. Guns, grenades, pipe bombs, maybe a nuke. Why the hell not?
This guy was no cop. But he didn't approach like a regular stranded motorist would, Varn knew that much. He came on at a steady pace but with his head down, and never once waved or called out or anything.
When he got close, Varn felt a chill from the insides out. He'd been careful to keep an eye on the papers for anything about himself, but he knew this guy from another hot case that had, as the anchormen liked to put it, "left the Southland in a reign of terror."
And he'd gone some better than hunting down and taking care of a manipulative jerk who thought he could get away with anything and walk all over whoever he pleased. This guy, Burch was his name, had taken a machine gun to work and mowed the bastards down.
Varn had thought it was funny at the time, funny in a way that left a sour, sick taste in his mouth. His graduating class had voted him "Most Likely to Go Postal" in the yearbook, a joke, they said, can't you take a joke?
That had been a couple of months ago, around the same time that Varn had delivered a little old-fashioned justice of his own. The manhunt for him might have died down but everyone was still keen to catch up with Burch. That's what you got when you slaughtered celebrities, even half-assed ones like the people who made reality television shows. Dumbest things on earth. They wanted to give Burch the gas chamber when as far as Varn was concerned, they should really give him a medal.
At least, that's what he would have said before Burch showed up here. This was most definitely not right. Every nerve in him was jangling and sirening in alarm.
He got up. Burch was still coming on at that same steady clip, head down. He walked in a funny, lurching way, as if it hurt him to do so. No weapons that Varn could see. But his clothes were stiff with something that wasn't tomato sauce and wasn't chocolate milk.
It was too late to duck inside and pretend he wasn't home. Besides, even if he did the guy would probably steal the Pontiac.
For a moment, Varn was tempted to let him. The cops would be looking for it, and they'd get an interesting surprise when they pulled it over to find the wrong fugitive. But it was his car, dammit, the only one he had and probably the only one he'd ever be able to have, and without it he would die out here. No way to get to the store, and the shelf of canned goods and bottled water wasn't going to last forever.
Burch halted five yards away and looked up. Varn, who had decided on pretending that he didn't know who the guy was and just warn him off in the best gruff desert-rat way, tripped over his first word and couldn't finish.
His eyes were wrong. Crackling with energy. St. Elmo's fire, caught in his sockets.
And the blood. The blood on his clothes. Some of it was fresh. Some of it was coming from a raw, pulpy mess in the middle of his chest. Looked like partly-cooked meatloaf that had been dropped on the carpet and picked up a load of dog hair.
Something was in it, too. Down deep, but moving. Churning. Like a maggot.
For once, the anger that had sustained Varn ever since he was old enough to hit his momma back vanished. The revulsion that had overtaken him at the sight of the gored mess of Larry Burch's chest was replaced by a tingling that he didn't immediately identify as fear.
"You," Burch said. His arm jerked up as if pulled by a clumsy puppeteer. "You'll do."
Shaking his head, Varn backed away. His butt hit the chair he'd been sitting in and knocked it over, and the little table too where he'd had a can of pop. Warm soda gurgled onto the thirsty dirt.
He broke left and ran, reaching for the door of the shack despite knowing that a really determined man – hell, a really determined eight-year-old – could collapse the works with a few well-placed kicks. He ran for it anyway, thinking of the cot, thinking of the crate beneath the cot, the crate with the knife in it. The knife that he'd used to carve the ears and nose off the little shit who'd thought he could get away with playing head games with one of Varn's friends. Should have ditched it, but the sentimental value had led him to hang onto it despite common sense, and now maybe it was the only chance he had.
Because he knew, he knew in his gut, that Larry Burch meant to kill him too. Didn't know him from Adam, but that didn't matter.
The doorknob blistered his palm but he barely noticed. He was in, sweeping it closed and losing precious seconds as his eyes adjusted to the oven-hot gloom. He stumbled to the cot, upended it, and dropped to his knees as he lifted the lid of the crate.
The door opened again, not torn crazily from the hinges but just plain and ordinary opened. Burch was there. Varn seized the knife and had the wildest urge to yell something about how this shack warn't big enough for the two of them.
No time.
No time for witty repartee. Not even time to undo the peace bond that secured the knife in its sheath.
Burch grabbed him. His eyes crackled, emitting their own weird glow. Varn saw nothing human in those eyes at all.
Varn brought up the knife, sheath and all. He tried to break the powerful grip that had him by the upper arms but Burch had fingers of iron, digging in, hurting. Lifting.
He felt his feet leave the gapped floorboards and kicked out as hard as he could. The sudden movement made Burch drop him. He landed on the overturned cot, bruising his tailbone, one aluminum leg of the cot damn near puncturing his balls.
Someone was shouting a steady torrent of curses and Varn realized it was him. He scrabbled sideways like a crab, the abused base of his backbone sending out Morse code signals of pain.
His eyes had adjusted now and he could see that Burch looked like he was on the verge of collapse. The older man's chest was splitting, peeling open. The blood flow turned from a trickle to a flood as something … as something came out.

**

Las Vegas, Nevada
May 12, 2008

"It is a nice home for your clan, Gabriel," Elektra said. "Are you happy here?"
"Why wouldn't I be?"
They were seated poolside, looking on as Angus, Alexander, and Amber – the Three A's, as Alex had dubbed them – played some sort of complicated game of tag. This pool was a private one, accessible only through the Coventry Clan's private rooms and concealed by hedges, a tent of gauzy netting, and the windowless walls of the hotel's kitchen and laundry.
"It only seems so strange to find you here. With Godiva."
At this, Gabriel averted his gaze and Elektra's brow ridge rose slightly.
"We needed a place to stay," he mumbled. "We were tired of living like savages."
"Are you and Godiva …?"
"No!" He barked it at her, and she flinched in her chair. "I'm not involved with Godiva. Not anymore."
"But you were."
"For a while. So what if I was?"
"Nothing."
"Nothing," he echoed, all but bristling with defensiveness. "Nothing, except she's a whore? Is that what you were going to say? Nothing, except that she's not even a real gargoyle? As if you are."
"Gabriel!" She was on her feet, slim tail lashing.
"Elektra, I'm sorry." He covered his face with his hands. "You know I did not mean that. You're a real gargoyle, of course you are."
"Why are you being like this?" She was not ready to relent, standing there with a sort of queenly dignity that gave him a pang of nostalgia for Princess Katherine, her half-sister, mother-figure to their entire rookery while they were growing up on Avalon.
A half-hearted grin curved his mouth. "Maybe that's it."
"What?"
"You look so much like her, and I'd be ashamed to talk to her about Godiva."
"Ashamed?" Elektra sat down again. She had never been one to let her temper rule her for long, this gentle sister of his, and put her delicate five-fingered hand on his arm. "Why should you be ashamed?"
"Because she is a whore, and she's not a real gargoyle," he said bitterly, unable to meet her calm, level gaze. "All she cares about is herself, her own needs. And does she have needs! More than anyone I've ever met. She's selfish and grasping and greedy."
"Then why …?" She seemed unable to finish, and a rosy blush tinged her fair cheek.
Gabriel exhaled heavily. "I suppose I thought it was what I needed," he admitted. "I'd lost so many females I cared about, you know that. I was afraid to let myself try again. I didn't want to find a new love only to lose her too. All I could do was think of them. Angela, Opal, Onyx, Citrine … even Ventura, though the Dragon alone knows why. When we met Godiva, I … I just … she was …"
"She offered you sex," Elektra said. "With no caring, no emotions, no … how do they put it? No strings attached."
"Yes. That's it exactly. I thought I needed that."
"Mayhap you did."
"But the longer it went on, the less satisfied with it I was. I was nothing to her but a convenient means of pleasure. And that's all she was to me. After a while, I was disgusted with it. Disgusted with myself. It was good, don't get me wrong –"
"I'm certain it was; she was designed for it," Elektra murmured.
"Physically, it was good. The rest of it was … empty. I missed what I had with my other mates."
"Of course you did," she said soothingly. "You have a good and kind heart, and have suffered much."
"I think that being with Godiva did what I'd hoped it would do," he said. "I still missed them, still hurt when I thought of them, but it wasn't so bleak anymore. I knew that in time, and provided I ever met an eligible female, I could contemplate taking a new mate without feeling like I wanted to die in the agony of my failure."
"Then that is good, Gabriel."
"She wasn't very understanding," he said, looking away again. "She has lovers aplenty, hosts of them, but says that no human is the match for a gargoyle."
Elektra smiled. "It may be, but I'd not take it up with Goliath on the matter."
"I broke off with her anyway. I was worried that she might turn us all out, expel us from the clan, but she didn't. She decided to make me jealous instead and took to flaunting herself and her lovers around me whenever she had the occasion. I'll tell you this, though … when it comes to trying to make a male jealous, she's got nothing on Tourmaline."
"She let you stay, then."
"We were needed. Whether she just wanted to be able to boast a clan of her own, or whether she really does value our skills, she wants us here. My real concern is Angus."
They both looked at him. Amber, in a red tankini bathing suit, was standing on his shoulders with her lavender wings flapping madly. Angus's hands cupped her calves and he crouched-stood-crouched-stood and heaved her up, over, tumbling, shrieking with laughter, to splash into the deep end.
"You're afraid she'll hook her talons into him once he's old enough," Elektra said. "I don't blame you. I do wonder, though, why you stay."
Gabriel sighed. "Because we owe her our lives."

**

From The Los Angeles Examiner, June 12th, 2006:

CONSPIRACY OF MURDER IN DAGGET, INTERNET STALKING CASE
Falling-out between killers leaves one suspect dead.
By Amy Hoff

In the most bizarre twist yet, a link has been found that ties the violent deaths of adventure-race mogul Burt Dagget and seven of his staff to the brutal slaying of a Portland software designer.
Suspected gunman Larry Burch, who fled the scene at Dagget's studio several months ago and was not seen since, was found dead in a remote corner of Death Valley, the apparent victim of a dispute between himself and a partner in crime.
The gruesome discovery was made when a county deputy noticed an abandoned vehicle on an old mining road and investigated a nearby shack. The cause of death has not yet been determined, and forensics experts note that the extreme heat contributed to the process of decomposition and will make pinpointing the actual time of death very difficult. Initial tests indicate that the body had been there at least a week before being found and suffered extreme trauma to the chest region.
Items and fingerprints found at the scene indicate that the shack was also occupied by Varney York, being sought by police for questioning in the Portland murder. A late-model Pontiac identified as belonging to York was found near Joshua Flats and York is believed to have fled in a stolen car.
(continued A-8)

**

Las Vegas, Nevada
May 12th, 2008

The evening had gone stunningly well, and it was with an air of extreme pleasure that Godiva returned to her room. The eastern sky was blushed with peach, and although Vegas was a 24-7 sort of town, the pre-dawn hours did tend to be something of the down time.
Her guests had for the most part retired to their rooms after gorging themselves on the buffet and drinking bottle after bottle of fine champagne. The mood was festive, the high-rollers had already dropped close to a quarter of a million in the casino, and tomorrow night's debut performance was sold out with a hundred standby tickets waiting.
Best of all, she'd won. Xanatos couldn't touch her now and he knew it. This body, this fabulous body, was hers to keep. Forever. It did not age, and as long as she kept it supplied with the occasional surge of electrical energy, it remained in peak condition.
What a joy it had been to discover that she could replenish that electrical energy simply from the galvanic current that ran through human and gargoyle skin! They were full of power, full of it, and used a bare fraction of it to keep their brains and systems functioning.
"That must make me a vampire," she laughed into the air-conditioned darkness.
She was heady on more than champagne, having opened up her collectors and supped on the vibrant charge that had been radiating from every person she met. The more heightened the emotions, the stronger the impulses that they gave off.
All she had to do was brush against them – something which rarely met with complaint – and the fine hairs on their skin would quiver erect as the energy passed from their bodies to hers. If they felt anything at all, they discounted it as a reaction to her nearness, and every now and then when the current was too much, the resultant sparks were easily passed off as a product of static electricity.
It was better when they were sweat-slick and in the throes of lust, of course. But then, wasn't everything?

**

Elko, Nevada
July 4, 2006

The rugged countryside was softened by darkness. In the distance, a glow on the horizon suggested dawn, but it was actually the ambient light from the city, many miles away across the desert. By day it could be ignored, and the only sign of humanity was the highway, and a small motel and diner.
Just the way Coldstone liked it.
He had moved his family hither and yon over the past several years, trying to balance his preference for absolute isolation with the demands of the hatchlings for the comforts of civilization.
Family!
It was still hard to believe. He and Coldfire had returned, battered but victorious, from their long pursuit and final battle with his evil brother. They had been nearing New York when they were reached by the green male who had taken the name Lexington. He'd tapped into the right radio frequency to send a message-burst into their very heads, inviting them to Goliath's wedding.
Coldstone hadn't even been all that sure what a wedding was, until Coldfire reminded him of Prince Malcolm's. A human custom. Because Goliath was taking a human for his mate.
Neither of them had been sure what to think of that. It went against all they'd been taught when they were young, but their entire world had changed in untold and unspeakable ways since then. In the end, they had decided to attend. For Goliath's sake if for no other reason.
The most shocking part of the whole affair had come when they'd been introduced to Angus. Their son, so they were told.
Angus did look the part, with Coldfire's split wings and Coldstone's coloring. Their son. Hatched from one of the eggs that Coldfire had laid that last breeding season before the massacre. One of three, if memory served. But it didn't matter, wasn't supposed to matter. This notion of taking proprietary parental interest in the youngsters was just one more change, one that Coldstone did not feel at ease with.
Coldfire, on the other hand, had taken to it with fervor. In her mind, Angus was their last and only link to the fleshly life they'd once led. A living reminder of their love. Never mind that he had been raised by a human and had picked up some very human habits. He was alone, he needed a clan, and he was theirs in a way that nothing else in this modern era was theirs. Not even their own bodies.
So they had taken Angus in, turning a mated pair into a tiny clan of three. It would have been easier to stay at the castle, their rightful home, and let Angus be the child of the whole clan as hatchlings were supposed to be, but they could not stay. The clan trusted Xanatos now, when Coldstone never would. The clan had become … domesticated. Humanized. Too accustomed to the modern world.
Angus, who had been brought up in a life of comparative simplicity, didn't feel as if he fit in there either. He had no rookery siblings – arguably, both Angela and Elektra qualified, but thanks to the flow of time on Avalon, they were adults and Angus was only on the threshold of adolescence. He had readily agreed to go off with his true parents.
That was when the troubles began. All Coldstone wanted was a place to call their own. They tried the forests of New England and southeastern Canada, where hunting was plentiful and humans were few. It had worked for a while. Might have worked permanently. Except that Angus missed even the scant conveniences he'd grown up with. Stores. Television. Food that didn't have to be hunted, killed, dressed out, and cooked. Shelter from the rainy nights.
They made other visits to Goliath's clan. On their second visit, Coldstone and Coldfire had been shocked to meet another of their sons. This was Gabriel, his facial features markedly similar to Coldstone's, once leader of the gargoyles on Avalon.
Coldfire took to him at once with all motherly sympathy. He had been through much, this adult child of theirs. Unlucky in love was young Gabriel, who had lost Angela to Brooklyn, then a triad of mates to death. Unlucky in battle, too … at least, the last battle of Devil's Night in which his left hand was chopped from his wrist by the axe of a demoness.
The amputation had been healed by means of holding the severed hand against the stump as dawn arrived, the transformation to stone merging the wound back together. Yet it had only been partially effective. Gabriel's wrist was braceleted by a dark striation of scar tissue and he held that hand awkwardly, and could not grip with it as well.
These troubles had darkened his mood into a drear bleakness interrupted sporadically by fits of hopeless anger. The clan had begun to fear that he might end himself, either by leaning a bit off-balance on the high castle ledges some morning just as the rising sun made second thoughts come too late. Elisa, no stranger to like phenomena, worried that Gabriel might try to commit suicide by taking on more foes than he could handle. Cops saw it all the time, when criminals who desired their own destruction got themselves gunned down.
He felt he had failed at everything, Elektra confided to Coldstone. He felt abandoned. And while he was loved here, it pained him to be around the mated pairs of his generation, pained him to know that their eggs filled the rookery while he sired none. Even Ebon, who had taken Gabriel under his wing, had left him with nary a word. It would do him well, she opined, to spend some time away from the castle and the clan.
Thus Gabriel joined Coldstone, Coldfire, and Angus. For a time, things had indeed been better for them all. Gabriel knew a little about the things of which Angus spoke, such as baseball and video games. Gabriel was attentive to things that Coldstone and Coldfire, not being precisely alive, often didn't bother with or were prone to forget unless reminded, such as the need for meals on a regular basis.
Offering Angus instruction had seemed to do Gabriel good. He had a younger brother to teach what Angus hadn't learned from the widowed human who had been as a mother to him. They spent many a night in the forest practicing woodlore, and hunting together, until Angus was quite skilled. They talked about topics that neither Coldstone nor Coldfire felt able to discuss, like the impulses of the young, and Angus' discomfiture over having met human girls who considered him 'cute.'
All in all, it was beginning to go quite well and Coldstone was allowing himself to relax when their chosen territory was invaded by a logging company. Every night saw the border of encroachment grow closer, and the air stank of the fumes from the machinery.
The four of them debated whether to fight for their home, move on, or return to Manhattan. It was unanimously decided that the first course was futile as well as deadly. Coldstone had favored moving on and southward, towards warmer climes, and he thought Gabriel privately agreed with him, but Angus had clamored for returning to Manhattan and civilization, and Coldfire had agreed that perhaps a visit would be nice…
So they had returned to Manhattan, and renewed their bonds with the clan living there and even made a few new acquaintances as well. Even Gabriel, who had at first seemed to sink even further into depression at the prospect of returning to the site of his last few 'failures', had begun to show a lighter mood over the course of time. But there had still been frictions between the clans, arguments and
disagreeable moments and words said that were later regretted… After Gabriel had begun sinking into depression again, when word came of a possible sighting of a new clan elsewhere on the continent, Coldstone had lost no time in leaving Manhattan to investigate the sighting with his family in tow, and making it clear that even if the sighting turned out to be false, it was time to find a new territory to call their own. After the sighting had proved to be both more than they'd dared hope for and a great disappointment, they had begun the search for a new place to call their own.
They had been on the move ever since, roaming the continent. They stayed primarily to the United States because both Gabriel and Angus missed the readily available goods and supplies, and the occasional interaction with humans. Sometimes, they found newspapers or magazines with news of other gargoyles, and always perused these with interest.
It was Coldfire's hope that they might eventually meet up with another clan, with attitudes similar to their own or that of the Manhattan clan, or at least one where they might be accepted. She had taken to motherhood so well that she was already starting to talk of grandchildren. This met with eye-rolling complaints of "Jays, Mum!" from Angus and a glum silence from Gabriel. Coldstone himself was none too sure about the prospect, but he did agree that a full clan would share much of the burdens.
Now they had come to the desert, fulfilling Coldstone's wish of long ago to live someplace warm. They spent the day basking in the sun, he and Coldfire alert but taking downtime to give their internal systems a chance to rest and repair, their sons locked in stone sleep and soaking up the energy-giving rays so hot and so bright.
In the distance, down at the motel that huddled at the foot of a low mountainous range, something went off in a shower of sparks and a high-pitched whistling noise. Then a streak of light shot up and exploded into white fire.
"It's their independence day," Gabriel explained, hunkering down beside Coldstone where he watched from a perch on a spur of rock. "The day their country was freed from another."
Coldstone grunted noncommittally.
"We were down at the diner tonight, Angus and I." He spoke diffidently, but a tension in his voice told Coldstone that whatever Gabriel had to say was not as unimportant as he wanted it to sound. "We heard something interesting."
"Oh?"
"They say there's a gargoyle in Las Vegas. A rich one, and she's building a hotel."
"It is probably Demona," snarled Coldstone.
"She's dead and gone," Gabriel said firmly. He rubbed his scarred wrist without seeming to be aware of it. "The Hunter took her to Hell on Devil's Night."
"So it isn't her. What of it?"
Movement, a gritting step, and he turned his head to see Angus approaching. He insisted on wearing human clothing, great baggy shorts that always seemed on the verge of falling to his ankles, a Red Sox t-shirt torn open down the back to allow for his wings, and a baseball cap turned backward so that the bill jutted out behind him.
He had reached a stage that Coldstone remembered well from his own youth, that time in which the body was growing rapidly but without apparent rhyme or reason, all long limbs and voracious appetite, rife with hitherto unexplored urges. What Coldstone did not remember was this attitude, which ranged from sullen to argumentative and would have, when he was that age, earned first a scolding and then possibly a swat from one of the clan elders.
"So we were thinking," Angus said, and his voice cracked on 'think' with a squeak, "that we should go and investigate. If there's a clan there …"
"We have a clan here."
"But we don't, not really," Gabriel said reluctantly. "It's just us."
"Maybe you guys don't care, but I do." Angus thrust his chin at Coldstone. "I'm tired of living like this. Look at what we've got. Nothing. We scrounge for our food –"
"Because you rarely hunt."
"There's nothing to hunt!" He swept his arms in an encompassing gesture. "Oh, sure, jackrabbits, but most of the time they get pasted on the highway. You want us to eat roadkill? It doesn't bother you because you hardly have to eat and she doesn't have to eat at all. But me, I want real food. It doesn't have to be shepherd's pie like Mother Eibhlin used to make, but at least a hot dog. A real one, not a half-eaten one that we find in the dumpster behind the diner."
Coldstone rose slowly. Angus had grown several inches since joining them but he was still years from his full height and growth, and Coldstone's shadow in the moonlight covered him completely.
"You're speaking out of turn. I advise you to show proper respect to your elders."
Gabriel got between them and shot Angus a warning look. "He doesn't mean to be disrespectful. It's just that we'd both like a chance at a better life."
"No one forced you to come with us," Coldstone said. "Had my love not insisted, I would have happily left the both of you behind."
"I'm used to being left behind," Gabriel said. "Jericho was right about one thing, monster or no. Goliath abandoned us all in the egg. Angela left me on Avalon. Ebon left me. Ventura, too, before I even had a chance with her. It wouldn't be anything new."
A wash of heated air from above heralded Coldfire, the jets dimming as she reached the ground. Her golden wings slid from their extended to their folded position and her expressionless face looked around at the three of them.
"Is something the matter?" she asked.
"We want to go to Las Vegas," Angus said.

**

From The Los Angeles Examiner, July 10th, 2006

POLICE BAFFLED BY CHAIN OF DEATHS
Cause of death similar, weapon still unknown
by Amy Hoff

The latest victim in a series of related, violent deaths was found last night in Stateline, Nevada. The body, which was discovered in a ditch behind a truck-stop parking lot, was that of 43-year-old Ted Wallace, of Bakersfield. This is the fourth such death in a matter of weeks, all of the bodies bearing similar and inexplicable damage.
"Their nervous systems were totally fried out," a source at the medical examiner's office claims. "And their chests … it's like their hearts just exploded."
Wallace was wanted in connection with the murder of 19-year-old Mojave woman Fawn Bright, whose body was recovered five days ago from the High Desert Reservoir. Ms. Bright, in turn, was implicated in the murder of fugitive-from-justice Varney York, who was himself believed responsible for the death of Larry Burch.
"These cases have to be connected," a police source said. "The injuries alone demonstrate that. But these are people who, as far as we've yet been able to tell, never met each other before. They are from varying walks of life, lived in different parts of the state, and had very little in common."
When asked if police were investigating the possibility of one serial killer being responsible, the same police source replied, "Yes, we're looking into it very seriously, but at this time all of the evidence we've recovered indicates that there were never more than two people at the scene. The victim, and the killer … who went on to become the next victim."
(continued A-11)

**

Las Vegas, Nevada
May 13th, 2002

The most exclusive of events at the Coventry's opening gala was held on the evening of the 13th, after the guests had spent a day lounging by the pool, strolling the shops, or whiling away the hours in the casino. Only a hundred tickets were made available – free of charge – to the highest of the high rollers and the most notable of celebrities.
It was held in the smallest of the hotel's three theaters, a room with a design more 1920's Art Deco than anything properly British. The curtain was lowered as the guests began filing in, drinks in hand. For this occasion, only formal attire would do and the scene in the lobby resembled an awards show, with the red carpet and the gold velvet cords making a path for the elite to stroll past the admiring eyes of the onlookers.
Children weren't permitted. This was Godiva's show, and no one under the age of 21 would be allowed in the theater. Amber in particular wanted to know why – why, Zaza, why can't I see? – while Alex only grinned knowingly as their mothers dropped them off with Angus.
Dinner was served before the curtain was raised. Crisp salads with raspberry vinaigrette, soft white rolls with pats of butter molded into miniature female gargoyles, mushrooms stuffed with shredded crab, tender beef in a sauce bernaise, seasoned steamed potatoes, a mix of baby vegetables … even Xanatos was favorably impressed.
Elektra, in a strapless gown the color of hematite and with her hair done in a flattering chignon, nibbled at her meal and surveyed the room. Famous faces were everywhere. Actors and singing stars, primarily, and many of them men whose names had been linked with Godiva's in the tabloids. She wouldn't have put it past any of them for such stories to be true.
Next to her, Gabriel fidgeted, uncomfortable in his evening wear. They had yet to perfect a backless suit jacket for gargoyles, no matter how Fox's designers worked at it.
Dr. Sevarius had begged off, so they shared their table with Fox and Xanatos, and Owen and Elisa. A bottle of champagne rested in a tall silver ice bucket nearby and Xanatos made his usual show of selecting a wine to go with the meal. If his intention was to stump Godiva's chief wine steward, he failed. And if this discomfited him, he masked it well.
The performance began once the dinner dishes had been cleared away, by wait staff moving so quickly and deftly that it might as well have been done by magic. Drinks were refreshed, and then all attention turned toward the stage as the curtain rose in whispering folds and gathers.
Elisa snorted. "Should have known," she said to Fox, who nodded and stifled a laugh.
The back of the stage was taken up by a wide, gently curved flight of stairs. As the lights came up, the ranks of athletic young men in dapper tuxedos moved gracefully apart to reveal Godiva. She wore a rose-colored satin sheath and elbow gloves, and something about the entire scene looked vaguely familiar.
"First Marilyn," said Xanatos in a low tone, "then Madonna … and now Godiva."
The musical number was neither Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend or Material Girl, but had shades of both and the action was the same. The adoring young men showered gifts of jewelry on Godiva as she twirled and sang and preened in the glitter of gemstones.
From there, though, Godiva went back to what she really did best. The rest of the show could have been titled "A History of Striptease," starting with Salome's seven veils. It moved on to the jingling coin-covered bra and belt of the traditional belly dancer, then to a dance in which Godiva artfully swept fans of fluffy white feathers about herself.
She came back onstage covered in silver and gold balloons, which Elektra privately thought looked silly, like a bunch of oddly-hued grapes with a head and limbs sticking out, but which the audience – the males in particular – seemed to enjoy as one by one, with either her talons or the spade-shaped tip of her tail, Godiva popped balloons until only the most strategic ones were left.
Her expression as she danced was somewhere between haughty and ecstatic. Available to anyone, yet untouchable. Vainglorious. Challenging but detached. Elektra supposed that some men would view Godiva in the same way that they viewed Mt. Everest – only the brave dared climb, only the best survived, and even those who reached the top had no real effect on the mountain itself.
"I don't like her very much," Elektra said as the curtain came down between acts.
Fox laughed meanly. "It's called envy, Elektra."
"No, it isn't that. I'm not envious of her. Why should I be?"
"Because she could have any man she wanted with a come-hither look and a swing of her hips," Elisa said.
"Not any man," Xanatos begged to differ.
Gabriel was focusing intently on his drink, as if wishing the glass contained something stronger than wine. Avalon's potent mead, perhaps, stronger thanks to its magic than any potable of the mortal realm. The stuff of the drinking horns of Valhalla, perhaps.
"Not anyone who knows what she's really like," Elisa amended. "But we're supposed to be envious all the same. Because she's staggeringly gorgeous and men go slack-jawed at the sight of her. We're supposed to feel inadequate, unable to compete."
"I have my dear Broadway's love," Elektra said. "That is all I need."
"She's the most show-offy bitch I've ever seen," Fox said. "And that's coming from someone who's made a lifestyle out of being a show-offy bitch. This, though … the whole reason she built this place was so that people would come from all over the world to watch her and drool. Self-serving, arrogant tramp."
Elektra shook her head. "But we, the three of us," she said, gesturing to include Elisa and Fox, "we have beloved mates who adore us. I would rather that than a thousand admirers."
"That," said Fox, "is because you're a nicer person than the rest of us."
"You cannot mean that you'd wish to be in her place."
"No," Elisa said. "Okay, there's times I still wish I had wings –"
"My people can always arrange –"
"Shut it, Xanatos."
"Consider it shut."
"And there's times," Fox said, "especially during my morning workout and every night when I check the mirror for grey hairs, that I wouldn't mind having an eternally young and sexy body. See, Elektra, usually when other women meet someone like Godiva, we can be catty and tell each other that all she's got are her looks and when those start to go, when her tits sag and her ass loses its muscle tone, that she won't have anything. We don't have that pleasure with Godiva, because those things aren't going to happen."
"Takes a lot of the fun out of being spiteful," Elisa said.
"But isn't it also sad?" Elektra asked. "She will never know the kind of love that we've found."
"Cry me a river," Fox said, unmoved.
The curtain rose again and the next act began, the stage having been quickly re-set to be the inside of any upscale strip club in the nation. A mirror-tiled runway moved on silent hydraulic rollers, extending into an aisle that had been left between the tables. Lights encased in clear glass globes ran along the edges of it. A shiny metal pole added the finishing touch.
The speakers came to life with the rousing, ubiquitous theme from "The Stripper," and Godiva went to work. She had changed into a shortie dress, stockings, gloves, and a hat that perched atop the piled mass of her hair. One by one, she peeled off articles of clothing and tossed them into the crowd. Under the dress, she had on a black Merry Widow, and as it too came off, she brought her wings around and used them in the same manner as she had the feathered fans.
A glimpse here, a flash there, tricks of the shadow and the light never letting the audience be sure if they'd actually seen something or imagined they had.
Elektra, disturbed for many unspecified reasons, looked around the room. She saw that many of the women wore expressions like those of Fox and Elisa, a sort of disdainful jealous scorn. The men were not quite cheering and waving money in the air but a lot looked as if they would have liked to. Some pretended indifference, usually those seated beside the most vehemently scowling women, but even those ones snuck peeks when they thought their wives weren't watching.
"I've got to admit," Xanatos said, "the boys did good work."

**

From The Western Nevada Tribune, July 14th 2006:

EXPLOSION KILLS THREE AT TRAINING CAMP
By Rick Berkins

Three men died and dozens more were injured last night in a propane tank explosion at Thunder Ridge, a training camp for National Guardsmen. The fireball was seen up to ten miles away. Camp personnel raced to contain the blaze, which came perilously close to an ammunition dump.
Officials refuse to confirm or deny allegations that the explosion might have been the result of a deliberate bombing. "Until we have reason to believe otherwise, we are going on the assumption that this was an accident," one such official said at a press conference this morning. "However, experts are looking into this very seriously."
Two of the men who died were working near the propane tank at the time of the explosion. The third man was killed when a truck he'd been riding in was struck by a flying chunk of debris. Names are being withheld pending notification of next of kin.
"People were running all over the place," said a National Guardsman who preferred not to be named. "Jumping into cars and trucks, anything, just wanting to get away. I guess we thought the whole damn place was going to go up."
At least one man is still unaccounted for.
(continued page 2)

**

Las Vegas, Nevada
May 13th, 2008

Godiva was brushing her hair when he came in, and she continued running the brush through it in long sensual strokes, looking at him in her mirror and waiting for him to speak.
"I shouldn't be here," he finally said.
"I knew you'd come," she purred.
"I didn't want to."
"Yes, you did." She set down the brush and turned toward him.
After the show, after mingling with the crowd in a loose kimono that rippled down her body like water, she had come back to her rooms and slipped into something even more comfortable – nothing at all.
His gaze traveled over her and she felt the heat of it like muffled embers sliding over her skin. "I didn't."
"Oh, let's not get into that. If you hadn't wanted to, you wouldn't be here."
He swallowed, and dragged his gaze with effort from her taut nipples to her face. "I can't do this."
She rose, shaking her hair down her back. It tickled silkily between her wings and over the base of her tail. He made a low sound, almost a groan, as she stepped toward him. His agonized eyes showed his wish to move away, but the rest of him was rooted to the spot.
"I think you can," Godiva said. "I'm sure of it. Shall we see?"
"No."
"Shy?"
"Insane. What am I doing? I've got to get out of here."
So saying, he turned for the sliding door. Godiva moved, swift but light on her feet, and caught up with him as he reached it. She skimmed her fingertips down his back and he shuddered, stopping with his hand on the handle.
Leaning close, pressing her breasts against him, she blew his name into his ear. "Gabriel."
"I lied to Elektra," he said in a choked voice. "I told her it was over between us."
"Why did you do that?" she asked, playfully walking her fingers up and down the small of his back.
His wings twitched. He had also changed into more comfortable clothes, the vest and loincloth that were his usual attire, and through the wool she could feel the warmth of him. His hand fell away from the door and his head bowed as if in defeat.
"I didn't want her to think that I … that I …"
"That you were a male? A red-blooded, virile male?" She grasped the base of his tail in both hands, an abrupt and sure move.
Gabriel gasped and the end of his tail curled. He was quivering all over, his fists clenched so that his knuckles were pale grey-green and his talons dug into his palms.
"Do you have any idea what they think of you?" he asked, almost cried.
"Oh, I imagine I do."
"I don't want them to think that of me. I don't want my clan to know."
"Your parents do."
"That's different. They … they don't understand. They lost so much of that part of them. They've almost forgotten what it's like. The … the …"
"The sensation?" she supplied.
It was Coldfire she was thinking of, Coldfire who was in a weird sort of way her mother too, or at least an earlier draft. It was a logical progression from the Steel Clan to Coldstone to the Pack to the Coyote robots to Coldfire to Godiva herself. Just call me the apex of robotic evolution, she thought, and smiled.
"The sensation," Gabriel agreed. "They can still think, and they still have emotions, but so much of their physical senses, touch …"
"You don't need to explain it to me," she said, and slid her arms around him from behind. She snuggled her hips against his tail, straddling the base of it, rolling in slow, lazy circles.
"I can't even explain it to myself." He was trapped, she could feel it, wanting to pull away but she had him pinned against the door, but at the same time not wanting to.
"You worry too much, Gabe," she said. "You think too much. Is there any harm in what we're doing? Is there any harm when I do this?"
She reached around him and down, over the hard flatness of his belly to the buckle of his belt, and down, finding the stiffening bulge there and rubbing it. His back arched and as his head tipped next to hers she nipped at his ear.
"Your pretty little sister doesn't have to know," she breathed. "Unless she'd like to play with us. That might be fun. Would you like that, Gabe? To have her here with us? To see her with me?"
"She's not that way," he croaked, but his erection swelled and pounded with his pulse. "Elektra and I don't have that kind of … of … relationship."
"Never mind, then," Godiva said, but she knew that the image was engraved indelibly in his mind now. That when he closed his eyes, he'd be seeing her entwined with Elektra's pale, supple body, caressing her, doing to her all the things she'd done to Demona that made Jericho go faint with lust. They were all alike down deep, males were. Any species, it didn't matter.
"I don't want her to know," he said. With difficulty. His fists were opening and closing, opening and closing, as if at any second he would surrender, whirl, grab her.
"Fine." She rubbed, squeezed. Sent one hand up to tug at his belt. "Let's get rid of this, shall we?"
"No," he said, but didn't resist as she undid it and threw his loincloth to land in a heap on the floor. That urgent part of him sprang free.
She could see his ghostly reflection in the glass, the night beyond. Anyone up high enough, in a plane perhaps, or with a telescope, would be able to see them standing there at the door to her balcony. Anyone could be watching, anyone at all.
Thrilled by the prospect, Godiva coaxed him to turn just enough that she could go to her knees, still framed in the doorway as she licked her lips, worked him between her palms, flicked out her tongue to toy with the very tip of his shaft. Gabriel, breath coming and going in harsh, tremulous rasps, moved his hands uncertainly, as if he couldn't decide whether to push her away, or take hold of the sides of her head and plunge himself into her waiting mouth.
Godiva settled it for him, taking him between her lips, opening her throat to take all of him. He made a hoarse cry and his hands, as if of their own volition, buried themselves in her hair. His hips jerked, moving his loins convulsively back and forth.
His scent, musky and so wonderfully male, surrounded her. She used every trick she knew – and she knew plenty! – to drive him to absolute distraction. His wings were flapping, his tail coiling and flexing, and soon he was crying out in rhythmic time with each stroke. Her own tail was busy underneath her, probing and massaging just enough to tantalize, just enough to keep her on the edge of readiness. She wanted him to be the one to decide when.
He did, with a helpless growl as he clamped her hard by the upper arms, his right hand sure and strong, the left less so, and clumsy. He yanked her to her feet, then lifted her. She went, "Oooh!" in surprise at the cool sheet of glass against her back as he held her to it, and a longer, breathless, "ohhhh!" as he thrust forcefully into her.
Holding her, holding her against the sliding door, her wings flattened against it, taking her standing up against the thin glass that was all that separated them from all of the city, and she didn't care if the glass broke and spilled them onto the balcony. All that mattered was the friction, the full throbbing solidity of him driving deep.
It was over almost at once, both of them too aroused to make it last. Gabriel's eyes went white-hot and he stifled his roar by filling his mouth with her breast. Godiva hit a high note that almost did what their frantic coupling had not – the glass shivered but did not break.
Gabriel tottered back, still holding her, still inside of her. His legs struck her wide bed and they both tumbled onto it.
He lay there, panting, as she disengaged and curled along his side, toying with a lock of his hair and humming contentedly. His eyes were shut, his face almost pained.
Sure that he was about to start in with the regrets, and not wanting to hear it, Godiva draped herself over his chest. "I remember when we met," she said. "You looked at me like I was a daydream come to life."
"So did you," he mumbled without looking at her. In fact, he went so far as to cover his eyes with his forearm.
"I did, didn't I?"
And she had. She knew of Coldstone and Coldfire thanks to her various files, dismissed the younger boy almost at once (though not before sizing him up and thinking to herself that in a few years, he'd have potential), and concentrated on the healthy young male.
They'd never precisely met but she could guess who he was. Some rookery brother of Angela's, his skin a dark grey-green. He had long reddish-blond hair, horns, and facial extrusions of bone that gave him a much more inhuman, much more traditionally gargoylian aspect. Nicely built. With an air of vulnerability about him that she zeroed in on like a lion sensing a lamed zebra at the watering hole.
Her clan at the time had consisted of Hoshi and Ohta, a pair of young lovers who had fled their clan in Japan when the elders had tried to forbid them to become mates. Godiva had met them while touring the finer Tokyo hotels, having seen them gliding by her window and gone out to investigate. She liked them well enough, but the fact that they were irrevocably committed to each other and not interested in games of three took a good deal of the fun out of it.
So she had been more than happy to accept the family of four into her clan as well. Especially Gabriel, unattached and needful. And grateful. If she hadn't been there, the whole bunch of them might have been blown to bits. Except for Gabriel himself, but there were fates worse than death.
She hadn't had to exert much effort to get him. Keeping him, though … the things he had told Elektra were true, or at least he wanted them to be true. He would never know the extent she went to in order to keep him a frequent bedmate.
What, after all, was a little subliminal advertising between friends?

**

From The Western Nevada Tribune, July 16th 2006:

MISSING MAN WANTED FOR QUESTIONING
By Rick Berkins

A National Guardsman from Thunder Ridge training camp is being actively sought by police who are curious about his involvement in Tuesday's fatal explosion. The explosion, which took the lives of five people and left several more injured, mostly with burns from propane fuel, has now been determined to have been deliberately set off.
Officials believe that the man responsible used the explosion and subsequent panic to steal weapons and military equipment from the camp. He is also believed to be a suspect in a Stateline murder earlier this month.
(continued page 2)

**

Las Vegas, Nevada
May 14th, 2008

"Thank God," Elisa Maza said as Amber, who had just finished insisting that she didn't feel tired at all, that she wasn't the least bit sleepy and wanted to go over to the Mirage and see the dolphins, curled up in a chair and hardened into stone. "I was starting to think the rotten kid was never going to sleep."
Elektra smiled wanly. "We have been off-schedule."
"Is that what's wrong?"
"What do you mean?"
"Don't con me, Elektra. You've been in a mood all morning."
The pale gargoyle, so weary-looking that she might follow Amber's lead any second, sighed. "I … it's not my place to talk of it."
"If something's bugging you, you know you can always talk to me."
"I am concerned for Gabriel."
"What, you think Godiva's got her hooks into him? I thought that was over."
"I thought so too, and such did he say … but I saw them last night. In the window. As if they wanted to be seen. He lied to me, Elisa, and I do not understand."
"Hoo, boy." Elisa sat on the edge of the bed and patted the mattress.
Elektra joined her. "He does not even like her. He told me as much. Why, then, would he dally with her?"
"Because he's got a penis."
Shocked blue eyes met Elisa's dark ones. A sputter came from Elektra's lips.
"Sorry," Elisa said. "It's just … well … guys. She's a hottie and she knows it, clap your hands, and a lot of guys don't mind putting up if there's putting out. As Birdie would say."
"I have never understood what Birdie would say."
"Okay. Look, Elektra, I don't like it either. Gabriel's been through a lot, more than anyone should have to go through. I can see how he'd be easy pickings for someone like Godiva. He'll come to his senses eventually and figure out that there's more to being with someone than nonstop sex."
"He told me that he had, that he was done with her."
"I know how you feel, but believe me, he's not the first guy to spin that yarn."
"Shouldn't I do something?"
"Like what? You're not going to leave Broadway."
"No!"
"No, I know," Elisa said. "Eventually, though, Gabriel's going to find someone who's right for him. Who can love him the way he deserves to be loved."
A surprisingly bitter, worldly-wise smile looked out of place on Elektra. "If that hypothetical female even wants to exchange two words with him after seeing Godiva."
"Hey, the damaged-goods thing is usually reserved for us females."
"Oh?" Her brow ridge arched. "Would you have wanted Goliath if he'd been with Godiva first?"
Elisa gave her a wry grin. "I wanted Goliath and he'd been with Demona first. Ask Angela the same thing. Ask yourself, when you were chasing Jericho."
"I was never chasing … all right, Elisa, I concede your point."
"Good. Because in general, we're more forgiving than they are. You've just got to give Gabriel more time. He'll find someone. Now that the world knows about this hotel, I wouldn't be surprised if a few more clans turned up."
"You truly believe I should let him be?"
"Yeah. I know it's not easy. But he's got to figure this out for himself. And he will, Elektra. Eventually, he will."

**

Las Vegas, Nevada
July 17th, 2006

"Godiva-san?"
Godiva looked up. Her desk was covered with papers. Blueprints, lists, rosters, order forms, bills, reports from the contractors and designers, job applications.
And this in the computer age, too, when everything was supposed to be headed for a paperless system. Hah … all they did was do the work on the computer, then print it out. Nobody trusted data storage when they could have a copy on paper. Never mind that paper could get wet and ruined, paper could burn. If she said as much to any of the people she worked with, they'd want to go back to carving things on stone tablets.
"Yes, Hoshi-san?"
The gargoyle female bowed, her hands folded into the wide sleeves of her floral-patterned silk garment. She could have been a kabuki-performer, with her pale yellow skin and the ink-black hair caught up in a loose bun held by red and black enameled chopsticks.
"I have heard news," she said, constructing her English as carefully as a house of cards. "There have been gargoyles seen."
"Here? In Vegas?"
"Yes, Godiva-san."
"Well, well." Godiva thoughtfully chewed the end of her pen. "Do we know who they are, where they're from? How many?"
"I do not know," Hoshi said. "They were seen at the Excalibuir."
Naturally, thought Godiva. Goliath's bunch, drawn to any castle like moths to a fire.
Hoshi cleared her throat demurely. "Shall we investigate?" Her mild tone couldn't quite conceal the eagerness in her voice. They hadn't seen any others of their own kind since leaving Japan, and despite their professed gladness to be away from their hidebound, old-fashioned clan, Godiva knew that her young friends missed other gargoyles.
"Why not?" Godiva pushed her paperwork away. "This will keep."
She tried to sound light and carefree, but the very idea of gargoyles, of male gargoyles specifically, was too tempting to pass up. If it did turn out to be Goliath's clan, she knew she could kiss off any hopes of a romp, as they were spoken for and had nagging mates besides, but it was worth a look anyway.
Ohta was summoned from where he was helping out with the landscaping. Godiva considered having an Oriental gardener rather gauche, but he wasn't human so that had to buck the stereotype at least a little. Ohta, a large brutish-looking male with surprisingly gentle hands and infinite patience, looked more Native American than Oriental anyway. His hide was a dark coppery tan, his hair black and long, and he had swapped his traditional garb for more sensible, durable jeans.
They set out, the three of them, gliding over the multicolored gaudiness of the Strip toward the spearing beam from the Luxor and the castle-shaped hotel that looked as if it had been made out of the world's biggest collection of Lego blocks.
Godiva rarely had time to glide, hadn't since she'd ended up in Vegas and gone to work with her plans and arrangements for the hotel of her own. She liked the flex and tilt of her wings, the cool slip of air under and over their membranes. Hudson's long-ago assessment of her ability to glide evenly, top-heavy as she was – she knew he'd said it from accessing the memory tapes of the original incarnation's experiences at the bachelor party; talk about a letdown, all those males and she hadn't gotten to fuck a one – was unfounded. True, certain aerobatic maneuvers were out of the question, but she could keep a steady course.
They didn't have to look far. Indeed, it was as if the other group was looking for them. That was, Godiva would later find out, exactly the case.
She saw them as four shadows. Then, as they got closer and she could see the streaky gleam of the city lights on Coldfire's golden all-over metallic shell, and the unblinking red glow of Coldstone's one robotic eye, she recognized those two.
Seven now, they descended to the white marble roof of Caesar's Palace. The talk was initially tentative, testing. She wasn't sure if they knew as much about her as she did about them. Would they say something, let Hoshi and Ohta know that she wasn't a true gargoyle? Maybe they were touchy on that subject, under the circumstances.
"We have been living in the wilderness for many years," Coldstone said. Was he ever a stuffy old thing, all gruff and humorless. It hurt his pride to come even that close to asking outright if they could merge their clans.
Not that she was all that interested in him. Her attention was fixed on the young male, Gabriel, who held his hand a little awkwardly and had that ribbon of darker scar around it. He was staring at Godiva with the attitude of one who wanted to eat her like ice cream.
"I know how tiring it can be to live away from all the conveniences," Godiva said. The boy nodded emphatically, the bill of his baseball cap bobbing. "It's been my hope to establish a hotel as fine as anything else here in old Lost Wages, and I could use some additional help."
She saw the hesitancy in Coldstone's rugged face, the naked eagerness on the boy's, and a hungry speculation on Gabriel's. Hoshi had clasped her hands in a gesture of hopefulness, while Ohta stood quietly at her side. Coldfire was unreadable.
Then the boy – Angus – shifted his glance and his eyes bugged out. "Hey!"
The rest of them spun and looked. A man was there, a human, in the filthy remains of combat fatigues. His eyes snapped blue sparks like a welder's torch. His skin looked both dried and stretched, like jerky. It had split in places and the splits were crusted with brownish-red blood. His shirt was torn wide over his chest, where some sort of hideous wound churned and bubbled.
A rocket launcher rested on his shoulder, with the business end of the missile aimed in their direction.

**

San Bernardino, California
April 28th, 2006

Larry Burch got himself a cup of coffee and a bagel, dumped powdered creamer into the former and slathered cream cheese onto the latter, and heard a burst of unkind laughter from behind him.
His spine tensed and his ears burned. He knew what that was about all right, didn't he just? Kelly Dagget and her big mouth. He wished he'd never said anything to her in the first place, wished more that she hadn't seen fit to pass it around to the rest of the Nature Hazard crew.
"Hey, Lar!" someone called, guffawing. "Better bring a buddy if you have to go down to the storage room! Wouldn't want the boogeyman to getcha!"
He didn't answer. Nor did he rise to their gibes about The Thing, either the black-and-white original or the gory dog-skinning John Carpenter remake. Eventually, seeing they weren't going to get what they wanted, conversation turned to other topics and Larry was able to eat his bagel without giving into the urge to push it, cream cheese and all, into someone's jeering face.
It was the damn ice-man. Or alien ice robot, whatever. He'd made the mistake of letting slip to Kelly that it was eerie the way that frozen metal face seemed to be staring, the way the empty black sockets of its eyes would follow you around. Now the whole crew, even Burt Dagget himself, thought ol' Lar was ready for the boobyhatch.
Well, it would all be out of the way in a few more days. Dagget was going to have a big media event and reveal the relic 'his team' had found on the glacier.
His team. That was rich. It had been Larry and Kelly, and in the world according to Dagget, Kelly had been the 'expedition leader' and Larry had diddly-squat to do with anything. After he'd found the damn robot in the first place.
Kelly saw it first, he thought.
Tough titty. I found it. My find, and I'm not the one getting the credit.
A species of dull but hopeless anger gave him heartburn. He put aside the rest of his bagel, unfinished.
Nate Galloway was bragging about his latest acquisition, an automatic machine-pistol or somesuch. He was a gun nut and started citing the weapon's stats chapter and verse, the way some men could talk batting averages or the specs on their new cars. Laureen Moss, Dagget's all-purpose Gal Friday, got a pinched and nervous look.
"Jeeesus, Nate," she said, "you didn't bring it here, did you?"
"I got a permit."
"To carry?"
"What's the diff?" Nate shrugged. "Nobody here is going to rat me out. It's in my locker. I was thinking after the meeting, me and some of the guys might go out back and see what it'll do to one of those hay bales."
Laureen grimaced. "The archery range."
"Archery, smarchery. Admit it, Laureen, you'd like to see that gun shred a hay bale into chaff, wouldn't you? All chicks dig guns."
"You're a gorilla, Nate."
Laughing, he hooted and thumped his fists on his chest.
Larry had had enough. He dumped the rest of his breakfast in the trash and left the room, quick like a bunny before some wit could come up with another crack.
As he was headed down the hall, he heard a clanking step behind him. Sudden fear, as sheeting and whole as heat lightning, made him halt and suck in a breath. It was just like from his dreams, in which he'd be in a long narrow hall – just like this one – and hear it behind him. Clanking along. Like the Tin Man from Hell. Like the Terminator.
A grey hand with jointed robot fingers fell on his shoulder and clutched.
The scream that burst from Larry's throat was high, a pre-teen girl's slumber-party squeal of fright. He lunged forward, expecting to move with the sluggish pace of a dream but plowed headlong into the row of lockers instead. A few hot drops of piss squirted into his shorts. He fumbled around, flailing, beating his elbows painfully against the metal vents in the bottom of the nearest locker, and thrashed over onto his back.
That was when the laughter erupted.
Kelly Dagget, holding a kid's toy grabber, a robot hand at the end of a long stick with a handle at the bottom so she could pull it and contract the fingers, was in the middle of the hall, holding onto her stomach and howling with mirth. Behind her, the door to the cafeteria was open and the faces that filled it were capering trolls, busting their guts, laughing fit to split.
"Oh … oh, Larry," Kelly wheezed and hiccuped. "The look on your face, honest to God!"
Heart slamming against his ribs so hard he thought they'd splinter, Larry heaved himself up from the floor. He was afraid to look down for fear there'd be an enormous wet splotch, but some luck was with him anyway. If they saw that her stunt had scared him into peeing his pants, he might as well clock out now and forget ever working in this field again.
"Very fucking funny," he snarled.
"Sorry," said Kelly, not sounding like she meant it at all.
He didn't wait to see what the rest of them would do, just stalked off. If he stayed, he might end up clocking out another way, by letting the boss' daughter have it smack in the chops.
I'll get you back for that, you little bitch, he thought.
And he knew just how.
Grinning, a grin that surely would have slapped the laughter right off Kelly Dagget's freckly face, he headed for the storage room. It was cold, his breath puffing out in clouds, because they wanted to keep their prize on ice until the big unveiling.
Some smartass – oh, this place was just packed with them – had hung a cardboard sign on the ice block. "Danger, Will Robinson," it read in felt marker.
The hand, the weird tentacled hand, was still protruding from the ice. There had been some melting, sure, that had occurred during transport because not even Burt Kiss-My-Ass Dagget had access to a plane with a refrigerated hold on such short notice. The metal arm was out as far as about the elbow, and the tentacles had drooped like the fronds of a dying plant.
"I'll show you a scare," he muttered, and couldn't even hear himself over the hum and rattle of the many air conditioners pumping freezing air into the small room.

**

Las Vegas, Nevada
July 17th, 2006

Coldstone took charge or else they all might have died. "Scatter!" he roared, and wasted no time following his own advice. With one hand, he shoved Angus sprawling on the rooftop, with the other he leveled an arm-laser at the man, and with his tail he chivalrously swept Hoshi out of the way.
Godiva leapt sideways, thankful for her dancer's dexterity. Coldfire shot skyward on jets of flame. That left Gabriel and Ohta, the first obeying Coldstone and lunging out of the line of fire, the second dumbfounded and gaping as smoke belched from the end of the launcher.
The rocket sped toward the spot where they'd been, the spot where poor Ohta still was. It would have blasted him to sushi, not to mention done some expensive damage to Caesar's Palace, had Coldstone not fired in the same instant.
His laser beam hit the rocket on the underside and canted it upward. It careened over the top of Ohta's head, missing by a yard and singeing his hair. As it veered up, Coldfire funneled her hands and fed a superheated emission of plasma into its rear end.
The rocket's red glare became a bomb bursting in air, and if anyone within sight noticed, they probably mistook it for another Vegas special effect.
That should have been it, but the man in the fatigues wasn't finished. He thrust a finger at Coldstone and jittering arcs of electricity jumped from it. The cyborg gargoyle rode the lightning with a horrible soundless scream, his body a rictus, twinkles and ripples of current flashing over his robotic parts.
Coldfire shrieked a battle cry and looped down. Hoshi had raced back to Ohta and the two of them were fleeing for the edge, seeking to get some altitude. Gabriel was helping Angus up with an eye toward doing the same.
The man – Godiva peered suddenly at him, remembering a long-ago incident with a kid who had some sort of strange electrokinetic power and wondering if this was him all grown up – pointed to Coldfire. Her dive became a plummet and she struck the marble roof, skidded along it with an agonizing metallic screeching sound, and stopped in a junk-heap of arms and legs and wings.
It wasn't the kid. Godiva was sure of that. This guy was older, stocky, olive-complected. And he looked like he was dying. The nerve pathways seemed to be frying inside him and as she watched, still trying to make sense of this, one of his sparking eyes popped in a spurt of goo that resembled congealed egg-white. And his chest … his chest was swelling outward like something out of an old Sigourney Weaver movie.
Impaired and on the verge of explosive meltdown as he appeared to be, it still didn't stop him from advancing, pulling a nasty-looking gun from somewhere inside his tattered fatigues. Gabriel, who had run to Coldfire, whipped around and was face-to-barrel with it.
"Get away from her," the man said in an awful, mechanical voice. Godiva thought of the recorded announcements on the movie theater show-line, except pure evil.
Yes, evil. She hadn't experienced Devil's Night and maybe didn't have as good a basis for comparison as some, but it sufficed.
"She's mine," the man added.
Angus, meaning well but not educated enough to know the do's and don'ts of electrocution, made the mistake of grabbing Coldstone's wildly-shaking arm. There was a snap, a whiff of ozone, and the kid went tail-over-teakettle toward the edge.
Through it all, Godiva had just been standing there like a waxwork. What the hell, she was a lover and not a fighter.
"Miiiiinnnne," said the man in the most covetous, repulsive tone Godiva had ever heard. Within his chest, something squirmed and bulged eagerly.
Gabriel swelled up, all muscles and bluster and bravado, as if he didn't even see the gun or care that a twitch of a finger and his brains would be laid open to the dry Nevada air.
Then the man lowered the gun. It was still aimed at Gabriel, but at his knee spur. A maiming rather than a killing shot.
"This body's had it," that terrible voice grated and clicked. "You'll do."
Something extruded from the pulped red-purple mess of his chest. Something silvery and obscene, like a tapeworm, stretching slowly out into the space between them. It was coated with blood and less identifiable fluids.

**

San Bernardino, California
April 28th, 2006

"Show you a scare, all right," Larry Burch said.
He took hold of one of the metal tentacle things that sprouted from the wrist of the exposed arm. It was not so cold that it froze to his hand, but colder than a nicely chilled can of beer.
It didn't come free when he tugged, hooked in there real good. He got a flat-headed screwdriver and poked the business end down into the joint of the thing, prying and wrenching. Damaging it, but who gave a damn?
Something gave way with a sound/sensation like gristle. The tentacle abruptly slithered free, maybe eighteen inches of it, one sheared-off blunt end, one tapered end.
Larry could already imagine the expressions on their faces. He had it all set in his mind. He'd loop it around his neck, and stagger, gargling screams, into the cafeteria. They would see it, think that it had gotten him, and panic.
A shock of static electricity made him jump. Shouldn't have happened in a room this damp. He paid it no mind, still mentally rehearsing his performance.
"Laugh at me, sure, uh-huh," he said.
He draped the tentacle around his neck like a lady putting on a stole or a boa. Cold. Gross-feeling, too, in some way that registered just below his consciousness. He wrapped it, letting one end dangle down the front.
"Let's see how smart you are now, Kelly."
The coil moved. It cinched tight and Larry's eyes bugged. He cried out, but it was a strangled, glottal sound that didn't carry more than a few feet. His hands tore at the unyielding metal noose.
The tentacle swung up like a striking snake. Metal clashed against his teeth as it squirmed into his gaping mouth. Larry clamped his jaws shut but they were blocked from closing. He could taste it, cold water and metal like mineral-heavy water from a garden hose. He could feel it, gagged on it, as the thing wriggled deeper.
He gagged, thought crazily of his ex-wife and the way she could throat it, probably the whole reason he'd married her in the first place, God had that woman liked to suck cock! But this was revolting, a violation.
And still it forced itself into him, this insectile sort of rape. The coil loosened around his neck and he grabbed for it again but it slipped through his slick palms and was going down his gullet, worming its way, blocking his air, blocking the coffee and bagel that his gut was desperately trying to heave up.
It worked into him, and he could feel it burrowing through soft tissue, making a den for itself, stretching out. Feeding on him. He didn't know how he knew that but did. It was feeding on him somehow, on his blood or life force or whatever. Sucking him dry in a lunatic reverse fellatio.
Larry stumbled into the hall. If there had been anyone to see him, his performance would have been Oscar-worthy, far better than the scene he'd envisioned as he planned his payback against Kelly Dagget. Her mocking laughter was the furthest thing from his mind.
Nate's locker was midway down. None of them actually had locks; it was just a place to store their coats and stuff. He yanked Nate's open, sure that at any minute he was going to black out from oxygen deprivation. More sure that something even worse was in store.
The gun was on the top shelf. Larry fumbled for it, his own body acting like it didn't want to obey him. His plan was simple and straightforward: shoot himself before this monstrous thing could finish whatever it was planning on doing.
It elongated inside of him, one end snaking down into his chest and the other stretching up, through his neck, toward the soft meat of his brain.
He got both hands on the gun. Felt a peculiar tingling jolt, like the time he'd been plugging in a lamp and brushed a spot on the cord where the plastic had been worn away to expose the wires.
Just that, and oblivion.

**

Las Vegas, Nevada
July 17th, 2006

Godiva watched the parasite uncoil from the man's chest toward Gabriel. The young gargoyle was paralyzed, aghast, as it bridged the distance between them and arched smoothly up toward his jaw-hanging mouth.
She had no delusions as to what was going to happen next. It would take him over, run him like a puppet until it had used him up, and move on to a new host. Unless someone did something to stop it.
No one else was in any such state. Ohta and Hoshi had dived after the kid in case he couldn't get his wings unscrambled. Coldstone had stopped jitterbugging in place and was reviving, dazed. Coldfire was motionless.
That left her.
She activated her onboard sound system and the strains of seductive sitar music filled the air, underlaid with Gustav Sevarius' subliminal cues. Undulating her hips, she strolled leisurely toward the pair.
"You don't really want him," she said. "Wouldn't I be much nicer?"
The man turned toward her. His one eye fixed on her and widened until she expected it to pop, too. The metal snake-thing paused, wavering slightly like a strand of sea-grass.
"I want her," it said through the man's ruptured vocal cords, but it sounded less certain.
"Why?" Godiva lifted her hair with both arms and let the long tresses fall. "Don't you like me?"
Gabriel had stopped staring at the metal tapeworm and was goggling at Godiva, caught by the haunting hypnotics of her melody and her motion. She would have been pleased if she hadn't been a trifle more concerned with other matters.
The man's body jerked a step toward her.
"You're looking for someplace warm and cozy to slid into, aren't you?" she crooned. "Where you can get down deep inside where it's all soft and dark. I can do that for you. I can take you in."
"She's supposed to be mine," came the hoarse, whispered reply. "I have wanted her for a thousand years."
"You can still have her. We can still have her. You can have us both. How do you like to get in? Here?"
She undid the gold brooch that held her front-close halter together.
"Or here?"
She licked her lips, then parted them and pressed the tip of her tongue to the underside of her front teeth.
"Or … somewhere else?"
He lurched another step and that was all she needed. She seized the flexible metal length and pulled hard. It ripped out of the man with a wet sucking noise, spattering blood on the white marble at their feet. The man clawed once at his chest and fell, dead before he hit the roof.
The tentacle writhed furiously, lashing this way and that, a maddened serpent. Godiva held it at arm's length, her face contorted into a vicious snarl. She could feel the energy pulsing in it, the electrical energy that it had feasted from its hosts, and in that instant understood that they were two of a kind. Vampires.
Clutching it tight in both hands, as its ends whipped at her wrists and an enraged, cheated howl came from everywhere and nowhere, she latched onto the energy and began to feed.
Power poured into her with a gigantic sensation of ZAP! Her hair, all six feet of it, billowed up around her in a staticky corona. This was no simple maintenance charge running through a human body. This was like French-kissing a battery, a big one, the kind they put in eighteen-wheelers. The raw strength of it sent one orgasm after another slamming through her.
Draining it. Sucking it dry. Feeding and feeding until there was nothing left. The length of metal spasmed and went limp in her grasp, only its ends flicking feebly. She dropped it and it curled up, shuddered, and flopped.
Reeling from the influx of energy, Godiva brought her hands to her face and blue-white arcs jumped from her cheeks to her palms. She blinked and exhaled a gusty whistle.
Coldstone was looking at her with blatant revulsion. Or maybe it was directed at the thing by her feet. He waved her back, aimed, and triggered a red blast that blew the tentacle to smoking shards.

**

Las Vegas, Nevada
May 15th, 2008

"I hope," said Godiva, not relinquishing Xanatos' hand right away, "that we can all still be friends."
By the look Elektra gave her, a narrow and knowing one of disgruntlement, she didn't think it was exactly likely. So the hybrid knew about her and Gabriel, what of it? He was a big boy.
"I'm sure we can," Xanatos replied.
Behind him, the limo-jet was waiting patiently, the bags already loaded and Owen Burnett, neat and spare in his uniform, waited equally patiently by the open door. The night was veiled with a thin layer of clouds, which caught the lights of Vegas and reflected them back to earth in a diluted red-orange aura better suited to an overcast evening on Mars.
As the rest of the good-byes were said, Gustav Sevarius clacked over to her on his cane. "There is just one more thing, my lamb," he said. "Before I go."
"Yes?"
He brought out a squarish, flattish box that Godiva first took for a present, something small and pretty and expensive. Jewelry, maybe. He held it out.
She reached for it.
"Now, now, not so hasty," he said. He turned it over. An oval-shaped depression fitted his thumb exactly as he pressed it down.
Godiva yelped and sprang back, pressing her hands to her abdomen. Something had happened inside her when he'd done that. It had felt like a harp string giving way with a discordant plink.
"What … what …?" she gasped.
"You have advantages enough," he said. "Beauty, brains, money … you don't need subliminal capabilities."
Stunned, she worked her mouth at him.
A thin, dry smile creased his lined face. "Auf Weidersehen, Godiva."
He headed for the limo-jet, stiff-spined and bringing the cane down in hard clicks. Xanatos, hanging back, grinned at Godiva and tipped his forefinger against his brow, then at her, in a caustic little salute.
"You … you …" she groped for something meaningful to Sevarius. "You schweinhund!"
"I have been called worse by better," he said casually, and ascended into the plane.
"Just call it a parting shot," Xanatos said, and followed.
She should do something, should go after them and shake that vicious old man until he gave her back what was hers, but she was so unable to believe they'd really done it that she could hardly move. The rest of the spectators, and her clan, waved merrily as if they had no idea – well, they didn't – of what had just transpired.
Except for Gabriel.
Who was rubbing his temples and shaking his head as if he was rousing from a dream.

**

The End.