Snuff



Paula Stiles



Summary: It's a less than holly-jolly Twelve Days of Christmas, when the Dynamic Duo (sorry, Joe and Methos) run afoul of some renegade Watchers who are selling Internet movies of quickenings.

Characters: Joe, Methos, Amy Thomas, Stephen Keane, René Galbon, various Watcher OMCs.

Rating: R

Disclaimer: Davis/Panzer Productions, Rysher Entertainment, and Gaumont Television own the Highlander universe. I don't own Glenn Fry's "Smuggler's Blues", The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter", or Queen's "Under Pressure". God, and the copyright laws, forbid that I should make any money off of this.

Archive: Ask, and ye shall probably receive permission.

Note: This is story number nine in the "Armed Intervention" series, and occurs over Christmas 2002. This tale, and the rest of this Joe and Methos series (along with my other stories), can be found at:
The Snowleopard's Lair
or at:
The Armed Intervention page

Many thanks to Judith Hill for betareading this for me.

SNUFF



There's trouble on the streets tonight,
I can feel it in my bones.
I had a premonition
that he should not go alone.
I knew the gun was loaded,
but I didn't think he'd kill.
Everything exploded
and the blood began to spill....

Philippe pegged the guy for an Immortal as soon as he saw him step up to the bar. The knee-length, black coat and too-casual scan of the room gave it away to anyone with the right kind of observational skills--and as a Watcher, Philippe had those skills.

"Est-il ici encore?" Wilhelm said in his ear, which was the only way Philippe could have heard him above the din of the club. The DJs at L'Ambrosia were fond of playing earthquake-level Europop. Still, Philippe jumped. Wilhelm liked to sneak up on people, and was very good at it, too. Philippe didn't know if Wilhelm was really an ex-soldier, as he claimed, or a man who had failed the reality but had aped the dream to perfection. He did know that Wilhelm pissed him off.

"Not yet," he replied, also in French. "But I believe he will be. See? There's the bait." He jerked his chin at the man.

Wilhelm's eyes tracked over to the bar. He looked disgusted when he spotted the man in the coat. "Huh," he snorted. "Not much. Not even worth recording the fight, probably." Philippe almost laughed. Wilhelm, with his severe acne, was not much to look at, either. Still.....

Philippe examined the man at the bar, and had to agree. The guy, indeed, did not look like much: long, gawky body that seemed swallowed up by the bulky coat, sharp, fox-like features, dark, cropped hair. The nose was the only really distinguishing feature, and that was damning with faint praise. Philippe thought that the current song playing in the club, a cover version of the Smiths' 'How Soon Is Now?', summed up this pathetic specimen pretty well. Philippe would be very surprised if the guy had been an Immortal longer than 50 years. He looked more like some postgraduate student with the Sorbonne than an unkillable swordsman.

Not quite unkillable, Philippe corrected himself. There was the profit for him and Wilhelm.

"Scheiss! There is the club owner," Wilhelm said. "Why is he here, all of a sudden? He's not supposed to show up for another hour."

"Where?" Philippe said, confused.

"Dark jacket, bow-tie, red hair. Just came out of the back office. He's crossing the dance floor now."

"Yeah?" Philippe sipped his drink. "O-kay. I see him. Who is this Keane, anyway?"

"Stephen Keane. Born during the 1480s, in Norfolk, England. Been all over the place. Pretty good businessman. He's had this club for almost five years and it is still comfortably in the black."

"Has he taken many heads?"

Wilhelm nodded. "He doesn't go around looking for people to kill like Kalas or Duncan MacLeod, if that's what you mean, but he is no slouch. Could be a good fight if this kid can hold up for more than three blows. I did hear some odd rumour that Keane is studying under a teacher, some ancient Immortal. I haven't been able to track that at all. Ah, gut."

The younger Immortal was looking around, and Keane, just clearing the dance floor, had raised his head and started scanning the room for the other of his kind. Showtime.

"Here we go. Looks like they'll try to fight right here," Philippe said, wondering if he should bother to get out his digital camera. Despite the chaotic setting, the scene could be good for a few shots. "Attends. What are they doing?"

Keane had spotted the younger Immortal. To Philippe's surprise, Keane smiled and headed for the bar, straight for the man. The other saw him as Keane approached. He, too, smiled. Keane pulled up a stool next to the man and gestured to the bartender, who hurried over to refill the young Immortal's glass.

"They know each other? I didn't know Keane had any students." The surprise in Wilhelm's voice was almost worth the disappointment of losing yet another subject to, of all things, friendship. "How are we going to get them to fight if they're friends?"

"We don't." Sighing, Philippe stood up. He and Wilhelm could probably find a way to play Keane against his young friend, with enough time and attention, but why bother? "Allons-y. This one is a dead end. Let's just hope that Gary and Andrew have had better luck."

*********


"Who were those blokes?" I ask Keane, in his office. He does not want to have this conversation in public, even in the top-volume of his club. That's fine. His office is ever so much more comfortable, and I like lounging in his plush, red-leather guest's chair. These things swallow you right up, like a Pitcher plant.

He shrugs, sipping his bourbon. "All I know is that they've been following me off and on since July. At least...I think that was them."

"And you just remembered to mention this?"

"Don't get testy. I've been distracted. You know that." I watch him pour me a drink. "Besides, I couldn't be sure. At first, I thought they were competition, the local Russian mafia, something like that. Then, after you introduced me to Joe, I thought they might be Watchers. Then, I thought perhaps they were working for some other Immortal. MacLeod attracts a lot of the sleazier members of our tribe, and it's no secret that he was in Paris for much of the past ten years." I roll my eyes at the jibe, but let it go. I am not interested in getting into the middle of that little feud again. "But, no candidates for 'boss' ever showed up, so....."

"So, what are they?" I notice that he hands over the drink with less deference than in the past. Good. I don't need a groupie. If he can learn to see me as human, he will not take my failings personally.

"I don't know. People have been watching me, off and on, since I bought this place. I'm a bit surprised that you're so worried, considering all that you've got on your plate right now."

Ugh. I do so love having keepers. "Before, it didn't matter. You can take care of yourself. You don't need me to babysit you and we both know that I would be useless at it, even if I tried. Now, though, they have got inside my perimeter. I want to know why."

He eyes me as he sits down behind his desk. "You have a 'perimeter'?"

I nod. "I have a 'perimeter'."

"That sounds ominous."

"Good." He's learning. I sip my drink--a gin and tonic. I let him choose. "What I can't figure is whether they are watching us or Watching us, if you see what I mean."

"You still think they're Watchers?" He knocks back his own drink, looking as if he needs it.

"Maybe, but not the usual kind." I swirl the ice in my glass and sip from it.

"You mean Hunters," he says.

I stare at him--surprised, to say the least. "You've heard of the Hunters?"

"I've heard…rumours. Nothing more." He is hiding something from me, but I am damned if I know what. There is no hatred as I'd expect, more like unease. "I understand that they were quite a menace in their day."

"They had their moments, though they're all past-tense now, I'm happy to say," I admit, letting the subject go for now. "I think I'd like to send some greetings down the line. I know a few people that I should warn." I can buy one of those temporary, pay-as-you-go mobiles and smash it as soon as I'm done. Either way, Mira should be warned.

"Maybe we should have a chat with Dawson, as well," Keane says. It is a good suggestion, though I don't like it, of course.

"Yeah, all right," I mutter. "We'll go to Le Blues and see what we can find."

*********


René was hard-pressed to keep his expression anything but murderous, when he opened up his door and saw Director Gabrieli standing on the doorstep. After the events of last month, he had hoped not to see Gabrieli again for some time.

"M. Gabrieli. This is a surprise." Gabrieli had told him, point-blank, that he knew about René's retreat in Reims, and Mathilde, but to come here so near to Christmas--it was highly inappropriate.

"I'm sure that it is," Gabrieli replied in his soft, American accent. "I apologise for dropping in on you so unexpectedly, Doctor, but you have a certain expertise that I need to use tonight. And no, it does not concern any of your patients." 'Patients' was code, of course, for 'Adam Pierson'.

"I see. Alors, let's go to my office, then." René let Gabrieli in and shut the door behind him. He smiled to himself at Gabrieli's clear unease about turning his back on his subordinate. Ever since he had found out that René had been a Hunter, Gabrieli had been uneasy around him. That might never change. They had been allies in dark times but that was all.

"It is right down here. Follow me, s'il vous plaît." René edged past Gabrieli, no more enthusiastic about turning his back on his supervisor than Gabrieli was about the reverse. Faced with a mutual threat, they had acted in sympathy, but now, weeks later, cold reality had set in. They might well be allies again, but René doubted that he and Gabrieli would ever become friends.

René had no sooner closed the door behind them than Gabrieli pulled a manila folder out of his coat and tossed it onto the table. "I need you to look at the photos inside that folder and tell me if you recognise any of these men."

René picked up the folder gingerly. "Why, may I ask?"

Gabrieli stared out the window. "I believe that they may be former colleagues of yours."

Mon Dieu. Pas encore. Will I ever leave this behind? René opened the folder and looked through it. Relief flooded through him. "I recognise none of these men."

Gabrieli sagged, seeming to shrink inside his trenchcoat. "You are sure, Doctor? It is critical that you be absolutely sure."

"Oui. In my, ah, former line of work, it was necessary to work closely with all the others. None of these men were Hunters, unless Horton recruited them after I left, or unless they were like Harold Croft or Eddie Brill--secret spies and assassins of other Watchers. But, field Hunters, non. We were never a large group."

René was surprised when Gabrieli cursed to himself. He had expected relief, not worry. Gabrieli turned to him. "In that case, Doctor, I have an assignment for you."

*********


The sailors and the pilots,
the soldiers and the law,
the payoffs and the ripoffs,
and the things nobody saw….

Gary stood outside the ski lodge, shivering in snow up to his ankles. He wasn't ecstatic about his assignment. The Hautes-Alpes was too damned cold a province for a nice boy from Austin, Texas to be hanging around in December, and skiing just wasn't Gary's thing. Funny, it didn't seem to be the kind of thing the Immortal he was Watching liked, either. Seemed he was here to climb a mountain, not ski down it. He was some kind of extreme environmentalist. They had found the guy's pack when they broke into his locker in the lodge. It was covered with mountaineering badges. The guy had been everywhere--McKinley, K2, the Matterhorn (who climbed that anymore?), even Mount Washington. He was downright obsessed with mountains and snow. Pretty fucking weird.

But, hey, if Gary and Andy could get to him out on the slopes, they could isolate him and take him down--if only Andy would get off his fat ass and call. Gary really wanted to get this guy. The ones they'd been tracking so far were all youngsters, little fish. This guy, though, wasn't even in the chronicles. Gary didn't think he was Methos--he didn't fit the vague description that Cassandra's Watcher had reported. Still, Gary was sure this guy was some kind of old. He cared about whatever he was doing at the moment and didn't give a shit about the rest, as far as Gary could tell. If they could get this guy, they wouldn't have to sell him under false pretences as Methos, the way Philip and Willy were planning to do with their little fish.

Gary checked the gun in his coat for the fiftieth time and pulled out his cellphone to punch up his partner's number. He'd given Andy more than enough time to set up the trap. Time to light a fire under ol' Andy's butt. The phone rang…and rang…and rang….

"Andy, where the fuck are you?" Gary said out loud, puzzled. He heard snow being scraped off boots behind him and spun around, going for his gun. And there he was, the Immortal, standing a few feet away, hands clasped behind his back. Gary had only seen him from a distance before. Up close, the guy's thin face was startlingly dark against his brown beard and sandy eyes. His faded red snowgear looked battered next to Gary's brand-new stuff. He smiled at Gary, in a way that made the Watcher clutch his gun inside his coat. Where was Andy?

"I understand that you and your friend have been looking for me," the Immortal said. "Perhaps you'd like to tell me why." When the guy brought his arms out from behind his back, Gary saw the sword in his hand--and the blood dripping off it, onto the fresh snow.

*********


I wasn't too thrilled when I got the call from Headquarters. Gabrieli wanted to see me. He made the call himself, I'll grant him that. He was polite, but he didn't bother to make it sound like a request. I left Amy and the new girl, an exchange student from Ireland looking to make a few extra euros to pay the rent, to mind the bar, got in my car and drove over.

Security, security and more friggin' security. At least the guard hopped right to it when he heard my name. Notoriety has its privileges. I got right into the parking lot, parked my car and breezed in past the secretary (who didn't even say 'boo') to Gabrieli's office. As I did, I passed a woman in the hallway--late forties and greying, but elegant and damned attractive, too, in a posh, British kind of way. Walked down that hallway right past me like she owned it. Way above my station, as the Brits would put it. I don't know why she struck me so. It was funny the way she looked at me--as if she knew me. She even smiled. Then again, lots of Watchers looked at me like that, these days, like I was some kind of legend. You whined about my visibility all the time. It scared you. Wimp.

I knocked on the door to Gabrieli's office. "Come in," I heard him call from inside. I pushed the door open and went in. It wasn't as overgrown as old Lebeau's office, but I wouldn't say Gabrieli's was excessively neat, either. I'm sure that my new boss knew where everything was inside those manila envelopes piled up in the boxes next to his desk. The office was also a Hell of a lot smaller than either Shapiro or Anders' offices--more like old Lebeau's--and that made me wonder. That, and the open window against the wall. Did the guy like having an escape route, for some reason? At least he wasn't like Jacques Vemas, who'd pretty much worked out of his car. Not that it did him much good; Kalas got him, anyway. You hadn't shed too many tears over that. To be honest, neither had I.

Gabrieli looked up as I came in. "Mr. Dawson. Good to see you." He indicated the chair in front of his desk. "Please have a seat."

I did what he wanted. Then, I said, "So, you gonna tell me what I've done now, or do I have to guess?" It was insubordinate, but it just popped out. When things go sour in the first meeting, it's hard to make a right turn and play nice the next time.

He smiled grimly and tipped his head in a salute. He knew we'd gotten off on the wrong foot, too. "How was your trip to Scotland?"

"Fine." But I'm sure you didn't call me in about that, I thought.

He played with his laptop for a minute or two. "Your preliminary report was very interesting, if abbreviated."

"That was my full report," I said. "I didn't have much to say."

He raised his eyebrows. "Not much to say about a Quickening taken on holy ground?"

"Like I said in the report, I didn't get a good look at what happened, especially since we--I came in after the fact. Kenny, the Immortal involved, just fell apart after he took his last head in the church or grove, or whatever it was. The weather might have been affected by his actions, but I couldn't be sure. The incident did happen in Scotland in November. You'd expect bad weather under those circumstances."

Gabrieli shuffled through some papers on his desk. "And the other Immortal?"

I rubbed my cane, hard. "What other Immortal?"

"The one who took Kenny's head, of course."

I resisted the urge to start grinding the butt of my cane into the floor. "I couldn't tell you. Like I said, I didn't get a good look at what happened to Kenny, before or after."

Gabrieli sighed. "Mr. Dawson, whenever you refuse to identify an Immortal in your reports in the future, I am just going to assume that you mean Adam Pierson, all right? Especially since he was right there with you during the entire incident."

"I don't understand what you mean," I said stiffly.

Gabrieli chuckled. "Moving right along…. The reason why I called you in, Mr. Dawson, is because I have a job for you. I have a problem, and I'd like for you to take care of it for me."

I stared at him, suspicious. "What kind of problem?"

Gabrieli handed a file to me across the desk. "Do you recognise any of these men?"

I opened the folder and looked through it. There were eight names, files and photos, in all. Philippe D'Aire? Wilhelm Brandauer? Gary McCain? "Nope. Never heard of any of 'em. Who are they?"

Gabrieli sat back in his chair and steepled his fingers. "They are Watchers, Mr. Dawson. Or should I say--they were. Now, they are renegades. They were all in Central and South America, mostly Watching Immortals involved in black market activities, as of last spring. They all dropped out of sight within a week or two of each other about eight months ago. Investigations of connections between any of them have proved inconclusive--though D'Aire and Brandauer's Immortals fought a duel last year, which Brandauer's Immortal won, and Brandauer's Immortal lost his own head two months later to a woman named Rosa Armenderez in Buenos Aires. Both men failed to take up subsequent assignments, and were on probation at the time of their respective disappearances."

"So what? We get dropouts all the time, especially the ones who came from the sleazier walks of life. As long as they keep their mouths shut and don't go after Immortals, we let them go."

"Exactly. Which is why we have a problem." He turned his laptop and showed me the webpage called up on it. The background to the page was black. In blood-red letters, the foreground read: "SNUFF -- Real Challenges, Real Blood, Real Death. Gladiatorial combat like you've never seen it before. Come see it live on our webcam."

"Shit," I said. "They're filming Immortal challenges and showing them as snuff flicks?"

"Exactly," Gabrieli said. "It gets worse." He hit a key and another page loaded up. This one read: "Tired of playing the Game by everybody else's rules? Looking to take a few heads? Want to make your veins quicken with more power than you've ever had before? Contact us." The cellphone number seemed almost like an afterthought.

"The two pages are not linked, by the way," Gabrieli said. "Though I'm sure that doesn't surprise you. Whoever set these up has two very different sets of clientele--and that person--or persons--definitely does not want those two groups to meet."

*********


"Right," Methos said as he and Keane pulled up across from Le Blues Bar. "Here's what we'll do. We will breeze in, you will get a drink and I'll go out back and check out the database."

"Are you sure that Dawson is going to be okay with that?" Keane felt doubtful about this plan. It seemed more harebrained than even the Master's usual.

"Probably not, but I can talk him into it. Once I explain the situation to him, it should be okay. Don't worry about it. Joe's not gonna boot us as long as we don't put him in a difficult position with the Watchers."

Keane frowned, but Methos conveniently missed seeing his student's doubt by getting out of the car at that moment.

"The bookshop is coming along nicely, don't you think?" he said, as they went inside. "You've done a really nice job. I'd sell you stock in it if it were worth anything." Keane bit down a laugh. The Old Man was a nomad, not a businessman. When he needed something, he either took it or did without.

"Don't worry about it. I enjoy being there," Keane reassured him. "Besides, you've done most of the work, even if you don't realise it." Methos glanced at him, face screwed up in skepticism. Keane wasn't surprised. Methos didn't think much of flattery, and that was how he would see Keane's praise. Most of Keane's own contribution had been reminding Methos of all the things he immediately forgot that he'd just done, right after he did them. Fortunately, Methos was good at holding onto records (if a bit messy), so Keane could usually piece together the paper trail of the previous day's activities, even when Methos was too distracted to remember them. Keane was beginning to think that Methos was not nearly as vulnerable as his Mortal handlers thought he was. The Old Man might be ill, but his priorities were perfectly aligned. Keane would not care to take him on again in combat. He had been unpredictable enough in their first encounter. And Keane, despite his curiosity, had no intention of sparring with his teacher again, even in jest, any time soon.

As they walked in the door, Keane's heart sank when he saw Amy wiping down a table. He did not want to run into her right now. The clientele was good for a Tuesday afternoon, about ten people, all of them wander-ins rather than habitual drunks. Dawson was nowhere in sight. Perfect. Keane hoped that Amy wasn't going to try to get him drunk again. It showed a major lack of respect for him, on her part, and he would keep that in mind, for future interactions. Getting shanghaied into helping her finish out that bit of Watcher dirty business last month, behind Methos and her father's backs, had not improved their relationship.

"Hi, Amy," Methos called out to her as she looked up from her chore. "Where's Joe?"

"He got a call to go meet one of our investors," Amy said casually. Ah. That would be Joe's bosses in the Watchers. Interesting. She gave Methos a smile, which faded when she saw Keane. Things had not changed very much, then.

"Hey, I need to check out something in the office," Methos said, heading for the curtain next to the bar. "I'll be right back."

"I'll come help you," Amy said, hurrying after him.

"You don't have to do that," Methos looked beleaguered. So much for that plan.

"Oh, yes. I do," she said. Keane hid a smile as Methos let his shoulders slump and held open the curtain for Amy. She might want to jump into the Old Man's bed, but she wasn't about to fall for any of his fairy stories.

I think I'll have a drink, Keane thought, and found a table. Maybe if I get my own, I can stay sober this time.

*********


There's lots of shady characters,
lots of dirty deals.
Every name's an alias
in case somebody squeals.
It's the lure of easy money.
It's got a very strong appeal.

"You don't have to do this, you know. I can handle myself. Don and Salzer and I designed the original database." I lean over Amy's shoulder. She is wearing a t-shirt and jeans, so I can't see down her cleavage or glimpse her very shapely legs this time, which is a shame. Her hair smells nice, though--some apple-flavoured shampoo. Is she growing it out? She sighs and points at a seat, not looking at me. I sit, but pull the chair right up beside her, so that our thighs are touching. She rolls her eyes, but doesn't move away. I think I amuse her. She certainly doesn't seem threatened. I would never play that kind of game with Joe's daughter.

"You know the rules," she scolds me. "You're not even supposed to be back here."

Folding my arms, I lean over and say in her ear, "So, why am I still back here?"

She glances askance at me. "As you said, we need to work together. Maybe these are only overzealous Watchers who need to be warned off. Maybe they're renegades whom we need to track down. And maybe, just maybe, they're outside folk who have found out about Immortals, or worse, Hunters. In which case, we may have a problem."

I shake my head. "I think we're all right on that score. They were Watchers. I'm sure of it--but they're probably renegades, though not Hunters, or Keane and I might be dead by now."

"What makes you say that?" She calls up the internet browser.

"Because no one else would just watch. Not like that. Watchers do things a certain way, unlike any other type of spy."

She looks puzzled. "What certain way? We don't do things 'a certain way'."

"Of course you do. You're always Watching your Immortal, not those around you--not more than absolutely necessary for safety. The Immortal is almost always the most dangerous factor in your surroundings."

"And the most fascinating?" She bats her eyelashes at me. Little girl, are you flirting with me? This is a good sign.

"That, too." I grin. Might as well flirt back. "It's easy to get distracted by your assignment."

"Especially when he's finally decided to start showering regularly?" Ooh. Touché. She is sharp. I will have to keep that in mind. She shakes her head, her expression darkening--thinking of Morgan Walker, maybe? "You don't need to remind me of that lesson. I learned it thoroughly the first time." The Watcher logo comes up on the laptop screen. "Here we go."

I lean forward. "I see they've changed the design since last summer."

"We change addresses, servers and design quite frequently now, to avoid hackers." She gives me another sidelong look. "Not that we'd be thinking of any specific hacker."

I blink at her. "Moi? I'm no hacker. I just like to exercise my creator's rights from time to time."

"Oh, that's what you call it."

"That is what it is."

"The copyright of any work that you do for a job belongs to your employer." She is twitting me.

"Yeah, well, not if they reject the work, which is exactly what Vemas, the European Director back then, did initially." I know I sound defensive, but this is still a touchy subject for me. "It wasn't until after Kalas killed him and after Shapiro got booted that they reopened the project. I'd left by then." And that is more than I have told any Watcher besides Joe about my leaving. Even Joe mostly knows just what he saw at the time. "I can see them using all the data that Don and I collected, but the fact that they were using our design at a time when all my old colleagues wouldn't have given me the time of day in the street was galling."

She types 'France' into the search term box. "You take some getting used to."

"So I've noticed." A map of northern France comes up on the screen, with a cluster of labeled dots in and near Paris. "This is a map of field Watchers in the area?"

She nods and peers at the screen. "I see me and Joe, of course. Dr. Galbon. No surprise, there. Hmm. You're listed, too."

"I am?" I stare at the label--Adam Pierson, Independent Researcher--startled. "I guess I am." What game is Gabrieli playing? Or is someone else playing it? I file away the information for future use, and get back to the chore at hand. "Any unusual suspects?"

A strange look comes over her face, but she just shakes her head. "No, none--wait."

"Yes, that's not an administrative label, is it?" I touch the screen over a name--Evelyn Baer.

"No, it's not. But, you said you were looking for men, not a woman. Besides, she has a legitimate reason for being in the area--her Immortal is here. She's been assigned to Keane." She hits a key and the map expands to include all of France and parts of Germany, the Netherlands and even Denmark. An uneven ring of dots appears at the outer edge of the map. "That's odd." She hits another key and turns back the clock on the map a week. The ring disappears. When she rolls forward the date, the ring reappears, closing. "For some reason, we have 12 Immortals advancing on Paris since last week. See? Those are their Watchers, reporting in."

I shiver, chilled by her words. "But why?" Have I stayed too long in this place? What is going on? Who gave the alarm? Was it because I took on Keane? Whacked Kenny in Scotland? Is that bastard Atticus reaching out for me from beyond the grave? See, this is what happens when you get back into the Game.

"If I knew, I wouldn't have had to look up this map." She sighs. "I suppose we had better report this." She turns to me. "Maybe you and Keane should go live on holy ground for a few weeks."

*********


The boys of the NYPD choir
were singing "Galway Bay".
And the bells were ringing out
for Christmas day.

"Mr. Dawson? Mr. Dawson!" I was so distracted as I hurried down the hall, that I didn't hear the woman's voice calling out behind me. I stopped and turned. The lady that I'd passed in the hallway on my way in ran up to me. She looked out of breath as she approached me, her heels clicking on the tile.

"May I help you, Ma'am?" I said. I had to admit, she did look familiar, but I couldn't place her at all.

"You really don't remember me, do you, Joe?" She smiled sadly. "Well, I can't blame you. It's only been 30 years."

I stared at her, seeing the lines of her face, the wave of her hair, now salted with grey, so familiar. Of course they would be familar. I saw them every day--in my daughter. "Eleanor?"

She laughed, patting her hair and looking self-conscious. "Yes, Joe. It's me. Eleanor Thomas." She came forward and hugged me. A whole lot of memories hit me at once--cuddling up with her in bed that one night we had at Academy. Seeing her standing in a graveyard, pregnant and bundled up against the cold, telling me we had no hope together, that she wanted to be with her husband even if he was a cold son of a bitch. Watching her propped up in bed, holding newborn Amy, grinning with exhausted pride. Yeah, I remembered her. Come to think of it, how could I have ever forgotten? I hugged her back and I didn't let go right away.

"I was sorry to hear about your husband's death," I said when we pulled apart.

A cloud crossed her face. "Yes, it was quite a shock. None of us expected him to die so young, but he never did take care of himself. It was very hard, but considering what was happening at the time, I didn't want to add to your burdens by contacting you." She smiled again; it looked forced. "But you've done well, the past few years. And I see that Amy found you. I am glad that worked out, even if it was difficult, at first. She seems very happy these days. How have you been? I haven't seen you since…oh, it's been since the hospital, hasn't it?"

"Yeah. It was." Even now, knowing my daughter was waiting for me back at Le Blues, that memory hurt. I'd gone to see Eleanor as soon as I got her call announcing Amy's birth. In the hospital, Eleanor let me hold Amy for a little while. I don't know how long it was, just that it wasn't long enough. I had to sit down before the nurse put her in my arms. Otherwise, I'd have dropped her. I was still getting the hang of the prosthetics, which weren't as good as the kind you get now. But, I was damned if I was going to meet my only child for the first time in a wheelchair. Amy slept the whole time, one small hand gripping my finger. She looked so perfect. I know that all parents say that, but I mean it. She did. I remember that I cried, but that's all right. Men are supposed to get drippy over their little girls, aren't they?

Eleanor, bless her, never said a word about it. Maybe she liked me better because I did cry, I don't know. Her husband wasn't that type. He was away at some conference when Amy was born. I don't know if he ever knew about me, but I'm not sure it would have mattered. Not that it mattered now. I wouldn't see either Amy or Eleanor again for over 26 years after that day. Tough to say which of us got the better deal. Just because Amy's dad wasn't interested in the good thing he got, didn't make it any easier on me.

"So, what brings you here?" I asked her.

"My Immortal, Rosa Armenderez, is in town and I was reporting in. There are several Immortals converging on Paris for some reason, so several of us came here to have a meeting. Something is happening."

I was skeptical. "What, some kind of mini-Gathering?"

She shook her head. "No one is sure, but we think they might have been summoned here by the same person or group. We just don't know why."

Oh, shit. I thought of what Gabrieli had told me, and I had a good idea of why her Immortal might be here, but I couldn't tell her why. It was starting to look more and more as if the Immortals these renegade Watchers of Gabrieli's were filming weren't willing participants at all.

*********


Keane looked up as the door to the bar opened. His second least-favourite Mortal came in--Dr. René Galbon. Keane didn't think much of Galbon's techniques. Galbon seemed to think that Methos could barely feed himself, let alone get through the day or defend himself in the Game. Or, maybe, he had some more sinister plan in mind. He was an ex-Hunter, after all. You never knew with Mortals. Either way, Galbon was still not very pleased with Keane about letting Methos slip away for his little jaunt up to Scotland. Keane hadn't been best pleased about it, either, not that he would ever have set foot in Scotland for love or money. But, when he had pressed the Old Man over the trip, Methos shrugged it off with, "Everyone needed a vacation." Since he was right, it was hard to argue with him about it, so Keane had given up.

"Keane," Galbon said, as he approached Keane's table. "If you're here, may I assume that my patient is, as well?"

Keane ignored the taunt. "He's in the office with Amy, doing some research."

Galbon frowned. "That is trusting of her."

"He needed to look someone up. I've acquired some stalkers over the past few months, and Adam thought they might be some of your colleagues, overstepping their bounds."

Galbon sat down. "I see." The new barmaid came to the table. "Un cognac, s'il vous plaît," he said, glancing up at her. He seemed to be weighing something in his mind.

"What is going on?" Keane asked. Did Galbon know something? If the men who had shown up at L'Ambrosia were Watchers, that might make sense.

Galbon set his pack on the table, opened it and pulled out a manila envelope. Out of it, he took pictures, eight of them. They looked like surveillance photos. "Do you recognise any of these men, M. Keane?" he asked.

Keane looked at the photos. "Why, yes," he said, startled, spotting the stalkers from his club. "Here they are right here. But, there were two of them." Before he could think or speak about it further, he felt the Buzz of another Immortal, and lifted his head, staring at the door.

"What? What is it?" Galbon said.

Keane shook his head. "One of our kind."

"Methos?" Galbon asked (quietly, thank God).

"No. Someone else." Methos' unique signature, ringing like mediaeval church bells, still thrummed from the next room. This Buzz came from outside, and was approaching fast. "I'd better go outside." He stood up.

Galbon grabbed his arm. "Are you sure that is wise?"

"It's the way things are. My job, you could say." Keane pulled away. He was surprised when Galbon got up to follow him, ignoring the confused barmaid coming to the table with his drink. "What are you doing?"

Galbon smiled grimly. "I am coming with you. I'm going to Watch. That is my job, non?" He pushed his glasses up on his nose and opened the door for Keane. "Soyez tranquille. I will stay out of the way."

*******


"I don't want to stay on holy ground," I complain. "That is not what it's for. And if I had to stay there with Keane, I would go barking mad and take his head inside of a week. I think I have already pushed my luck far enough on that score for one millennium."

"It's sanctuary," Amy says, looking puzzled. I snort bitterly, remembering the Watchers' version of that, and what happened to the Immortals who trusted it. Best not to think about my own role in that, when I thought it was a viable option for those of my kind who needed a rest from life. "What do you have against holy ground?"

"Nothing. But there is more to holy ground than a safe place to hide. It is special, not a privilege to be abused, and I will not hide my head in the sand just because the sand has been blessed." The Buzz hits me, making me sit up in my chair. It isn't Keane; this one is new.

"What?" Amy says, sitting up in her chair, eyes widening. Do we have some special expression when we catch a Buzz that all experienced Watchers can see?

"Someone is out there." I stand up, as I feel Keane's Buzz recede along with the other one. "Let's go find out what's going on."

The moment I step through the curtain, I see that Keane's table is empty. The new barmaid is placing a cognac and another pint on it. "Where did Stephen go?" I say.

The barmaid looks up. "Your friend in the bowtie? Oh, he left with that bearded man, the Frenchman."

"Let's go," I tell Amy. "That bearded man" sounds like René, doing his Watcher duty. He is in the field, after all. I head for the door. I may be too late to head off a challenge, no doubt, but if Keane loses, I want to know who (or what) I might be facing next--and maybe get lucky enough to take said challenger out while he (or she) is still weak from the Quickening.

As she follows me out the door, Amy asks me, "Do you have a plan, yet?"

I muse over that, surreptitiously feeling for my sword and my gun, even as I notice her feeling for her own. "A plan? Why does everyone always think I have a plan?"

*********


Keane didn't like the exposed parking lot where the other Immortal had chosen to fight, but at least it was familiar ground and it was two blocks from Le Blues. Most likely, no one would make any connection between the challenge and the bar. If Keane survived, Joe would still let him drink there.

Galbon, true to his word, had hung back, following Keane at a distance. He was sitting comfortably, around a corner of the brick building at the top of the parking lot out of sight, smoking a cigarette and waiting for them to get on with it.

"We don't have to do this, you know," he told the woman as they circled each other. She smirked back at him. She was well-dressed, but sensibly so. He wasn't going to get any advantage out of her clothing simply because she was wearing silk and cashmere.

"Are you afraid?" she taunted him. She sounded South American--Chilean, possibly.

Keane snorted. "If I were afraid, I would have run to holy ground, now, wouldn't I? I don't see any reason to fight when we don't have to."

"Too bad." She leveled her sword at him. "You don't look very impressive. Normally, I would throw you back, but sometimes, you have to take a lot of little fish before you can hope to take the big haul."

In spite of his irritation at her arrogance, he was intrigued by her words. "What big haul?"

She smirked. "Why, Methos, the eldest Immortal, of course."

*********


"I hope that idiot isn't taking a challenge, after all," I tell Amy, as we walk down the street, Amy having to stretch her legs to keep up with me.

"Well, if he's challenged, he can't turn it down, can he?" Amy says, a bit breathless.

"Of course he can. He can run, he can hide, he can do all sorts of things. The problem is not refusing the challenge; it is scraping them off when they do not take 'no' for an answer. The challenger is the one with the advantage, so of course, he's going to press it as much as he can--or she."

The faint Buzz that I've been following increases. As we turn a corner, my heart sinks. René is sitting calmly on the sidewalk at the end of the block, back against a wall, smoking a cigarette. Those things will be the death of him, I find myself thinking as we draw near. I should have a word with him. I don't want to end up raising Mathilde. He looks up.

"You're not going to interfere, are you?" he says, taking a drag on his cancer stick. I hold out a hand and he takes it to help himself stand up. He drops the cigarette and grinds it underfoot, all business, now. The clash of steel comes from around the corner.

"I take it Keane's taken the challenge, then?" I ask. "I would rather not get involved, but simply showing up might scare off this challenger." I peer around the corner. Keane and some woman are circling each other. They don't seem to have noticed my arrival, though how they could not…. I suppose they are already too wrapped up in the challenge, too busy looking for that crucial opening, bolstering their defenses.

"Unless I ran in there screaming and waving a sword, I doubt they'd notice me, now. I like my head where it is." I glance at René and Amy. "How about you?"

René shrugs. "As your people say, 'no interference'." Amy snickers, but doesn't say anything.

I nod. "That's what I thought. Anyway, Keane is a strong fighter. He's a bit of a sucker for a pretty face, but he beat Amanda at her own game. He can probably take this woman, and…." I see a flash of light on the other side of the parking lot. "What is that?"

"What?" René peers past me. "Mon Dieu. Does that man have a camera?"

A car pulls up behind us and stops. René and I duck back behind the building, turning to look as the car's door opens and two people get out. One of them is Joe.

"What are you people doing here?" the woman demands.

"Dad?" Amy says. "What's going on?"

And that's when the shooting starts.

*********


Christ, this woman was good. Keane feinted to one side then cut up at her head. She parried it up and wide, then thrust in while his guard was open. He backed up in a hurry. She pursued him with a lunge, thrusting again. He swung at her while she was extended, but she recovered too fast, both she and her basket-handle rapier being more lightly built than him and his cavalry sword. He tried to thrust at her, even though the cavalry sword was too curved for him to use the point well that way, but she parried it down to the left. He brought his own blade up and round before she could spit him, but she leapt away before he could close. Her sword could not block his close up, as Methos' wide mediaeval blade could. She seemed to lack the strength for a trade of hilt to hilt blows on blades, anyway.

He saw a flash of light in her eyes. She hesitated, blinking, and raised her free hand. Before she could recover, Keane took advantage of her confusion, rushing forward and slashing upward from hip to shoulder. Her cry of pain was cut off as he swung across, taking her head. As her head thumped to the ground, he reflected that they would always be strangers now, as she had given him no time to exchange names. Her body slumped, falling backwards, even as a mist began to rise from it. He braced himself for the Quickening.

And that was when the shooting began.

*********


Eleanor and I both jumped when her cellphone went off. She apologised and took it out. The conversation was brief, and obviously involved Watcher business. I saw her eyes go wide as she listened to the other person. She nodded and umhmmed several times, then clicked off the phone.

"I'm sorry," she explained. "My Immortal has just appeared in the vicinity of another Immortal--one Stephen Keane. It looks as though she'll challenge him at any moment. I have to go."

Ah, shit. I could see this going down in so many bad ways. It was a wonder the name Adam Pierson hadn't appeared in the conversation already. "Keane? I've seen him. I'll come with you."

"Are you sure?" She looked startled. "But, why?"

"Let's just say that I've developed a sort of proprietary interest in the guy since he challenged my Immortal several years back."

"Well, all right. I don't see the harm." She started down the hallway, restraining her steps to my pace. "'Your' Immortal? You mean Duncan MacLeod? But I thought he was in America, now. With his wife?"

"He is." I always hated admitting this, even though being taken off Mac's beat had been sort of a promotion on my end, rather than a failure. Mac had even thrown a party for me after I got the 'transfer'. Maybe he'd thought that the professional distance would reduce my age-old conflict of interest and we could be real friends now. "I'm not his Watcher anymore."

"I see." The tone said that she didn't, but was going to let it go. "So, what do you do now?"

"I'm…management, I guess you could say. More or less." Jesus, I felt like an undercover cop trying to explain my trunk-load full of bait-coke for a bust to a highway patrolman.

Are you still in the field?" she asked, as the front door guard nodded us out the door of Headquarters.

"That, too. More or less."

"Do you still see MacLeod?"

"When he chooses to walk into my bar, yeah." Which hadn't been recently, though he'd sent me a Christmas card. "Can't stop a man from buying a drink in my establishment, just because he's an Immortal. That would be bad for business, not to mention interference."

She smiled and shook her head. "You always did seem to have three things going on under the surface, Joe, even when I knew you before. I never understood why."

"Oh, I'm not really like that. All my friends say I'm an open book."

"I see." She beeped open the locks on her car doors. "So, those rumours that most of your friends are Immortal are true then, are they?"

After that, the conversation wilted, to say the least. I was so busy wondering what she'd heard about me that I couldn't concentrate on what she was saying, and most of it was shoptalk anyway. She was still mulling over the sudden concentration of Immortals in town. Since, as far as I could tell, half of the Immortals in Paris seemed to hang out in my bar, I hadn't noticed the difference until Eleanor pointed it out to me. But other Watchers had noticed. Looking back on it now, I was so busy covering my ass in that car that I almost got it blown off by the minefield I didn't see coming at me in 3-D.

I should have gotten my first clue, for example, when Eleanor couldn't reach Keane's Watcher again on her cellphone. I knew who Keane's Watcher was, of course. I'd reamed her out good for taking that unscheduled vacation when he first blew into town. But, that didn't mean that I'd had a whole lot of contact with her--though she had shown up in the bar a few times, when Keane lingered there. I wouldn't have called her the most observant Watcher on the planet, and I'd told her that. On the other hand, I'd kept my oath enough not to make her job any harder by blowing her cover with Stephen.

"I can't reach her at all," Eleanor said, looking worried. She handed off her phone to me. "Here, you try."

When I tried, all I got was a busy signal. "Nothing," I said. "Maybe the fight's over, she got too close and her phone got fritzed by the Quickening?"

"Maybe," Eleanor sounded doubtful. Man, the streets were starting to look very familiar. Not surprising if Keane really was involved, but not good. I hoped you weren't anywhere near the fight. I'd have a Hell of a time explaining it all to Eleanor. "This is near where she said she'd be," Eleanor said, as she turned down a street only a block or two away from the bar. "Look, there's a parking lot. Is that them?"

"I think so," I said. Keane and the woman were circling each other. I couldn't see Evelyn Baer, his Watcher, anywhere, which should have been good. And then, I said a really dumb thing, "Just pull up around the corner out of sight." As we turned the corner, there was the whole gang--you, Amy and René Galbon. The Methos Field Project, all present and accounted for. I couldn't believe it. Talk about a worst-case scenario.

"Amy?" Eleanor gasped. "What is she doing here?" She hit the brakes and the car screeched to a halt right next to the little group. Amy looked up and her mouth fell open. You and René turned around. I heard the sound of a Quickening start, just as Eleanor shouted, "What are you people doing here?"

And that's when the shooting started.

Bullets sprayed the car from the other side, ponging into the metal, shattering the driver's side window and punching out mine. Some sort of automatic rifle or machine gun. Must have been a fairly new make, because I didn't recognise it. "Get down!" I shouted to Eleanor, covering my head with my arm. I popped open the door, and practically threw myself out on the pavement. I didn't hear her answer. When I turned, staggering, I saw why. She was slumped across the seat, her own window shattered. I saw a whole lot of blood. Before I could register it, movement out of the corner of my eye made me turn. A guy was coming around the back of the car aiming a gun at me. I went for my own gun, reaching inside my coat, but he was going to get me first.

You appeared right in front of me and grabbed my shoulders. I heard a gunshot and your body jerked, your face convulsing with agony. As you were flung against me, you took me down backwards. You coughed and went limp. I know you saved my life then, as the crossfire chattered overhead, right where my head had been. Oh, God, Amy was in the line of fire, too. Where was she?

Amy screamed some name--mine or Eleanor's, I couldn't tell. At least she was alive. A gunshot cracked out. René cursed, and then I heard running footsteps out into the parking lot. I hoped it was them getting away. Even if I went down, at least my daughter would live to fight another day. The machine gun chattered again, drowning out their escape. I was still going for my gun, but it was hard getting my hand under your dead weight.

Before I could do it, you were pulled off me and thrown to one side. I froze as the guy with the gun aimed down at me. I recognised him now from Gabrieli's surveillance photos, mostly because he had bad acne. I didn't need to see the tattoo that was exposed on his wrist as he took aim at my head to know that he was a renegade Watcher, but it still shocked me. The machine gun sniper came up behind him, exposing his own tattoo as he put his weapon up on his shoulder. I recognised him, too, from the photographs.

Then, you saved my life for a third time. The sniper glanced at you and grabbed Acne Boy's wrist. "Attends," he said. "Don't kill him. Look at his friend. That's the Immortal who was with Keane. We can take him instead."

Acne Boy's eyes didn't move from mine. "What does that have to do with not shooting Dawson?" He jerked his chin at me. Great, he knew who I was. Man, fame sure had its drawbacks.

"Don't you see? The Immortal took a bullet for him. He tried to save him. We can use him as leverage if the guy gives us any grief. If the Immortal acts up or tries to escape, we'll just wax his Watcher buddy."

"Ja…D'accord. I see your point. Let's do it, then." Acne Boy smiled. Now, I saw how much trouble I was really in.

*********


Amy didn't know what she was saying or whose name she was calling as she ran. Mother dead, father down, Ben shot down and helpless, and she was running away from them all. René didn't have to shove her after the first few steps. She ran to save her own skin. If she lived through the next five minutes, she thought she'd never be able to wash away the shame of that. Everyone important to her lay behind her in a bloody heap.

Instead of running along the sidewalk and exposing himself to the machine-gunner, René had pushed her into the parking lot, right into the middle of Keane's Quickening. The smell of ozone blew against her, just as a bolt of electricity exploded the bricks next to her head. She flung herself down and crawled along the wall, René on her heels. Flinching from the lightning bolts and Keane's howls of pain as she groped for her gun, she scrambled through the worst of the storm. That was how she and René surprised the shooter on the other side. He had come out from his cover and was approaching Keane, staying clear of the Quickening. He looked up and saw her. She thought his eyes widened in surprise before she started shooting. René's gun boomed in her ear, deafening her. The shooter went down, blood spraying out from the back of his head. Which one of them got him, she never knew, afterwards, and in the end, it didn't matter. He'd already done enough damage to hurt.

A car door slammed shut. As the Quickening died and Keane fell to the ground, she turned to see her mother's car pulling away with a screech of tires. A body lay in the street. She didn't need to run to it to know that it was her mother, and that her mother was dead. And she didn't need René to tell her that her father and Ben were gone as well.

*********


You see it in the headlines,
You hear it everyday.
They say they're gonna stop it,
But it doesn't go away….

The bastards were smart--or as smart as you could be, doing what they had in mind. There was a reason why no Mortals had tried to profit in this way from the Game before. "Cunning" might be the better word. Under the cover of Keane's Quickening, they forced me to throw my gun away, picked you up and put us both in Eleanor's car. I tried not to look when they threw her out on the pavement like garbage, but when you woke up and Acne Boy shot you in the face, I lost it and took a few swings at whoever got in range. Acne Boy punched me in the face (though he looked tempted to shoot me) and put me in the back of the car. When I came out of my daze, he had you shoved up against me and was sticking a knife into your chest, up to the hilt. His partner, the French guy, was driving the car, and we were already out of the area. I wrapped my arms around your body and pulled you as far away from him as I could, glaring at Acne Boy. He glared back.

"Don't even think about taking that out," he told me, as he relieved you of all your hardware and shoved the knife in harder, for good measure. "I am not nearly as kind and forgiving as Philippe is." Acne Boy's use of his friend's name rattled me. That meant they weren't going to just let us go when they were finished with you.

"Kiss my ass," I snarled back.

"Not even on a bet, old man." I controlled my twitch at the name as best I could. The last thing I needed to do was wake them up to the fact that they had netted a big fish. They were already scary enough. I didn't even try to go for Acne Boy's gun. There was no point.

I thought I might be able to keep track of where we were, but as soon as Acne Boy was done with you, he blindfolded me. I didn't need to be told that he'd use my trying to get the thing off as an excuse to shoot me, but he told me that, anyway. I sat there, listening to him, and promised myself that the first chance I got, I was taking him out. Didn't help that the blindfold made it impossible to see anything but that one, frozen image of his partner tossing Eleanor's body out into the street. At least I couldn't remember how it sounded.

They didn't bother to take off the blindfold after the car stopped. Instead, they pulled me out, dragging me into a house and down some stairs. One of them shoved me onto a bed and yanked off my pants and my prosthetics. They went back upstairs. I lifted the blindfold a little and saw that I was in a cellar. That would explain the chill. A few minutes later, I heard them upstairs and shoved the blindfold back into place. They came back down, dragging a body with them. I winced at the sound of every thump of your head against the steps. They dragged you across the dirt floor and dumped you next to the bed. Acne Boy yanked off my blindfold. I looked down at you. Philippe was chaining you by the ankle to the leg of the bed. Acne Boy bent over and pulled out the knife, which came out with a sucking noise. They went back upstairs.

After a few minutes, you gasped, choked and started coughing. I rolled over and looked down at you. When you opened your eyes, you rubbed at them, wincing. Blood must have gotten into them--your face was covered with thick clots of it. It came off on your hand in flakes.

"Hey," I said.

You looked up at me, zeroing in. It looked painful. "Joe," you said, wheezing as you struggled to sit up.

"Yeah, it's me," I said. "I'm here. It's…it's not okay, but I'm here. These guys are bad news, man. They're filming Immortal challenges and showing them on the Internet. I think they're planning on setting up some fights themselves, too, with you as the bait."

You gave me a funny look, then laughed. "Oh. Spartacus, you mean."

"Something like that. Look, don't give them anything. Just keep your mouth shut for now."

I was hoping to get a little more time with you, bring you more up to speed before the Two Stooges came back, but no such luck. A new guy came downstairs. He saw you trying to lift yourself up onto the bed and grinned. I could have seen a gold cap in there, but maybe I was being prejudiced. Now we had three kidnappers to deal with. This was not looking good.

He crouched down next to the bed, but just out of reach. "Okay, Methos, Conan, Og…whatever you call yourself. Here's how it's gonna be--you lose your head, we don't need him anymore." I hoped he was just guessing about the "Methos" moniker. He jerked his head at me. So nice to be included in the friggin' conversation. "You take off on us, we don't need him anymore. You be a good boy, we'll keep him around and maybe you'll even get a Christmas dinner out of it."

You watched him as if he was a bug, which he was. Then, you grinned. "Okay," you said brightly. "But it's gonna cost you." He looked pissed off at that. You weren't supposed to be bargaining from a supine position on a dirt cellar floor. What the Hell happened to keeping your head down and your mouth shut? "I could murder a Big Mac right now," you went on. "And I'll bet Joe here could, too. You wanna keep me, you feed me. You feed me well, I'll give you such a show, you'll be rich beyond the dreams of Internet porno slime anywhere."

The man looked stunned. I almost laughed, but I stifled it. "You're hungry?"

"Well, yeah." You didn't quite add, 'stupid', but you didn't have to. "You just shot me twice. You think I'm not gonna be hungry after all that healing? Oh, by the way, get a TV down here while you're at it, and a space heater. This place is cold. You do that and I'll keep this blood on my face--do up my hair all spikey, too, like the Kurgan's. Remember him? Bet your audience would like that." I watched you, incredulous. Was this some bad effect from getting shot in the head?

"It would look really good on the vid," the guy said thoughtfully, eyes a little faraway. Damned if you hadn't sucked him right in.

"Exactly. Hey, I used to be a gladiator, buddy. You treat me and my friend right and I'll give you great vid. Trust me." I wouldn't have, seeing that sunny smile, but then, I knew you. This extra from 'Deliverance' did not. "So, how 'bout it? Two Happy Meals each, a space heater, the TV down here--maybe a VCR with some tapes, if you got it. I assure you, you won't regret it."

The new guy smiled--a down-home, jest-shootin'-varmints grin. You'd appealed to his lesser nature, all right. He pointed at your face. "You keep that blood on. Looks good on you."

"All right," you called out after him as he went upstairs. "Don't forget the grub, now."

"Are you out of your mind?" I said, as you crawled up onto the bed.

"Well, yes, Joe, I am. I thought we established that months ago." Suddenly, you looked exhausted and grey.

I stared at you. "It was an act. You were snowing the guy."

You crawled over me and settled down next to the concrete. I let you. That fucking wall was ice cold. At that point, I was just fine about having a warm body between it and me.

"Of course it was an act, Joe," you said wearily as you pulled the thin blanket up, and rolled over to face the wall. "What did you think it was?"

"Oh, I dunno. Residual brain damage, maybe?" I punched you in the shoulder. "Hey! I meant it. You keep pushing them like that, we are gonna end up dead in a ditch somewhere."

You sighed and rolled back over to face me. "Joe, if we are to get out of here, we need to be fed and warm and in good health. These guys may look like stupid rednecks, but they won't give us many chances."

"But, still…." I tried to come up with something to add, but all I could think was, "Mac wouldn't do it that way." For once, the way Mac would have done it didn't seem all that impressive. The last time he'd gotten himself locked up in a cellar, it had taken Amanda, Richie and me to get him out.

You smiled wryly. "Joe, I think we both know that I would go to great lengths to survive. Haven't you ever thought about what I would do to make sure my friends did, too?"

I didn't have an answer to that. I still didn't have an answer when Acne Boy came down with four Happy Meals, a space heater (which he set up just out of reach) and a thick quilt. And by the time he and his friends had dragged down an old TV/VCR with a couple of tapes, cursing your name all the way, and handed you the remote, I still hadn't come up with anything. You had long gone to sleep by the time I stopped trying.

*********


It's a losing proposition,
But one you can't refuse.
It's the politics of contraband,
It's the smuggler's blues.

Inspector LeBrun had been at his job long enough to have his share of strange stories. He knew all about Joe Dawson, his bar, his friend Duncan MacLeod and his odd tattoo. He just didn't know how they all connected.

Of the victims in the parking lot, all but one had Dawson's tattoo, a complex blue circle on the right wrist. The younger woman in the bushes had been strangled and the man near the edge of the parking lot, the one found with the camera, had been shot in the face from a distance. LeBrun suspected that the man had killed the young woman, but he still had no idea why. The older woman at the other side of the parking lot and the headless woman in the middle of it were more of a problem. So far, there was no forensic evidence that the man had crossed the parking lot, let alone carried a sword. The forensics were all wrong for the wounds of the older woman, who had caught a bullet in the left side of her head and the headless woman, who had been found sprawled on top of a charred patch of tar. That brimstone smell was all too familiar to LeBrun, but MacLeod had left for America in October. These killings might involve Dawson, but not MacLeod. Now, there was a new wrinkle.

LeBrun went straight from the parking lot to Le Blues Bar. It was evening and business was beginning to pick up. Blues music played from the speakers, though there was no live band. A young Frenchwoman served customers. LeBrun saw no sign of Dawson, who, as the owner, was there nearly every night. In the corner sat an older man with a greying beard, drinking cognac and smoking. LeBrun sauntered over to him and pulled out a chair. "Is this seat taken?" he asked in French. The man shrugged, puffing on his cigarette. LeBrun thought the man's hand might be shaking, but couldn't be sure. He sat down. "It's been a long time. What was it, 1987, since we last met? I am afraid that I've forgotten your name."

The man watched him coolly. "And I am afraid that I never knew yours, Monsieur," he replied, also in French. "I do not believe that we have met."

"Perhaps not. You were a little non compos mentis when we picked you up at that little hole-in-the-wall in Montreuil. Quite traumatic for all involved, I fear. You fought us, you know, especially after we got your gun away from you. You had the most interesting tattoo." He held out his hand. "Inspector LeBrun."

Smirking, the man shook the proferred hand. "Dr. René Galbon. Unfortunately, I don't think that I am who you think I am. As you see, I have no tattoo." And indeed, his wrist was bare. "May I offer you a drink?"

"Mai oui. Merci." LeBrun was sure that Galbon was the man he had seen raging in that police station so many years ago, the first he had ever seen bear that tattoo. It was possible to remove them, if one had money or certain friends. "I will have cognac, myself."

Galbon nodded and raised a hand to the waitress. LeBrun watched with interest as she hurried over and took his order. It seemed that Galbon was a favoured customer in Joe Dawson's establishment.

Galbon rubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray and blew out smoke. "What brings you here, Inspector LeBrun? Business or pleasure?"

"Business, hélas. Are you aware of the tragedy which occurred just a few blocks away from here this afternoon?"

Galbon looked puzzled. "Tragedy, Inspector? I had heard some talk about a murder on the television, but it was confused. I decided to stay out of the way."

"It was a multiple murder in a parking lot, Doctor. Four people. Three of them had a strange tattoo, and the fourth was décapitée--beheaded." LeBrun leaned forward, watching for Galbon's reaction. Galbon did a good job of looking surprised but mostly what LeBrun saw was sadness. "I have seen similar tragedies before. There is a group…but I am sure you would not know about them. I have been tracking them for some time." Galbon's expression did not change. Disappointed, LeBrun sat back as the barmaid returned with his cognac. "I would appreciate any information that you could give me."

Galbon shook his head. "I am sorry, Inspector. You have already told me far more than I knew before. This is not that kind of establishment. Whoever did this probably would not come in here, afterwards."

"Perhaps someone else knows more." LeBrun glanced around the bar at the other patrons. "I do not see the owner this evening."

"M. Dawson is out of town on business, and I have been here all afternoon. No one who came in has mentioned the incident." Galbon smiled. "But I have no objections, myself, to your asking around."

*********


Amy looked up from Joe's laptop as René came out into the office. Keane was still asleep on the couch. She hadn't realised that quickenings could be so draining on an Immortal, even hours afterwards. "Is that policeman still out there?" she asked.

"No. He left." René gave her a quizzical look. "How did you know he was out there?"

"Marie mentioned it." Amy went back to her interactive map. She had been relieved when Marie showed up for her shift. Amy was not in any kind of mood for serving customers.

"Ah. He claimed to have known me years ago, when I still had a tattoo. He was very inquisitive."

"LeBrun's been trying to catch Joe out for a long time. He's not 'safe', exactly, but his interest is benign enough. He's noticed our activities over the years and he wants to know what's going on."

René pulled out his cigarettes and lit one. "Then, why have we never recruited him, if he is on to us?"

"Who knows? Before, I think, things were too chaotic, and Joe didn't want to drag him into the middle of a civil war. But I also think he was afraid about which way LeBrun might jump, and he didn't want to kill the man if he jumped the wrong way."

René nodded. "Je comprends…. He mentioned the 'incident' this afternoon. It seems that Keane's Watcher is dead, as well." He looked her over. "Are you all right?"

She swallowed and resisted the urge to close her eyes. That would make her weep. "No."

He looked concerned. Well, he was a therapist. "How can I help?"

Amy concentrated on regulating her breathing. "You can help me find my father and Ben. Then, you can help me get within range of the bastards who murdered my mother so that I can kill them."

"I see." He put his hands in his pockets, as if to keep from hugging her or patting her on the head. She was grateful for that. "How necessary is it that you do this yourself?"

She knew, from their recent dealings with Croft and Brill, that it was a serious question. She answered it in the same manner. "In a perfect world, I'd do it slowly, with my bare hands, or with something very, very sharp. But I will settle for however the situation ends up, as long as we get Ben and my father back safe and they all end up dead. I would, of course, appreciate any help that you might provide." Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Keane stirring and sitting up.

"Understood." René pulled up the chair that Ben had sat in hours before and sat down next to her. She put that comparison out of her mind as quickly as she could. "It is all right to grieve, you know."

Amy rubbed the bridge of her nose. Her eyes ached. "Not now. Not when I still need my edge. I'll grieve for her after they're safe, after it's all done."

He nodded. "Then, let us get this done." He leaned forward. "Have you discovered anything yet on the map?"

"Something, yes. They're getting closer to Paris, the other Immortals. It seems clear now that these renegades have attracted them to the area somehow. I think Stephen was the intended target, ironically enough, not Ben. They didn't know about Ben."

"Is this map accurate and up-to-date? Can we use it to track the renegades?"

"Yes, and maybe. I contacted Gabrieli. Apparently, he spoke to my father as well as you. I don't know how that will help Ben and him, but let's hope they won't be completely in the dark, wherever they are. Gabrieli is giving this top priority, though I think he's keeping the details to himself. We'll have to keep that in mind, if we run into any field Watchers. If our theory is right, then eventually one or more of these Immortals will end up fighting Ben. The problem is tracking which one."

"I think I can help with that," Keane said from behind them.

*********


I didn't sleep well in the night. You were more restless than usual, twitching like a cat and muttering in some unknown language, making the chain on your leg clank. You were probably dreaming about challenges and quickenings. The room was pitch-black after they pulled the plug on the TV from upstairs, but I still couldn't shake the feeling that one corner, at the other side of the room next to the old, empty wine rack, was darker than the rest. It reminded me of that stairwell in Scotland--not the kind of memory that helps you sleep. I hoped it wasn't Eleanor. She hadn't been dead a day, but I was having trouble remembering what she'd looked like alive.

In the morning, the Good Old Boy brought us breakfast--MacDonald's, and plugged in the TV. My arteries were gonna be rock hard by the time we got out of here. If we got out of here. While morning kid's cartoons played away on the TV, you scarfed down two Egg McMuffins, some orange juice and a couple of hash browns. There was plenty left for me, but I didn't have any appetite. Watching you eat so calmly, with your face still covered with your own dried, brown blood like a war mask, put me right off my feed. I must be getting old; I've lost my tolerance for the smell of blood.

"Joe, what's up with you?" you said, eyeing me as you finished up. "Sure, we're in a tight spot, but we've seen worse."

"That woman I was with when I drove up," I said. "Did you see what happened to her?"

You shook your head, munching on a hash brown. "'Fraid not. I was too busy throwing myself in front of a bullet because you were too dumb to get out of the way. Why?"

You didn't care. Of course you didn't care. You didn't even know her, let alone know she was dead. "They shot her; blew her brains out all over me."

You grimaced. "Ow. You didn't know her very well, did you?"

Christ. Now, not only was I not hungry, I thought I was gonna be sick. "She was Amy's mother. Her name was Eleanor."

As soon I said it, I regretted it. You stopped in mid-chew, stricken. "I didn't know," you said, after an uncomfortable silence. "You never told me her name."

"It never seemed important." Damn. That sounded real sensitive. "It's just…I hadn't seen her since Amy's birth. I didn't think it was right to get her involved in my little moral dilemmas."

To my relief, and eternal gratitude (at least, for the next five minutes), you didn't make the obvious, sarcastic remark about that. You finished the hash brown with no further comment. Then, you picked up the rest of the food, put it all back into the bag and handed it to me. "Eat that."

I pushed it away. "I'm not hungry."

You pushed it back. "And you think I am? Eat it, or they win."

I glared at you, shoving the bag back at you. "Eat it yourself. You just wolfed down all that food and you're telling me you weren't hungry?"

You stared back, your eyes bright and startling through the blood mask. They're green; I'd never noticed that before. For the first time, I also noticed that your pupils weren't quite the same size, a legacy of the day before. "I got shot, Joe. That takes time to heal, and energy--especially head shots. Of course I needed the food, but do you really think I enjoy the taste of my own blood for breakfast?" You flicked the bag with your hand and closed your eyes for a second or two, swaying on the bed. "If I stood up right now, I'd fall flat on my ass and puke all over the floor. Just take the bloody food, all right?"

The door upstairs opened. We both looked up, but we could only hear it, not see it. Philippe skipped downstairs, holding a cellphone. He stood at the base of the stairs and waved it at us.

"Good news," he warbled over the sound of the kiddy cartoons. "We got our first customer. You fight him this afternoon." He was all excited, and that's when the obvious hit me--these guys had never done this before. You were their trial run. I guess they must have been aiming for Keane, since they'd been stalking him and you weren't in the database, not as Methos, anyway. No wonder they hadn't killed me yet. They were still feeling their way along. That might be our only ticket out of here.

"Oh, yeah?" you said. "Who?" I'd spent an hour last night telling you what Gabrieli had told me about these guys and their brand new idea for an Internet start-up company. You were as up to speed as you were gonna get.

"His name is John Siodmak." Philippe watched you closely for a reaction. You didn't give him one. I kept my mouth shut, trying to attract as little attention as possible.

"Never heard of him," you said. "Who is he?"

"Oh, he's young--had his first death during World War I. Will that be a problem?" What kind of game was this guy playing, here?

You shook your head. "Don't think so, but I guess I won't find out until I get out there."

Philippe was still watching you. It scared me. He wanted something from you and you weren't giving it to him. "Don't you want to know more about his background? How he fights? How many heads he's taken?"

You shrugged. "What for? It's your dance card, not mine. And one of us will be dead by nightfall, so why go to the trouble of getting to know him first?" Philippe's eyes widened. Why, I think you'd shocked him. "What time are we doing this?"

"In a few hours," Philippe admitted. Guess he didn't want to give us any more of a heads-up than he had to. Couldn't blame him there. I wouldn't have.

"Well, when you're ready to go, just come down and tell me, okay? I'm gonna take a nap." You lay down and put an arm over your face. Philippe stared at you, mouth hanging open, but you never moved. As far as you were concerned, the conversation was over. He looked at me, as if for an explanation. I shrugged and reached for the MacDonald's bag. He fled back upstairs while I started munching on an Egg McMuffin. It tasted like greasy cardboard, but I kept at it. Eleanor would have wanted me to make the effort and I wasn't about to disappoint her anymore than I had already.

Snuff, part two


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