Immortal End Game
Closing the door to his office, Captain Simon Banks sighed before turning to face an irate Norman Ventriss and his two detectives. "Again, Mr. Ventriss, thank you for coming here so early in the morning--"
"Just get on with it, Captain." Ventriss snarled as he paced the small area in front of the man's desk. "I do not appreciate getting called in the middle of the night, telling me my offices have been broken into and I have to come up here to confirm some story the thief your people caught has concocted."
Megan spoke up before Ellison could, "Mr. Ventriss, that's just it. The suspect we have in custody claims you hired them to perform a security check. "
Ventriss didn't say anything, just scowled.
"Did you hire someone to do a security check?" Jim's voice was low as he ground out the question from behind clenched teeth.
"What the hell difference does that make, Ellison?"
"Answer my detective's question, Mr. Ventriss," Simon nearly shouted at the man.
The owner of QuestScape flushed a bright red before he spat out his answer. "Yes! I've been suspecting I've got a security problem, of the type WindHawk Securities is reportedly the best at locating and neutralizing."
"There, that wasn't so hard, now was it?" Jim gestured for Megan to take a seat, perching himself on the edge of the table and grinning feral-like, as Ventriss dropped to the couch beside Connor. "Now, maybe we can get on with the reason we asked you down here?"
Simon waved off Ellison's remarks, not caring for the look in his senior investigator's eyes. "Mr. Ventriss, I know you've been pulled in here, without so much as a by-your-leave, but I would think you'd be anxious to have this whole mess cleared up."
"I am! I just don't want to get railroaded into something that might not look so hot on my already tarnished public record. Thanks to this department."
Spotting the confused look on Connor's face, Simon made a mental note to get her a copy of the Ventriss case file, to bring her up to speed on the department's past run ins with the man, and his son. "That could've been avoided, you know."
"Right." Ventriss shot a look of hatred past the Captain and out into the bullpen. "Like Professor Sandburg out there wasn't behind everything that happened to Brad."
Pinching the bridge of his nose, Jim shook his head. "No, he wasn't. Brad was behind everything that happened to him and Suzanne Nadine. Blair was just the one who caught on to what was happening."
And made damn sure we caught on to what was going down as well. Should've heard the kid out before that bastard came after him with hired muscle and baseball bat, Simon thought.
"Oh? So I was just supposed to stand by and let my only child be railroaded?"
Simon sank into his office chair, dumbfounded by the man's attitude. "Look, Ventriss. You know your son had been stealing from your company and Complexium. That he had shot and killed the private investigator you had hired to look into the thefts. You know all that, and yet you sit there and still try to put the blame on someone else?"
"The only evidence your people were able to connect to Brad was regarding the murder. As for the rest?" Ventriss shrugged. "Let's just say I was willing to forgive and forget. I dropped the charges, remember?"
"I remember. I also seem to recall your team of lawyers cut a sweet little deal for you as well. And, after Brad died in jail, all the charges against you and Henry Nadine were dropped." Jim snorted disgustedly. "If I had my way, you would've been sitting in the same jail cell with your son. Instead, you walked out of here fourteen hours after your arrest for Aiding and Abetting..."
"Jim..." Simon's voice held a tinge of warning.
Ventriss rose to his feet, glaring at Ellison. "The jail cell my son was killed in, Detective? The same cell you and others of this department sent him to? The one where he was supposed to be 'safe' until his trial date? Is that your idea of justice!?"
"Better than what you got." Jim muttered under his breath. Simon heard him clearly, and, judging by their expressions, so did the others in the room.
"Ellison! Back off!" This time the Captain's voice rattled the windows of his office, as he reached out to stop Norman Ventriss from charging into his Detective, just as Connor made her move to restrain Ellison.
"Jim, this isn't the time or place for this..." Megan whispered quietly from her position between the two men. The expression on her face made it clear she didn't really understand what was behind their anger.
The silence following the bellowing shout of Simon Banks reigned supreme in the tight confines of the office, until Ventriss broke off his eye contact with Ellison and calmly asked, "May I see the woman in your custody? To make sure it is the same one I hired?"
"Of course. Connor? Take care of that will you?"
"Yes, Sir. Mr. Ventriss, if you'll come with me?" She led the businessman out of the Captain's office.
"Tell me, Inspector - was there a disc found in the thief's posses..." The door closed off the rest of the man's question to the woman escorting him out.
Jim moved as if to follow them, wondering aloud what the hell Ventriss was talking about and how the hell the man had jumped to the conclusion the 'subject' might have had anything on them when arrested.
"No, Ellison. Stay here." Simon waited until Ventriss and Megan had left his office before turning on Jim. "What the hell were you thinking?"
"He pisses me off, Simon! Seven months later and he's still trying to lay everything Brad did at Sandburg's doorstep." Jim cocked his head slightly to one side, and Simon knew he was tracking Ventriss and Megan through the bullpen.
"It pisses me off as well, Jim. But you cannot hound a businessman of that stature without facing some pretty serious consequences. Look, I know you don't like the 'political' game that was played there, Jim. But try to remember this; while that man is no longer the CEO of his own company, the company he built from the ground up, he is still the owner and President of QuestScape. And while I don't like it any better than you do, the charges against him were dropped by the PA and the Feds chose not to charge him either." Sighing, the Captain sat back in his chair. "Jim, this time Ventriss is a potential victim, or rather QuestScape is, and that means the PD - and that means you - have to step lightly here."
"Oh bullshit, Simon! He's no more a victim than you or I... Oh fuck!" Jim bolted from the room, passing Megan who had stopped at her desk to pick up the files on Lee Eolia, rushing to catch up to Ventriss who had continued his way to the interview rooms without her. Evidently his time spent in the same rooms, back in May, was what led him straight to the one their suspect was in. He caught up to the man just as he pushed his way into the room where Eolia was being held.
Keeping track of the passage of time, while shut off from the world, isn't easy. In fact, I'm no longer sure just how early in the morning it is but the day is starting to sap my reserves. The room is completely bare, except for the remains of the two cups of coffee and the sandwich I had earlier. The inactivity is really dragging me down. I can still feel the presence of Immortals in the area, which is not exactly conducive to relaxation, even if I know the buzzes I feel are most likely Diandra and Jan-Michel.
Leaning back in the chair, I stretch my arms above my head. The resulting release of tension in my upper back, accompanied with a quiet couple of 'pops' as the tendons let go, feels wonderful. Patting my hands over my hair, I realize my chignon is a complete mess and remove the two pins holding up the mass. It takes a while, but I manage to finger comb the tangles out and soon the tresses are in a little better shape, even if it is a trifle too long to really do anything with without benefit of a brush or a comb. Slipping the pins into my pocket, I decide to do something. Anything to relieve the tedium of waiting.
Rising to my feet, I step over to a corner of the room and begin to stretch, working out kinks which have built up in my muscles. I don't have much space to work in, and limit myself to a contained version of Tai Chi. The kata I've chosen usually takes me about thirty minutes to work through, and I sit on the floor when I'm done. I'm more awake now, but the recent events have me puzzled. How could I not have felt LaFollet's pre-Immortal state? And just what the hell is Sandburg? When we met earlier, last night actually, outside the Church, I know I at least split his lip, but when he showed up here, there was no evidence of the injury. And then there was that sense of…power I picked up from him when our hands touched.
Sitting in a lotus position, I slip easily into a meditative state, one which allows me to think clearly yet still be aware of my surroundings. I'll work on the puzzle that is Blair Sandburg later; right now I need to find out why I didn't detect Jan-Michel's status.
When the former Naval Security Specialist came to work for WindHawk Securities five years ago, I didn't have much contact with him. Azir usually handled the training of our operatives while I handled the Public Relations and setting up our contracts. Either or both of us could make the trips to the various corporations to set up the final deals. It was those trips which required us to take along a few so-called bodyguards. Not so much to be bodyguards, but to let them see the lay of the business we were contracting with, to get their take on the situation.
Rotating my head on my shoulders, trying to release more tension, I switch mental gears. Sandburg. Blair. Lobo. Chief. What is his story? When I ran into him, or rather, he ran into me, at Rainier the other day, he acted like a student. Told me he was when I confronted him in the alley behind the church! But then I see him here, at the station, wearing a laminated ID badge with the police crest on it. So what the hell is he? A student? A Watcher? Or something else?
And that tingle I felt when we inadvertently touched hands when he handed my coffee over to me, what in the heck was that? Is he a 'preemie?' An Immortal not yet born? And if not, how in the hell did his split lip heal so quickly?
Sandburg must be a future Immortal. Maybe that is why Diandra has taken him under her wing; to train him, to initiate him into the Game, to prepare him for his Immortality. But if that is the case, why is she sleeping with him? What does she get out of that? What does he get out of it for that matter? Okay, besides the obvious...
The click of the door opening draws me back from my musings and I look up to see Norman Ventriss storm into the room, with a harried Detective Ellison rushing in a few seconds later. I rise to my feet and face the two men.
"You shouldn't have barged in here!" Hmm, the Detective seems pissed. He should be, one normally does not let the victim of a crime come face to face with the perpetrator. Ellison takes a deep breath before asking, "Is this the woman you contracted with, Mr. Ventriss?" The words are civil enough, but I can hear the cold anger running like a deadly undertow beneath the surface.
"Yes, Detective. It is." Ventriss' words are clipped with barely contained anger himself. His eyes bore into mine. "Where is the disc, Ms. Eolia? My people can't find it anywhere and from what I gather, the illustrious crime scene technicians this lousy excuse for a PD hires haven't found it either."
I nearly scream in frustration, banging my hand against the wall. "I don't have it! I never even saw the damn thing!" I send my best "you really don't want to mess with me look" at the businessman. "Mr. Ventriss, I will tell you one thing I discovered last night."
"Oh? And what might that be?"
"Your security sucks. I've been in bathrooms that had better security measures." My voice is cold, but it's the truth. "As for your damn zip-drive, if I had it don't you think I would've turned it over to the police the moment I was arrested?" He blanches, but I'm not done yet. "I don't have it, I never had it and for your information there was someone else in that lab. A masked intruder who tried to kill me. He's the one that more than likely has your damn hardware!" As the last words leave my mouth, I realize I've taken several steps towards the owner of QuestScape and Detective Ellison let me. Why?
"Ms. Eolia... Lee, I believe you." The words don't come from Ventriss, but the detective. The soft voice startles me, upsetting the anger I had building, deflating it completely.
Rubbing my hand, I look up into the pale blue eyes and curtly nod my thanks. The snort issuing forth from Mr. Ventriss draws my attention back to him.
"Figures. You believe a perp, a probable thief, over me, Ellison. You're just about worthless, aren't you?" He spins on his heel and leaves the room.
I glance over at Ellison only to see his jaw is clenched and he's following Ventriss' movements with a granite hard gaze. "Detective?"
Those eyes of steel look at me and I step back a pace, and the gaze softens. "Sorry about that. Old history." He gestures for me to take a seat, which I do, and he leans on the table near me, his long legs stretching out. "Do you have any idea who might have taken the information from QuestScape? Or what it might have been?"
I shake my head. "No, I don't. I'm sorry. The contract called for a dummy prop, but Ventriss insisted it had to be real for his people to take the test seriously. I nearly walked out and nullified the contract when he made that suggestion."
He sighs as he gets back to his feet. "Okay, it was worth asking. Inspector Connor will be back in to talk to you in a little bit, to get your stuff back to you and to expedite your release."
"Thank you, Detective."
The most brilliant smile I've ever seen flashes at me. "Please, call me Jim."
I shiver when the detective-Jim--leaves the room. Not from cold, though the temperature is rather chilly, but from the promise I thought I detected behind those azure orbs. I mentally kick myself for even entertaining the idea anything could happen between this handsome mortal and myself. It's not fair to Azir, to me, or even Ellison. Oh, but the possibilities! I shudder once more, this time from excitement.
The door opens once again and this time it's the Aussie who walks in, carrying my backpack and a handful of papers. My jaw drops as I realize she's no longer limping. What in the hell is going on around here?
"Ms. Eolia, I've been persuaded not to press any charges against you for assault. Detective Ellison explained to me you were acting out of concern for your partner." The Inspector strides over to the table, placing papers and pack on the surface. "I have a few more questions to ask you before I can release you, hope you don't mind?"
Regaining my composure, I motion with my hand for her to continue, not trusting my voice just yet.
"Good. Now, tell me what you can about this thief you ran into at QuestScape?" The woman's questions are pretty much a rehashing of the information I already gave and I absently give the answers as I ponder over the enigma which has presented itself to me in the form of an Australian Inspector. I try to work past the buzz I know are Diandra and Jan-Michel, to ignore the faint one I've tagged as Sandburg, and I feel it. I'll need to find some excuse to touch her to make sure, but, I swear, Megan Connor is like Sandburg, a potential Immortal.
"I hate to ask this of you, but I called Seattle PD and asked them to fax the file on your husband's death..." Her next words are lost to me as the pain of losing Azir comes crashing into my mind, my breath catching in my throat as the tears start to flow. Then she's beside me, rubbing my shoulders, offering condolences and begging forgiveness for having brought up the subject. Even through the pain, the heartache, I sense her potential. But it's more like Sandburg's than what I've come to expect off of a 'preemie.' Weird. I'm losing my mind; I have to be.
"There, there, lass. I'm sorry. Forget I said anything. Let's get your paperwork over and done with and then your friend can take you back to your hotel. Okay?"
She hands me a clean tissue and I dry my tears, nodding meekly. "Thank you, Inspector. I don't know what came over me, I usually don't break down like that."
The melodic, quiet, laughter that spills forth from her is strangely reassuring. "Anyone who has been awake as long as you have been, is allowed to lose it."
"What do you mean? What time is it?"
"Almost six o'clock." The idea I experienced lost time bothers me, but then again, I tend to lose myself in meditation. She slides the stack of papers over to me, along with a black, ballpoint, pen. "You need to sign all of those where I've placed the markers. Press hard, you have to make sure your signature goes all the way through the carbons."
I glance over each paper as I come to it. The first one is an inventory of my backpack, the second one is a statement signed by a Captain Joel Taggart, which states I can pick up the blasting caps from Evidence -- if I can show a federal permit for them. Then there is the transcript of the first interview I had with Inspector Connor and the subsequent ones with Ellison and, finally, the hand written one that she just took. Handing the pen and the papers back to her, I settle back in the chair to wait.
After checking to see that I did, indeed, get through all the carbons, Connor hands me the backpack. "I believe that Sandy put your watch in the front pocket." Sandy? Who in the hell is that? Oh, wait a minute, there were three initials at the bottom of the inventory sheet,'S,BJ' -- probably a secretary or a clerk.
Opening the indicated pocket, I find my watch and slip it over my wrist, glancing at the time. It's now after six in the morning. Slipping the pack over my left shoulder, I hold out my hand to the woman. "Inspector, I'm really sorry I injured you earlier..."
"It's nothing. I've taken worse hits in practice." She cocks her head towards the door. "Let's get you out of here, shall we?"
I allow her to lead the way, and as we pass a door marked 'Ladies,' I realize I won't make it back to the Excelsior without making a pit stop first. "Inspector? May I?" I hook my thumb over my shoulder, indicating the door.
"Of course, I'll just go let Mr. LaFollet know where you've gone and have him meet you here by the elevators." With a swish of hair over cloth, she's gone, and I become aware of the tingle nestled in the base of my skull. Diandra. I slip through the door and face my one time savior.
"Not here." She is speaking in the ancient tongue of Greece as she turns on the sink in front of her and begins to wash her hands. "I know you have questions, but we don't have time. Call me once you and Jan-Michel have rested." She dries her hands and, reaching into the back pocket of her jeans, hands me a business card. "My home and cell number are on the back."
"Thank you." I answer in the same language. "Dorian, I've been thinking about what you said. For Jan's sake, I think I'll stick around a little longer."
"I need to start training him. Is there someplace in this city I can take him without raising too many questions?"
"I'll see if I can find one for you."
"Thanks." I look up into her eyes and brace myself to ask, "Lady Dorian, I hate to ask this... But I left one of my swords outside of QuestScape." Oh, shit. She's looking at me like a pissed off Teacher. "I know, I know. But I didn't have a choice at the time, not with the cops swarming the place."
"Large pine tree, east side of the building, about halfway up."
"I'll think about it." She gets a distant look in her eyes, and her head tilts ever so slightly to one side. "I'd better go. Call me." Reaching back to the sink, she shuts off the tap, and she's gone. I take care of business then walk back out to the hallway to find Jan-Michel LaFollet waiting for me.
"Let's go home, Jan-Michel."
Blair jerked awake as he felt the Wagoneer come to a stop and heard the engine being shut off. "Mmm, sorry I fell asleep, Dee. Are we home yet?" Opening his eyes, he peered out through the rain-spotted windshield. It was still dark out, but the sky was beginning to turn gray toward the east. Looked like another typical winter day in Cascade. A flash of lightening illuminated the area, and Blair could see they were in a parking lot, but definitely not at the loft. The crash of thunder that followed made him wince.
"Sorry, we're not home yet. I had to make a stop first." Unbuckling her seatbelt, Dee opened the car door, and Blair did the same.
"Where are we?"
"QuestScape," she replied over her shoulder as she slogged through the wet grass toward a slightly wooded area behind the building. "Lee asked me to retrieve her sword."
Blair followed, shivering in the wind and rain. "I wondered about that. I know she didn't have it on her when she was brought in. It wasn't in her stuff."
Reaching the trees, Dee began to gaze up into the branches. "There!" She stopped under a thick pine. "It's in this one."
"About fifteen feet up, embedded in a branch."
Crossing to stand under the tree, Blair looked up and spotted the wink of silver. "Give me a leg up?"
"I can get it, Lobo. I know how you are about heights."
Blair shook his head. "No, no, I'm cool. Jim makes me climb trees all the time."
Sighing, Dee cupped her hands and Blair stepped his foot into them. "One, two, three." On three, she tossed him upwards, and he caught hold of the closest branch, swinging for a moment before using the momentum to pull himself up.
Quickly climbing the rest of the way to the sword, he reached up to grab the hilt, and gave it a tug. It didn't budge. "Shit."
"What?" Dee called up to him.
"It's stuck." Repositioning his hand, he pulled again. Nothing. "Damn it."
"Lobo, be careful. Last thing we need is for you to be falling out of a tree."
"Yeah, yeah. I know what I'm doing." He moved to another branch then reached for the sword again, this time wrapping both hands around the hilt. Blair wiggled the blade back and forth, feeling it loosen. "Almost got it!" he cried, and then the sword pulled free. Overbalanced, Blair lost his footing on his perch and tumbled to the ground, smacking a few branches along the way before landing with a whump on his back on the wet earth, knocking the wind out of him.
"Goddess! Blair! Don't move!" Dee dropped to her knees next to him, taking the sword from him and laying it aside, then running her hands over him as he tried to draw in a breath. Satisfied nothing was broken, she helped him sit up, running her fingers down his spine. He hissed as he felt the burn of her healing gift go through him, repairing damaged tissue even before it had begun to bruise.
"Oh, fuck, that was stupid, wasn't it?"
She gave him a grin, then a kiss on the nose. "Yes, it was. Maybe next time you'll let me climb the tree?" She got to her feet.
"Most definitely." Grasping the hand she extended, he let her pull him to his feet. Picking up the sword, Blair noticed something wrapped around the blade. "Dee, what in the hell is this?"
Taking Lee's blade from him, she examined it. "Looks like some kind of wire, with weights on the ends. Reminds me of a bolo." She reached for one of the metal balls.
"Wait! We might be able to get prints off of that."
She looked at both balls closely then shook her head. "No prints." Unwinding the thin cable, she freed the sword. "Lia's going to be pissed. That wire left a couple nasty nicks in the edge."
Blair took the cable from her and looked it over. "What kind of weapon is this?"
Dee shrugged. "I don't know. We'll have to find a chance to ask Lia, or maybe there's something in the police report. But I'm not going to worry about it now. Come on, let's go home, jump in the shower, and then get some sleep."
Nodding his agreement, Blair slid his arm around her waist and they headed back to the car.
Any hopes I'd be able to return to the Excelsior, talk privately with Jan-Michel, and go to bed are immediately squashed when my new student and I step off the elevator onto the fifteenth floor. There, standing guard on my room, are Sharee Milton, her husband Clarence, and John David. A gesture from LaFollet silences their questions and I key open the door to my suite. Once the door closes behind young David, the questions fly.
How did you get out?
Why were you arrested?
Do you have any idea how worried we were when we couldn't find LaFollet?
Who compromised the security check?
I sigh as I shrug out of my coat, letting my backpack fall heavily to the floor, and sink into the couch. Answering the questions of my operatives takes the better part of an hour, and even then I'm only able to cut the Q ... A session short by reminding everyone just how long I had been awake and that Jan-Michel needs his rest, just like I do.
It's nearly eight in the morning, Saturday, when I finally shoo nearly everyone from my suite; only LaFollet stays behind. I wave him off to his adjoining room, staving off his questions until we both get some sleep, then I start to undress. What I need is a shower, a nice, long, hot one. I sit on the edge of my bed, intending only to relax for a moment...
I sit up so fast my head spins, my heart leaping into my chest and my throat tightening, closing off the scream threatening to spill forth. A blinding, nearly white, flash of light and another loud explosion sends me scrambling to my feet, my hands searching blindly for my weapons as yet a third shock wave rattles the room.
Sheepishly, I start to chuckle, belatedly realizing I'm not reliving the explosion at the World Trade Center. "It's just a damn thunderstorm, Eolia. Get a grip." I struggle to slow my racing heart as I talk to myself. "This isn't New York, it's not 1993, Azir's not trapped on the 28th floor, and you're not trapped in the elevator."
Taking in another deep breath, I realize I fell asleep, half dressed, on the bed without making it to the shower. Which, I now realize, I need more than ever as I feel the sweat of terror drying on my brow and body. Slipping out of my pants and underwear, I pad on bare feet to the bathroom where my tension is pounded away under massive amounts of hot water and sluiced down the drain with my heather scented soap. Wrapping the huge bath sheet around my body, I pad over to the closet and look at the few clothes hanging there.
"Damn, you need to go shopping, Eolia. You don't have enough here to get through Monday if you and Jan-Michel are going to hang around." Reaching into the closet, I pull out a pair of well-worn blue jeans, a light green, long sleeved Oxford shirt and my favorite dark, fatigue-colored sweater. It's just after three PM, and if I hurry, I can get the shopping done before the evening holiday shoppers hit the stores.
Once dressed, I tap lightly on the door connecting my suite to LaFollet's room and wait. He doesn't answer, so he's either still asleep or has stepped out on an errand. Grabbing up my thigh length brown leather jacket and my pocketbook, I head for the door and the elevators.
I shake my head in amused disbelief when I see John David has stationed himself in the lobby of the Excelsior, where he could see all the elevators, and I walk over to him as he rises to his feet. "David. Let me guess, LaFollet put you on Lee-Watch?" I smile as I look up into his light brown eyes that are about a foot above my own.
"Yes, Ma'am. I mean, no ma'am, I just, uh, happened to come down here to, uh, grab a paper and got caught up in the coverage of the incident from last night." I bite the inside of my cheek to keep from smiling, or laughing. The kid's a bad liar, and he knows it. He must, he's blushing, from the neckline of his dark gray turtleneck clear to the hair-line of his dark brown hair. "Damn, that didn't come out right."
Okay, now I chuckle. "No, it didn't. But it was a good effort. Where are LaFollet and the others, do you know?"
"Sharee and Clarence slept until about eleven or so, then told me they were heading over to QuestScape to turn in their resignations. Mr. LaFollet woke me up an couple of hours ago, told me I had the watch and he'd be back here by seventeen hundred; but I don't know where he went." I nod and start walking towards the front doors. Once there, I hand the valet my room key and the young woman leaves to retrieve my Lexus from wherever it was parked when Jan-Michel and I returned here this morning.
"Well then, David, it looks like you get to play tag-a-long while I go shopping in this nastiness."
"You heard me. You and the Miltons will be returning to Rochester on Monday while LaFollet and I stay on here a little while." The valet returns with the black SUV and after parking it under the awning, she holds open the driver's door for me. "Thank you." I shake her hand and slip her a ten-dollar bill as a tip.
John David is clearly uncomfortable as I drag him from Mall to Mall and a few shopping centers before I decide to brave the rain and go searching for the more upscale shops in out of the way places. Oh, the trip hasn't been wasted so far. I managed to find several new outfits and a nice, sturdy, long dagger to add to my collection. David must think I'm nuts for insisting on carrying the bag with that particular purchase in it into every shop I enter, setting off alarms in quite a few, until I show the security people the dagger, the sales receipt and let them hang onto it for me. Well, it was annoying, but it let me get my real blade past them without revealing its presence.
For being so close to the Christmas holiday, there aren't many people out shopping in this weather. Can't say I blame them, not after hearing the weather forecast: rain, with possible thunderstorms, turning to sleet later this evening and snow after midnight. I'm making a large purchase on my platinum American Express card, when my early warning system sends a shock up my spine. Immortal! Handing the credit slip back to the clerk, I grab the bag with the warm-up suits for Jan-Michel and myself and turn around, trying to locate the cause of my unease.
Damn, it could be any of the people I see milling about the casual wear section of the sporting goods shop. The young woman by the bowling shirts, the younger man across the way by the camping goods, the middle aged man by the all-weather gear... I can't pin it down. Seeing my 'bodyguard' is yawning, I decide to have pity on him and to get away from the unidentified Immortal who is bothering me.
"Okay, I'm all done, David. Well, almost. Remember that nice little tea shop we passed on the way here? I want to stop in there before heading back to the hotel."
"Okay. It's only a few blocks from here and we have to walk that way to get back to the car." He insists on carrying my bag for me, and we only stop once on our way to the tea shop - to pick up the dagger I had left with the store security people. As I have done all evening, I 'accidentally' carry the dagger through the metal detectors on my way out, cringe and apologize to the harried guards while David throws me an exasperated look. Poor kid, he is probably thinking after six such 'accidents' I should remember not to do that. If only he knew.
The rain has slowed to a heavy mist, but the lightning and thunder has picked up again, heralding more activity from the storm front that is slowly pushing into the area. David is leading the way, taking me through an alleyway that he swears is a short cut to the tea shop and the car, when the tingling buzz of an Immortal coincides with his grunt of pain as he falls to the ground.
"David!" I rush over to the fallen man, only to find blood pouring from a fatal wound to his heart. He's alive,though barely, and I reach into the bag he dropped to grab out a tee shirt to press against his chest.
"Surprise! We meet again." The chillingly familiar voice comes from the fire escape above me and I rise to my feet as I pull my sword. A young, light-haired man drops to the pavement in front of me. "Happy to see me?"
Damn, it's the thief from QuestScape, only I can't see his eyes behind the dark glasses he's wearing. Sunglasses after nightfall, for gods sake, what is the man thinking? "Not really."
I barely manage to dodge the bullet that is sent my way when he pulls a gun and not a sword from behind his back. This Immortal doesn't intend to fight fair, just like he didn't back in the lab. I start to run, blindly dodging more rounds pumping from the silencer equipped handgun, praying none of them hit me. I'm ducking behind a large trash bin when the report of a .45 caliber handgun splits the air along with a scream of rage. Peeking out around the bin, I see the rogue is down, apparently by David's hand, as I see my bodyguard's arm drop back to his side, gun in hand.
Knowing an Immortal can recover quickly, I decide to run again; I've got to lose him. He's nothing more than a headhunter, willing to do whatever it takes to get my head, up to and including unscrupulous methods of 'killing' before beheading his intended victim. Sheathing my sword as I run, I manage to clear the alleyway, seeing the tea shop across the street. Starting toward it, I collide with someone who grabs me and swings me away from the mouth of the alley. I scream.
A loud rumble of thunder woke Megan. She rolled over, pulling the covers over her head. She'd just gone to bed. It couldn't be time to get up yet. She lay there for a few minutes, listening to the sound of the rain against the windowpane, and the continuing roar of thunder.
The smell of brewing coffee tickled her nostrils. Who would be making coffee at her place? She couldn't remember bringing anyone home with her last night. She sat up with a groan, and, taking in her surroundings, realized she had crashed in Blair's room at Jim's loft. She rubbed her eyes. She'd been too tired to drive back to her place on the opposite side of Cascade, so she'd ridden home with Ellison, deciding to stay at his place rather than Dee's guest room to give the lovebirds some privacy. It was the start of the teachers' winter vacation, after all.
Yawning, she got to her feet and padded out to the kitchen after grabbing some clean clothes from the overnight bag she kept stashed at Dee's. She gave Jim a wave at his "Morning, Connor," and headed for the bathroom. Maybe a hot shower would wash the cobwebs from her mind. When she came back, dressed in track pants and a T-shirt, he handed her a cup of black coffee and pulled out a chair at the table for her. She took the offered seat, raising an eyebrow at him. "What's all this, Jim? Aren't Blair and Dee joining us?"
He walked back into the kitchen and returned with two plates heaped with bacon and scrambled eggs. "They've been up for a couple hours and are still going at it." He set a plate in front of her then sat at the end of the table.
Megan nearly spit her coffee over him. "They're what? Jim, I never realized you were such a voyeur."
The detective laughed. "I'm sorry. That's not what I meant. I meant they're still working out. They came over and grabbed some coffee earlier, said I was welcome to join them." He stuck a forkful of eggs in his mouth and shook his head. "Not on my day off, thanks. Besides, I get the crap kicked out of me enough on the job as it is. I'm beginning to think Sandburg's a closet masochist."
She giggled. "Oh come on, Jimbo, I'm sure there's a thing or two Diandra could teach you. Like how to keep hold of your gun." His only response was a glare. "She's been teaching me sword work. In fact, we were supposed to work together this morning."
"Well, go on over when you're done. Don't feel you have to stick around on my account." He took a sip from his coffee and opened a folder lying next to his plate.
Chewing a bite of toast, she was silent for a few moments then she became curious about what Jim was studying so intently. "What's that?"
He glanced up at her, blinking. "Hmm? Oh, this? Just the info from last night. I can't help feeling there was more going on than we were told, only I'm not sure who was lying, Ms. Eolia, or Ventriss."
"Did you read the bit from the Seattle PD? That certainly set off some bells for me, but I haven't had a chance to question Dee yet."
Jim flipped through the pages until he got to the Seattle info. "You think this is connected to the murder of her husband?"
"Um, no. Actually I was wondering if we aren't dealing with something a little out of our jurisdiction, so to speak." She leaned back in her chair, watching to see if he caught her drift.
"Are you thinking her husband, this Azir el Sadih, was Immortal?"
The woman shrugged. "I don't know. Beheading is not your usual murder method, though he was shot first. I was going to ask Dee if she knew him."
Jim skimmed the single page. "There's not really enough here to make a guess as to whether he was or not. We'd have to see the crime scene and autopsy reports to know for sure. And I'm not convinced there's a tie in to last night. This whole thing might be Ventriss trying to pull a fast one." Closing the folder, he said, "Say Ventriss is working on something top secret, something valuable, but it's not working out, and he has to answer to his stockholders. But then that something conveniently goes missing, and he can blame the loss on a thief and write it off, thereby never have to take responsibility for his screw-up."
"Sounds reasonable to me. Still, there are some things about last night that really bug me. According to the security guard, he locked off the elevators when the alarm went off, and headed up the stairs to investigate, meeting no one on the way. If Ms. Eolia didn't use the stairs to get out, how the hell did she get outside? Jump out the window? That's a four-story fall, Jim. Most people jumping out a four-story window just go 'splat,' they don't walk away and assault a police officer a few minutes later."
"Maybe she climbed down a tree. There are plenty in the area." He attacked his eggs again.
"What if she's Immortal? And her husband was too?" Megan leaned across the table eagerly.
Jim shrugged. "If she is, Diandra would know, and so would Sandburg. But even if they were, I don't see what bearing it would have on the case. Whoever the real thief was, if there even was one, their weapon of choice was a shotgun, not a sword. It's entirely possible there was nothing there to steal in the first place."
Megan went back to eating her breakfast, or rather brunch, judging by the time on the clock, but she still wasn't satisfied there was no Immortal activity involved. She was definitely going to ask Dee if she knew of Azir el Sadih.
Jim looked up from the sink full of dishwater as Blair entered the loft, Dee tagging along behind. Spying Megan with dishtowel in hand, she said, "Come on, Pajara. I've come to rescue you from this den of domesticity and take you away to a world where a woman is only as good as her skill with a blade."
The Aussie tossed the towel at Jim and headed for the door. "My savior! I thought you would never arrive!" Grinning, she followed the other woman out the door.
Blair wandered through the kitchen, opening the refrigerator and grabbing a bottle of water. Twisting the cap off, he downed about half the bottle in one long swallow, then grabbed the dishtowel from its landing place on Jim's shoulder and wiped his face off. "Man, am I going to hurt tomorrow. But I feel great now. Endorphin rush," he explained.
The sentinel looked his partner up and down, taking in the damp patches on his tank top, and the sheen of sweat covering his bare arms. When in the hell had Sandburg developed biceps? For that matter, when had the rest of him gotten so…buff was the only word Jim could come up with. He realized he rarely saw the grad student with anything less than three layers of shirts. The night before didn't count, as Jim was so embarrassed to have interrupted the lovers that he had been looking anywhere but at his naked guide. Not that Sandburg's physical condition really mattered, it was just surprising Jim had missed the change. He wondered what other things he might have missed. He shook himself as he realized Blair was speaking to him.
"So, Jim, have you and Megan been getting along?"
"Hmm, yeah, just fine. We were discussing last night's robbery." He frowned slightly as he heard his guide's heart rate jump. "Sorry, Chief, I know that scene with Ventriss upset you. I should have warned you we asked him to come in."
Blair shook his head, the wisps of hair that had escaped from his ponytail during his workout flying. "No, no, it's okay, man. It just startled me, that's all. I didn't ever expect to see him again, you know, and that wasn't really the reaction I was expecting, though I can understand it."
"Brad's death wasn't your fault."
Leaning against the counter, Blair gave his partner a grin. "I know. Dee told me the same thing last night. I'm cool."
Jim eyed him, looking for any sign his partner was uncomfortable with the situation. He found none. "You know, as long as you have that dish towel, you might put it to good use."
"Sure, man." Picking a plate out of the dish drainer, he began to dry it.
Jim approached his next question in a roundabout way. "Are you okay enough with the Ventriss angle to help me out with this case?"
"Of course I am. What, you think I'm going to lose my cool?"
Jim gave his friend a wide grin. "It's been known to happen." Blair bumped shoulders with him, jostling him away from the sink. "I'm kidding, I'm kidding. Go take a look at the case file; it's on the table."
Blair threw the towel at him, smacking Jim in the back of the head. He ignored the sentinel's grumbles about inconsiderate and ungrateful guides and companions, and got his glasses from his room before sitting down and opening the file. Twenty minutes later he looked over at Jim, who, having finished the dishes, had moved to the couch, and was now flipping through the TV channels with the sound off.
"Okay, I read it. Now what?"
Jim grunted, but didn't look up, then casually asked, "Did you read the report from Seattle?"
"Yeah, and I'm confused. What does her husband's murder got to do with anything?"
"I'm not sure, but the murder method got my interest. What do you think?" He still hadn't turned around to look at Blair, but he heard his heart rate pick up once again.
"You're thinking this el Sadih guy was Immortal, aren't you?"
"It's a possibility. I thought maybe you might know if he was or not. Or you could find out."
Sighing, Blair rose and crossed the room to drop on the sofa next to Jim. "I can't do that, man. You know that."
Ellison clicked the TV off and turned slightly to face his guide. "Why not?"
Reaching up, Blair pulled the tie out of his hair then combed his fingers through the sweat-dampened strands. "Because I took an oath, Jim, an oath to observe, record, and protect the secret of Immortals' existence. You're not a Watcher. I am. I can't tell you anything, even if I knew anything. Which I don't, and I have no intention of trying to find anything out."
"Sandburg--" the sentinel growled.
"No. The answer is no. Look, Jim, how much trust would you have in me if I told every guy who asked about your senses? That's right, none. I'm not going to betray the trust the Watchers, and by extension, Immortals, have in me. Besides, there's nothing in that file to indicate Lee Eolia's husband's death had anything to do with the robbery, or should I say incident, last night. We really don't know if there was a robbery or not. We only have Ventriss' word anything was stolen. And there's enough crime in Cascade that you don't need to be doing the Seattle PD's work, too. Let them find his killer. " Blair got to his feet. "I'm going to take a shower."
"But, Chief--"Jim began.
"No. I'm not going to compromise my principles just to satisfy your morbid curiosity. This conversation is over; do not ask me again."
The sentinel stared after his guide as he stalked into the bathroom. For a moment, he was irritated, almost angry, at Blair. Then he smiled. He'd always known Blair was a man of integrity; he shouldn't have expected him to betray his promise, even for Jim.
"And again!" Dee's voice echoed in the open space of the studio.
Megan brought the practice katana up and began the pattern again, steel ringing against steel as Diandra's blade parried each stroke. She had been looking forward to learning the art of the Japanese sword from the Immortal, but now she wasn't so sure. She had taken a couple of fencing courses at university in Sydney, and had gotten pretty good with a saber. But that had not really prepared her for the long, heavy, two-handed blade that was the katana. Her shoulders ached from the effort to simply hold the sword aloft, let alone move it through the complex pattern Dee had shown her. The heavy padding she was wearing wasn't helping any either. She understood the reason behind it, as well as the facemask. She wasn't immortal, and even a practice blade without an edge could do serious damage, but she was hot and tired, and sweat was running into her eyes. She brought the sword down and to the left in the last pass of the series, then bent over, breathing heavily, resting her hands on her knees.
Dee must have taken pity on her, because she said, "I think that's enough for today."
Letting out a sigh of relief, Megan hung the blade on its cradle on the wall then sank to the floor, tugging the mask off. "Thank god! I'm all done in." Loosening the snaps on the padded jacket, she slid it off and laid it on the floor beside her.
Dee put her own sword up then dropped to the bench behind her companion. "Scoot back a little," she told her.
"Hmm, okay." Megan did as she was told, and felt Dee's strong fingers begin to massage her aching muscles. "Oh, that's good, that's great."
"Thought you might like that. Still determined to learn to use the katana?" She dug in a little deeper, and the other woman grunted softly in response.
"Ugh, yeah, I wanna learn. Keeping you safe is part of my duties as a companion, isn't it? And you need to keep your sword skills sharp, so you need a sparring partner. Of course, I don't know if a novice partner is going to do you any good."
Dee's hands moved up to her friend's neck. "Sure it is. You're getting the hang of it, and teaching keeps me from getting sloppy. If I'm reminding you to use proper form, I'm reminding myself as well."
There was silence between them for a few moments then Megan broached the subject of Azir el Sadih. "Got a question for you, kind of related to the incident last night."
"Yeah. Have you ever heard the name Azir el Sadih?" Was it just her imagination, or did Dee's fingers tighten just a fraction on her shoulders? "He was our suspect's husband. He was killed a couple months ago in Seattle. Beheaded."
Dee gave a little laugh. "And you think he was immortal? I don't know every one of us, you know, but…Sadih, Sadih. It sounds kind of familiar. I met a Sadih once, quite a number of years ago. And yes, he was immortal."
"Do you know a Lee Eolia? She's our suspect, Sadih's widow."
The Amazon shook her head. "No, I don't think so. Of course we do change our identities quite often. But the Sadih I met wasn't married." At Megan's sigh, she said, "Sorry, I know that's not much help."
Megan sighed again then got to her feet. "No, it's not. But I guess it doesn't make much difference one way or another. I was just curious." She stretched her arms over her head. "I think I need a another shower if we're still going shopping."
Dee sniffed. "Yeah, shower would be good for both of us. Meet you in the hallway in thirty minutes?"
"Okay, I'll let the guys know we'll be ready to go shortly." Megan headed back across the corridor to Jim's loft, belatedly realizing Dee had deftly avoided answering the implied question of whether Eolia was immortal or not.
"Easy, easy. You're okay, I'm a cop."
Oh, gods! I look up to see the face of the man who's holding me. "Ellison!"
"Lee?" He stares at me, then his focus changes back to the alley. "What the hell is going on? I heard a gunshot."
I begin to tremble, my answer coming out in small, shaky, gasps. "Someone tried to kill me. Shot at me from above. Oh, gods, I think David is dead."
"David?" He pushes me against the wall, under a storefront overhang. "Stay here. Help's on the way." And he disappears down the alley.
I stand there for a few seconds, no more than a minute, before I'm following Ellison-Jim--not because I want to confront the other Immortal, but because I left a man down. Stepping back into the alley, I start to shiver; the rain is back, and starting to mix with sleet. I find the detective, kneeling next to young David, holding the soaked and bloody tee shirt against the wound. The bags which had been dropped are scattered all over the street.
"PALLAS!!" The yell ripped from the man's throat startles me. Why is he calling for Diandra? The sound of running feet from behind me draws my attention away from the detective. Turning, I see Diandra, the young Watcher, and the Australian Inspector entering the alley at a dead run.
Sandburg and Connor come to a halt beside me, while Diandra rushes past me to drop next to David and Ellison. "Goddess! I'm not sure I can help, Ellison..."
"You've got to try!" He stands up and looks back towards me. "Chief, call this in. I'm going to try to track the attacker. Looks like our victim may have winged him." Okay, it wasn't me he was looking at.
"On it! Yeah, this is Blair Sandburg; I'm with Detective Ellison and Inspector Connor in the alley off of Government between Hickson and Balder. We need an ambulance and backup..." I tune out the rest of his conversation as the tingling in my spine increases.
I look towards Diandra, the Dorian, and the feeling grows stronger. It feels like the times I've been close to where a Quickening was taking place, but she's very much alive. Gods ... Goddesses! What is she doing?
She's kneeling beside John, her hands placed directly over the hole in his chest. I can see the glow building around her hands and the crackle of Quickening teases my senses. Connor steps over to her side and places her hands on Diandra's shoulders, as if to provide an anchor or to hold my one time Savior steady. Sandburg has completed his call and touches me on the elbow.
"Help is on the way." His denim blue eyes are locked on the two women, his voice low as he calls out to them.
Time seems suspended. I have no idea what Diandra is doing, or how she's doing it, but I get the impression she is all that stands between John and Hades.
Pallas sinks back on her heels, her hands dropping to her lap, her voice weak as she shakes her head. "Pajara?"
"Right here, Dee." Connor squats down beside the other woman and reaches out to check for a pulse on David. She's stopped by Diandra.
"I couldn't save him, the damage was too extensive."
I'm left alone as Sandburg rushes over to his lover's side and helps her to her feet, pulling her into a hug. He is nearly dragged to the ground when the Oracle's legs give out from under her. "Whoa, Dee. I've got you." Connor actually helps lower both to the soaked pavement, Diandra ending up in Sandburg's lap. Then the inspector pulls her weapon free of a holster under her coat.
"I'm going to see if I can catch up with Jim." She turns to face me. "Stay here, Ms. Eolia." And in a flash of russet colors I'm alone with the Watcher, his Immortal and my dead bodyguard.
Stepping closer to the lovers, I hear them whispering to each other. "We have to tell her something, Lobo. And what about Jim? We're not supposed to know her, remember?"
"I know, angel, I know. This is becoming one hell of a mess..."
"Lia?" Her soft voice, full of concern, draws me to her side and I crouch beside her.
"I'm sorry, I tried, but I couldn't save your friend."
I take the hand she stretches out towards me, clasping the warm flesh between my chilled hands. "What did you do? I saw the Quickening, felt it, but I don't understand." I look up at the Watcher and the next question falls from my lips before I can stop it, "And what are you doing hanging around with Sandburg, Ellison and Connor?"
"We're all friends, Eolia." It's Sandburg who answers that last question, but the expression on his face makes me think the term friends doesn't cover the half of it.
Diandra chuckles, almost too softly to hear, and she squeezes my hand to regain my attention. "I can tell you have a lot of questions running around in that head of yours, don't you?" I nod, once again not trusting my voice. "I'll answer them, later. As much as I like being in your lap, Lobo, company's coming and we need to move."
I stand up and extend my arms for Diandra to grasp, then gently pull her to her feet, turning to help the Watcher only to find him already standing by her side. The sound of sirens shatters the silence of the soggy night, and soon the alleyway is overrun with medical and police personnel who have responded to the call.
In short order I find myself giving my statement, while seated in the back of the ambulance, to a nice looking, well dressed, dark-haired detective with a slight Afrikaan accent. The paramedics were nice enough to let us use the treatment bay, explaining it was a slow night and they had to wait for the coroner's van anyway. I'm just grateful to be out of the cold rain.
"That should just about cover it, Ms. Eolia. I'm sorry for your loss." He crouches over and jumps down out of the ambulance. I follow his example, only to hear him call out to someone as I make the small hop downward. "Jim! Megan! Any luck?"
"No." Oh, my. Ellison sounds pissed. Was that actually a growl?
"Never mind him, Rafe. We lost the trail about three blocks from here. Rain obliterated the tracks."
"Damn." I step around the medic unit, hugging my rain soaked leather jacket closer to my body. The young detective, Rafe, hears the squishy squeak of my jacket and nods towards me while explaining to Connor and Ellison, "I took the witness's statement. She didn't get a good look at the assailant, other than to describe him as," he looks at his notes in the light cast off by the street lamps and the emergency vehicles, "Early to mid twenties, light brown or dark blond hair, about five foot eight to five foot ten inches tall. Slender. Last seen wearing sunglasses, black trenchcoat, dark pants and some kind of boots."
"Not enough for a composite sketch then."
"I doubt it, Megan."
"Where are Sandburg and his lady friend?" Oh yeah, that qualifies as a growl.
"Over there, by the DB. Odd for Sandburg, but his girlfriend seemed a little out of it and refused to leave the body unattended."
"And the witness? Ms. Lee Eolia, right?"
Rafe looked surprised Ellison knew my name. Must not have paid attention in briefing, or he would've known I spent most of last night and early morning in their interview room.
"I'm right here, Detective Ellison." His expression is sad as he walks over to me.
"Sorry about your bodyguard, Lee." He wraps one arm over my shoulders and draws me away from the others, "This makes two of your people who have been attacked in the last two days. I'm starting to think there is more to you and your story than you've told me."
"I... I don't know what you mean."
"That's okay. You're still in shock." He's guided me towards where the Watcher and Diandra are waiting. The sheet covering John David is soaked with rain and blood and I flinch away from the sight.
"Everything okay here, Chief?"
"Yeah, Dee's just catching her breath. Kind of a shock to the system, losing someone whose life was entrusted to you."
"I know, Chief. I know. Lee?" I look up at him, my eyes still avoiding the body lying on the ground. "This is Dr. Diandra Pallas."
I nod to my old friend in greeting, never letting on I already know her.
Ellison gestures to the young man by Diandra's side. "And this is my partner, Blair Sandburg. I think you've met already?" I bob my head, agreeing with him. "If you don't mind, we, along with Inspector Connor, will see you get back to your hotel."
His partner? I thought that... Damn! More questions, just what I needed! My hands start to shake where they grip my jacket. "I appreciate your concern, Detective..."
"Hey, I thought we had an agreement? Jim, remember?"
"Jim. Look, I'm fine. Really. I can make my way back to the Excelsior on my own, if my car hasn't been towed off."
"Ms. Eolia, Jim's right. You've had a nasty shock this evening. Let us take you home and make sure you're okay." I see the way things work between Sandburg and Ellison; one goes for the no-nonsense approach and the other comes in behind that and hits you with a bucket full of sincere concern. Nodding my acquiescence, I agree.
"Good. Chief? You, Dee and Connor follow us. Lee? Let's get your car and get out of here."
"What about my packages?" Okay, it's petty, but I don't want to lose that dagger. Damn, I can't get my hands to stop shaking.
"The forensic techs will have to check them over for possible evidence. If there's nothing there, I should be able to get them back to you by Monday."
I lead the way to where John had parked the car earlier, only to see that somehow -- a joke by the Fates I'm sure -- the Jeep Wagoneer I know belongs to Diandra is parked right behind my Lexus. I move to climb into the driver's side, but Ellison stops me, holds his hand out for the keys, which I give him, then escorts me around to the passenger side.
The drive back to the Excelsior is quiet and the shakes that started in my hands back at the alleyway, increase tenfold as they spread through my body. Not even the heat, blowing out of the vents like the dry wind of the Sahara in summer, can warm me. I'm barely conscious of arriving at the hotel, getting out of the car, or of leaning on Jim as we walk towards the elevators.
"Lee? What floor?"
My teeth are chattering together, making it very difficult to speak. "Ff, ffif, ffifteenthtth."
"Fifteenth, got it."
By the time we arrive on the floor, I've managed to dig my room key out of my back pocket, only to drop it from nerveless fingers. He bends over and scoops up the key, somehow without letting me fall to the floor, as he's all that is holding me up at this point, and guides me to the room. The electronic code key opens the lock on the suite and he's leading me over towards the couch.
"Nnno. Bbbath. Cccollldd."
"Right." He's familiar with the layout of the suite, that's obvious as he helps me towards the bedroom and then the bath, where he helps me to sit on the edge of the tub. "Stay put. I'll be right back." He's gone. I reach over and start the hot water running, carefully slipping out of my soggy jacket. I feel the electric current that warns me of an approaching Immortal, but I'm too weary to care.
But it's Diandra who appears in the doorway, Azir's white robe draped over her arm, and a worried expression on her face. "Oh, dear. Let's get you cleaned up, shall we?" She places the robe on a hook then pokes her head back out the door. "Lobo! Call down to Room service, have them send up hot tea and a bottle of their best brandy!"
"Anything I can do to help, Dee?"
"Yes, Pajara. We need to get her out of these wet clothes and warmed up, or she'll go hypothermic on us."
Under the careful hands of Diandra and Inspector Connor, I allow myself to sink into a lassitude and lose my battle to stay awake. I'm rudely awakened by the sting of hot water enveloping my body.
"Shush, Lee. It's okay. Trust me."
"Dorian, I'm sorry, I couldn't let him get away with it. I know I desecrated the Temple..."
"What is she saying? Dee? Did you understand any of that?"
"It's Greek. Do me a favor, Pajara. Go see if the tea and brandy have arrived and bring me some, will you?"
"Lia, Lia. Wake up! Damn, girl, don't you dare do this to me." She's talking to me, my Savior, whispering in the old tongue, begging me to hang on. But I can't. My heart is slowing, my breathing becoming labored, and I can feel this life slipping away from me. I take a few breaths, rapid, shallow ones then let the pain and darkness claim me.
With a gasp of pain, I awaken to find myself out of the tub, on the floor in Diandra's arms and wrapped in Azir's cotton robe. "Gods, that hurts!"
"Welcome back, Lia." She's pressing a warm mug into my hands. "Here, drink up. Feeling better now?" Helping me to hold the sturdy mug, she reaches past my shoulders to turn the faucet in the tub on again. "Forgot to rinse your hair." Strange, my hair doesn't feel the least bit soapy, and she's not making any move to get me back into the tub or to rinse my hair. What is she up to?
I sip the hot amber liquid, and start to cough as the fumes of the heated brandy slam into my sinuses and down into my lungs. The fit over, I carefully sip again, grateful for the warmth spreading through me. "What happened, Dee?" Only then do I realize her Watcher is in the large bathroom with us. Damn, did he see me die, help Diandra get me out of the water? Before the Oracle can answer my question, he's gone, softly closing the door behind him.
"Heart attack. The shock from being overly cold, then immersed into the hot water, killed you." She quirks a smile at me. "But at least you're back with us. Let's get up off the floor and get you dressed."
Reviving from death, for us Immortals, is kind of like having the batteries recharged. After the initial shock of waking up, we can usually function much better and are right back at peak condition. Handy little trick. Just in case someone was listening to our conversation, I lean over the side of the tub and hold my head under the stream of water flowing from the tap, then shut it off. After drying my hair, I opt not to change out of Azir's robe and stop at the trunk to find the matching belt then I follow her out to the living area, where Connor and the men are waiting. Ellison sees me first and rises to his feet, Sandburg right behind him.
"Lee, you look better."
"Thanks, I think, Jim." I'm still holding the tea mug Dee had pressed on me earlier and, spying the tea service on the sideboard, wander over to refill it, with just tea. The robe trails on the carpet behind me, threatening to trip me if I step wrong and snag the hem with my toes.
"I tried to contact LaFollet while Pallas was helping you, but I couldn't raise him at the number he gave me."
I sigh and drop my chin to my chest. Ellison's question reminds me I haven't heard from my Watcher as well. "David told me he had seen Jan-Michel leave the hotel around one o'clock. He was supposed to have returned by five..."
"Do you know where he might have gone?"
I shake my head, watching out of the corner of my eye as Diandra takes a seat on the couch between Connor and Sandburg. What is her deal? She's his lover, but she called the inspector by a pet name that, if I recall correctly, means 'beloved.' "No, I'm sorry, I don't. Let me call the front desk, see if he's left any messages."
The phone call was quick. LaFollet had indeed called and left a message around five-thirty. He was checking with a few people he knew over at the Department of Defense, and he'd be late, very late getting back to the hotel. I relay the message to Ellison and the others.
"Bloody bugger. He's investigating on his own, isn't he?"
"Looks that way. Inspector, you have to understand LaFollet - he's loyal, very loyal to the company, and to me. I'm sure he doesn't mean to slight Cascade PD, but he's chasing down leads you might not have access to." I walk over to the love seat facing the couch and sink into the deep cushions, pulling my legs up under the long robe and tucking it under my knees. Jim, who had been pacing the floor like a pissed off cat, gingerly sits on the other end of the love seat.
"Why the DOD?" He asks.
I shrug then reach up to pull the robe back onto my shoulder. "Most of the companies we contract with are ones with major defense contracts. I don't know, for sure, if that is the case with QuestScape, but it is a possibility and I'm sure Jan is just covering all the bets before the trail grows cold."
Before any of my guests can raise another question, there is a sharp knock on the door and I rise to answer it, only to have Jim beat me there. He gestures for me to stand back, away from the direct line of sight when the door opens, and pulls his sidearm from the holster on the back of his belt. The small, high pitched, squeal of shock that echoes through the door when he yanks it open, is all I need to hear.
"Sharee! Clarence! Ellison, back off! They're part of my team!"
Within seconds I'm enfolded in two sets of arms as the Miltons greet me. Then Clarence pulls back and looks at the others in the room. "Aww, damn it, Lee. Went and got into more trouble without inviting Sharee and me again, didn't you?"
"It's worse than that, C. David is dead."
"Damn." The big Native American looks like he's going to cry. It had been his idea to bring David into the company and to bring him on this trip, his first assignment outside the corporate office area, as part of his training. It takes me a while to get the whole story out, with only a few interruptions by Ellison and the others, but finally, I'm able to send the husband and wife off to their room to grieve in private. My throat is tight with unshed tears of my own, and I add a splash of hot tea to the mug I'd forgotten and try to wash the pain away.
"Well, that tears it. I'm definitely ready to call it a night." Inspector Connor gets to her feet, Diandra and Blair rising also.
"Megan's right. It's late and we really should be going."
"I'm going to stay."
I nearly drop the mug in my hand as the words leave Ellison's mouth. "No, I'll be fine--"
"No argument, Lee. There have been two attempts on your life, your primary bodyguard is MIA, and your backups are not emotionally ready to handle anything tonight. So unless you want to spend the night in a safe house, I'm staying." Those ice blue eyes, flashing with determination, soften as he continues in a much milder voice. "At least until LaFollet gets back. Okay?"
"Jim? Can I speak with you out in the hall before I take Dee and Megan home?" Oh, Sandburg isn't happy about leaving his partner here, alone, with me. The four of them step out into the hall, Diandra flashes me a look I remember well from our time together at Delphi. I'm to behave myself. Like I'm in the mood to even contemplate doing anything after seeing my youngest bodyguard cut down.
While they are having their little conference, I realize I'm starved and the liquor I've consumed is starting to make me a little dizzy, so I place a call down to room service and ask that they send up a couple of porter house steaks, medium, with all the trimmings. I'm taking the chance that Ellison, no - Jim, hasn't eaten and he looks like a meat and potatoes kind of man to me, but just in case, I tell the staff to hold off on cooking the meals until they hear back from me.
The poor worker that took my order explained they were just about to close down the kitchen, but I manage to sweet talk him into filling my order. Well, the promise of a 30% tip for the staff that helps me out may have aided my cause. I'd just hung up the phone when Jim walks back into the room. He still had my key on him. "Everything okay, Jim?"
"Yeah. Sandburg's going to make sure Diandra and Megan get home then he's going home himself. I'm to call him for a ride when LaFollet shows up."
"He's rather protective of you, isn't he?" For some reason, my words make him chuckle.
"You could say that. Are you hungry?"
"I could eat."
"Good. I took liberty and called for a meal to be sent up for us both, I hope you don't mind?"
"Nah. I'll eat anything right now, including witchety grubs."
"Sorry, I don't think they have those in stock."
"Cute. I'll be right back." He disappears into the bedroom, heading for the bathroom and I call room services back, telling them to go ahead with the order and to add a large pitcher of ice tea and a pot of hot tea to the order. Some gut instinct tells me it's going to be a long night. And I still have yet to ask Diandra if she was able to find some way to retrieve my sword, my lousy backup sword, from the tree outside of QuestScape.
Within moments, Jim has returned to the living area as I'm pouring the last of the plain tea into my mug, a puzzled expression on his face. "Jim?"
Pointing with his thumb over his shoulder towards the bedroom, he says, "I noticed a connecting door back there, it wasn't locked."
"No, it wasn't. LaFollet has the room on the other side, I didn't want to miss his return so I left it open," I try to explain as I sit once again on the sofa I'd sat in earlier.
He takes a seat on the couch across the low table from me. "Is that a normal procedure for you both? Are the two of you close?" He snaps his mouth closed so fast I hear his teeth click and there's a light blush rising on his expressive face. "Sorry, I shouldn't have asked that."
"Jim, it's all right. I understand." I drain the last of the tea from the mug and carefully balance it on my knee. "Jan-Michel's became a little over protective of me in the last few months..."
His voice is soft, those azure orbs full of concern as he gently interrupts me, "You mean, since your husband died?"
Biting my lower lip, averting my gaze from his, I nod. "Yes."
"I'm sure the incident from Friday night didn't lessen that protective streak, but why did he leave you here with only one bodyguard to watch your back?"
I sigh, wondering that myself. Getting in touch with people he knows from the Department of Defense makes sense to me, but he knew John David wasn't as fully trained as the Miltons, yet he left anyway. A part of me wonders if he was actually off somewhere, filing a report with the Watchers as well as tracking down leads. "I don't think he expected me to recover from this morning as fast as I did. He was gone when I woke up. He probably thought I'd stay here, in the hotel, until he got back."
The regrets over having not done what LaFollet obviously expected; the price the man he left in charge of my care paid, well up in my heart, bringing tears to my eyes. I close them, trying to stifle the sobs, but it's a lost battle. The weight of the mug disappears from my knee, the cushion beside me dips downward and I find myself pulled into a reassuring embrace. I shift slightly and bury my head against a broad shoulder.
No words are spoken; we just sit there. Me quietly bawling, Jim holding me, his strong right arm draped around my back, rubbing his hand up and down my right arm. It's comforting, being held like this.
The knock on the door startles us both and Jim jumps to his feet, his hand already moving towards the gun holstered in the small of his back. At his hand signal, I quickly pad off towards the bedroom while he goes to answer the door.
I glance around the bedroom and seeing the hilt of Azir's sword peeking out from under the dark green comforter, I hurry over to pull it out then slide it under the left side of the huge bed. That done, I reach into the bedside table and pull out the holster and gun I placed there when I first arrived here. Silently shutting the drawer, I'm laying the weapon on the bed when Jim walks in.
"You have a gun?" He boldly strides over to me and holds out his hand. I hand over the item in question. I watch as he examines it, going over it like a pro, which he is. "A Lady Smith? I hope to hell you were going to tell me about this and you have a permit to carry it?" After 'safeing' the gun, pulling it free of the holster and popping the cylinder free of the frame, he hands it back to me.
"I was going to tell you and, don't worry, I do have a permit for it." I carefully close the cylinder, slip the .38 back into it's holster and place it on the bedside stand.
"Show it to me later, dinner's arrived."
"Jim? Can I speak with you out in the hall before I take Dee and Megan home?" Blair raised an expressive eyebrow at his partner, then followed the women into the hallway.
Dee brushed her fingers against his, and he gave her hand a squeeze. "Megan and I'll meet you downstairs by the Jeep, okay? I don't think you need an audience."
"Yeah, that's fine." He watched them get on the elevator, then leaned against the wall as Jim exited the suite, closing the door behind him.
"What's up, Chief?"
"I think that's my question, Jim. What's up with you? Do you think this is a wise decision you're making here? You don't know anything about her, about who's after her. I can understand you wanting to protect her, that's your nature, man, but you have no idea what you're getting involved with."
Jim did a double take, looking surprised by the vehement reaction of his guide. "And you do?"
"I know you're planning on spending the night with Lee, without backup. Whoever's after her is pretty determined; they didn't have any qualms about shooting her bodyguard, they probably won't think twice about shooting you. I don't like it."
"Sandburg, calm down. We'll be just fine. I'm just going to stay until LaFollet gets here, then I'll head home. Nothing is going to happen."
Blair muttered something under his breath, knowing full well the sentinel would hear..
"What do you mean 'yeah, right'?"
Sighing, Blair met his friend's eyes. "Jim, you know you and redheads don't mix. Besides, Lee just lost her husband. She's probably pretty fragile right now. I…I just don't want you getting hurt." God, that had been a lousy speech. But he couldn't tell Jim the truth, that she was an Immortal with a suicide wish.
"Chief, I appreciate your concern, but I think I'm old enough to know what I'm doing. And I have no intentions of taking advantage of Ms. Eolia. I'm here to protect her, that's all. Now run along before Dee comes up here and hauls your butt home."
"Okay, Jim, but you'll call me to come get you, right?"
"Right." Jim re-entered the hotel room, and Blair walked toward the elevators, shaking his head. Maybe he could get Dee to talk to Eolia. He had the feeling Jim and Lee together were going to be bad news for everyone.
Blair felt Dee stir in the bed, rolling onto her side next to him, her hand coming to rest on his chest. "What's the matter, baby? Can't sleep?"
He shook his head with an irritated sigh. "Sorry I'm keeping you awake. I'm just worried about Jim. He hasn't called yet."
"Jim's a big boy, Lobo." Her fingertips began to trace soothingly over his skin. "Though I admit his being with Lia is not the most ideal situation, not unless she wants him to find out what she really is."
"I'm afraid he's going to end up getting hurt. If not by whoever's after Lee, then by Lee herself. I know Jim, I know he's attracted to her. What if she returns those feelings? What happens then? I don't know if he could deal with being in love with an immortal. It would go against everything in his nature to stand back and not interfere in a challenge." He turned his head to peer into her eyes. The love and concern he saw there sent a shiver through him.
Her hand cupped his cheek, her thumb rubbing lightly over his lower lip. "Does being in love with me hurt you?"
"No, oh no, angel. You're about the best thing that ever happened to me. Being in love with you scares me sometimes, but I wouldn't give it up, not for anything."
She leaned forward, kissing him tenderly. "Then don't you think you owe Jim the opportunity to find this kind of happiness? He's the only one who can say whether or not he can deal with a relationship with one of us."
Blair rolled toward her, pulling her into his arms. "I know you're right, but still, I worry about him."
She snuggled closer, kissing his cheek. "I don't think anything's going to happen to him tonight. So why don't you close your eyes, and try to get some rest. It's been a long couple of days."
He did as she asked, leaning his head against her shoulder. Blair was silent a few minutes then said, "Thanks."
"Hmm, what for?" She nuzzled his hair.
"For just being a part of my life, for loving me, for listening to me. It's just…nice to have someone I can talk to about Jim, who will understand."
"Well, you're welcome then."
He was still for a couple moments then said, "I never asked you, are you okay?"
"With what happened in the alley. You tried to save that guy and you couldn't."
Blair heard her sigh softly, and she rolled onto her back, staring up at the rain coming down on the skylight. "I think I'm okay with it. I knew when I saw him he didn't have much of a chance."
Turning toward her, he propped himself up on his elbow, running his hand lightly down her arm, entwining his fingers with hers, then raising her hand so he could kiss her fingertips. "You saved me from the same thing, from a gunshot to the heart."
She must have heard the unspoken question in his voice. "I was right there when it happened, Lobo, you didn't get a chance to bleed out. And your spirit was still there; you were fighting not to let go. He was already gone when I tried to help him. There really wasn't anything I could do. Even if I had healed him, I couldn't call his soul back."
He lay back down next to her, leaning his cheek against her shoulder. "Dee…"
"Enough talk, Lobo, it's late. Now go to sleep."
Blair lay there quietly for a few minutes then began to rub her stomach. "I'm not sleepy," he complained.
Laughing, Dee kissed him. "What did you have in mind, as if I don't know?" Blair whispered in her ear, his hand sliding under the waistband of her boxers. "Oh, oh, yeah. I think that's a very good idea…"
Part 4Immortal Series