by Leslie Fish
The punk challenged him at the edge of the parking lot.
"I'm Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod," Duncan announced himself cautiously, grasping the hilt of his katana under his coat but not drawing it yet. Perhaps they could both walk away peaceably...
"I'm Gilbert Wilkerson." The boy - he looked to be in his late 20s, but had the mannerisms of a swaggering teenage gangbanger - drew out his sword with a flourish, grinning widely. "And you are dead meat."
Duncan sighed in resignation and drew his sword, stepping quickly into the empty parking lot behind the row of closed shops. It was nearly midnight on a weekday in Phoenix, and in a working-class part of town. It was very unlikely that anyone would see them fighting back here.
Still, the boy was a fool to choose such an exposed location. From the way he moved as he followed Duncan, he was no great swordsman either; he swung his sword - a cheap replica of a katana, by the look of it - in menacing circles, pure bluff intended to intimidate, a waste of energy in the desert-city heat. Who was his teacher, Duncan wondered. Benny Carbassa? With luck, he could just stab the lout and walk away.
No, no such luck. The boy charged into his attack, sword whirling. He was strong and fast, and knew a few dirty tricks, and that was exactly all he had going for him. Duncan had to concentrate on his parries for the first few minutes, seeing no opening he could take quickly. Wilkerson, seeing his efforts thwarted, made the fatal mistake of losing his temper and hammering harder, with more strength but with no more speed, and with less control. Duncan darted through a fast deflection with an automatic high-slash riposte and realized - too late - that the boy had been too close for that riposte to simply wound him. Duncan swore loudly as he saw the boy's sword drop out of his hand, his body fall one way and his head - face looking surprised - in another direction.
"Shit!" Duncan snapped, and ran toward the other end of the strip of parking lot. If he could get enough range, the Quickening wouldn't be too bad; he'd get the power, but none of the boy's memories, knowledge or personality - things he definitely didn't want. The lightning arced, catching him in the back and knocking him down. "Oh bloody hell," he muttered, bracing himself.
The Quickening was raw, harsh and mercifully brief. Duncan dimly noticed that bits of sheet-metal were falling like hail from the back of the buildings, some of them landing near the body. The junction-box on a nearby utility pole exploded in a rain of sparks; that would provide logical excuse for the light-show, he guessed. Thank god the nearest streetlight was out of range, and stayed lit.
With any luck at all he could get out of here unseen, get to his car, drive to the airport, catch the red-eye flight and be back in Seacouver before anyone found the body. With a little scene-setting, he could make it look as if one of those falling metal sheets had done the decapitation. There would be no trouble with the police...
As the lightning faded he climbed shakily to his feet and paced toward Wilkerson's corpse. First wipe off the sword on the boy's jacket, then sheathe it. Next retrieve Wilkerson's fallen sword - yes, a cheap copy - and shove that under his coat; find someplace to dispose of it far from here. Now - using a handkerchief to prevent fingerprinting - pick up one of the shards, dip it in the blood, and leave it in the gap between Wilkerson's neck and head. Enough. Now go.
Duncan started toward the streetward end of the parking lot, then stopped short as he realized he wasn't alone.
A woman stood there, calmly watching him.
Wilkerson's Watcher? he wondered. But would any Watcher, even knowing that he knew about them, reveal herself so plainly? Duncan thought of turning around and running away, but quashed the idea; if she wasn't a Watcher, she'd seen enough that she could give his description to the police. The fact that she was still standing there, unafraid, meant that he might be able to talk his way out of this. He sighed and trudged toward her.
As he approached, the streetlight revealed more details. She had long raven-black hair, held back by a bandana-headband. She wore plain clip-clop sandals, faded jeans, and an oversized white T-shirt bearing the logo of a local marathon; the shirt hung straight from her wide shoulders and considerable breasts, suggesting a nipped-in waist beneath. Her forearms looked lean and muscular, and from what he could see under the jeans her legs were much the same. She certainly wasn't old, but neither did she look very young: 30-something, he'd guess, hard to tell in this light. She had the very faint tan of a native Arizonian; nobody with any sense exposed their skin to that slaughtering sunlight if they could help it.
That face was intriguing: long and square-jawed, with cheekbones that suggested Indian blood, thick and level black eyebrows that owed nothing to makeup, dark eyes that didn't seem to be brown or black. Not a conventionally pretty face, but a strong one: a face that would, he realized, be equally handsome on a man or a woman. Intriguing. And her expression was war, but unafraid.
He saw that she also had one hand in a front pocket, and on the outside of that pocket gleamed the clip of a small holster.
Right, he remembered. This is Arizona. The real Wild West. No gun-laws. That might partly explain her confidence.
As he came within reach, she held up her other hand in a clear 'stop' gesture. There was no tattoo on her wrist.
Duncan obediently stopped, keeping an eye on the hand in her pocket. His post-Quickening shakiness surged up in a spasm of weird humor, and he couldn't resist the old joke. "Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?"
She smiled, showing a flash of even teeth, as she caught the reference. "I'm not that glad, or equipped," she answered, in a slightly twangy alto voice. "Are you in the S.C.A.?"
"If you don't know, you aren't. Society for Creative Anachronism. A history-recreation club that specializes in the Middle Ages. They do a lot of sword-fighting, though usually not that style."
Duncan sighed. "All right. What did you see?"
She scratched her chin thoughtfully, not taking the other hand out of her pocket. "I was walking down to the 7-11 on the corner," she said, as if reciting testimony in court, "And I heard swords clanging. I recognized the sound. I followed it, wondering who'd be doing sword-practice in a parking lot at this hour. I saw that other guy coming at you, hammer and tongs, and you blocking, defending yourself."
She paused, arching an eyebrow at him. Duncan got the message and nodded understanding.
"Then I saw your return-move go right through his neck. You looked surprised and upset, as if you hadn't expected that. I got the distinct impression that you really hadn't wanted to kill him."
"I didn't," Duncan confirmed. "That stupid punk, he insisted..."
"You're angry at him for pushing you into it." The woman eyed him keenly. "You didn't want to fight. He started it."
"And I finished it."
"Fair enough." She looked him up and down. "And I can see why you took off running, but kindly explain what happened next."
"The junction-box..." Duncan tried, pointing to its smoking remains.
"That was a few seconds later. I saw slow lightning wind out of that guy's body and strike you like a snake. Yes, it blew out the junction-box and peeled metal off the roof, but that was just a sideline. It was after you. It knocked you down and threw you around, but you got up afterward as if nothing had happened. Explain that."
Duncan heaved a deep sigh. There was no avoiding this. No doubt Wilkerson's Watcher was lurking nearby, probably recording this conversation, and would come to recruit the woman afterward. He might as well explain everything. "It's a long story," he said. "Is there anywhere around here that we could sit down and talk?"
"At this hour? On a weekday? In Phoenix?" she grinned. "Nearest place in walking distance is the curb overlooking the shallow gully, down there by the 7-11. Shall we go?"
Duncan nodded acquiescence and stepped politely around her, at a safe distance, keeping his hands carefully in sight. She turned to match him, still keeping that hand in her pocket. They paced silently, a cautious yard apart, down toward the lights of the all-night store.
As they approached the 7-11 Duncan noted a dumpster in the shadows behind the building, and detoured that way. The woman hesitated a moment, then followed, but halted at the edge of the zone of streetlamp light. Her hand was still in her pocket. Duncan nodded grudging approval as he pulled the punk's sword out from under his coat.
Fingerprints, he remembered. Wipe them off. Now where had the damned handkerchief gotten off to? Dropped somewhere. Wonderful.
"Problem?" the woman asked, taking a small step closer.
"No handkerchief," he snapped. "How do I get rid of the fingerprints?"
The woman thought for a moment, then shrugged. She paced up to him in the shadows, gripped the hem of her T-shirt and pulled it off in a single fast jerk. She handed it to him without comment - with her left hand. Her right was back in her pocket again. Her expression changed not at all.
As Duncan took the shirt and hastily wiped the sword with it, he couldn't help glancing at the woman who stood watching him calmly while wearing nothing above the waist but a headband and a simple cotton brassiere. Those breasts were real, all right. Below them, her smooth belly and sides tapered into a tight waist and then a flare of wide hips. Above the brassiere, she had shoulder and arm muscles that would not have shamed a lightweight wrestler. He wondered how she'd gotten those as he lifted the dumpster's lid, tossed in the sword, and closed the lid again. He tossed her the shirt and looked away while she put it back on. It occurred to him that he didn't even know her name.
"I'm Duncan MacLeod, by the way," he said. "And you?"
"Lisa Carp," she said - and he could hear her stepping away, back into the light. "Not terribly romantic, but you don't need a fancy name to be a folksinger."
Folksinger! Duncan turned around and followed Lisa back into the zone of streetlight. "And do you play an instrument too?"
"Twelve-string guitar," she agreed. "I've got the calluses to prove it."
So that's where she got the muscles, Duncan thought, remembering seeing Joe in his undershirt, playing guitar, every muscle from his neck down working steadily. "I've got a friend who's a Blues-player," he said. "You might like to meet him sometime."
"Might," Lisa shrugged. "How about we go into the store, and you get us a couple of ice-cream cones?"
"Ice cream...?" Too weird.
"It's hard to fight with ice cream in your hands," she grinned.
"Good point," Duncan laughed. "Let's go."
She took care to let him precede her into the cramped little store, but he noticed that once inside she took her hand out of her pocket. In this light he could see that her eyes were definitely blue - dark blue, with little rims of silver-gray around the irises. She was definitely not wearing any makeup, nor perfume; she smelled of nothing but clean sweat. Little patches of rough skin on her knuckles and under her eyes suggested that she was in her late 30s rather than early.
He also noticed the small but thick yellow calluses on the tips of her left hand's fingers, and that the tendons in her wrists stood up like cables. A guitar player, all right. He caught himself imagining her playing duets with Joe. Maybe he could nudge the Watchers into making her Joe's partner...
As he approached the freezer-section, Duncan noticed a nondescript man in a nondescript suit peering in the window while talking into a cell-phone. That must be Wilkerson's Watcher.
He bought two chocolate-covered ice-cream cones and a bottle of orange juice, and led the way back out the door. The gully, with its flanking curbs, was visible about a dozen yards away, well within sight of the store and clearly within the lamplight, but far enough away for privacy.
A few minutes later the two of them sat on the curb, feet trailing into the dry gully, eating the ice-cream cones. The Watcher lounged by the side of the 7-11, out of earshot, pretending to read a magazine. Lisa had her hand out of her pocket, but resting on her leg near it, while she ate the ice cream with her left hand. Duncan rubbed a flake of chocolate off his chin and began telling her the whole story of the Immortals. He left nothing out, including the Watchers, and casually pointed out Wilkerson's Watcher behind them. Lisa barely turned her head to look, peering out through the screen of her long black hair. After that, Duncan noticed, she let her hand slide away from her pocket.
"Fascinating story," she said when he was finished. "Now prove it. I may live in Arizona, but my heart - as the song goes - is from Missouri. Show me."
"Uhm... Have you got a knife with you?"
Lisa reached into another pocket and pulled out a keychain. It held an impressive number of keys - including a police-handcuff key - a supermarket Preferred Customer tag, and a small Swiss Army knife. Duncan opened the knife, pressed the short blade to his arm, gritted his teeth and pulled hard. Blood promptly welled out of the cut. Duncan handed back the keychain, and noted that Lisa wiped the blood off the knife-blade on the sole of her near sandal before closing the knife.
"Now watch," he said, pointing to the cut.
Lisa duly peered at the cut. Duncan glanced up at the sky, noting the three-quarter moon and thick spangling of desert-sky stars, and marveled that he was sitting here under the moon and stars, eating ice cream and talking to a handsome musician about immortality, and couldn't imagine a less romantic moment in his life.
The healing came with the usual small sizzle of Quickening-lightning. Lisa jumped, and then peered closer. She raised both eyebrows, licked her thumb and then used it to wipe away the blood on his arm, revealing the unmarked skin beneath.
"All right," she said slowly, wiping her thumb on a stone. "You're immortal. So...shake hands with me."
She held out her right hand. Duncan saw that there was a ring on the middle finger, a simple band made of two thick wires twisted together, one of light gray metal, the other dark gray. Wondering where this was going, he duly took her hand. Her grip clamped firmly on him, surprisingly strong. Guitar-player's hands, true enough. He could feel the ring pressing into his palm. Lisa held it there for a long moment, then released, then clutched his hand and peered closely at it. "No burn," she said.
"What was that all about?" Duncan asked as she let him go.
"That ring is made of iron and silver," she replied. "If the legends are true, you're not an elf, a vampire or a werewolf."
Duncan laughed. "No, just a common-or-garden-variety Immoral. You believe in legends?"
"All legends start with a kernel of truth." Her eyes grew distant. "Being a folksinger, I've sung in a lot of strange places, gotten to meet a lot of strange people, and seen a lot of strange things."
"Vampires and werewolves?" Duncan chuckled.
"Nope. Witches. Real ones. Sing for a Pagan festival and you get a lot of free lessons in psychic practice. I've also seen real live unicorns, and real witches' ceremonies, and real psychic phenomena. I've learned not to discount anything weird. So why not Immortals? I figure, if medical science keeps on progressing, in another few decades we can all be immortal - or at least immune to aging. It's not so strange."
Duncan stared at her for a long moment. "Is that why you were...so blasť about...what you saw? Why you weren't frightened?"
"Maybe," she smiled. "And maybe it's because... Well, nobody gets rich playing folkmusic, so I've learned to live poor. I lead a stripped-down life, and can't afford any excess baggage - including the emotional kind. I'm strictly a no-frills woman."
"I've got to remember that phrase."
"Hmmm, there's a song in that." Lisa paused for a moment, her hands unconsciously framing an invisible guitar, fingers picking notes on imaginary strings. Then she began to sing, a rough Bluesy tune.
"Don't gimme no candy and flowers.
Don't gimme no sweet talk.
Just get to the point and be honest,
Or you can take a walk.
'Cause I'm a no-frills woman,
Not one of those fussy-silly dames.
I'm a no-frills woman.
I got no time for playin' games."
A Bessie Smith kind of voice, Duncan considered. Joe will like her. "Did you just make up all that?"
"Yep. The rest of the verses will take longer, though. First verse just states the situation; the other verses have to develop it."
Joe will love her. "Look, when the Watchers come to recruit you, be sure to tell them that you want to talk to Joe Dawson. Remember that name; he's my personal Watcher."
"Glad to. And it'll be nice to have a good-paying Day Job that I can like, for a change." Her eyebrows went up again. "Say, if I'm going to be secretly following Immortals around, there's no better excuse than to be toting a guitar and a bag of songs. Street-singers go everywhere, plank down their guitar-cases and sing just about everywhere, and nobody thinks anything about it."
"Good cover," Duncan agreed, wondering when he could get up and leave, wondering if there was really any hurry.
"Tell me one more thing," Lisa said, turning to look hard at him. "It won't matter what the answer is, so you can tell me the truth. Am I a pre-Immortal?"
Duncan gave her a long look, trying - really hoping - to feel that giveaway tingle. No, it wasn't there. He shook his head slowly.
"Didn't think so," she said. "But it doesn't matter; there are other forms of immortality, and those I'm sure I've got."
"Immortality through works," Duncan guessed. "Your music."
"Also reincarnation." She grinned impishly. "I know that one's real, because I've done it - and got proof."
"...Proof?" Too weird!
"I went to a city where I'd never set foot in this life, and described how it looked, sounded and smelled 150 years ago. I went to an old restaurant I'd never seen before, and described what the basement looked like before I ever went inside. I went to an equally-old church and described its interior - and one of the stained-glass windows, which wasn't visible from where I stood - before I got through the front doors. It's because I used to live in that town, and went to that church, and ate in that restaurant, in another life - 150 years ago. I have witnesses, and they took notes."
Duncan couldn't think of anything to say.
"So I've got no cause to be jealous of Immortals," Lisa went on. "It's just nice to know that they exist - along with witches, and unicorns and magic."
Duncan nodded slowly. "I hate to leave, but... I really do have a plane to catch." He thought of something else, and reached into his coat-pocket. "Here, take my card. Give me a call tomorrow, when I get home, and I'll see about getting you some gigs up in Seattle." Ridiculous, he remembered. The watchers will keep her busy, starting tomorrow. He realized that he really did hope to see her again.
"Thanks," said Lisa, taking the card. "I'll definitely keep in touch. You're worth writing a few songs about."
Duncan laughed and stood. "Just don't mention me by name," he said. "For obvious reasons, I don't like publicity."
"Hey, nobody believes fantasy stories," said Lisa, getting to her feet. "And I'll look up your friend, too." She held out her hand.
Duncan took it, and they shook hands briefly. There was no point in prolonging the moment. Duncan turned away and walked briskly toward the space where he'd parked his car. Only when he'd reached it did he pause to look back.
He saw Lisa stroll over to Wilkerson's Watcher and hold up her left hand.
"Sign me up," he clearly heard her say. "And I've got to talk to Joe Dawson."
Wilkerson's Watcher looked as if he were about to have a heart attack. Lisa only grinned at him.
Duncan laughed to himself as he unlocked the car and climbed in. For some reason, the song "Matchmaker, Matchmaker" kept flitting through his head.