by Leslie Fish
Glancing automatically at the reflections in passing shop windows, David Keogh spotted the woman following him. She had to be following him; he'd seen her reflection twice before within the space of this single city block. For a long moment he was torn between the practical paranoia of all Immortals and the intriguing thought that she was stalking him because, somewhere further back down the street, she'd fallen in love at first sight.
No, best to err on the side of caution. He stepped into a doorway and waited there, knowing she'd pass in a few seconds. He'd confront her openly and see how she reacted.
Ah, here she came - carrying a guitar case, wearing a large backpack with two folding stools tied to it. She was dressed in simple bluejeans and T-shirt, long and unbuttoned knitted vest, cheap track shoes on her feet and a red folded-bandana headband holding back her long black hair. Unless that guitar case held a machine-gun she was unlikely to be dangerous. Wait, wait...
She plodded past the doorway, looking straight ahead. Now: jump out and confront her!
"You!" Keogh snapped. "Why are you following me?"
The woman jerked a step away from him, startled but not frightened, looking at him as if he'd lost his mind. Keogh belatedly realized just how classically paranoid his question must have sounded.
"Because," the woman snapped right back, in a twangy alto voice, "You got between me and the man I'm really following." She pointed further down the street, to a man in a plain suit whom Keogh had barely noticed ahead of him. "He's a talent scout for a recording company, and I'm trying to introduce myself as impressively as possible. Now would you mind stepping aside and letting me get on with it?"
"Oh." Keogh stepped back into the doorway, feeling his ears redden.
The woman gave him another suspicious look, and resumed her march down the street. He watched as the man in the suit went down to the corner and turned to the right, and the woman followed. She never once looked back.
As Keogh moved out of the doorway and along the street to his own shop, he recognized the source of his embarrassment. He wasn't used to being ignored, or dismissed as inconsequential - especially not by a woman.
As he unlocked the door to his shop Keogh reminded himself that the woman wasn't his type, anyway. She was older than he liked them, in her 30s probably, and dressed in that scruffy, unflattering, modern fashion. She was obviously a musician, therefore another artist, but her clothes and voice and manner were distinctly unfeminine, even for this lamentably unisex age. He really should be glad that she hadn't fallen in love at first sight. Really.
He marched resolutely over to his workbench and picked up the chair-leg he'd been working on yesterday. Work was the best antidote to life's little annoyances.
Two hours later, hands cramping and stomach demanding something to tide it over until lunch, Keogh poked his nose out of the shop - and saw the woman again. She'd set up at the corner, sitting on one folding stool, songbook perched on the other, backpack beside her on one side and open guitar-case on the other. She was playing a 12-string guitar and singing what sounded halfway between a folksong and a motet; her pick-clad fingertips skittered on the guitar strings in a pattern that neatly imitated the sound of a harpsichord, and she sang the first part of the verse in an exaggeratedly formal, almost scholarly, voice.
"Jack the Slob to Venus prayed -
Prayed, prayed, merry, merry prayed -"
But the next lines she sang in a distinctly oafish voice. One could almost imagine the face of the lout she was quoting.
"'Grant this night I shall get laid.
Laid, laid, merry, merry laid.
Tonight I shall get laid'."
Keogh almost ducked back into the shop. He'd never cared for coarseness, especially not in a woman. Still, the song was intriguing; that imitation-harpsichord playing wasn't something one heard every day, and the use of those two different voices revealed considerable vocal skill.
"Venus said: 'That shall I do -
Do, do, merry, merry do -
But first I ask three things of you.
You, you, merry, merry you.
I ask three things of you."
Keogh stuck his nose a little further out the door, noting that a passing pair of girls stopped to listen.
"First: clean your teeth and bod and hair -
Hair, hair, merry, merry hair -
And change your week-old underwear.
Wear, wear, merry, merry wear.
Your week-old underwear."
The couple laughed uproariously, and one of the girls made some half-heard comment about "after a week it'd be strong old underwear". The black-haired woman grinned and sang on.
"Next: put on clothes that flatter you -
You, you, merry, merry you -
A clean T-shirt and jeans will do.
Do, do, merry, merry do.
A clean T-shirt will do."
The girls guffawed and clutched each other for support. Keogh couldn't help glancing down at his own shirt. Well, yes, it was speckled with shavings and sawdust but nor really...dirty, was it?
"Third: when a maid you would impress -
Press, press, merry, merry press -
Pray do not drool down her chest.
Chest, chest, merry, merry chest.
Do not drool down her chest."
Keogh winced at the unlovely image. Yes, he'd seen men do that, the fools. Of course he'd never been so crude himself, no. Not ever.
The girls were howling with laughter. They must have seen something similar themselves.
"Jack replied: 'No thank you, ma'am -
Ma'am, ma'am, merry, merry, ma'am -
Send me a gurl who'll take me as I yam.
Am, am, merry, merry, am.
Who'll take me as I yam."
The two girls groaned theatrically. Yes, they'd seen - or heard - something like that before. Keogh felt almost offended. Why shouldn't a man want a woman to take him just as he was? ...Well, of course, a drooling dirty lout couldn't expect much just as he was...
"Venus said: 'I'll tell you what -
What, what, merry, merry what -
Though I should kick your lazy butt,
Butt, butt, merry, merry butt,
Should kick your lazy butt..."
The girls snickered. Keogh felt a ghost of a smile twitch the corners of his mouth as he imagined the goddess Venus saying just those words.
The singer's voice took on a gloating tone.
"'Perhaps 'twould be more fitting far -
Far, far, merry, merry far -
To send you a maid who'll take you as you are.
Are, are, merry, merry are.
Who'll take you as you are'."
The girls stood motionless, anticipating the next verse. Keogh caught himself holding his breath, as eager as they.
"'Go at once to the city zoo -
Zoo, zoo, merry, merry zoo -
'Tis there you'll find the maid for you.
You, you, merry, merry you.
You'll find the maid for you'."
The girls laughed knowingly, which puzzled Keogh. Weren't public parks and menageries perfectly good places to encounter young women?
The singer switched back to her remote-scholarly voice again.
"There he went with hopes held high -
High, high, merry, merry high -
Until the ape-house he came nigh.
Nigh, nigh, merry, merry nigh.
The ape-house he came nigh."
The girls giggled explosively. Keogh had an unpleasant feeling that they knew what was coming next, though he couldn't quite see it himself.
"There a maiden him did view -
View, view, merry, merry view -
And she was struck with passion true.
True, true, merry, merry true.
Was struck with passion true."
The girls almost choked, trying to silence their giggles. Keogh was only puzzled. Why should it seem so funny that a young woman might be struck with love at first sight? He'd often felt that way himself.
"Her hair was thick. Her looks were free -
Free, free, merry, merry free -
Indeed, she was a lovely chimpanzee.
Zee, zee, merry, merry zee.
A lovely chimpanzee."
The girls bayed with laughter. It took Keogh a moment to understand the sense of that jarring verse, and when he did catch it he gasped with outrage.
"She leapt the fence ere he could run -
Run, run, merry, merry run -
And seized him boldly by the bun.
Bun, bun, merry, merry bun.
She seized him by the bun."
The girls were still howling. Keogh felt himself blush to the ears.
"She dragged him swiftly to her lair -
Lair, lair, merry, merry lair -
For all that I know, he may still be there.
There, there, merry, merry there.
He may still be there."
The singer swung into a verse-long instrumental break, while the girls swapped comments about how "they probably got along perfectly" and "similar lifestyles". Keogh had the odd, stifling sense of being outnumbered. Good God, how many other women these days echoed those outrageous sentiments?
The singer grinned widely as she took up the last verse.
"So, lazy swains, you'd best believe -
Lieve, lieve, merry, merry lieve -
You should not get the goddess peeved.
Peeved, peeved, merry, merry peeved.
You should not get her peeved."
The song ended on an incongruously pretty riffle of notes. The girls cheered, congratulated the singer and tossed bills into her open guitar-case, then reluctantly recalled that they were due somewhere else, turned away and continued up the street. Keogh pulled back into his shop just enough that they didn't see him as they passed.
The moment they were gone, he stamped out the door and marched up to the singer, too angry to think. "You!" he shouted. "What do you think you're doing?!"
The woman gave him a look whose meaning was clearly halfway between 'are you nuts?' and 'who do you think you are?'. "I'm busking," she said, "Singing on the street for my supper, in the fine old tradition of uncontracted musicians. What're you doing here?"
Keogh opened his mouth, then shut it again, and took a step back. "I work here," he snapped. "That's my shop right down there. Why are you doing your nasty caterwauling on my corner?"
The woman glanced at the shop, then back at him. "I'm not in front of your shop, so you don't have a complaint. In fact, this is a good corner for attracting the arty types - and also a good spot for catching the attention of that talent scout. So what's your problem?"
Keogh opened and shut his mouth again, realizing that no, there was nothing legally offensive about her song, and yes, she was a safe distance away from his shop's front door. All he could think to say was: "So you didn't manage to impress the talent scout, did you?"
The woman rolled her eyes. "Couldn't even get in to see him," she grumbled. "His secretary only said 'leave a demo', so I did. She wouldn't even give me an appointment. With luck, he might get around to listening to my demo sometime this year. I don't intend to wait that long, so I'm singing out here on this corner where he's bound to pass by. You got a problem with that?"
Keogh was about to answer 'yes', but then guessed that she'd ask him just precisely what his problem was, and all he could say was that he didn't like her last song. He knew how stupid that would sound, and this woman had already made him feel stupid once today. He just muttered: "No," turned and paced off up the street toward the deli on the far corner. Behind him her heard the woman tuning up for another song, and he quickened his pace to get out of earshot before she started on the words.
At closing time, she was still there. Keogh had worked an extra hour in the hope that she'd be gone when he finished, but no: there she sat, guitar at the ready, looking up and down the now empty sidewalks. There was nothing to do but run the gauntlet, hurry out and hope she didn't see him, or else stay barricaded in his shop all night. Annoyed at himself for his fears, Keogh darted out the front door - pausing only long enough to turn his keys in the locks. With any luck, she wouldn't spot him...
No, no such luck. He heard her rough alto voice calling - obviously - to him as he turned around. "Hey, mister-"
Sighing, Keogh turned to face her. "My name," he said defiantly, "Is David Keogh, craftsman."
"Right," she answered, unimpressed. "Tell me, is this corner usually this dead after closing time?"
"No crowds? Nobody passing by?"
Well, he realized, that was a sensible question for a street-singer. "Er, no. The cafes and so on are all up the street and away on Dumont Avenue. Nobody comes down here after the shops close."
"Damn," the woman sighed. She pulled the guitar off her shoulders, raked the coins and bills out of the case, stood up and stuffed them in her hip pocket, then put the guitar in the case and closed it. Next she took the book off the stool, closed it and stuffed it in her backpack. Last, she folded both stools and tied them onto her backpack. She pulled the pack onto her shoulders, took up the cased guitar, and started walking up the street - which happened to be straight toward Keogh. He stepped back quickly, into the shelter of his shop doorway, and she gave him a polite but cold nod as she passed.
He watched after her for a moment, making certain she was really going away, then took another glance around the street. No one was there but a nondescript man in a parked car, chatting into a cell phone. Relieved, Keogh went to his own car and drove home. Rather than change clothes and go out for dinner, he used one of his store of frozen meals and settled himself in front of the television set for the night.
That whole encounter, he decided, had been distinctly unsettling. He wasn't used to women like that: coarse, rough, hard-voiced...competent, confident, independent... unfeminine. Not like Jill...
Right then, grief hit him like a hammer. He doubled over on the couch, throat straining with dry sobs. "All I wanted was to marry her!" he panted to the empty air. "If only she'd listened to me... Damn MacLeod! It's his fault!"
The silence of the walls reproached him, conjuring up the stark image of Jill out on the window-ledge, moving toward MacLeod when he reached out a hand to her, then leaping away - out over the edge, to her death - when David, her true lover, her fiancé, lunged for her. She'd moved toward MacLeod, away from him.
"Damn MacLeod! He won her love, stole her from me..." No, that excuse didn't hold water either. He knew that she hadn't gone to MacLeod, had never met him in fact, until after she'd already broken off the engagement, told David she didn't want to see him again, and had even gotten a restraining order against him.
No, the bleak facts were that she'd fallen out of love with him, and turned away from him, like so many before her.
"'Dona e mobile' - woman is fickle," he gloomed at the television screen. It was just his luck that the very qualities that drew him to a woman - affectionate nature, emotional delicacy, exquisite frailty - also made her inconstant.
Abruptly he remembered that woman street-singer, sitting at her post for a whole working day in the hope of catching the eye of a talent scout. Oh yes, she was constant all right - resolute, determined, concentrated - but not for love.
-Unless one included love for one's art, of course. As a craftsman, he could understand that. His own art, his craft, had sustained him through two and a half lonely centuries.
Well, that and his other skills. Old Roger Quinn had taught him well, not only to fight but to avoid fights: to meet with other Immortals only on holy ground, to make it clear that he didn't play the Game, to hide cleverly and run when necessary. And he'd learned so well that "David Keogh and Sons, Woodworkers" had remained a continuing business for over a hundred years, giving him a reliable permanent trade and income and high enough standing in society that he could go out and court almost any woman he wished to. Except for immortal women, of course: too many dangers there.
But mortal women were so fickle!
Nonetheless, as he went to bed and settled into sleep, his last thoughts turned toward that disturbing street-singer. Not fickle, no - and certainly not his type.
Next morning, she was back on the corner.
She was there already - set up against the wall, singing a jolly ballad about a kitten on the moon, of all things, to a small but appreciative audience - when Keogh came out of the parking lot. She noticed him tiptoeing toward his shop door, gave him a brief nod, and turned her attention back to her song and her listeners.
Not knowing whether he felt relieved or annoyed by the woman's prompt dismissal of him, Keogh let himself into the shop and got busy carving chairs. Concentrating on work kept him too busy to think about her, save when a gust of wind carried a snatch of her music past the door.
At about half-past ten she packed up and went for early lunch; Keogh saw her stroll past the shop, carrying all her gear. She paused for a moment to look in the left-front window - not at him, but at the cherrywood table-and-chair set displayed there. She studied the work, gave an appreciative smile and nod, and moved on. Keogh didn't know whether to feel insulted or flattered.
Half an hour later she was back, carrying her guitar in one hand and a lid-sealed cup of coffee in the other, a telltale smear of ketchup beside her mouth. The smear bore a disturbing similarity to blood. Keogh thought briefly of a well-fed lioness. The woman passed without looking at the shop, doubtless returning to her vigil on the corner.
Sure enough, when he went out for his own luncheon she was there, entertaining the lunch crowd with a fierce ballad about blood being blood's avenger. When he came back an hour later, she was singing to a slightly larger crowd about watching space-shuttle launches. She had an eclectic range of songs, anyway, Keogh considered as he settled back on his bench.
She was still there at closing time, he noted, with a large enough audience that she didn't even look at him as he left. Again, he noticed, there was a man in a car across the street, talking to a cell phone. Mortals tended to become predictable in their habits. Keogh went to his car and drove home.
This time he went to dinner at one of the better restaurants in the neighborhood. He saw several handsome women dining there too, but all of them had company; he had no excuse to go and introduce himself to any one of them. The old bitter loneliness crept up on him as he drove home. Where did one go these days to find amenable young single women? Perhaps he should try the popular cafes, or the local live theatres, such as were left in this age of movies and television. The patterns of courtship changed so drastically every few decades, it was hard to keep up.
Next day the singer was back again. She favored him with a distant nod as he unlocked the door to the shop, and went right on playing. This time the song was a complex calypso-styled ballad about reincarnation. Keogh found both her constancy and her eclectic range of songs curiously comforting; he worked fast and easily, and he finished the last chair in the current set by mid-morning.
He dutifully phoned the buyer to come pick up the order, and then found himself wondering what to do next. Chronologically, his next commission would be the maple bedstead: a complex piece of work that would take several days, if not weeks, to complete. Should he start on it right now, or take a few hours off? He could go for a walk and an early lunch, then start the bedstead in the afternoon...
...Or he could simply go outside, lean against the nearest wall and listen to the street-singer for awhile.
Before he could summon any arguments for or against the idea, Keogh found himself pulling on his coat and heading for the door.
The woman was there, all right: singing a playful song about "The Ladies of the Harem of the Court of King Caractacus", which was primarily an exercise in breath control. The crowd was laughing in appreciation, and Keogh grudgingly admitted to himself that the woman's expertise was impressive. And yes, she flicked a glance at him as he tiptoed past. She gave him no more than a glance, and Keogh - annoyed with himself - marched off to lunch.
When he came back, she was still there. This time she was singing a slow, heavy-driving Blues ballad that at first sounded like a love-gone-wrong song - but turned out to be a grim political comment when he listened closer. Keogh felt almost outraged as he hurried back into his shop and started planning the bedstead.
It took him nearly half an hour to realize why he was so frustrated by the street-singer's songs; absolutely none of them were about love. Every other subject one could imagine, but not love. That struck him as almost sacrilegious; weren't women supposed to be concerned primarily with love?
This one wasn't. Neither was she delicate, fragile, emotional, or anything else he expected from a woman. Yet she was undoubtedly female; with those breasts, she couldn't be anything else. She was nothing he could understand, and that upset him.
Over the next few days, even as his hands shaped the wood and the elaborate bedstead took form, Keogh devised tricks for revealing the woman.
He tried stamping furiously out on the sidewalk and bellowing at her to go away. She set her guitar aside, stood up - obviously prepared to fight - and yelled back just as loudly that this was a blanking free country and she wasn't doing his business any blanking harm and he had no blanking right to chase her off. Keogh retreated to his shop, impressed by the woman's vocabulary as well as her nerve.
He tried marching boldly up to her and asking for the dirtiest song she knew. The woman raised an eyebrow, looked up and down the street, asked if he was sure that was really what he wanted, and - when he insisted - swung into the uncensored version of "The Good Ship Venus". Keogh stood only five verses of it before retreating again.
He tried asking her outright for a love song, and she replied with a merry swing tune of a woman praising the attributes of her beloved - who turned out to be a horse. As Keogh ran back into his shop it occurred to him that he was doing a lot of this lately.
By the end of the week Keogh had to admit defeat. He still didn't begin to understand the woman, yet she intrigued him unbearably. This certainly wasn't the fascination - obsession, MacLeod had called it - that he usually felt for women; it was the irritation of an unsolved puzzle, a mental itch that he couldn't scratch, a 'burr under his saddle' he would have called it a century ago. She was a mystery he simply couldn't ignore.
He tried to forget his irritation in his usual round of weekend activities: trotting around the local clubs, concerts, and all other places he could think of where suitable women might be found. That didn't help either. His usual approaches didn't seem to work any more; women laughed and shook their heads and turned away, or gave him even stronger rejection-notices. Keogh went home alone on Sunday night, wondering if his technique was failing or if the world had changed on him again, changed too fast for him to notice or react. By Monday morning he was almost happy to see the street-singer parked on her usual corner.
By Wednesday he'd finished the bedstead and found himself once more at loose ends. His next order was an ornate cabinet, but for some reason he found himself reluctant to start on it. His attention kept straying to the finished bedstead, imagining it complete with mattress, sheets, pillows and coverlet - and a lovely woman lying in it, waiting for him. The woman's features refused to take shape, much as he tried to remember his lovers of the past. Somehow those delicate faces slipped away, leaving... In a sudden vision he saw the street-singer, her arms and shoulders muscular from exercise, her strong-jawed face pulled into a wry and sardonic grin.
Impossible! Keogh told himself, forcing the image away. No, no, she was absolutely not his type: nothing he could possibly love. Perish the thought. No.
...But could it be, he wondered, that - despite the way she'd treated him - she was secretly in love with him? That would explain her constant presence. Perhaps her resistance was some form of reverse psychology, intended to inflame his passion...
Before he could think of objections, Keogh darted out the shop door and hurried down to the corner. The woman was there, without an audience for the moment, searching through her large songbook. There was no likelier moment. Seize the time!
"You," he said, pointing to her. "Be honest. Are you in love with me?"
She looked at him as if he'd grown a second head. "Are you nuts?" she roared. "I wouldn't have you if you were the last man on Earth! Hell, if you were the last man on Earth, I'd turn lesbian! I wouldn't have you on a stick! I wouldn't have you-"
Keogh dashed back into the shop, crouched behind the bedstead and hid there for long moments, head whirling. Nothing about her made sense: nothing. She was still the unsolved mystery.
Eventually he got up, phoned the purchaser to come pick up the bedstead, and started on plans for the cabinet.
By the time the last drawing was finished, he knew he had to get an answer from her; the nagging mystery of that woman was an irritation too great to be borne any longer. The problem was shaping the right question. He spent an hour pondering it, and finally sat in wait for her to finish her day's work and close up for the evening. He'd have to catch her when no one else was around to interfere.
Ah, there: she was pulling off her guitar-picks and dropping them in the small bag. Next she'd put the bag and guitar in the case and shut it, then she'd close her songbook and shove it into her book-bag. Then she'd tie the folding stools onto the book-bag and sling the whole assembly onto her shoulders. He knew her routine almost perfectly by now; he'd have his chance in another two minutes. Watch, watch... Ah, there: she was picking up her guitar-case, ready to leave. Now.
Keogh darted out the front door and planted himself on the sidewalk, directly in front of the oncoming woman.
"You!" he challenged, jabbing a finger at her. "If it isn't love, then why are you plaguing me?" There: that was vague enough to leave open the question of exactly how she plagued him.
The woman set down her guitar-case and gave him a look of total exasperation.
"Because I'm your priestess, you fool!" she snapped. "And of all the demigods on Earth, why in hell did I have to get stuck with you?"
Keogh felt his jaw drop, and couldn't think of a word to say.
The woman gave him a sour look. "Do you want to talk about this out here on the street, where anybody can overhear, or shall we go someplace more private?" she said, pointing toward the door of his shop.
Keogh vaguely noticed that the man in the car seemed to be having a conniption fit on his cell-phone.
A vague moment later they were both in the back of Keogh's shop, the woman looking around with grudging admiration at the displayed work. "You really are a fine craftsman," she said. "I'll grant you that." Her tone implied that she wasn't about to grant him anything else.
Keogh dropped into the nearest chair and managed to make his mouth work. "Explain," he croaked.
"Look," she sighed, setting down her guitar case, "You know that the Immortals have been around far longer than the modern fashion for jealous I-am-the-one-and-only-god religions, right?"
Keogh nodded mutely, wondering just whom Jill had told about his immortality before she died.
"Okay. So in ancient times, a lot of Immortals posed as gods, or demigods, take your pick. Haven't you noticed that in the old mythologies the ancient gods acted very much like all-too-fallible human beings?"
Keogh nodded again, trying to form a thought.
"So, playing a god is a comfy racket - at least until your worshippers start asking for more than you can give - and it's a helluva lot easier than hiding from mortals all the time. And of course a god has to have a temple to live in, and lots of priests - or priestesses - to take care of him, or her. Naturally those priesthoods paid careful attention to their gods, took note of everything they said or did, and recorded the same. Right?"
Keogh nodded mechanically.
"Different priesthoods often got together and compared notes, and eventually they started combining their records. Things went along like this for a few thousand years, until new religions - one-god-only, all others are demons - started moving in. The new gods - always invisible, mind - claimed all sorts of powers that the lesser, visible, gods couldn't match. They started collecting a lot of converts. When they had enough to get real power, they started persecuting the older religions. The archeologists have dug up evidence of some really nasty examples... Well, never mind. Point is, the old gods found it prudent to go into hiding. So did their priesthoods. Are you following me so far?"
Keogh managed to say "Yes."
"So the surviving priesthoods, the ones that knew each other anyway, consolidated their knowledge, personnel and fortunes. They kept on studying the Immortals, but now they had to do it secretly. They even had to keep hidden from their Immortals, because those demigods had grown secretive and skittish, and were scared to death of any mortals knowing about them - and for good reason. That's how it's been ever since. No, we don't worship you guys anymore, but we do keep track of you. We watch, and we record. Your regular Watcher wound up in the hospital with a bleeding ulcer, so I was sent to fill in for him. I got the assignment because I was handy, not because I asked for it. So here I am, stuck doing biographical notes on you. Got it?"
One word bubbled to the surface of Keogh's stunned awareness. "...'Stuck'...?"
"I didn't ask for you," the woman glowered.
"Why not?" The moment the words were out of his mouth, Keogh knew they were a mistake.
The woman's face tightened into a snarl, a lion's face. "Because you're grabby!" she roared. "You're pushy! You always pick women who are weaklings, and you never listen when they say 'no'! Because there's less than an inch difference between you and a rapist - and I hate rapists, that's why."
Keogh gasped, feeling the blood drain out of his face as if he'd been slapped. Nobody, not even MacLeod, had ever spoken to him like this. "How...dare..." he panted in shock.
"How do I dare?" the woman sneered. "Simple. I read your history when I first got this assignment. I know how you've always treated women. I know what happened to your last sweetheart. I could see plainly what you are, and I calls 'em as I sees 'em. That's how."
For an instant Keogh thought of lunging out of his chair and grabbing her throat - but then he saw where her right hand was. She'd pulled it back under her long vest, close to her right hip. He hadn't seen that gesture in decades and he'd never seen a woman do it before, but he recognized it now.
She had a gun on her hip, under that vest, and she had her hand on it.
"You...bitch..." was all he could think to say.
"That's wolf-bitch to you, grabby-boy," she snarled back.
For a long moment they stayed in that position, him slumped back in his chair, she standing over him with a hand hidden under her vest. I have to move, he finally thought. ...can't stay here all day. "Well, what's your name?" was all he could come up with.
"Lisa," she said, and then gave him a wry grin. "What a pair: David and Lisa, just like in the movie."
It took him a moment to remember that movie: an old black-and-white, dating from the '60s, about a pair of insane adolescents who met and fell in love in a madhouse. It occurred to him that their conversation of the last few minutes - their whole situation - would have seemed insane to anyone else. "I can think of a few differences," he muttered.
"A few," Lisa agreed sourly.
Neither of them had to mention what the major difference was.
"If you hate me so much..." David couldn't help noticing how petulant his voice sounded. "Why do you bother to keep watching me?"
"It's my job," the woman said grimly. "I took an oath."
Keogh had a sudden vision of a clay-footed idol and a disgusted but loyal priestess. He didn't doubt for a moment that Lisa would be as devoted to a sworn oath as she was to her art. "So...we're stuck with each other." The prospect was appalling.
"Uhuh." She sounded as miserable as he felt.
"I...really should get home..." was the best he could come up with.
"Me too." Now she sounded grateful. "It's the end of my shift." She reached down to pick up her guitar-case, and - he noticed - backed away a few steps before taking her other hand off her hip. "Same time tomorrow, then," she said, her voice nothing but resigned. She turned away and paced toward the door, and he noticed that she cast a covert glance back at him as she went - and that her free hand was never far from her hip.
Keogh stayed where he was until long after she'd walked away down the street. Eventually he noticed that his hands were shaking. "Go home," he mumbled aloud to himself. "Stiff drink..." He made himself get up and mechanically go about the small tasks of shutting down the shop for the night. "Dinner..." he remembered, but then realized that he was anything but hungry. The idea of a stiff drink looked better.
"Priestess..." he muttered as he locked the shop door behind him. This was too much to take in all at once; he'd probably be all night thinking about it. He was the cultural if not lineal descendant of the ancient Pagan gods, and he had a priestess. He had no lover, but he had a priestess - and she hated his guts.
In fact it took several stiff drinks - plus a stinging-hot shower, plus turning up the heat and the electric blanket - before he could stop shivering. He was still stuck with the awesome revelation, and fell asleep thinking about it.
Next morning, it rained. Keogh had barely opened the shop and settled down to work on the cabinet when the door opened and Lisa - accompanied by a gust of wet wind - came trotting into the shop, carrying her usual gear and draped in a plastic rain-poncho. She gave him a glum look, carefully avoided getting too close to the finished pieces, and finally set down her guitar in the only available cleared space - which was at the entry to the work area.
"Sorry," she said, and sounded sincere, "But I've got no choice about this. Can't sing outside in the rain."
Keogh couldn't think of anything to say to her, so he gave her no more than a brief nod and measured another slab of oak for the second cabinet door. He tried not to notice as she took off and folded her rain-poncho, grimacing at the amount of water that dripped off it onto the floor, set it down and pulled off her backpack. For a moment the pulled-taut T-shirt revealed the outline of her shoulders and breasts, and Keogh was startled at the size of both. The woman had the muscles of a young male athlete, both supporting and contrasting with that capacious bosom. For a moment he wondered which was cause and which was effect. Then she set down her backpack and the vision was lost. Keogh returned his eyes firmly to the wood, measured and marked a second time just to be sure.
The sound of guitar-strings tuning up snagged his attention. He looked up and saw that, sure enough, Lisa had set out her stools and a songbook, put her picks on her fingers, and was busy tuning her guitar. So, she would sing whether anyone was listening or not: the mark of a true craftsman. Keogh remembered riding west in a covered wagon, over a century ago, whittling wooden spoons and forks as he rode because there was nothing else to do and his hands couldn't bear to be idle. The woman started on an instrumental piece, and Keogh sincerely hoped she wouldn't start singing too. Ah, no: no such luck. At least this song wasn't as disturbing as her usual choice.
"See you the ferny ride that steals
Into the oak-woods far?
That was where we hauled the keels
That rode to Trafalgar."
Keogh blinked as he recognized the words; they were an old Kipling poem about the sheer length of British history. He wondered if Lisa had written that tune for it.
In any case, the steady tempo and gentle tune weren't distracting. In fact, they made good background music for his work. As he cut the panel he found himself sawing in rhythm. By the time he'd finished all the cutting, she'd finished that song and started on another - yet another Kipling poem set to music: no less than "Gunga Din", and she managed to sing it with a hint of an English accent.
A glance at her music-stand stool showed not her usual songbook but a battered paperback copy of The Definitive Collection of Kipling's Verse. Keogh smiled at that; he'd always rather liked Kipling's work. Then he wondered if Lisa had chosen those songs just because she knew he'd like them - or at least wouldn't annoy him while he was working. She did respect his work, at least.
The rest of the day passed in the same fashion. Lisa had tunes to a remarkable number of Kipling's poems, and their steady rhythm actually made the work easier.
When Keogh stood up to break for lunch, Lisa likewise finished her song quickly and began putting away her gear. He glanced out the window at the still-pouring rain, and felt an impulse of generosity.
"No, stay here and mind the store," he said. "There's no point in both of us getting wet. I'll bring you back a sandwich or two, if you like."
Lisa raised a surprised eyebrow. "Chopped chicken-liver on rye, if you can get it," she said. "If not, then a couple of cheeseburgers with everything."
"All right," said Keogh, suddenly anxious to get out and into the open air, rainy or not. Yes, he knew a kosher deli not far from here where chopped chicken-liver was a regular item on the menu. "Coffee, or what?"
"Decaf, lots of extra cream and sugar." Lisa had moved closer to his workbench, and was studying the cut panels with an appreciative look.
Keogh left quickly, wondering why he was suddenly anxious to get away from her. He wondered about that while he sprinted from his car into the deli, while he waited for his order, while he dithered over her coffee wondering how much cream and sugar was 'lots', and while driving back to the shop. Only as he was parking the car did the revelation hit him.
Dear God, I can't be falling in love with her?!
He sat there for long moments, feeling his hot pastrami sandwich cooling beside his leg, while he thought that over. Eventually he realized that he'd have to get up soon, go back in the shop and - somehow - face Lisa. He couldn't sit out here in the car forever.
Keogh was shaking as he almost tiptoed through the shop door. Sure enough, there was Lisa in the back, practicing a difficult Blues riff at half speed. She looked up as he approached, expression only slightly welcoming.
"Nobody came in while you were out," she announced. "I wouldn't expect it, in this weather. There was a phonecall from a place called Bishop and Dunn's, saying they got that cherrywood dining set all right. Did you get me the chicken-liver?"
Keogh mutely handed over the sandwich and cup of still-warm coffee. Lisa took them with no more than a brief thanks, and settled promptly into eating. He sat down at the workbench, unwrapped and mechanically chewed into his pastrami, and wondered what on earth he was going to do.
Finally the words simply burst out of him. "I can't be falling in love with you! I just can't!"
Lisa choked on a mouthful of coffee, and her eyebrows shot up under her bandana. "Good gods," she wheezed, "I hope not!"
But the floodgate had opened, and Keogh could no more stop the flow of words than he could fly. "You're not my type! And you hate me... But here I am watching you, thinking about you, wondering how to please you...Lord, Lord, that only happens when I'm in love! I couldn't, couldn't possibly..."
"Hold it." Lisa set down her coffee and raised an imperious hand for silence. "Are you telling me that whenever you spend any time with a woman you start falling into the same old pattern?"
"Courtship. Waving your tail-feathers, shaking your antlers, trying to court the female - as if you had no other possible interest in her: that pattern. Do you do that with every woman you spend any time talking to?"
"I have no idea what you mean!" Keogh bridled.
"Oh yes you do," Lisa glared at him. "Haven't you noticed the way your walk, your posture, your expression and your speech changes every time you get within speaking distance of a woman? Hell, I saw you do it with me, even that first time, when you were accusing me of following you - which, of course, I was. Now, do you do that with every woman you talk to?"
"Uh..." He had to stop and think about that. In confusion, he took another bite of his pastrami sandwich. It seemed to help. Lisa munched into her chicken-liver-on-rye and watched him narrowly. Lord, yes, now that he thought about it, he recalled that he could feel the way his posture changed when he was talking with a woman. God, could Lisa be right? Keogh frantically searched his memory and, thank the Lord, an image came up. "Mrs. Falloway," he grimaced. "I certainly didn't do that with her. It was all I could do simply to be civil to the woman, and when she left with the dining-table I was ever so glad to see the back of her."
Lisa raised an eyebrow. "Describe Mrs. Falloway," she said, and took another bite of her sandwich.
"Lord," Keogh muttered, remembering. "Shrill, imperious, gray hair piled up in that ridiculous French bun, so fat that she didn't really need a bustle... Ah, this was back in the 1880s. Probably the ugliest woman I ever saw."
"Uhuh," Lisa grinned knowingly. "'Gray haired', you said. So, she was much too old to be candidate for the marriage-market."
"She was already married, anyway." Keogh shuddered. "Her husband was probably the stupidest man I ever met, which is doubtless why he could put up with her."
"In other words, absolutely not any kind of potential mate." Lisa's grin turned sour. "Now, what about women who are - or were - young enough to qualify for the marriage-market? How many of that sort have you not done your courtship-dance for?"
"Uh..." It took time to run through more than two centuries of memories, but the more he looked at them the more he saw of an ominous pattern. Yes, he had always used a particular manner when speaking to...eligible women. But that wasn't...seductive, was it? "It's the way I was raised," he scrambled for an explanation. "A man was expected... required - it was simply good manners - to...to approach an unmarried young woman... in a certain fashion..."
"Manners?" Lisa raised a sardonic eyebrow. "Is that why your master beat you to death, that first time?"
Keogh flinched in shock. He hadn't remembered that in years, had thought that nobody on Earth today knew about it... Polly! "She was so pretty!" The words tumbled out of his mouth like a river in flood, unstoppable. "The master's daughter- She came into the shop every day, I couldn't help but see her... I thought she loved me too, but she was coy- I never meant to frighten her, I swear!"
"Uhuh." Lisa heaved a vast sigh. "Even then, you wouldn't take 'no' for an answer. You did rip her dress, you know."
"An accident! I just wanted her to wait and listen to me..." Keogh realized he was panting, and sweat was beading up on his forehead.
"Her father told the constables that you'd tried to rape her." Lisa's eyes narrowed - and her hand slipped back under her vest. "Was he wrong?"
"Yes! Yes! I never- I wouldn't have hurt her for the world! I just wanted to make her see, make her understand..." Unbidden, the image of the girl's frightened face rose up before him. A shocking sense of recognition told him that he'd seen that expression again, and recently. Jill!
"You just wanted to make her love you." Lisa's voice was quietly cold as windless ice. Her hand was back under her vest.
"...Yes..." Keogh whispered, appalled, feeling that same cold stab him in the gut. Too many images and recent words were colliding in his memory, forming a shape too monstrous to be borne.
Lisa, thank whatever gods there were, said nothing - but the silence between them hung heavy with meaning.
...Make her love me... The shape of the conclusion was too clear to ignore. ...make her..."an inch difference between you and a rapist"... "...No..." he whispered, feeling unbelievable tears leaking out of his eyes. "I'm not a rapist!"
And then he couldn't sit still an instant longer, but had to get up and move - fight or run - and he didn't dare fight Lisa.
He ran. Not stopping for his coat, he got up and charged to the door and plunged out into the wet empty street, into the cold rain. He ran to the end of the block, then turned to follow the sidewalk, not knowing or caring where he was going, only needing to run. He ran until his clothes were soaked through and his body was chilled, and exhaustion slowed his steps. He leaned against a building, dimly realizing that he was almost back where he'd started. Cold and exhaustion left him almost numb, but he noticed that the water on his face was warm, and could guess why.
"...I'm not a rapist..." he whispered, seeing the image of long-lost Polly's face take form in his mind's eye. I'm not a rapist. I didn't want what a rapist wants. I wanted her to love me... That's what I wanted from all of them. Jill... The last conclusion was still there. ...make her...force...force her to love me by power of will... Emotional rapist.
Only the paralyzing cold kept him standing upright. Only the slow knowledge that if he didn't move he would die of cold and have to deal with reviving in the morgue made him move at last. He walked slowly, jerkily, back toward the shop. The ugly revelation kept pace with him, impossible to ignore.
When he came back into the shop, Lisa was still there. She'd finished her sandwich and was paging through the Kipling book, and her other hand was back under her vest. Keogh shuffled to the nearest work-chair and slumped into it, draining water onto the floor. He could think of nothing else to do, or say. Lisa raised an eyebrow at him, closed the book, got up and went to the back of the work-area. She returned carrying the portable electric heater and a steaming cup; she shoved the cup into his hands and he saw that it was tea, no doubt heated in that microwave oven he kept in the back. Next she plugged in the heater, turned it to face him and clicked it on. After a few moments the warmth began to register, and he managed to raise the cup and drink the tea - far sweeter than he liked, but comfortingly hot.
"Too bad you don't keep a blanket in this place," she said calmly, "Or a change of clothes. You'll just have to dry out by the heater."
Keogh's stunned brain managed to turn away from his revelation long enough to come up with another idea. "How did you know I'd be back?" he asked, noting that his voice sounded like a rusty saw.
"You wouldn't leave your work," said Lisa. "That's always been your real sustaining passion."
She's right about that, too, he considered as he finished the tea. "What do I do?" he heard his mouth ask. "I just want to be loved, but I can't...can't force it, can't..."
"You have to win it," Lisa answered levelly. "You have to earn it."
"I had it with Jill," he remembered, "For awhile. Then I told her...told her I was an Immortal, and..." He couldn't think how to say this.
"She couldn't take it," Lisa finished for him.
"What do I do?" he asked again. "If I meet another woman, if I..." He waved his hand in a vague circle, meaning 'everything'. "What do I do?"
"As I see it, you have three choices." Lisa raised a hand and ticked off her fingers. "One: choose another Immortal. Two-"
"I can't!" he burst out. "With another Immortal, I'd never know if she loved me for myself or for my head, not until she took it. There would always be that between us, that one lack of trust. I couldn't live- love like that."
Lisa shrugged, and went on counting. "Two: lie. Choose a mortal woman, and never tell her the truth."
"I can't do that either. Again, lack of trust. Besides, she'd notice eventually. Jill saw me cut my hand, and then saw it heal. She started asking... I had to tell her, and that was the end."
"Three," said Lisa, bringing up the last finger. "Choose a woman who isn't a weakling, who won't get hysterical when she comes across something impossible, something out of legends: a demigod, an elf, a...hmmm, definitely not an angel."
That solution sounded at least possible. He turned the idea over and over in his mind, like a spider pondering a grain of salt. "How do I find a woman like that?" he managed.
Lisa rolled her eyes. "Give up your taste for weaklings," she said. "Stop choosing Five F-ers - frail, fragile, frilly, feminine females - and go looking for strong and sensible women. Look for another working woman, but I wouldn't suggest someone in the arts this time; I confess, there are too many flakes in that business. Hunt up a woman doctor, or lawyer, a broker or banker or shopkeeper, or a woman recently out of the army; those are trades that only a tough and practical woman can survive in. Hmmm, and you might consider a woman who's been divorced; she's unlikely to have any romantic illusions about men. For godsake, don't go chasing after any naïve young girls."
Keogh tried to imagine the kind of woman Lisa was describing, tried to think of any women he knew of who were like that, and came up blank. Surely he must have met women like that, but they hadn't registered on his memory. Why not? he wondered.
It slowly dawned on him that the kind of women Lisa called 'Five F-ers' were exactly the sort he'd always wanted, and always wanted to love him. Frail, fragile, frilly, feminine...naïve, young...weaklings. His stripped-raw mind was no longer able to hide his own motives from himself; a weakling could be easily controlled, made to - forced to - love him. Puppets. I want...puppets. He shuddered from head to foot. "God," he whispered, "Am I really that much of a monster?"
"Not beyond redemption," said Lisa, sounding almost sympathetic for once. "You can change yourself, you know."
"I can..." What's the pop-psychology phrase? You can change if you want to enough? Do I want to? The image of Polly's face flashed in his mind - followed by the memory of Jill leaping away from him, leaping to her death. The pain was like a knife in the heart. God, yes! I want to! Never to suffer like that again... "Where..." he made himself ask, "Do I find the kind of woman I need?" Need, not want. Need. Do the right thing.
Lisa heaved a sigh. "Do you have a computer in the shop?" she asked.
"Yes." Keogh couldn't think where this was going.
"With a working Internet connection?"
"Then tell me how to get into it, and I'll go consult the electronic matchmaker while you sit here and get warm."
"It should be on now," he remembered. "I was searching for 'rare wood suppliers'..."
"Sit tight," said Lisa, getting up.
Keogh didn't watch her go. The stark understanding of himself sat like a lump of ice inside him, holding him frozen and unable to look away. He studied it slowly, with a coldly horrified fascination. ...emotional rapist...puppet-master... But I just wanted to be loved! So hungry for it... It took only another thought to see why. ...raised in that miserable orphanage...emotionally starved...grabbing at any affection like a starving man snatching a crust of bread... He remembered scenes of famine-stricken India, a century past, and pictured his own face on every starving beggar. No, I don't want to be that anymore. But he wondered if simply understanding himself and the forces that had made him would be of any help in changing that ugly pattern. It could guide him with nothing but negatives: don't do this, don't be that...
Well, that's a beginning at least.
Lisa's returning footsteps eventually roused him. He looked up to see her padding toward him, holding out a sheet of paper. "Here's one, for starters," she said, handing it to him.
Keogh took the paper and looked at it, dimly noticing that his clothes were no more than damp now and he was no longer chilled to the bone; Lisa had been a long time on the computer. There was a single name and address and phone number at the top of the page, and a biographical sketch below it.
A rustling of plastic drew his attention away from the page before he could read the rest. Lisa was picking up her rain-poncho and spreading it open. "It's the end of my shift," she said, almost apologetically. "I've got to leave. ...Will you be all right?"
"I think so," he said, oddly touched by her concern. This time, he could see distinctly, that concern was simple kindness - the sort that any decent person would show to an injured man - not any indication of True Love. He marveled that he'd ever made such mistakes before.
"Take care, then." Lisa went through the usual ritual of closing up her backpack and guitar case, tying on the folding stools, shouldering the pack, and pulling on the rain-poncho over that. She gave him a brief wave and headed for the door. As she opened it he saw that the rain was still falling, but not so heavily. He'd need no more than his umbrella to get to his car and drive home. The door swung shut, and Lisa was gone.
After a moment, Keogh returned his attention to the paper in his hand. "Maureen Beaumont" it said. The name was slightly familiar, and the address was surprisingly close. Occupation: jewelry maker. Fellow craftsman... He thought of crafts-shows he'd attended, and wondered if he'd seen the name there. Then his eyes caught the biographical sketch.
"Age: 29. Recently widowed and injured in traffic accident, struggling with Survivor's Guilt and loneliness."
Good God, who would write such things about herself as an introduction?!
"Too busy managing small business for socializing."
That sounded chillingly familiar.
"Tired of having no private life except for support group. Seeking man who can understand."
"Support group"...? Stung by a sudden suspicion, Keogh looked up at the very top of the page, amid the gibberish of headings that he usually ignored. Now that he looked, the words leaped out at him.
"Dawnlight - A Support Group For Bereavement Survivors." Just under that was the word "Matches".
"Damn," he whispered, simultaneously outraged and struck with a sense of how fitting that was. Yes, he was bereaved. So Lisa sent me to the lonely-hearts column of a support group for widows...and widowers... Jill's face flashed before him again, and the attendant pain stabbed him once more.
I loved her! he cried silently to the walls. I really did love her... For all the wrong reasons, he could almost hear Lisa coming back at him. Wasn't there a song like that? 'Looking for love in all the wrong places.' All the wrong women, all the wrong reasons... And he didn't really know how to change.
His thoughts circled awhile longer, like rats in a cage, going nowhere. Eventually he looked out the front window and saw that it was pitch dark, quite late, and he had to get up and go home. Without thought, he shoved the printout sheet in his pocket.
He managed to think of nothing all during the drive home, during a tasteless frozen dinner, and during a hot shower that turned his skin bright pink but didn't manage to warm him. Only as he was putting away his jacket did he notice the paper sticking out of the pocket. He took it with him, but didn't unfold it until he was huddled under the electric blanket with soothing Easy Listening music playing on the clock-radio.
Maureen Beaumont: 29, a craftswoman, too busy managing a small business to have any social life, recently widowed and injured, struggling with Survivor's Guilt and loneliness...
He wondered idly what sort of ad would describe himself - and in a sudden swing of perspective he saw it, as clearly as if it were printed before him.
David Keogh: perpetually early 20s, craftsman, too busy managing small business to have much social life, recently...widowed, struggling with guilt and loneliness.
But his guilt was for more than just surviving; it was for real sins, for his deep dark secret of being an Immortal, for his own blind obsession that had - directly or not - caused Jill's death.
Perhaps Lisa had chosen well.
He fell asleep thinking about that.
Morning came with a pearly fog that made the world seem enchanted, a little unreal. Keogh drove to work slowly, partly because of the fog, partly because half his mind was still distracted: roiling like a simmering thick stew, rolling up chunks that were visible for only a moment before sinking back into the unseen boil. He parked the car and stepped out of it, noticing that his knees were shaky.
As he walked toward the shop ordinary objects appeared out of the mist like ghosts, and likewise faded away behind him. Ahead he could hear a familiar voice singing.
"There was darkness under heaven,
For an hour's space,
Darkness that we knew was given
Us for special grace."
Keogh recognized the words, though he'd never heard them spoken - let alone sung - before: an old Kipling poem that he'd read years ago. It had bewildered and troubled him at the time.
"Sun and moon and stars were hid,
God had left his throne,
When Helen came to me, she did:
Helen all alone."
There was Lisa, all right: perched in her usual spot at the corner, oddly vague in the mist. She spotted him, nodded knowingly and went on with her song. Her voice followed him into the shop.
"Side by side because our fate
Damned us from our birth,
We stole out of the Limbo Gate
Looking for the Earth."
As he mechanically hung up his coat, Keogh noticed the sheet of paper sticking out of the pocket. He knew what it was, and didn't look.
"Hand in pulling hand amid
Fear no dreams have known,
Helen ran with me, she did:
Helen all alone."
Instead he turned to study the half-completed cabinet. The doors were good, and would look beautiful when clenched with ornamental brass hinges to set off the fine grain in the dark wood, but... No, there was something too plain about them. Some trim was needed. He thought of grooves, but those too would be plain. Carving would somehow be too fancy, too vain.
"When the horror passing speech
Hunted us along,
Each laid hold on each, and each
Found the other strong."
Then he thought of intaglio. A single line, or perhaps two, of inset golden wire outlining a thick border around the doors: yes, that would be perfect. He could cut the fine grooves easily enough, but laying the wire... No, that was a task for a jeweler.
"In the teeth of Things forbid
And Reason overthrown,
Helen stood by me, she did:
Helen all alone."
A jeweler, such as... Maureen Beaumont. He now had an excuse to go meet with her.
Almost without thought, Keogh went to the yellow phone directory and turned to the entry under "jewelry - manufacturers." Yes, there was the name: Beaumont Jewelers.
"When at last we heard those fires
Dull and die away,
When at last our linked desires
Dragged us up to day..."
Still moving on automatic, he scribbled down the address and reached for his coat.
"When at last our souls were rid
Of what the night had shown,
Helen passed from me, she did:
Helen all alone."
The fog was, if anything, heavier as he walked out of the shop and locked the door behind him. He paced down the sidewalk toward his car, not daring to think to far ahead about what he was doing. Lisa's voice followed him.
"Let her go and find a mate,
As I shall find a bride,
Knowing nothing of Limbo Gate
Or who are penned inside."
Only when he slammed the car door and turned the key in the ignition did he dare to wonder what he would say to the strange Ms. Beaumont, or if she was even at the shop, or... No, he told himself, No doubts. Don't stop now. I must set forth into strange country, for my soul's sake.
Lisa's song faded after him as he turned the wheel and drew away from the curb.
"There is knowledge, God forbid,
More than one should own.
So Helen went from me, she did.
Oh my soul, be glad she did!
Helen all alone!
Helen all alone."
He hadn't really needed the car; Beaumont Jewelers was less than two blocks away. Parking was in the rear lot, much like his own shop's arrangement. As he walked out to the sidewalk and around the corner, Keogh wondered again just what he would say. And what if Maureen Beaumont wasn't even in her shop today? And what if... Oh, a thousand what-ifs! I have to begin somewhere.
The shop-front was a standard arrangement, much like his own: a door between two curtain-backed display windows. He paused to study the jewelry, noted that it was all indeed original and handmade pieces, and all quite well done. Most of the designs were stylized-floral geometrical abstracts, usually surrounding cabochon-cut semiprecious stones, but some of them featured realistic shapes: detailed flowers, dragons, winged horses, birds and jeweled serpents.
Something about the designs, even the flowers, was somber to the point of grimness. It wasn't just the thickness of the metal - thick enough that no casual accidents would bend, let alone break, the pieces - it was something about the geometric balance, something that looked four-square and solid, as if nothing could knock those flowers and birds and dragons off-balance. There was something in those designs that snarled: "Hit me with your best shot; I can take it."
He remembered that the designer was recently bereaved, and injured. That would account for the somberness, but what would account for the defiant strength? He was pondering that as he opened the door and walked in.
An old-fashioned hanging bell above the door announced his presence. Inside, the front of the shop was lined on three sides with glass counters, filled with jewelry of different types and sizes, below plain white-painted walls that sported no more decoration than a simple wall-clock. Behind the counter, peering hopefully at him, stood a young woman.
She was slender, dark-blonde, with big eyes somewhere between blue and green, delicate wrists, a pointed chin and a face best described as 'elfin'. Except that her hair was straight and worn in a simple page-boy bob, she reminded him forcibly of Polly - his master's daughter and his first, disastrous, love. "May I help you?" she asked, and her voice seemed almost familiar too.
Keogh felt the stirring of an old, old desire - an old, old impulse - and knew that he could easily fall in love with this woman. Love at first sight... he remembered. "I'm looking for Maureen Beaumont," he said, trying to keep his voice from shaking.
The young woman gave him a blank look for a long moment, and then lit upon a fitting answer. "She's in the back," she said. "Who shall I say is calling?"
It's not her. "David Keogh, cabinet maker." He went through his planned speech, feeling his emotional gears shift. "I'd like to talk to her about some... collaboration work." He held out his card automatically. She's not Maureen. "Er, who are you?"
The woman took the card and looked blank again for a moment. "Uh, I'm Bambi... Bambi Johnson. I work here." She paused for another moment, looking at the card, and came up with another apt reply. "Wait here, please," she said, giving him a polite but otherwise meaningless smile. Then she turned and glided toward a plain door set in the back wall, went through, and let it close behind her.
Keogh waited, his emotions in a colliding boil. This wasn't the woman he'd come to see. But he could fall in love with her anyway. But from what he'd picked up - and he'd learned over the last two centuries to read people fairly well - she was slow-witted. She was the only person present in a shop full of valuable jewelry, and she'd abandoned her post with a stranger in the store. That was an unbelievably stupid move.
He remembered all the Dumb Blonde jokes he'd ever heard of, and realized that pretty Bambi could fit neatly into them. His 'pattern', as Lisa had called it, had led him severely astray.
Bambi opened the door and trotted out, smiling brightly - and emptily. "Go right on in," she said, waving vaguely toward the door. Keogh nodded, walked around the counter and up to the indicated door. It opened at a touch, not even locked - and Bambi, losing interest, wasn't looking at him. Stupid! Ashamed at his earlier surge of feeling, he went in.
The back room was clearly the working section. There were pigeonhole cabinets along the wall, stuffed with assorted supplies and tools. There was a casting-furnace in one corner, off at the moment. There was a long sturdy worktable with tools and a Bunsen burner laid out on it. There was a chair beside it, and on it sat...
Maureen Beaumont looked up as he came in, defiantly showing her ravaged face. All the features were in place, but hairline scars splayed across her cheeks, nose and forehead. Her hazel-green eyes met his without flinching, and without a smile. "Yes?" was all she said.
"Ms. Beaumont?" The words came more easily than he'd expected. "I'm David Keogh, woodworker. My shop is just down the street; perhaps you've seen my work...?" He took care to look her calmly in the face, to let her know that he saw her scars and accepted them without question.
She returned his gaze thoughtfully, measuring. "Keogh... I think I saw some of your work at last summer's craft-fair."
"Oh. Yes, I was there." He scarcely remembered it now. "I think I had... some stools, some small tables and a rocking-chair..."
She blinked, then nodded. "I remember those," she said. "Especially the rocking-chair. That was very handsome, I recall."
"Thank you." He felt inordinately pleased that she'd liked his work. "Right now I'm putting together a cabinet, and..." He took a deep breath. "I'd like your help on some intaglio for the doors. I can cut the grooves easily enough, but I don't have the skill for laying in the wires. I thought, you being a jeweler..." Keogh suddenly couldn't think of another word to say.
She favored him with another slow blink. "I'd have to come look at it," she said. "How far away is your shop?"
Wordlessly, he handed her one of his cards. She studied it for a moment. "That's quite close," she murmured, "But there's no bus..."
Keogh didn't stop to wonder why she didn't want to walk the distance. "I have my car outside," he heard himself say, "If it wouldn't be inconvenient just now."
Maureen drew a deep breath, as if steeling herself for some ordeal. "No, now is fine," she said. "Just a moment..."
She reached behind her and picked up a coat and a cane. As she levered herself to her feet, Keogh saw that one of her feet was artificial. She balanced her weight on it artfully as she pulled on her coat. Traffic accident, he remembered, not repulsed but almost awed. He automatically offered her his arm as she trudged out from behind the table. She hesitated a moment, then took it. He noticed that her hand and forearm were lean and muscular, the sort of muscle one got from long hours of steady, but not heavy, physical work - the sort of work one would do to drown sorrow in creative accomplishment. Feature by feature he was coming to understand her, and what he saw was strength, resolution, and an artist's passion much like his own.
As they passed through the outer shop Maureen called over her shoulder: "Lock up, Bambi. You may as well take it easy while I'm out."
Pretty Bambi dutifully nodded, clearly thinking of how she'd spend this sudden bonus of free time. She did not, Keogh noticed, so much as glance at the treasures in the display cabinets.
"My niece," Maureen said, as the door closed behind them. "I needed someone out front, and she needed a job," she added, as if that explained everything.
Keogh nodded, understanding perfectly. "I work alone," he admitted, "But then, I don't get much off-the-street traffic." He felt a stab of guilt for even mentioning the word 'traffic', but let it go.
They got to the car, got in, and drove back to his shop without incident. Maureen got out of the car and to her feet with only a little difficulty, and Keogh pretended not to see it. Yes, Lisa was at her usual post, singing - Kipling's "Ballad of East and West", no less. She managed to spot them through the fog, and nodded briefly. Keogh felt oddly reassured.
Once inside the shop, Maureen slowed her steps to look around at the finished works. Keogh felt absurdly grateful to see her eyebrows rise in appreciation. "Now I know I've seen your work before," she murmured. "This is...almost Classically spare, showing off the grain and color of the wood. Are you sure you need any decoration?"
Suddenly unsure of himself, Keogh steered her toward the workshop. "It's these doors," he explained, amazed to feel himself blushing. "I-I thought they were just too big to be left plain, but please look at them and tell me what you think."
Maureen stepped closer to the workbench and studied the two panels. Twice she glanced up at the bare cabinet frame, and twice looked back. Once she reached out her hand, almost shyly, and stroked the red-toned wood. "I see what you mean," she almost whispered. "Yes, an inlay of brass wire would contrast nicely with the color... But not a single line: a double line, set close, with a rounded ridge in between..."
Keogh suddenly understood what she meant, and realized that her idea would work perfectly. "Yes!" he enthused, seeing it. "-And brass latches, hinges-"
"Not too large," she cautioned. "You don't want them to overpower the inlay."
"And possibly..." The idea caught fire. "...More lines of wire inlay along the edges of the frame..."
"Only single lines, and only if the edges are thick enough..."
For the next half hour they discussed designs: proposing here, trimming there, caught up in the same vision. Only when they paused for breath did Keogh realize that he was nearly ecstatic, simply from discussing his work with another craftsman.
A jolt of memory reminded him that this was how he'd first met Jill; she'd come to him for help with a decorating project. It was in talking to her about her work that he'd fallen in love, and thought she had too.
He pulled a sharp breath and took a few steps back, belatedly making effort to look as if he were studying the cabinet at a distance, when in truth he was studying Maureen. No, she was nothing like Jill; there was nothing delicate or fragile about her. Yet there was the seed of a very possible real passion between the two of them, and it's root lay...
...In the shared passion for their work. Maureen was a craftsman, as was he. Their minds were that much alike. With her he might find... He struggled to clarify the concept, and the only word that approached it was: equality.
Impossible, he told himself brutally. She's mortal; I'm immortal. She's a woman; I'm a man. She's maimed; I'm... Right there he had to stop, because he knew - Lisa had shown him - that he was lacking something more important than a foot.
That lack had destroyed Jill.
Right then, the grief and guilt plunged down on him. Keogh gasped and flinched under its impact, tottered on his feet, felt his way blindly to the chair and dropped into it before he could fall to the floor.
"What's the matter?" asked a concerned voice nearby.
Keogh belatedly realized that Maureen had seen him collapse. Lord, what must she think? "I'm sorry," he panted, frantically wiping the sudden tears out of his eyes. "Sorry- It's nothing- Please excuse me..." But the pain was still with him, clamping his throat tight.
"But what is it?" Maureen asked, hobbling closer. "What just happened?"
"I-I-" His mouth didn't seem to be entirely under his control anymore. "I was enjoying it...talking to you about the work...I was happy...I'd forgotten..."
"Forgot? Forgot what?"
"Jill is dead." The words burst out of him, as spontaneous as the tears. He clapped a hand over his mouth and thought inanely of locking the barn door after the horse was stolen. Silent sobs began to shake him.
"...Jill?" Maureen asked gently, peering at him.
She wanted an answer. He'd have to talk again. "...My fiancée..." he managed. "Oh God, it was my fault!" The words broke out of him in a desolate howl. "My fault... I-I'm sorry, I shouldn't be b-burdening you with... I'm sorry... I didn't mean..." Disaster... was all he could think. Disaster. He still couldn't stop the wrenching sobs.
Maureen hooked the nearby work-stool with her cane, pulled it close and sat down on it, facing him. "How did it happen?" she asked quietly.
"She threw herself out of a window!" Oh God, stop! Please stop... "My fault... my fault..."
Maureen raised her eyebrows, but leaned closer. "How was it your fault?" she said, not afraid, not condemning.
Keogh could barely see her through the flood of tears. "She broke off our engagement. I couldn't understand it...tried to talk to her... She wouldn't see me, even got a-a restraining order to keep me away. I thought, if I could only talk to her..." The last understanding hit him like a hammer. "If I'd just had the sense to leave her alone! If I hadn't tried so hard-if I hadn't come after her-if I hadn't been so blinded with wanting her, so sure I could make everything right with a word or a kiss or any proof of how much I loved her... hadn't kept trying to throw my love at her... Oh God, I acted like a-a-" Lisa's term had been deadly accurate, he saw now. "-An emotional rapist!" His throat closed, and he couldn't make another sound. The sobs threatened to choke him.
From somewhere unseen, a lean strong hand closed gently over his. "And she couldn't deal with it?" Maureen guessed.
Keogh only nodded, struggling to breathe.
"So she threw herself out of a window?"
His throat opened enough to squeeze out the last damning words. "To get away from me!"
That lean craftsman's hand clamped firmly on him. "I think there was a little more to it than that," the gentle voice said. "If she'd wanted you to leave her alone she could have punched you in the face, or kicked you downstairs, or gotten her brother to beat you up, or sneaked away on the next train out of town. As the song said, there must be fifty ways to leave your lover."
Keogh shook his head, startled by the images her words conjured. His throat eased enough for more words. "She...she wasn't like that." The very idea of Jill throwing a punch at him was too ludicrous for words. "She was gentle, delicate... She did go to a mutual friend for help, but he..." He didn't beat the shit out of me until it was far too late. "...He was too civilized to beat me up. He thought I was..." ...sane? "...amenable to reason." ...as I might well be, on any subject but this.
"That still leaves 'get on the bus, Gus.' Why didn't she just sneak out of town, do you think?"
"Her job was here." The minute the words were out of his mouth, Keogh knew how idiotic they sounded. "-And her friends, and her house, and...well, everything..." But he realized that none of those things were immovable. Jill could have sold the house to her roommate, come visiting her friends from a distance, gotten work elsewhere...
"Your Jill threw herself out a window," Maureen cut to the heart of the facts, "Rather than lose her job?!"
Keogh grunted as if he'd been punched in the gut. Now that he looked at those facts together, the complete picture was grotesque. "I...never...thought of that..." he whispered.
"If I may be forgiven for saying so," Maureen pronounced slowly, "Your Jill sounds none too 'amenable to reason' herself."
A fool, Keogh realized, looking at the whole picture. A weakling and a fool... Oh God, please tell me I didn't fall in love with her just because she was a weakling and a fool! But the vision ripped a harsh groan out of him. He pressed his hands against his streaming eyes, but couldn't blot out the vision of Jill out on that window ledge, staring at him in terror as he reached for her...
Abruptly, the vision changed. Now it was Lisa Carp out on that ledge, and her look wasn't terrified but furious. She didn't leap backward to get away from him, but plunged forward - straight toward him - fist first. He could imagine the impact of that strong musician's hand compacted into a fist, with the weight of that muscular body behind it. Yes, she could easily have knocked him sprawling - and then given him several good kicks in the ribs while he was down, all the while howling amazing invective. He could imagine the feel of her foot slamming his ribs. It would have taken MacLeod to pull her off him.
The vision changed again, and now it was a hard wooden foot kicking him - and a cane whacking him on the head and shoulders for good measure. It was Maureen beating him, as he knew very well she could.
Keogh pulled his hands away and looked up at Maureen as if seeing her for the first time. Yes, she was nearly as tall as he was, and her hands and arms showed that abundant corded muscle. She was no weakling, and no fool. Whatever she might feel for him in the future, she would never panic as Jill had. She was safe.
"You should beat the shit out of me," he heard himself saying. "Beat me for my sins. God knows, I deserve it." Shut up, idiot! She'll think you're crazy.
Maureen raised both eyebrows and gave him a quirky smile. "Is that what guilt has done for you?" she asked. "Given you a taste for S&M? If so, I have a friend who'll tie you up and beat you thoroughly every...hmmm, I think she has Thursdays free - and for a very reasonable price."
"This is nothing to joke about!" Keogh wailed. "It was my damned obsession that drove Jill to...to..."
"So learn from that," Maureen said firmly. "Repent your sins, and resolve to go on your way and sin no more. Make better use of your guilt than just beating yourself." She heaved a vast sigh. "Believe me, I know about guilt. It was my stupidity that caused the accident..."
Keogh looked up, astonished. "The accident... You?"
"I was in the car with my husband and baby daughter." She leaned back, her gaze and voice growing remote. "We were arguing - about something totally stupid, but I wouldn't give it up - and I yelled something that distracted him just as that truck backed out of the driveway..." She sighed again. "So they died, and I have to live with that. It took me a year to learn how to use my guilt for something better than suicide attempts."
Keogh opened his mouth, then shut it again. He couldn't think of a thing to say.
"Obsession, stupidity, small errors that turn into disasters - fatal for somebody else..." She shrugged. "You live with it. You learn from it. You go on, determined to do better with your life. We're not the first cases, you know. Many a saint started off as a sinner..." She cocked her head and studied him. "I say, did your Jill have any relatives who threatened to take vengeance on you?"
MacLeod. Not exactly a relative... "Just a friend," he said. "He promised to kill me if we ever met again."
"Then stay out of his way. And change enough that he won't recognize you...or will at least consider his vengeance satisfied." Maureen shrugged again, and the light picked out the hairline scars on her face.
Change...I have to change. Keogh idly remembered another story. "I remember...the Leopold and Loeb case...before your time. Two young punks killed a little boy for thrills. One died in prison. The other, when he got out after thirty years, went to work in a leper colony. He stayed there until he died."
"A classic penance," Maureen agreed. "I don't think either of us has to go that far."
"Just change, change..." Keogh looked at his hands as if wondering what to do with them. I still have my work. I always had that... "Never obsess like that again. Never love a woman for her weaknesses. Never try to force my emotions on someone else..." Emotional rapist... The thought still made him wince.
"Was that why she broke off the engagement in the first place?" Maureen asked.
"No, I-" Keogh caught himself, appalled, before he could blurt out the whole vast secret. He still had to say something. "I have a...physical condition..." Immortality! "Among other things, it means that...I can't have children." To say the least!
"Ah," Maureen smiled bitterly. "Neither can I."
Keogh looked up, sharply remembering her comment that she'd once had a baby daughter. -that she lost- "Man is more than a breeding animal!" he burst out. He'd thought of this often over the years. "We have our work - physical or mental - and that contributes as much to our species as- as passing on genes. We...we have offspring of our minds..."
"Yes!" Maureen smiled radiantly, then abruptly sobered. "What we were arguing about was... I wanted to go back to work, back to my art, sculpture and jewelry-making. He wanted me to stay home and be a proper wife and mother... Well, fate settled that question for me."
Keogh could no more stop himself than he could turn back the tide. He pulled himself to his feet and drifted toward her, feeling only that this was utterly right. He rested his hands lightly on her shoulders and looked her in the eyes. "'We be of one blood, thou and I'," he quoted. Then he leaned forward and chastely kissed her on the forehead.
"Yes," Maureen sighed, softly as a passing breeze. Then she turned her face up and kissed him back, just as chastely, on the cheek.
They stood like that, silently, for long unmeasured moments.
Keogh's own resolution - not to push, not to force his feelings on anyone, not to demand love - finally broke the spell. He pulled away gently, looked at her for a moment more, then shifted his gaze to the workbench. "So," he managed, "Will you come work on my cabinet tomorrow?"
"Of course," Maureen smiled back at him. "'You know, Louie, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship'."
Keogh burst out laughing, remembering where that quote came from.
"But I really should be getting back to the shop," she said. "I have to finish up for the day, and I can't leave that to Bambi - if she even stayed there." She stepped away reluctantly, and reached for her coat.
Keogh felt easy laughter bubbling up inside him. "How did you get saddled with her, anyway?" he asked.
"My sister stood by me during the whole mess, and she desperately needed to get Bambi a real job, so..." Maureen slid into her coat and picked up her cane.
"At least she's ornamental enough to draw customers in," said Keogh, offering his arm.
"That's why I usually have her dusting the displays in the windows," Maureen chuckled, moving toward the door.
They chattered about inconsequentials, and swapped quotes from old movies, and laughed all during the short drive back to Maureen's shop.
It wasn't until Keogh returned that he noticed something missing. There was no sound of guitar music from the corner. Now that he thought of it, there hadn't been any when he'd left, either. Alarmed, he parked the car and walked up and down the street, peering through the thinning mist. No, no sign of Lisa anywhere.
But that car was parked across the street again, and there was the same man chatting on a cell-phone. It's too early for him,Keogh remembered. He doesn't usually show up until closing time...
Right there, he guessed who - or what - that man in the car was. Keogh strode across the street, walked up to the car and knocked on the driver's-side window. The man flinched and stared at him, wide-eyed, but dutifully rolled the window down.
"Where's Lisa?" Keogh asked without preamble. "She was sitting there playing all morning, but now she's gone. What happened to her?"
"Uh, the singer?" The man was visibly sweating in the cool air. "She got a call on her cell-phone, and then she packed up and walked off. I have no idea where she's gone."
"Oh come on!" Keogh snapped, impatient. "I know you're part of the priesthood, and so is she; Lisa told me about you-"
"She did?!" the man seethed.
"Yes, yes, and it doesn't matter. Actually, I rather like the idea of somebody keeping a history of us. But where did she go? What happened to her?"
The man seemed to wilt in his suit. "Reassigned," he mumbled. "Your regular man's out of the hospital, and he'll be back on duty tomorrow. Joe wants Lisa back at the bar, so I took over early. I won't be doing this every day, you know."
"'Regular man'?" Keogh considered, disappointed. "I hope he won't try to hide; I really liked talking with Lisa. We could be friends, you know..."
The man seemed to be suffering from apoplexy. Alarmed, Keogh stepped away and headed back to his shop. It was jarring to think of Lisa disappearing so suddenly out of his life... But then, she was "back at the bar" somewhere in town - singing, no doubt. He could hunt her up if he wanted to.
Meanwhile, he wouldn't be exactly alone; Maureen was coming tomorrow. That thought was heartwarming, but somehow not in the same way that he'd felt when waiting for Jill...
The old grief hit him again, but this time the pain wasn't so sharp. ...And not just because I've found someone new... he realized. Something had changed in himself; something had moved him away from the man who had loved Jill with such a blind passion.
Lisa! he understood. She made me grow up!
For an instant he imagined Lisa as a legendary Fairy Godmother, who'd waved her wand - no, played her guitar - and changed his life for the better, and then flew away when her task was done. A Fairy Godmother with a pistol on her hip, a twangy voice, the foulest mouth he'd ever run into, and the insight of an oracle. The real irony was that she was a mortal, and he was one of the legendary elves.
Mortals have so much to teach us, he realized. We have no cause, ever, to be arrogant with them. They have so much to give that we need... He thought of Maureen, and that warm feeling returned. Go slowly, he reminded himself. Don't push, don't grab, don't...project...my own feelings onto her. Let her do the courting, let her come to me in her own time... And if she chooses to walk away, let her go. I'll survive it. I can always love again. I can, I can...
Soberly he unlocked the door to the shop and walked inside. The gleaming finished pieces seemed to wink at him in the growing sunlight, as if promising a brighter day ahead.