Duncan MacLeod stared down at his plate of watery lamb chops and wondered how, in nearly four hundred years, the British had managed so successfully to not improve their cooking. Living in France had spoiled him as far as cuisine went. Cuisine, wine and love, he reflected fondly. Tessa's hand, resting on his right knee beneath the starched linen of the cream-colored tablecloth, moved up as if sensing his thoughts. No one in the impeccably refined restaurant would be able to tell from her innocent expression what she was doing. He reached for his wine, fighting down the rising heat between his legs.
"And of course I told him it would be totally improper," said James, Lord Etheridge, from across the finely laid table. Good humor creased his lordship's face. "Your Duncan said he didn't give a copper penny for a British soldier's opinion anyway, and stripped bare right there in the middle of the hotel."
"Bare naked?" Richie asked, ears perking up. He'd been intimidated ever since they'd entered the House of Parliament's main restaurant. No one who wasn't a member of parliament or personal guest ate in here. A sergeant-at-arms stood watch at the door, to keep out riffraff and nosy American tourists. Each table had its own little green lamp. The silverware was made of genuine silver, very valuable if pawned, and he'd already pocketed one spoon as a souvenir of London. Thirty minutes after meeting the man he already liked Sir James, who delighted in telling embarrassing stories about Mac.
"Naked enough," Duncan growled good-naturedly. "And I didn't say copper penny, I said rat's ass."
"I bet it wasn't a hotel, either," Tessa put in, her eyes glinting over her wine glass.
"My lady," Sir James said conspiratorially, leaning towards her, "it was a place I shouldn't speak of in your honored presence."
"It was a tavern," Duncan insisted.
Tessa's smile widened. "Speak of it, Sir James."
The older Immortal's lips pursed, as if he were deliberating a great secret. Richie waited with keen interest. Mac looked flushed with embarrassment already, which almost made up for the fact Richie had to wear a stiff, itchy suit and strangling tie to this lunch.
Sir James said, in a voice pitched low enough to travel no further than their corner table, "It was a . . . brothel."
"Duncan in a brothel?" Tessa asked, teasing. "I can't imagine."
"You owned the place!" Duncan shot back, barely managing to keep his voice down.
"An investment, I assure you," Sir James said gravely. "And thank you, Duncan, for supporting my business for so many years."
Richie and Tessa laughed. Duncan's eyes narrowed as he contemplated revenge. It wasn't as if Tessa didn't know various details of his past - one of the games they liked to play in bed themselves involved certain bordello play-roles - but Sir James was no paragon of virtue himself, which Duncan pointed out now.
"True enough," Sir James admitted freely, swilling wine in his glass. "But that's all behind me now."
"Fancy lord," Duncan growled. "But remember, I know the truth."
Sir James beamed. "Gentlemen never tell."
"Yes, but as you keep pointing out, I'm not much of a gentleman!"
Tessa's fingers moved up Duncan's thigh a few inches more, and he struggled to keep his expression schooled. This was another game they played, but never before in such a public, potentially embarrassing place.
Richie, watching Duncan's expression, looked for Tessa's hand and then smothered a smile in his napkin. The two of them, he'd decided long ago, never quit. He supposed that before he'd gone to live with them in Seacouver and now the barge in Paris, they'd probably done it twice a day on the kitchen counter and another two times on the living room sofa. They probably still did, which is why he got sent on so many errands.
Tessa must have done something extremely sensitive, because Duncan's right knee jerked up against the bottom of the table and knocked wine all over his white shirt.
"Oh, let me help you," Tessa said, grabbing a napkin.
"You've already helped enough!" Duncan told her, his voice an octave higher than usual.
Sir James shook his head fondly. "You always were a clumsy ox, Duncan."
"Not a peep from you," Duncan warned, although he wasn't truly angry. He did plan to trim Tessa's fingernails when they got home, however. He pushed back from the table to go the bathroom, and Richie went with him.
The bathrooms were down one flight of marble stairs, along a corridor of tapestries and wrought iron sconces. Duncan dabbed the wine from his shirt while Richie tried to adjust his tie. "Don't do that," Duncan warned. "It took us twenty minutes to get it on you."
"It's strangling me," Richie complained.
"Come here," Duncan said, and worked to loosen it without ruining the fine lines of the Windsor knot. "Stop squirming or it will strangle you."
"I'm not squirming," Richie protested. Then, with a glance towards the mirrors to make sure they were still alone, he said, "Was it really a brothel?"
"You're too young to know."
"And too young," Duncan smiled.
"How old is he?"
Duncan's brows furrowed in thought. "I forget, exactly. Not that much older than me."
"How come nobody ever notices he's one of you?"
"He keeps going away, dying in exotic foreign wars, and coming back as his own heir," Duncan explained. He finished with Richie's tie. "There. Is that better?"
"It will be better when I take it off. We going to stay here all day?"
"Maybe. You have something better to do?"
"Mac, we only have a few days left in London, and I don't have any souvenirs."
Duncan gave him a skeptical look. "What's that in your pocket then? Or are you just happy to see me?"
Richie patted the spoon. "Just a momento."
"Like the ashtray you already took from the hotel? Or the soap from Madame Toussaud's? The toilet paper from St. Paul's Cathedral?"
"Gifts," Richie grinned. "For Angie and Maria."
"If you get arrested for shoplifting they'll put you in the Tower of London, you know," Duncan warned. They went out into the hallway, but instead of heading for the stairs the Highlander hesitated, throwing a look towards the female restrooms across the hallway.
"What?" Richie asked, catching a strange expression on Duncan's face. "Another . . . "
"No," Duncan said. "Stay here. Stand watch, okay?"
Without waiting for the teenager's response, Duncan slipped into the women's bathrooms. The six stalls were empty. Although immaculately clean and recently painted, they hadn't been remodeled since World War II. He slipped into the last stall and counted tiles down from the frosted windowpane and then over towards the wall. He used his thumbnail to start prying the likeliest one loose. So engrossed was he in his work that he failed to sense Richie approach.
"What are you doing, Mac?" Richie asked.
Duncan didn't turn from his task. "You're supposed to be in the hall."
"I'd rather be in here."
The square yellow tile inched out of its worn mortar. Duncan worked it free and then surveyed the cement. Carved inside a perfectly symmetrical heart were the initials DM and DT. Duncan traced his forefinger over the marks.
"That's you?" Richie asked.
"Was me," Duncan murmured.
"Who was the girl?"
"Her name was Diane. She's dead now."
"It's okay," Duncan said. He rarely even thought of Diane Terrin these days, although at the time - what with the war, the bombings, the end of civilization looming with every plane Hitler hurled into the sky - he had thought their relationship would last forever. He always thought love would last forever, only to be cruelly defeated by death.
Duncan's further thoughts were disturbed by the creak of the hallway door opening. He stood up, knocking Richie aside, and the movement in turn shut the door on their stall. They stood there, stricken, as a woman's heels clicked across the tile. Whoever it was took the next stall over. Duncan could see her expensive black shoes. Richie's eyes went wide, his breathing stifled from the effort of holding back giggles.
Duncan shot him a warning look, which did nothing to help Richie. The sound of the woman urinating came to them. He slapped his hand over Richie's mouth to keep him from giving them away. Richie's face turned red, his eyes watering.
"Shut up!" Duncan whispered fiercely in his ear.
The woman stopped what she was doing and fumbled at the toilet paper. The roll fell and spun up against Duncan's feet. A hand topped with five perfectly painted red fingernails groped under the divider for it, then came up against Duncan's right shoe. Duncan crouched down, scooped up the paper, and pushed it into her hand.
"Thank you, " the woman said in a cultivated British accent.
"You're welcome," Duncan managed back in a squeak. He yanked their door open, pushed Richie out, and hurried into the outside hall.
"Not one word!" Duncan told him sternly.
Richie would have answered, but he was laughing too hard.
When they returned to the dining room they found an extra chair had been added to the table for Sir James' stepson Oliver. Oliver was tall and gangly, with thick locks of dark hair and a friendly, open face. He still looked damp from the foul weather outside. "I'm just on my lunch break," he told Richie and Duncan. "Thought I'd pop in and see Father. The advantage of working at the family business is that you can see family at any time, and claim it's business."
"You should take Richie with you round to the office," Sir James suggested. "It's at the Barbican, you know - frightful fortress of a place, the height of post-war ugliness, but useful. Oliver, you might pop into the Museum of London while you're there. We can all meet back at the flat in South Kensington for dinner. Cynthia will be so happy to meet you, Duncan."
P> "How does that sound?" Duncan asked Richie.
The thought of another museum nearly made Richie groan, but he couldn't deny it would be nice to actually spend time with someone close to his own age. Despite possessing the libido of teenagers, both Tessa and Duncan tended to be entirely too grown-up about mostly everything that didn't involve sex. Oliver, who Sir James said was an Oxford university student on school break, seemed only a year or two older than Richie.
"Sounds fine to me," he answered around a mouthful of petite-fours.
The two youths went off, and Duncan bet Richie ripped off the tie the minute they were past the restaurant doors. Tessa and Sir James seemed quite content to talk about Duncan over dessert and coffee, while he pretended to take offense. After lunch Sir James took them on a personally guided tour through many of the building's one thousand rooms. They stopped for a bit at the House of Commons' Stranger's Gallery, which had been rebuilt following the Blitz with two traditional red lines painted on the floor.
"They're measured to be two sword-lengths apart," Sir James pointed out for Tessa's benefit. "And the opposing parties may not cross."
Tessa looked thoughtful at that, no doubt imagining the time when men openly carried swords every day. Duncan grew a little melancholy, and gazed over at Sir James. The older Immortal, who appeared to be in his early fifties and bore the classic features of a sturdy Saxon, had been carrying a sword the day they met in the medieval forests of Sussex. James had nearly taken his head. Now, Duncan doubted if the man had lifted his weapon in years.
By mid-afternoon they were in Sir James' car, being driven through the horrendous city traffic along Buckingham Palace Road towards South Kensington. The rain that had started shortly after dawn continued to drench the city, and Duncan was glad for the warmth and dryness of the car. Sir James was in the middle of good-spirited gossip about the royal family when the car phone rang, and he paled at whatever news came from the other end.
"What's the matter?" Duncan joked. "They pass a bill without your name on it?"
"No - it's Oliver and Richie," Sir James said grimly. "They're at hospital. They were mugged."
Richie Ryan didn't like hospitals in general, and decided that of the countries he'd visited - four, if he counted home and a weekend trip to Victoria B.C. with Mac - Britain rated last on his list of best-rated emergency rooms. The nurses had been brusque, the doctor barely talkative, the police ruthlessly unsympathetic, and now he was sitting, virtually ignored, in a hallway with an icepack on his head. He could be hemorrhaging to death inside his skull and they wouldn't care. He didn't feel like he was hemorrhaging - he didn't feel that bad at all, all things considered - but it was the thought that counted.
The fluorescent lights in the very white, very bare hallway hurt his eyes. He leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes. The clicking of shoes and murmuring of voices drifted to him, but he ignored them until one hand came to rest on his shoulder and another gingerly examined his scraped right cheek.
"Richie, are you all right?" Tessa asked.
He squinted at her. Her hand was the one touching his cheek. He managed a lopsided smile. "I suppose it looks worse than it feels."
"Looks pretty bad," Duncan observed, sliding into the chair next to him. "What happened?"
"I'm kind of fuzzy on that," Richie admitted. "Better ask Oliver."
"He's still with the doctor," the nurse behind Duncan said. Richie especially didn't like that one - her hair was pulled back very tightly into a rigid bun, and she acted like a general who'd never been told the war was over. If she'd ever felt sorry for anyone, it didn't show on her face.
"Can Richie go home?"
"The doctor says he's fine. Just feed him aspirin and fluids, and there shouldn't be any problems at all."
"I think you could limp in here with your leg chopped off," Richie complained as the nurse marched away, "and they'd tell you to take aspirin and fluids. This is a tough country, you guys."
Tessa smiled, although it didn't reach her eyes. "You're going to have a black eye tomorrow."
"Hope it doesn't ruin my boyish good looks," Richie quipped wearily. Aware that he was in danger of slouching himself right out of the chair, he managed to straighten a little. The icepack shifted, touching a particularly bruised spot, and he winced.
"What do you remember?" Duncan asked.
Richie rubbed his right temple. "Um . . . couple of guys. We were on a walkway between the buildings at the Barbican. You know where I mean?"
Duncan nodded. The Barbican Centre was a sixty acre maze of complexes that included office spaces, apartments, and theatres, all linked by large walkways that circled small lakes and parks. The Royal Shakespeare Company and London Symphony Orchestra were headquartered there, along with the London School for Girls and Museum of London.
"They just kind of came out of nowhere," Richie said, "and wanted our wallets and Oliver's briefcase."
"You remember what they look like?" Duncan asked.
Richie sighed. "Not so much their faces, but I could identify their fists." He took Duncan's hand and turned it over to illustrate. "Lots of calluses. And body odor like a dead fish - I knew they didn't shower much in Europe, but enough's enough already."
The nurse marched back with Oliver and Sir James in tow. Oliver looked worse than Richie, with a bandage on his forehead that barely covered a row of stitches and a piece of tape bridging his swollen nose. Oliver was standing straight, though, and seemed more rueful than angry.
"I should have just given them the briefcase straight away," he said. "I'm sorry, Richie, that I didn't cooperate."
"It's alright," Richie said, struggling to his feet with Duncan's steadying hand. "Not part of the usual tourist experience, but something to tell my kids someday."
Sir James said to Duncan, "You must come back with us to Kensington. A hotel's no place for Richie to recuperate."
Duncan hesitated. "We'd be an imposition," he finally said.
"Nonsense! We've plenty of rooms to spare and Cynthia would insist."
Both young men had to sign release forms, which was when Richie discovered that health care was mostly free in Britain, even for tourists who'd been victims of crimes. Sir James ushered them all into the waiting car, and his driver swung toward Fleet Street. The rain slanting down on the windows had turned into a full-fledged storm, and Richie could see umbrellas collapsing in the hands of hapless pedestrians on the sidewalks outside.
Oliver regaled them with the tale of how two brutes, dressed in green anoraks and bearing tough expressions, had waylaid him and Richie near a set of stairs on a Barbican walkway and demanded their valuables. He made Richie out to be the hero in the affair, getting in a few good punches before being knocked into the brick wall. Richie sank lower into the seat, trying to avoid Duncan's scrutiny. Tessa held his hand, although he wasn't sure if it was for her comfort or his own. The thieves had eventually been scared off by approaching pedestrians, but not before stealing both youth's wallets, Oliver's briefcase, and Oliver's Rolex.
Duncan, reconstructing the scene in his head, decided it was all too likely that Richie could have escaped unscathed but had probably thrown the first punch. The teenager's temper had gotten him in trouble more than once in the year they'd known him. Richie wouldn't meet his gaze, another indication there was more to the story. Luckily the only thing that had been in Richie's wallet had been about twenty pounds and his international driver's license. He'd left his passport safely back in the hotel safe. Oliver had lost his credit cards, and used the car phone to report their theft.
Sir James sat tight-lipped through the tale, but didn't hesitate to throw in a few bitter opinions concerning crime and punishment. Duncan privately found that amusing, since James had been a highwayman when they first met, and not an especially gentle or principled one at that. Dredging up the past in front of Oliver or the driver wasn't an option, however, and Duncan remained quiet most of the way to Kensington.
In addition to several country estates, Sir James owned a rather luxurious two-story flat off Gloucester Road. The long, well-tended street contained several small European or Slavic embassies, and bordered a private park. Duncan departed almost immediately with the chauffeur to collect clothing and personal toiletries from the hotel. Sir James' wife Cynthia turned out to be a handsome woman with shortly cropped red hair, the very model of busy domestic efficiency. She took one sympathetic look at Oliver and Richie and ordered them both to bed.
"I'll have Janie bring them up some soup," Cynthia said firmly, from the foot of the banister, as Tessa escorted Richie upstairs. Tessa noticed that Sir James and Oliver, contrary to Cynthia's advice, disappeared into the study.
Richie took in the flat's exquisite furnishings and objects d'art without a word, and stretched out on the bed without protest - a sign, Tessa knew, that his headache was worse than he was letting on. She pulled off his shoes for him and covered him with a blue afghan folded at the foot of the bed.
"Say it," Richie ordered, peeking out from under the icepack that he'd clung to since the hospital.
"Say what?" Tessa asked.
"That I probably should have just handed over everything without fighting about it."
Tessa sat on the bed and considered Richie critically. He very definitely was going to have a black eye in the morning. His right cheek bore a long, nasty scrape and the lump on the side of his forehead had swollen to the size of a small walnut. Fondness battled with exasperation in her chest as she gazed down on him. He was brave, and stubborn, and wildly impetuous. Not entirely unlike Duncan, she thought ruefully. Sometimes she thought they could be father and son.
"You tell me," Tessa prompted.
Richie sighed. "I know. Twenty pounds isn't worth my life. But the guys were looking for a fight, you know? I didn't throw the first punch, if that's what you're thinking."
"I'm not," Tessa said.
"Something was funny about it," Richie mumbled, his eyes struggling to stay open. "Two guys in broad daylight, in a public place, looking for a fight? Not the way I would have done it."
"Did you ever mug anyone?" Tessa asked curiously. She'd never thought to ask before.
Richie smiled crookedly. "No. Did you?"
"No," Tessa smiled in return. Then, adopting a sterner look, she said, "Take a nap. There's plenty of aspirin and fluids for you when you wake up."
By the time Duncan returned to Kensington everyone had gathered in the sitting room around a blazing fire. Richie and Oliver, parked on the sofa under afghans, were the heroes of the day. Janie, Sir James' sixteen-year-old stepdaughter, sat openly adoring Richie. Dinner proved to be an excellent roasted chicken with stuffing and salad, and dessert a chocolate cake. Duncan and Sir James snagged a bottle of Scotch and retired to the study, leaving the others to their own amusement.
"When is the last time you picked up a sword?" Duncan asked once they were alone. Two Norman broadswords, each nearly a thousand years old, hung on the wall, illuminated by a recessed light.
Sir James settled his increasing girth down in an armchair and opened the Scotch. "It's been awhile," he admitted.
"Could you win if someone challenged you?"
"If that challenger were blind and lame, I would," Sir James said cheerfully. He passed over a glass of shimmering gold and said, "Don't worry about me, Duncan. I handle what challengers come, in my own fashion."
Duncan's eyes narrowed. He had no trouble imagining the James he'd once known, the one who'd traveled with a dozen sturdy blackguards, using foul means to dispose of any potential enemy. This James, although soft and fattening and too comfortable in fine clothes, might not be so different. He swallowed some Scotch. It was very good, and made his eyes slightly sting. "What fashion would that be?"
Sir James' eyes twinkled. "I merely explain to them someone else is most likely to do the deed sooner or later, but while it's sooner, they might as well benefit from restraint."
"You bribe them to go away?"
"I don't think of it as a bribe," Sir James said. "I think of it as life insurance."
"And those who don't take your money?"
Sir James' humor faded slightly. "Well, on those regrettable occasions, I'm forced to resort to auxiliary means."
Duncan sighed. He'd feared as much. He wondered what Tessa would think, knowing she slept under a murderer's roof tonight. Of course, she slept with a murderer every night, so it shouldn't make much of a difference.
Still, he'd seen enough in four hundred years to know there wasn't much justice when it came to who rose from death wearing the cloak of Immortality and who went into the cold earth, never to breathe again. It deeply offended his honor to contemplate killing an opponent with a gun or knife, or having someone else do it for him, and then taking the Quickening as if it had been earned. But not enough to make him drag Tessa and Richie out into the stormy night, or to throw the glass of Scotch in James' face.
"I know it's not what you would do," Sir James allowed, his voice unexpectedly soft. "But I'm not you, Duncan. From the very first day we met in Sussex, I knew I could never be you. You're strong where I'm weak. You can play the Game, whereas I lost my courage a long time ago."
Duncan looked at the swords. "You flatter me needlessly," he murmured.
"It's not flattery to speak the truth," Sir James said. Then, as the silence lengthened between him, he passed the bottle across the mahogany desk. "Now, tell me about that fine young woman you're in love with. Artist? Courtesan? A delight in bed?"
"James," Duncan protested, mouth turning up despite himself. "You've got no decency."
"Of course not," James smiled. "I'm a member of Her Majesty's Parliament, and have been, off and on, for two hundred years. Politics will darken any man's soul, even an Immortal's."
The next day brought calmer gray skies, although a cold drizzle sprinkled against the windowpanes for most of the morning. Cynthia, upon hearing that Tessa's traveling exhibit had brought them to London, insisted on visiting the display at the National Gallery. Sir James and Duncan had business to attend to at the Bank of London involving some old accounts that needed to be claimed by heirs bearing the proper credentials. Neither Tessa and Duncan would have gone out if Richie hadn't practically shoved them out the door.
"I'm fine," he said, exasperated, and he wasn't lying. Except for some lingering sore spots he felt fine. Especially since James' pretty daughter Janie had promised to take him to the Hard Rock Cafe for lunch, and then on to the British Museum to see genuine sheet music written by the Beatles.
Oliver had taken the day off from work, explaining that he had no desire to show up at the office sporting a broken nose and twin black eyes. He said he was going to do nothing more ambitious than read the latest Martin Amis novel. The phone rang and Oliver took the call in his study. Richie didn't mean to eavesdrop, but as he passed he heard the words, "...didn't have to take my watch, too, did they?" and ground to a stop.
Slowly he backed up. Oliver's voice complained, "Well, they did get out of hand. Recklessly and ruthlessly! Do you know what I look like this morning? . . . All right, bloody point made."
Whoever was on the other end of the line apparently disagreed, because Oliver swore a particularly nasty oath and then snapped, "Fine. London Bridge station at three. This is the last time, I swear to God."
Richie barely had time to slip around the corner before he heard Oliver come out and slam the study door shut. Janie's voice called from somewhere in the flat, demanding to know what was wrong. Oliver answered it was nothing, just a bloody ex-girlfriend. Richie took a deep breath, wondering what to do. Mac would know. It was noon now.
Torn between the desire to confront Oliver directly, or wait until the clandestine rendezvous, Richie decided to wait. He couldn't prove anything now except that Oliver had taken a suspicious phone call. He went to the Hard Rock Cafe with Janie, but didn't even taste his cheeseburger as it went down. Before dessert came, he went to the bathroom and then made a phone call. After lunch he begged off from going to the British Museum, claiming that he wanted to do some shopping for Tessa's birthday. Tessa's birthday was months away, but Janie didn't know that.
Richie navigated the London Underground with considerably more ease than he'd ever managed on the Paris Metro, and made it to the London Bridge station just at two forty-five. The station had multiple exits, so he lingered near the ticket kiosk and hid behind a newspaper. He felt ridiculously like some World War II spy, but didn't feel quite as inane when Oliver appeared, carrying another briefcase and striding purposefully towards the Loring Street exit. He was met by a man in a tan-colored raincoat, and the two of them went down the street to where school buses waited double-parked at the curb.
Richie followed them inside a dark, creepy-looking tourist attraction called The London Dungeon. Seven pounds later, he trailed Oliver and his friend down a dark hall of clanking prison doors and gruesome exhibits. Water-torture, beheadings, disembowlements, burning witches - at any other time he would have been morbidly fascinated, but all he currently had time for was Oliver and his companion. He lost them for awhile through a maze of chastity belts, thumb screws and branding irons, then spied them trading the briefcase near a life-sized replica of an Iron Maiden.
Richie turned, deciding he'd seen enough, and came up sharply against a thick, sturdy man in a green anorak who'd apparently been following him as he followed Oliver.
"Not so fast, lad," the man said, with a deep voice Richie remembered from the Barbican. "Come back for more, have you?"
"Let me go, or I'll scream so loud they'll think this really is a dungeon," Richie said, temper flaring.
"Do that, and this little piece of steel will be up in your heart faster than you can say Jack the Ripper." Something sharp pressed against Richie's side, cutting through his leather jacket, and he clamped his mouth shut. He wasn't Immortal, after all. The thug grabbed his arm in a bruising grip and hauled him towards Oliver and the man in the raincoat.
"Found this one lurking in the shadows," the thug announced.
"Jesus Christ, Richie," Oliver said, paling. "What are you doing?"
"Thought you might want to introduce me to your friends," Richie said, doing what he thought was a good job of sounding calm. He gazed unflinchingly at the man in the raincoat, who was maybe thirty five, swarthy like a Greek or Italian, and had very cold, dark eyes. "After all," Richie said, "no one was properly introduced yesterday."
"Oliver," the Greek said icily, "who is this?"
"Family friend," Oliver announced. His eyes dared Richie to say otherwise. "He's no threat."
"So you say," the Greek said. "Maybe we should discuss this in private."
"I don't think that's necessary," Oliver protested, but the man in the green anorak none-too-gently escorted Richie to the exit behind Anne Boleyn's execution display. Richie wondered dimly through a surge of fear if he was ever going to see Duncan and Tessa again. He didn't think Oliver was a cold-blooded killer, but his friends might be. A gaggle of school children blocked his last view of the dungeon, and he was pushed into a dingy green hallway that led to a fire door.
"Let him go," Oliver insisted. "He isn't going to cause any trouble."
Richie felt himself shoved up against the wall, a forearm pressed against his throat. Uncomfortable, but he could breathe. The man in the tan raincoat said, "I don't know about that. He's curious enough that he followed you here. Curious enough that he might go to the police."
Richie found his voice. "No police, I swear," he said. "I don't even like the police. What do you call them here? Bobbies? I've hated Bobbies since Bobby MacFarland beat me up in the third grade - "
"Shut up," said the thug, pressing his forearm tighter, and Richie found he could only drag in trickles of air. Frantically he looked towards Oliver, who set his mouth in firm lines.
"Let him go, Clive!" Oliver ordered, trying to pull the thug off.
"This one might be profitable," Clive leered. "American flesh, by the pound, eh?"
Richie decided he was going to have to fight his way out of this one. He tried breaking the grip, then clawed at Clive's eyes. The thug howled and turned away. Richie stumbled, then saw too late the butt of a pistol coming down in an arc towards his head. It thudded into his skull like a cannon. All the strength ran out of his legs and arms, leaving him cold and helpless on the dusty floor.
"You can't do this!" Oliver protested.
"Already did," someone's voice announced, and then the world drained away for Richie Ryan.
Duncan warmed his hands in front of the fire and took a cup of tea from Tessa. "Thanks," he said, glad to be out of the cold, blustery spring weather. "I need to warm up."
Tessa bent down and gave him a kiss, her hair falling gently against his face. "I could warm you up," she teased, in a voice meant for his ears only.
Duncan smiled. "I might take you up on that. Where's Richie?"
"He's not included in the offer," Tessa said, her lips touching his again.
Their kiss was interrupted by Sir James' arrival. "Don't stop for my sake," he said boisterously, settling himself on the couch. "Maybe Cynthia can get some popcorn."
"Cynthia can what?" his wife asked, bearing a tea set to the table and nudging her husband's feet away.
"Duncan and Tessa were illustrating young love."
"For as long as I've known you, you've been a incorrigible voyeur," Cynthia said, shaking her head and planting a kiss on Sir James' head.
Tessa and Duncan laughed, and Tessa settled down in Duncan's lap. His arm went around her waist, holding her tight. Cynthia started pouring more tea for all of them. "Where's Richie?" she asked.
"I thought he was with Janie," Tessa said.
"No, Janie's up in her room, listening to that horrible gangster music they've banned at her school." If the thought disturbed Cynthia, she didn't show it. She crossed to the stairs and called up to her daughter. A few seconds later, vivid green socks appeared at the top.
"Where's Richie?" Cynthia asked.
Janie's voice floated down the stairs. "He said he wanted to do some shopping."
"Maybe he's decided to buy souvenirs instead of steal them," Duncan muttered, for Tessa's benefit only. She pinched his thigh and he kissed her neck.
"And Oliver?" Cynthia said. "I thought he was staying home all day."
"You don't pay me enough to watch him, Mother," Janie answered cheerfully, and disappeared back into her room.
Oliver showed up after dinner, looking drawn and tired and damp from the newly returned drizzle. "Ah, there you are," his father said. "Sit down and have a bite to eat. Your mother made Cook slave all day over it."
"I already ate, Father, but thanks." Oliver hesitated in the doorway, then carefully removed his overcoat to a hook and shook himself of tiny droplets.
"You look awful."
"Always do, after a mugging." Oliver's voice was cheerful enough, Duncan thought, but something was bothering the young man.
Cynthia passed a bowl of salad to Tessa. "Where did you disappear to all day, darling?"
"Conscience bothered me a bit, so I went to the office and tidied up some leftover business. Then I went round to Dickie Ward's club in Islington to show off my war wounds. I think I'll turn in early, catch up on my beauty sleep."
"You'll be sleeping for a long time," Janie snorted into her veal parmesan.
Duncan's worry increased with each passing hour and no sign of Richie. Janie was made to recount how Richie had decided to go off shopping for Tessa's birthday. Tessa shared a look with Duncan, but said nothing. Further interrogation revealed that Richie had left no note or plan with Janie, although she thought he might have made a phone call during lunch.
"Who would he call?" Sir James asked Duncan.
Duncan didn't answer for a few minutes. Richie didn't know anybody in London. Finally he went to the phone in the study, made a call, and came back looking grim. "I need to speak to you," he said to James, in a no-nonsense voice. "Tessa, this concerns you too."
Cynthia watched her husband follow the two guests down the hall, and laid a hand on Janie's arm when the teenager started to babble out questions. "Go and get your brother," she said tightly. "Tell him to come down."
In the study, Duncan turned on James with a barely contained fury. "Oliver set that mugging up yesterday, didn't he? And how amazingly convenient to have Richie as a witness. "
"I don't know what you're getting on about," Sir James protested. "Why in the world would you think that?"
"Because Richie left a message on our answering machine in Paris this afternoon, saying he'd overhead Oliver talking to the muggers on the phone. He also said Oliver was going to meet with them at the London Bridge station at three o'clock."
"Preposterous," Sir James scoffed. "I can't possibly believe that Oliver would be involved in such skullduggery. Why would he want to be mugged?"
Duncan folded his arms. "Depends on what was in that briefcase."
"Credit card numbers," Cynthia said from behind them. Duncan, Tessa and Sir James all turned to see her small and formidable frame in the doorway, with Oliver standing beside her. Cynthia added, in a faintly tremulous voice, "Insurance policy numbers. Consumer profiles. Information culled from the company's databases. All on computer disks."
Sir James threw up his hands in genuine bewilderment. "But why, for heaven's sake?" he roared.
"Bribery," Oliver admitted, stepping forward so they could see the shame on his face. "It's all my fault. And now they've kidnapped Richie."
The uproar in the study lasted roughly twenty minutes, although to Tessa it seemed to go on forever. Accusations, admissions, blame, guilt, more accusations - the raw red emotion in the room, and worry over Richie, made her finally sink into a chair and watch from the sidelines. She couldn't bear the vicious wounds that parents and son were inflicting on one another, but at the same time felt spellbound and unable to leave the room.
The gist of it was that Oliver had fallen in with some disreputable groups at Oxford - groups that specialized in parties that included alcohol, illicit drugs, and young boys.
"My god," Sir James breathed, clutching his desk for support.
Cynthia stood by her son, one hand on his shoulder. "He needs our help, James, not our disgust!" she told him.
"What he needs it a good sound thrashing!" Sir James returned, and then reddened as he added, "Unless that's just the kind of perverse activity he thrives on!"
"Father, please listen!" Oliver pleaded.
"Listen to what kind of perversity? What kind of depravity? My God, Oliver, how could you be so stupid?"
Cynthia whitened in icy rage. "He made a mistake."
"Several, it sounds like!" Sir James spat out.
The parties had been videotaped, and Oliver was being blackmailed. If word got out it would surely disgrace his family, cause an uproar for his father in Parliament, and ruin his chances of staying at Oxford. His blackmailers, who specialized in an international business consortium of pornography, slavery, extortion, and electronic theft, had demanded from Oliver lists of personal financial information they could plug into computers and use to further their gains. When Oliver tried to stop cooperating, they'd sent two reminders in the forms of burly men at the Barbican. This afternoon's meeting had been to deliver more information, and Richie had indeed been caught following them.
Duncan demanded to know every detail. When Oliver said that Clive and the man he only knew as Mr. Leeds knocked him unconscious and carried him in a tarpaulin to their car, Duncan nearly punched him. Tessa saw the movement coming and put a hand on Duncan's shoulder, restraining him with the lightest of touches.
"Where did they take him?" Duncan hissed, fists clenched.
"I don't know!" Oliver protested. Tears swelled up in his swollen eyes. "I swear to God, I don't know. Leeds has a flat in Chelsea, I think. Some warehouses in the East End, where they make films -"
He hiccuped, and dragged the back of his hand across his runny nose. "He owns some ships, too, and some farms in Sussex - "
Duncan turned away, afraid that at any second he would cave Oliver's skull in with his fists. The thought of Richie in the hands of men like Oliver described made him sick to the very pit of his stomach. Later, he promised himself, he'd soundly scold Richie on getting in over his head again. For now, he had to cling to the belief they would find him before it was too late.
"Why did they take him?" he heard Sir James' demand. "What exactly did they say?"
Clive had said something about Richie being profitable. Duncan felt Tessa's hand seek out his, and he squeezed it for comfort. It was a nasty but generally invisible crime, the theft and selling of men and women that still persisted in many parts of the world. Rich Arabs seeking young white women or boys. Europeans, delighting in secret harems of lovely Indians plucked from the suburbs of New Delhi. Americans who bought and traded Asian teens. Japanese syndicates buying Mexicans, reported in the news just last month. Sometimes they ended up in brothels, sometimes they ended up in harems, and usually they ended up dead at young ages, buried in unmarked graves.
It had been going on since Duncan was a boy, and he still got sick at the very thought of it. The memories of Sir James' own bordellos, with their multicultural makeup and young faces, suddenly didn't seem so funny anymore.
Maybe it wasn't slavery. Maybe this pervert Leeds wanted Richie for his films. The American teenager was young, strong, and attractive. They could keep him drugged, or force him with threats of violence. He might be molested, tortured, killed. Duncan had seen a collection of snuff films once, in the library of an Immortal who'd then lost his head to Duncan's blade.
When he found these men who'd taken Richie he was going to cut off their testicles, not their heads.
The study had gone very quiet except for the sound of Oliver, weeping to himself. Not even his mother consoled him. Duncan saw Janie, sitting in the hallway in shock, apparently having overhead the whole discussion. He couldn't feel any sympathy for her or her shattered family, not with Richie's fate so horribly in the balance.
"What about this Leeds, or whoever he is?" Duncan asked. "Can you get ahold of him? You must have a way of contacting him."
Oliver wiped at his nose with the back of his hand. "No. He always contacts me."
"You must know someone who knows how to reach him," Duncan persisted.
"Not right away," Oliver sniffed. "I mean, maybe this weekend, if there's a party . . . but I swear to God, he calls me when he wants."
Duncan felt like screaming. It took everything he had to stomp down on his fury enough to tell Oliver, again, to repeat everything that had happened at the London Dungeon, everything Clive and Leeds had said. Oliver remembered a girl's name had been mentioned. "Varla, or something like that," he said.
"Was it or wasn't it?" Duncan advanced on the young man, and Cynthia put her tiny self in front of him.
"Leave him be!" she said fiercely. "He's doing the best he can!"
"Cynthia, stop defending him," Sir James muttered. He'd retreated to his leather chair and glass of Scotch. He looked tired and drained, as if too weary too feel anything anymore. "You knew all this was going on. You could have kept it from happening."
"I was protecting your reputation - " Cynthia started.
"Stop!" Tessa ordered, unable to bear the thought of the discussion spiking up again into more accusations and shouts. The fierceness in her voice made everyone immediately look at her. "The important thing now is Richie!" she said, going to Oliver and taking both of his hands despite the cool revulsion that slid down her back. "Oliver, you must remember everything you can. You're the only one who can help us."
"They said they'd kill me if I told anyone," Oliver said.
"I'll kill you if you don't," Duncan said, and no one in the study doubted him.
Oliver met Tessa's gaze squarely. "They put him in the boot of their car," he said, his voice shaking. "Leeds told me if I said anything, he'd come for me next. That I'd wake up . . . in Abu Dhabi, or some such place. Then they got into the car, and I think Clive asked "Varla?" and Leeds said yes."
Duncan broke his glare at the young man and turned to Sir James. "Do you know anybody in the port authority?"
Sir James reached immediately for the phone. "What am I going to ask?"
"Ask for a registration check on a ship by the name of Varla, or including the name Varla. Oliver said the man owns ships. Abu Dhabi is a seaport, among other things. And Richie mentioned that one of the muggers yesterday had calluses, and smelled of fish, or maybe the waterfront."
Fifteen minutes later Sir James was behind the wheel of the Cadillac and driving like a madman through the late-night streets of London, heading south. Duncan sat beside him, any number of horrible possibilities going through his head. Tessa had refused to be left behind, and was in the back trying to scan a map in the flickering street lights.
"How far is it to Dover?" she asked. As a teenager she'd crossed the Channel several times, but she'd always taken a train into London from the seacoast town and never driven on the highway.
"Less than an hour," Sir James promised. He tried a feeble attempt at humor. "The good thing about being a member of parliament is you can talk your way out of speeding tickets rather easily."
Duncan said nothing, scowling instead out the windshield. Sir James looked over and said, "About Oliver . . . "
"It's not your fault. You didn't know," Duncan said curtly.
"I should have known. I should have paid more attention . . ." Sir James cleared his throat. "I tend to glamorize my past, you know, and forget that there's a price to pay for every crime."
Tessa shivered, pulling her jacket tighter, but said nothing. Her thoughts drifted to Richie and the ship Varla Serov, a Liberian registered small freighter currently moored at Dover's west docks. She couldn't ignore recurring, nightmarish images of him being used the way Oliver had hinted, and prayed they wouldn't be too late.
It was after midnight by the time they reached Dover, and most houses were dark. Tessa took the wheel of Sir James' Cadillac and let both Immortals out half a block from the docks. Duncan slid his sword into the back of the car, leaving it behind. His lips silenced her protest.
"I'll bring him back," Duncan promised.
The east docks of Dover dealt with the Channel passenger and car ferries, while the west docks were for freighters, other cargo vessels, and small tankers. Cranes and aluminum containers sat piled up along the waterfront, along with several dozen eighteen-wheel trucks and automobiles. Welding arcs and huge flood lights lit the decks of one freighter, as shipworkers labored overtime to effect some repair. Duncan and Sir James easily avoided notice and reached the Varla Serov without any trouble.
Duncan eyed the small freighter carefully. It was about 600 feet long, capable of carrying maybe three or four thousand tons of cargo containers, and probably had a crew of no more than fifteen or twenty. A man was on watch at the top of the well-illuminated gangplank. The tide was in, and the ship sat low in the water. Duncan eyed the mooring lines, imaging a long and treacherous hand-over-hand climb.
"What do you think?" Sir James mused. "The direct approach, eh?"
"You're going to walk up that gangplank?" Duncan asked, skeptically eyeing the other Immortal's expensive clothes and Burberry raincoat.
"And you're coming with me," Sir James answered, pulling a handful of small liquor bottles from his pocket. "I get these off airplanes all the time," he explained, uncapping a few and liberally dousing his own clothes and then Duncan's. He took a deep swill for good measure and then wrapped his arm around Duncan's shoulders.
Staggering as if drunk, and swapping lewd stories in provincial French, the two men wobbled their way up the gangplank of the Varla Serov arm-in-arm. The sentry stopped them, no trace of humor on his face.
"You're drunk," he said, adding a few curses. "And lost. Get off, before I toss you over the side."
"Mon ami - " Sir James said, and then turned an alarming shade of green and staggered to the railing to vomit over the side. Duncan took advantage of the guard's distraction and slugged him in the back of the head, driving him unconscious to the deck. They dragged the man into the shadows, and Sir James produced a gun from inside his jacket.
"Nasty lot," he said. "Now you go and fetch your young friend, and I'll keep watch."
"Keep a good one," Duncan warned, and slipped through the nearest hatch. He took a moment to orient himself. He'd spent a few years in the merchant marines, and the smell of ships had never really left him - the odor of diesel oil and grease, of closely confined quarters, of strong cleaners and lingering tobacco smoke. He decided he'd avoid the galley and pilot house, and would work his way through the living quarters until he got to the hold.
He tried to still his inner turmoil, knowing that focus might be the only thing to bring him to Richie. The teenager didn't give off the full-fledged buzz of a full Immortal, but sometimes Duncan was aware of his presence like the distant hum of electric power lines across a country field. He stopped at each closed hatch, mentally straining for that hum, but went through two decks without finding anything.
A freighter this size literally had hundreds of small hiding places that Leeds or his men could use to hide someone. Duncan stopped to reconsider the possibilities. At that moment a hatch swung open, and a small, wiry man stepped out directly in front of him. Any chance of a warm welcome was dispelled with the man's first punch at Duncan's face. Two moves later, Duncan had the man pinned up against the bulkhead was his arm locked behind his back and ready to snap.
"You speak English?" Duncan demanded, in a low voice.
The sailor refused to answer until Duncan edged his arm up higher, and a muscle spasmed in the man's cheek. In German he cursed Duncan.
"Well, I sprecht Deutch too," Duncan said, and interrogated the man as to the whereabouts of a young, blond American teenager being held against his will. The sailor had no knowledge of such a thing, until Duncan snapped his right pinkie finger into two separate bones.
Newly persuaded, the sailor led Duncan down two decks to a set of cabins above the cargo holds. A key from the man's key ring undid the latch at the first door. Duncan dragged his unwilling companion halfway through the hatch and spied Richie laying bound, gagged and unconscious on a berth bolted to the bulkhead.
The light was dim and grimy, and Duncan didn't see the second shape appear at the hatch until too late. The small, wiry sailor twisted out of his grasp as a crowbar came around and caught Duncan full-force against the side of his head. A mini-Hiroshima of agony exploded in the confines of his skull, and his legs collapsed beneath him. Another blow sent him to a place where nothing - not Richie, not thieves, not pain - mattered anymore.
The steady anguish along the left side of his head reminded Duncan that at least he had a head, so everything else would take care of itself. Still, it took several minutes for the red pounding to fade into something resembling consciousness and for his thoughts to coalesce into coherency. He squinted up from the bare deck, trying to make sense of his surroundings. Richie had once jokingly referred to that position as floor-level surveillance, and he could see why. Richie. Abruptly Duncan remembered where he was, and why.
His own dried blood along his hair and face kept him glued to the deck, and he had to pry himself free. Sitting upright produced a small sway of dizziness. Gingerly he probed the side of his head. The crowbar should have killed him. He crawled over to the berth, and hauled himself upright using its metal rim as a support. Richie hadn't moved on the dirty thin mattress, and with a stab of fear Duncan felt for the pulse in his throat. Slow, faint, but steady.
He undid the grimy gray rag that had been shoved into Richie's mouth and tied in place, then rolled Richie's lax body onto its side to work on the tight nylon knots around his swollen wrists. A faint moan came out of the teenager, and Duncan stopped what he was doing to pat Richie's cheeks to bring him to full awareness.
"Richie? You hear me? Come on, wake up."
"No," Richie mumbled, turning his head into the pillow.
"You have to wake up." Duncan resumed his work, cursing his thick fingers against the very fine knots. He tried to make his voice as calm and reassuring as possible. "We've got to get out of here."
Something that might have been "Where are we going?" came half-muffled and weakly from the pillow.
"Wherever you want," Duncan promised. One knot slipped free. Another held stubbornly. He wished for his katana, but hadn't dared bring it aboard in case they searched him. Judging from the missing steak knife he'd secreted in his right boot, they had. After several minutes of sweating and muttering in Gaelic, the knots parted on both Richie's wrists and ankles. Duncan rolled him on his back, noting the faint groan of protest.
"Did they hurt you?" he asked, running his hands carefully down the side of Richie's ribs. No answer. Duncan pinched his cheeks again and called his name until the blue eyes slid open and fixed on him with groggy irritation.
"I want to sleep," Richie said hoarsely.
"I know you do. Later." Duncan couldn't decide if the kid had been drugged or had a concussion. The egg-sized lump on the side of his head seemed to indicate the latter. "What hurts?"
"Nothing," Richie insisted. "Can't feel . . . my arms."
Poor circulation had left them numb. Duncan massaged both arms carefully and made Richie answer questions until some of the disorientation faded. Richie asked for water, but there was none. He shivered but claimed he wasn't cold. Duncan slid out of his coat and fixed it over him anyway. At some point he'd soiled his jeans, but there was nothing to be done about it. The bruises from the previous day looked lurid in the dim light, and fresh ones marked his jaw and mouth. Tessa was going to have a fit when she saw him.
"Why did you follow Oliver to the London Dungeon, Richie?" he asked.
Richie huddled under the coat, which smelled comfortingly of Mac. He wished the cabin would stop spinning, or that Duncan would remain as one image and stop wavering like a bad TV image. Sourness rose from the bottom of his stomach, but he vowed he wasn't going to throw up. "Can you yell at me later?" he pleaded. "My head really hurts."
Duncan's mouth twitched. "All right," he conceded, "I'll yell at you later. Tell me what happened after they knocked you out."
"Not much." Richie closed his eyes for a moment, and found the nausea easing a little. He kept talking, though, for Duncan's benefit. "I woke up in a car trunk and started kicking and yelling, but no one came. The car wasn't moving. Eventually some guys came, talking in German or something, and carried me in a tarp somewhere. They let me loose and this one guy, the leader I think, he started asking me all sorts of questions about where I came from, who my family was."
"What did you tell him?"
"That I was American - big surprise - and had a family of eight brothers, all Marines, and parents who worked for Interpol and would track his sorry ass all over the world. I don't think he bought that."
"Probably not. His name is Leeds, by the way. What came next?"
Richie paused to gather what little strength he had. He felt Duncan's right hand rest on his shoulder, and forced himself to go on.
"They had me kneeling in the middle of some office, with two or three guys besides the main one - Leeds, Lucifer, whatever. He kept giving me funny looks - you know what kind."
Duncan was genuinely puzzled. "No, what kind?"
"The kind you get when you grow up blond and pretty in the big, bad city," Richie said, with a little bitterness, and Duncan suddenly understood the look perfectly.
"Did he do more than look?" Duncan asked gently.
Richie laughed humorlessly. "I think he wanted to, but he didn't. He just put his hands on my face and said I was going to make him a lot of money."
Duncan could feel his earlier rage from Sir James' study beginning to boil again, but squelched it for Richie's sake. "And then?"
"I punched him in the nuts," Richie said.
"You did what?"
"He was standing there," Richie explained, in the tones of a teacher to a small child, "and I punched him. Caught everyone off guard, too. I guess they thought I was just going to put up with being turned into somebody's . . . whore."
The last word came hard for him, and Duncan squeezed his shoulder. "It's not going to happen," he promised. "I won't let it."
Richie looked away, focusing on the wall. He wasn't going to be weak and sniveling. "Anyway," he said, with forced lightness, "I think one of them hit me in the head again - Richie Ryan, human punching-bag - and the next thing I know, you're my roommate. Do you know you've got blood all over your face?"
Duncan touched the dried tightness. "Doesn't matter," he said, which was true. The pain of the skull fracture had already flattened into nothingness. "How's your head doing?"
Richie shrugged carefully. "Still got one."
He sounded so much like an Immortal that Duncan nearly shuddered. Did Richie suspect, deep in his heart, that more than chance had brought him to the antique store the previous year? That Duncan had persuaded Tessa they should take him in not just because it was the generous thing to do, but because Richie needed guidance if he was ever going to survive the Game? Duncan had caught Richie practicing with a sword in the barge one day, and the sight had dismayed him more than he wanted to admit.
"Hey," Richie said now, with a suspicious glint, "where's your sword?"
"Left it in the car with Tessa."
"Some kind of rescue committee you are," Richie complained. "So how are we going to get out of here, kemosabe?"
"When did I become the Lone Ranger?"
"When I started getting the crap beaten out of me every week like Tonto."
The banter cheered Duncan. He didn't think Richie had any permanent damage from the blows to his head, although he still looked a little queasy in the small confines of the berth. "Let the Lone Ranger work, then," he said. "You rest."
Duncan did now what he should have done earlier, which was make a thorough inspection of their prison. The cabin measured roughly ten feet by eight feet. The hatch opened from the outside only. A small vent high near the overhead would allow the passage of maybe one small bunny rabbit, but nothing else. A table had been bolted to the deck in the corner, but there were no chairs.
Richie, resting uneasily, watched Duncan pace back and forth for a few minutes. It occurred to him that the rescue committee might not be very organized, but he didn't raise the issue because he didn't want to sound ungrateful. He rubbed his aching arms, and then decided he might make a better contribution to the cause if he were sitting up.
"Where are you going?" Duncan asked.
"I'm tired of looking at the ceiling," Richie returned, and gingerly he levered himself upright. The floor seemed very far away beneath his feet. A low rumble transmitted through the metal of the bed, and he looked at Duncan.
"Engines starting up," Duncan said, confirming his fears. "We're pulling out of port."
They felt the ship start to move slowly. Richie didn't like the idea of being a prisoner at sea. He swallowed hard and asked, "Where will they take us?"
"Maybe just across the Channel," Duncan said. Or maybe to Abu Dhabi, or a dozen other ports across the world. They could be imprisoned for a few days or several weeks. Much as he liked Richie, he had no desire to be cabinmates for anything more than a few hours. He wondered where Sir James was, and if the Immortal was organizing a rescue of his own.
"Man," Richie said, shaking his head, "this has not been one of my better days, you know that?"
Tuning himself to the movement and sounds of the ship, Duncan gauged its process out of the calm docks and into the rougher seas of the Channel. He checked his watch - almost one a.m. At one-thirty the hatch swung open, and Clive and the man whose finger Duncan had broken aimed semi-automatic pistols at them.
"Christ," the short sailor muttered, taking in Duncan's bloody head. "You should be dead by now."
"Trust me," Duncan said, "I'm hard to kill."
Clive snorted, "We'll see about that. You're coming upstairs with us."
Duncan and Richie had been sitting on the bed, and Duncan felt the teenager tense. He'd already warned Richie to let him do the talking, and just follow his lead. Duncan didn't seriously believe Richie would do either, but hope sprang eternal.
"Arnie," Clive said, "if the big one makes any wrong moves, shoot the kid."
Silently and grimly Richie and Duncan were taken up to the main deck and shoved towards the stern. A half moon broke through the bank of clouds and the receding white cliffs of Dover gave off a faint gleam. They were maybe four or five miles to sea, Duncan guessed. The wind whipped across their shirts and pants, carrying with it the heavy scents of salt and diesel fumes. Arnie left, but Clive stayed, watching the scene with interest.
A Greek-looking man stood at the stern, idly turning a pistol over and over in his hand. Duncan guessed he was the one called Leeds, the one who'd been blackmailing Oliver. The man said to Richie, "You've caused me no end of trouble, you know. We had to leave a corpse back on the dock, and I've got a man with a concussion below decks."
They must have found Sir James. No help would be coming from that quarter, then.
Richie didn't say anything. Duncan offered, "Don't you believe in karma? You get what you deserve."
Leeds scrutinized him in the moonlight. "Smart man, aren't you?"
"Smarter than you," Duncan said. "You didn't really think you'd get away with just kidnapping my friend, did you?"
"Kidnapping's the least of what I had planned for him," Leeds said darkly. "But I've decided this particular cargo isn't worth the risk. Say goodbye to England for me."
"Jump!" Duncan told Richie, giving him a mighty shove towards the railing. He threw a karate punch at Leeds, knocking the gun aside, and felt three of Clive's bullets blast into his side. At the same time Duncan heard a rustle of clothing and caught a quick blur that he hoped was Richie jumping from the ship. Fueled by adrenaline and discipline only, Duncan lashed out and shattered Clive's jaw, then turned with a roundhouse kick that snapped Leeds' neck. Duncan scrabbled at the emergency life ring on mounted by the railing, but blood loss and shock made his fingers shake and it wouldn't free from its fastenings.
"Hey!" Arnie's shout came across the deck. "Bloody hell!"
Another bullet slammed into Duncan's back. This one hurt. It hurt like a harpoon driving past his skin, fat and muscle to a secret place of agony that tripped up and down his spinal column like lightning. He couldn't breathe, couldn't see, couldn't live -
He barely managed to get himself over the side before he died.
Duncan had warned him they might have to jump for it, but Richie was totally unprepared for the shock of plummeting fifty feet into the cold, wet, miserable waves of the English Channel. Hitting the water drove the air straight out of his lungs and he plunged downward into the pitch dark with a burning chest. Disoriented, dazed, unable to see, he tried to kick his way to what might be the surface, had to breathe, sucked in a lungful of ocean, found the surface, screeched and choked and vomited until he could halfway breathe again. Pain like a dozen slicing razors cut through his lungs, and he flailed weakly in the waves, trying to do nothing more than not sink.
He saw, blurrily, the moon above. The cliffs, behind him. The bobbing lights of the Varla Sorev, disappearing at a fast rate. Something floated nearby, faintly illuminated by the moonlight. He swam toward it, battling the ache in his arms and weariness in his every bone, and after struggling with the two and three-foot waves for several minutes he snagged it with a half-choked yelp.
The floating object was Duncan's corpse. Richie had rarely seen Duncan dead, and it took a few seconds for him to remember the condition was just temporary. How temporary remained to be seen. He was glad Duncan was here with him, not still on the Varla Sorev, but soon discovered the Highlander was more hindrance than help in his current condition.
Richie had no idea what would happen if Mac sank to the bottom of the ocean. How could he revive and not instantly drown, time and time again, with the first intake of water into his mouth? What if sharks ate him - he didn't know if the English Channel had sharks, but with his luck it would -or fish ate him? He'd
watched Duncan dive off Soldier's Bridge to rescue Connor, and decided he couldn't take the chance of letting Duncan's corpse sink.
Three years earlier he'd helped his friend Gary earn his lifeguard qualifications down at the YMCA. Richie remembered hours spent after school in the cold pool, letting Gary haul his skinny butt up and down the pool from one end to the other. He put Duncan in one of the holds Gary had practiced, careful to keep his head above water as much as possible. The choppy waves lifted and dropped them randomly, pushing them in cold swirls. The heavy taste of sale pickled his tongue and lips, along with a flatter, more metallic taste he couldn't immediately place -
Blood. The metallic taste was blood, either his or Duncan's. Horror twisted up through his stomach and he immediately retched, fouling the water around him even more. Frantically Richie kicked sideways, still dragging Duncan, but unable to do anything for a minute fight against the sick waves of panic and despair that threatened to blot out the world.
Finally he gathered his senses and forced himself to take some action. They couldn't just float in the water forever. Richie kicked off his sneakers to relieve some weight, then fumbled with Duncan's boots and sent them sinking as well. He squinted at the distant cliffs and wondered about tide and currents. He didn't think he was a strong enough swimmer to get both him and Duncan to shore. But he had to try. Until he was dead in the water, he had to try. Mac would do the same for him, after all.
Richie squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. He hadn't prayed in a long time, but he hadn't been this motivated in a long time, either. Okay, God, he thought. Just let me get to shore. Let me get to shore with Duncan and you can have anything You want after that.
He opened his eyes and started swimming with his grisly burden toward the cliffs. A rumble in his stomach reminded him he hadn't eaten since lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe, twelve or thirteen hours earlier. He ignored the gnawing growls. His left arm, hooked under Duncan's shoulder and head, cramped and turned leaden. He ignored that too. He couldn't keep up a strong sidestroke, so paced himself with twenty strokes, rest for a count of one hundred twenty. Twenty strokes, hauling a soaking wet corpse that outweighed him by about forty pounds. Rest for roughly two minutes, trying to catch his breath and keep oriented between the blurry and shifting edges of the night sky, sea and stars.
The loneliness of his situation dragged at his strength and spirit as much as the cold. The sounds of the ocean - chopping waves, wind and a very distant buoy - dwarfed his ragged breathing. The realization he might die out here miles from anybody, and never speak to anyone again, drove a stab of regret through his heart.
Well, he did have someone to talk to. Mac just wouldn't answer back.
"Tell you what," Richie gasped. "For a while I thought I hated France, but now I really hate England."
Five, six, seven . . .he knew he still had legs, but they felt like wooden logs kicked through slowly hardening concrete. . . twelve, thirteen, fourteen . . . "You're going on a diet, big guy," he grunted. Nineteen, twenty, and he stopped for a rest. He didn't think he was making much progress. He didn't know nearly as much about tides and currents as he did about boosting car stereos, or tuning up the Thunderbird, or getting out of school on faked notes from foster parents.
"Gary could do this," he said aloud to the waves, Duncan, God. "No sweat."
His two minutes of rest were up. Richie forced his heavy, aching limbs back into motion. Duncan hadn't known Gary - by the time they'd reached the hospital last fall, the older teen had already died. Richie pushed back the memory of Gary's corpse laying in a hospital bed and tried to concentrate on something good instead. He told Duncan about his first meeting Gary in shop class at South Seacouver High. It had been Richie's first day as a new transfer student, and Gary was the only guy who made him feel welcome. He'd shown him where the tools were kept, introduced him around the shop, and enlisted his help rebuilding the engine on a 1978 Chevy Cavalier.
"Ugliest car you ever saw," Richie said, but he was too tired to laugh at the memory. He'd stopped shivering, which he thought might be a bad sign. He'd never been so cold before in his entire life, not even in winter, not even in snow.
The wind whipped his words away. The waves battered at his consciousness.
Gary had been a year older than Richie, quiet in classes, unnoticed by teachers, but popular in shop and down in the pool halls. He loved motorcycles, worked out like a maniac, and was always getting sucked into one harebrained petty crime after the other. He'd been working as a messenger when he was enlisted in a nefarious plot that involved an Immortal and mind-controlling drugs. He'd died at nineteen years old, and his ashes were sitting on his parent's bedroom dresser.
Twelve, thirteen. . . he knew he was counting, but couldn't remember if he was swimming or resting. Funny not to know what his body was doing. Cold and exhaustion dissolved any sense of boundary between his own skin and the ocean. He might have just as well been made of seaweed, drifting limply and lifelessly on the waves.
He guess he was dying. Hypothermia. Maybe drowning wouldn't hurt so much that way.
The moon slipped behind the clouds. The white cliffs of Dover faded from sight.
He remembered the YMCA's high ceiling of paint peeling from humidity, the cracked but clean blue tiles around the pool's edge, the snap of the rebounding dive board. Gary, diligently pretending to save his life. Some of the older boys had started snickering that Gary and Richie were fags, doing it in the pool, and after a while Gary couldn't even look at him without blushing. The lifesaving practice sessions stopped.
He couldn't feel the cold anymore, or the sting of salt in his scrapes, or much of anything at all.
"Sorry, Mac," he mumbled, and pried his arm free. Duncan drifted away.
The stars, the sea, the sky.
A cramp tore him from head to toe, twisting him into a little ball, and Richie sank without protest beneath the merciless black waves.
Duncan coughed and sucked in his first breath of returning life. The first breath always hurt the most, he'd discovered, but this one was especially anguishing because it brought a mouthful of sea water. Even as the first panic signal shot into his brain, his Immortal lungs clamped off and gave him a few precious seconds to flail instinctively toward what he hoped was the surface. Cold, fresh air slapped him in the face, and he dragged in as much air as he could, one gulp after the other.
It took several seconds for the panic to recede and sense of surrounding to assert itself. He pulled his sopping wet hair from his eyes and focused groggily on a wide expanse of ocean stretching all around him He saw no sign of the Varla Sorev, which meant he'd been dead for a little while. The white cliffs of Dover, three miles or so to the west, dimly reflected half shrouded moonlight. Duncan realized he was alone, and with a punch of fear to his gut wondered what had happened to Richie.
Something hummed at the edge of his senses, like a receding summer storm. Or like the hum of power lines, gradually fading. Duncan didn't hesitate. He dove down in the water, groping with his hands. He could see absolutely nothing. He went by his Immortal sense only, reaching, stretching, driving his protesting body harder, stretching more, desperate. His fingers grazed something soft and curly, and then found the shape of a human head.
Duncan pulled the body towards the surface first by its head and then by a limp arm. By the time they reached air, Richie's hum had faded to a barely perceived whisper, and the teenager wasn't breathing. In a minute or so the hum would silence and return as the flare of a full-fledged Immortal. Then Richie Ryan would return to a life stranger and even more dangerous than the one he'd just left.
"Not yet!" Duncan snapped, shaking Richie vigorously. Richie's head lolled, his lips dark, his eyes unseeing. Duncan turned him around, wrapped his powerful arms around his waist, and gave him a water-borne version of the Heimlich maneuver.
"Damn it, don't you die on me! Not yet!" Duncan ordered, fear slicing his voice into little bits. He thrust his fists upward and inward above Richie's navel. Water choked out of the teen's mouth, and the hum of a pre-Immortal returned to Duncan's brain.
He didn't loosen his hold a fraction as Richie struggled violently to recover his breathing. The painful wheezing gradually subsided into something more regular, but his body remain limp against Duncan's chest. The reassuring thump of his wildly beating heart against Duncan's skin more than made up for the strain of treading water for the both of them.
"You gave me a little scare," Duncan confessed, when he thought Richie might be aware enough to understand.
The teenager made a sound that could have been a sob or a laugh. "I gave you a scare?" he asked, his voice a mere scratch.
"Just rest," Duncan said softly, one hand on Richie's forehead to keep his head tipped back. "Let me do all the work."
"Okay," Richie mumbled weakly. He sounded awful, and Duncan feared hypothermia might still kill him. They had to get out of the water. The cliffs were their best hope, but he knew the currents at their base could fling both him and Richie fatally against thousands of jagged rocks. If they could circle around the cliffs back towards the bay they had a better chance, but Richie probably wasn't going to last that long.
The rational part of Duncan's mind reminded him that Richie would come back as an Immortal. The emotional part of him couldn't bear the thought of him dying so young and being drawn into the nightmare of the Game. Duncan had lost his Immortality as a fully grown man who'd lived, loved, and died as a warrior should. Richie was only eighteen, and had just settled into a semblance of a normal life.
Duncan snorted. A normal life, he reminded himself, if they didn't count the Immortals who crossed the doorstep each week with swords in hand, ready for battle. Normal, if they didn't count the amazing misadventures that seemed to come out of nowhere on a regular basis. Sometimes he still thought it would be easier for Tessa and Richie to leave him and go on to safe lives, far from blood spill or mayhem.
Richie stirred against his chest. "I see lights," he muttered.
Duncan turned and saw a tug chugging slowly along the passage towards France. Its course wouldn't intercept their position unless Duncan moved quickly. He wrapped one arm around Richie and began dragging him toward the tug.
"Keep talking," Duncan ordered. "Richie, talk to me."
"You should leave me," Richie protested.
"I'm not leaving you. End of that topic. Keep talking."
Richie started mumbling about a pool and lifeguards. After a little bit, Duncan realized he was talking to Gary. He remembered the kid's funeral - it had been a shame to see someone die that young - and wondered what Richie was imagining. Hallucinations were another symptom of hypothermia that Duncan could have happily done without. His own body, spurred at first by the return of life, was beginning to fade rapidly.
"I'm so tired," Richie mumbled. "Can I go to sleep?"
"In a little while," Duncan promised. "Keep talking."
The tug was going to pass them by. Duncan would never be able to pull them into its path and even if he could, they could be mowed over without anyone ever noticing. He stopped swimming and started shouting. The wind took his words right out of his mouth. Duncan kept yelling and then realized his hold on Richie was slipping precipitously. He grabbed him, and realized Richie was talking to him.
Sorry," the teenager mumbled. "Can't do it . . .anymore . . ."
"Richie! Stay with me!"
The blue eyes regarded him groggily. "It's okay, Mac. Not . . . cold anymore. Doesn't really hurt to die, does it?"
Duncan wrapped him a hug, trying to force strength into him, but he felt Richie's body going slack no matter how hard he held him.
"Sorry," Richie whispered into his ear. "I love you, Mac. Tell Tessa too . . . "
Duncan couldn't see for tears. "Tell her yourself. . . "
But Richie was fading fast, and when Duncan checked his shockingly pale face looked lax and peaceful in the moonlight.
The boat passed them by at a range of no more than a hundred feet. Richie's pre-Immortal hum faded, and then awareness of a fully born Immortal blossomed in Duncan's mind. He couldn't bear to see the confusion and pain that would appear on Richie's face, and closed his eyes.
Richie coughed and stirred, a moan slipping through his blue lips.
A horn blew.
Duncan turned and focused first in disbelief and then in joy as the boat started to turn.
As it approached he saw Tessa and Sir James, standing on the deck, waving to him, and realized it wasn't too late for Richie after all.
The tug's crew, a group of hardy Belgians, pulled Duncan and Richie out of the water, got them below into a small and smelly bunkroom, stripped off their soaked clothes, and wrapped them in thick woolen blankets. One man pressed a flask of whiskey into Duncan's hands, and the Highlander gave special thanks for the burst of warmth that sped from his throat to his stomach. Richie was bundled into a bed and covered with even more blankets. The teenager started shivering soon after and his eyes slid open, but he didn't respond to their words or touches.
Sir James, who had overseen many field hospital stations in the Great War, wedged Richie upright in the bunk and forced hot coffee down his throat. Tessa kept close to Duncan, hugging warmth back into him, and then slipped to Richie's side to briskly rub his stiff and icy hands.
"How did you find us?" Duncan asked.
"Buggers caught me unawares," Sir James said, a little sheepishly. "Knocked me soundly on the head with a crowbar. When I started breathing again I found myself in a rather nasty dumpster."
Tessa had found him, and then the two of them had pleaded with the captain of a Belgian tug that had just came into part escorting a limping Latvian cargo ship. The captain had professed no interest in following the Varla Sorev until money came into the equation.
"We could have just gone back to London and traced the ship's itinerary," Tessa admitted, "but it might have been a false one, or they might have changed their minds mid-course. I didn't want to lose sight of you two for a minute longer than necessary."
"Good thing for us," Duncan said. "How much did you promise the captain?"
Sir James quoted an extravagant price that at first made Duncan cringe. Then he decided Richie's mortality was worth every penny. Richie mumbled something none of them understood, and Tessa cupped his face and asked him to say it again.
Clearly making an effort to enunciate clearly, Richie asked, "Are we there yet?"
"Almost," Tessa promised.
Richie's mumbled something else and then his eyes slid shut. Sir James pronounced the problem to be deep exhaustion, which would be cured with a few days of serious rest and some good, hot food. Duncan felt compelled to make sure with his own hands and eyes that Richie would be fine. Tessa and Sir James obediently retreated to the other side of the small, cramped cabin as Duncan lowered himself wearily to the edge of the berth.
A pronounced ruddiness over Richie's bruised and battered face marked the effects of wind and salt water, and the return of warmth. Thank goodness he'd suffered no serious wounds. Impulsively Duncan pushed the damp hair from Richie's forehead and the teenager stirred restlessly.
"What I meant to say," Duncan whispered, thinking of the last words they'd exchanged, "was that I love you too."
Groggy blue eyes opened to little slits above the ragged edge of the top blanket. "Huh?"
"Nothing. Go to sleep."
"I heard you," Richie mumbled. From the look on his face, he was still mostly asleep and would probably never remember this conversation in the morning. "You said it."
"Sssh," Duncan soothed, thankful that he hadn't said anything more in the water when he thought Richie was beyond help. "Rest now. You're going to be fine."
"Promises, promises," was all that came back, and Richie fell asleep again.
Duncan crowded him over and went to sleep as well.
A knock sounded on the door between the two hotel rooms and Duncan poked his head into Richie's room. "I thought you might be awake."
"Come on in," Richie said, hitching himself up higher on the bed. He fumbled for the remote control that had gotten lost in the bedsheets and turned the volume down on BBC-2. "Am I hallucinating, or is this really a game show about sheep?"
Duncan sat on the bedside chair and studied the television show. "No, it really is a game show about sheep. I've seen it before."
"Man, they really need HBO or MTV or something over here," Richie grumbled. A click from the remote plunged the screen into darkness.
Duncan glanced at the half-drawn shades, the dirty room service tray, and the discarded newspapers on the side of the bed. Nearly two days of sleeping had improved Richie considerably, but the livid bruises and scrapes on his face had yet to heal fully. He'd told Tessa he was feeling better, but he showed no urge to leave the hotel room and hadn't changed his sweatpants or T-shirt since the morning they'd come back from the Varla Sorev.
"How you feeling?" Duncan asked.
"Tired of hanging out here. When are we going back to Paris?"
"As soon as you're up to traveling. How does tomorrow sound?"
Duncan said, poker-faced, "Since we missed our scheduled flight, and it's such a hassle to re-book them, Tessa and I thought we might all go back on the ferry."
Richie shot him a murderous look. "Don't even think about it, MacLeod!"
Duncan smiled but said nothing. Richie smiled a little too, and then picked up the nearest pillow and put it over his face as if to hide. His muffled voice asked, "Is this the time for the delayed lecture?"
"What do you think?"
"I think the defense has a right to testify on its own behalf," Richie said, lowering the pillow. "Exhibit A: I didn't ask to be mugged. Exhibit B: I didn't ask to be kidnapped. Exhibit C: You were the one with the bright idea of jumping off the ship." He paused for breath. "I don't know what Exhibit D is, but give me a minute."
Duncan said, "I give you A, B and C, Richie. You weren't responsible for any of that."
"You do? What's the catch?"
"You should never have followed Oliver in the first place. What in the world did you think you were doing?"
"Trying to catch the bad guys! You weren't around, and Tessa wasn't around, and if I waited I would have lost my opportunity to find out what was going on. You would have done the same thing, and you know it."
"But I wouldn't have gotten hurt," Duncan reminded him.
"You would have done the same thing if you were mortal, Mac."
Duncan sighed. He supposed he couldn't argue with that. But time and time again he wished Richie would break the bad habit of jumping into situations better left to others. He'd followed a serial killer back in Seacouver and nearly gotten killed twice for his efforts. He'd chased down Gary Correll's killers, and almost had his throat slit open. He'd gotten involved with his old friend Nikki's drug problems, and Duncan had arrived barely in time to keep him from getting shot.
"Sometimes I think you attract danger like a magnet," Duncan confessed.
The corner of Richie's mouth quirked up a little bit. "Me too. Lecture over?"
"Lecture over," Duncan sighed. He'd decided before entering the room that Richie had already more than paid the price for his actions.
"Good." Richie sounded upbeat, but then his face darkened. "How's Oliver?"
"Not so good." Oliver had tried to take his own life. Janie had found him in the bathroom, bleeding from both wrists. "But in time, and with proper psychiatric help, he may recover."
"That kind of pisses me off," Richie confessed. "Here I spent a lot of time and effort trying to stay alive, and Oliver decides to throw his life away."
Duncan said, "You're stronger than he is. You're a survivor. You triumphed over a terrible ordeal when most people would have given up."
"You think so?" Richie yawned. He didn't sound particularly convinced.
"I know so."
Richie's fingers played with the edge of his blanket. "Let me ask you a question. Towards the end . . . it all got kind of fuzzy. Did I say something I might regret, or anything?"
Duncan heard the note of raw vulnerability underlying the words. "No," he answered. "You didn't say anything you might regret." He waited, then added, "And neither did I."
Richie studied him for a full moment. "Okay. Just checking."
"Get some more rest," Duncan said, coming to his feet. "The boat leaves at noon tomorrow."
"I meant plane," Duncan said, taking the room service tray with him as he backed out of the room.
Richie clicked on the TV. Since that night of isolation on the ocean he'd found it easier to rest with human voices in the room. He supposed he'd outgrow it, but for now anything would do. He slid down onto the pillows and gave into another yawn. Boat. Not very likely. It would be a long time before he got on anything more sea-worthy than the barge, which never went anywhere anyway.
He fell asleep to a game show about sheep, and dreamt of the YMCA pool where both Gary and Duncan told him he'd made them proud.