Highlander: Time and Again - 08 - The Shadow of Death by Emby Quinn
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HIGHLANDER
The Shadow of Death

Fanfiction by Emby Quinn


Disclaimer: I do not own Highlander or any of the characters therein, nor do I own any characters based on actual historical personages. All original characters are my own creation.--eq

***

New Orleans, Louisiana
9 January, Present Day


It was one of those rare days in early January that dawned bright, the sky high and clear, the air crisp but not too cold. The French Market was bustling with regulars and tourists alike seeking post-holiday bargains. It had very much the air of an open-air flea market, an Old World bazaar with New World flair. There were booths selling exotic spices, racks of handmade clothing, vegetable stands, various concession areas, and all manner of vendors who sold a bit of everything, old and new, second-hand and right off the delivery truck.

Methos was sitting patiently at a benched table, sipping on a cold beer--no "blue laws" in New Orleans that forbade drinking on Sunday, thank heavens--waiting for Lucinda to finish browsing. She was currently arguing down the price of a hand-blown art glass decanter, her usual chic attire abandoned in favor of an old rose sweater, a long denim jacket worn thin at the elbows, and gray painter's jeans. Her blonde hair was pulled carelessly back with an elastic band, and with no makeup on her well-scrubbed face, she could easily pass for a college student on the prowl if the vendors didn't know her. The pilgrimage to the market was a monthly routine of hers; she always came away with something, sometimes a small figurine or an interesting bit of costume jewelry. Once, she swore to him, she'd purchased a Tiffany lamp in only moderate need of repair for ten dollars. It was the search itself, not the items gained, that drove her. Ah, the hunter-gatherer instincts of the female animal, he thought fondly, sitting back on the bench. You can take the woman out of the caves, but you can't take away the primal acquisitiveness that made the human race such a successful evolutionary experiment.

Are Immortals actually human, though? We must be, I suppose; physically, mentally, even genetically we're indistinguishable from ordinary mortals. Our life-force is more vital, we heal much faster, we don't scar, we even come back from death if the head is still attached to the body. Other than that, we're not all that different from ordinary people. Supposedly we're all foundlings, but I've met any number of Immortals who swore they were born to mortal parents. They could simply never have been told the truth, but still...it makes one wonder. Is there something in us at birth that makes some mortal women simply abandon us, out of an unacknowledged instinct? And if we're none of us born to mortal women, then where do we come from?

This wasn't a new mental puzzle by any means; Methos had pondered this question hundreds of times over his long lifespan, and he had discussed and debated the issue with other Immortals again and again. There were as many theories, it seemed, as there were people who wondered about it. One Immortal he'd encountered in California during the so-called Summer of Love had even postulated that Immortals were aliens from another planet--something that began with a Z. Methos's response to that theory--Too many hits of windowpane acid--he kept to himself.

A sudden shock of awareness broke into his thoughts; across the breezeway, Lucinda froze in mid-haggle and looked around in surprise and alarm. Methos got up as the presence of another Immortal intensified, drawing nearer, accompanied by the sound of running feet on the cement walkway.

A figure dressed in black with long dark hair pushed through the crowd towards Lucinda. Methos actually took a step forward before he recognized the resident Immortal leather-gothic, Henri de Lioncourt, as he took hold of Lucinda's arm and spoke urgently to her in Quebec-accented French.

Methos couldn't make out his words, but he could understand Lucinda's response well enough, familiar with the pitch of her voice as he was. "Avez-vous expliqué les règles? Où est-il maintenant?"

"Il ne m'a permis d'expliquer rien. Il me chasse--"

Another presence intruded, and Methos saw Lucinda push Henri to the side, then behind her. "I'll deal with this," she said. "Stay here." She walked forward and met the stern-faced Asian man who had just appeared out of the throng. "I'm Lucinda," she said. "This venue's a bit public for a duel, don't you think?"

"My name is Wen Chang," the stranger replied. "I am merely pursuing...quarry. If he wishes to cling to his life for a while longer, then I can wait. He can't stay here forever."

Lucinda folded her arms and looked at him; she was tall enough in her heels to look him in the eye. "The cathedral's across the street. We can talk there."

"I have no wish to hide on holy ground, and talking is unnecessary." Chang reached inside his coat; Methos stiffened. The fool surely wouldn't draw steel in a place crowded with onlookers! "I have no argument with you, lady; but I will not be denied the right to challenge."

Get him out of here, Methos thought at Lucinda. He didn't believe in telepathy, but because of their closeness sometimes Lucinda could sense his will if he concentrated hard enough. Or perhaps being around him for most of her Immortal existence had trained her mind to work in a fashion similar to his own. Whatever the reason, Lucinda seemed to realize that this was not the place for a confrontation. "There's an abandoned exhibition hall on the river," she said. "Follow me."

"As you wish." The Asian trailed after Lucinda as she left the market breezeway; with a look at Henri, who was scared white, Methos followed. If the Asian knew Methos was there--and he must have--he showed no concern. He's either very trusting, very arrogant, or both. He's sure we won't double-team him...and he's right, too. But what if he won't agree to Lucinda's truce?

The exhibition hall had been built years before for the 1984 World's Fair; it had since passed from one owner to the next and was now in a state of sad disrepair. Lucinda opened a side door and gestured Chang inside.

"Ladies first," the man replied, smiling.

Lucinda did so, but she moved carefully, not quite turning her back on him. Methos entered after Chang, and the door swung shut heavily behind him. Light filtered down through the dusty windows overhead into the hollow, dingy interior.

Chang looked at Methos, then back at Lucinda. "I trust that you both know the rules of the Game," he said. "Only one may answer a challenge."

"We're both well aware of that." Lucinda still hadn't drawn her sword, or made any move to do so. "Before anyone does anything, you need to understand something--here in the French Quarter, we do not participate in the Game. We haven't for half a century."

"Is that right?" Chang scoffed. "Then you are fools."

"We want to live, for life's own sake. The Game and the Prize are fantasies, a convenient excuse to go around lopping off the heads of people who've done nothing to deserve death." Lucinda spread out her empty hands. "If you wish to continue the farce, you're free to do so. Anywhere but here."

"I challenged the Frenchman."

"Anyone is free to refuse a challenge. That, too, is part of the Game."

"It is also part of the Game that anyone who is strong enough to pursue an opponent may take his head." Chang smiled. "Or hers."

Methos's eyes narrowed to slits. In all technicality, the man was right; but it was generally considered good form, in his experience, to allow any Immortal to refuse a challenge against an opponent. God knows Methos had backed down often enough--not because he was afraid to fight, but because anyone could have a bad day, and he would rather live to see the next sunrise than add to his already considerable tally of heads taken.

"Henri doesn't want to fight you," Lucinda said decisively, "and he's done you no harm, unless I'm mistaken. If you have no personal quarrel with him, I advise you to do your headhunting elsewhere."

"If you wish to stop me, lady," Chang said, drawing his sword, "you will have to face me." The blade was a wicked, double-edged jian type sword, long and straight, thicker near the crossguard and gradually thinning to a keen, razor-sharp edge at the point. A heavy red tassel hung from the pierced pommel.

"Put that away." Lucinda's voice had gone cold. "You don't want to challenge me, Chang. Really, you don't."

"I'd listen to her if I were you," Methos said. He sounded perfectly placid, but a prickle of cold sweat popped up on the back of his neck. The Asian was an unknown quantity; it wasn't likely that he was better with a sword than Lucinda, but there was no way to be sure of that. He certainly handled that long blade as though he knew how to use it.

Chang ignored Methos as though he weren't there. "Draw your sword, woman, or I will kill you were you stand."

Lucinda's jaw went taut and her face blanched with anger. "I said, put it away. Now--"

Chang rushed her, and she was forced to dodge to one side as the blade swung through the air where her neck had been a heartbeat before. When she came back around, her Viking longsword was in her hands, and her face was a cold hard mask of blank fury. "Have it your own way," she growled, and the battle was joined.

Methos fisted his hands at his sides, cursing under his breath in ancient Sumerian. Over the past seven months, he'd almost allowed himself to start believing that a half-dozen Immortals could live in one place in peace, without having to worry about taking up their swords and fighting for nothing more nor less than the right to go on living. He'd willfully ignored the possibility--no, the probability--not even that; the inevitability of a headhunter breezing into the town, looking for easy pickings, someone who wasn't interested in anything but adding to their own power.

What an old fool he'd become.

Even in his rising distress, Methos couldn't help noticing that Lucinda was holding her own. As was her custom, she was allowing her opponent to press his attack, content to parry, dodge and block while Chang attempted to break through her defenses. Lucinda was quick and agile, not to mention stronger than she looked, but her true edge in combat lay in her remarkable endurance. She could afford to play the waiting game, giving her opponent enough rope with which to hang himself as he expended his own strength trying to take her down.

Before too long Chang was covered in sweat, trembling with near-exhaustion, while Lucinda hardly seemed out of breath. He tried for a desperate thrust which Lucinda easily knocked aside. "I'll give you one last chance," she said, her voice maddenly strong and steady. "Walk away."

"Bei cao zhu!" Chang screamed, pulling a knife from his belt with his free hand. Unfortunately for him, Lucinda had seen Methos use that trick before, and she was ready for it. She let go of her sword with one hand and grabbed his wrist, pulling him forward and stepping aside, deftly avoiding the short, sharp blade which had been intended for her heart. Moving with the momentum, Lucinda swung her sword at the back of Chang's neck, neatly severing his head from his body, which fell to the ground as she released his arm.

Methos found he could breathe again. He slumped back against the wall. Silvery-white mist rose from Chang's fallen corpse as the too-familiar flares of blue lightning erupted around Lucinda's body. Her back arched like a tightly-drawn bow, and she threw her head back and screamed as the energy coursed through her. The windows overhead shattered one by one, showering the concrete floor with glittering shards. When it was over, Lucinda sank to one knee, leaning heavily on her sword, gasping for breath. The endurance which had seen her through the fight had been sapped by the force of the Quickening.

Another presence made Methos spin on his heel and draw his sword in the same instant. "C'est moi!" Henri yelled, holding up his empty hands, staring at the wicked point of the broadsword pointed at his chest. "Adam, please, it's only me!"

Methos scoffed in disgust and put his sword away. Henri looked around the hall and saw the Asian's fallen body, saw Lucinda kneeling over it, and slumped with obvious relief. "Merci du bon Dieu," he breathed.

"You should be thanking Lucinda," Methos said bitterly. He understood well enough not wanting to fight, and he hadn't been above enlisting others--MacLeod, for example--to take on those he wasn't capable of defeating. Therefore, he really shouldn't be so angry at de Lioncourt for doing what he would have been most likely to do in a comparable situation.

But Methos was angry, because it wasn't MacLeod who had just taken the head of someone he didn't even know and had no quarrel with. It wasn't MacLeod who could have lost his head for reasons that meant nothing to him. It was Lucinda, whose feelings and safety mattered to Methos very nearly as much as his own. He felt a strong, irrational urge, quickly repressed, to turn around and whack Henri's head off himself. Annoying little git.

Henri crept cautiously forward, mindful of the broken glass under his feet. "Lucinda...? Are you all right, ma cherie...?"

Slowly, painfully, Lucinda rose to her feet. Her head was down, her hair hanging over her face. The elastic band which had been holding it back was gone. She nearly dropped her sword as she fought to put it away.

Henri was within reach of her now, and he placed a long white hand lightly on her shoulder. He smiled at her with pathetic gratitude. "Thank you, chere Lucinda, for saving my li--"

With surprising speed, Lucinda spun on him. A loud crack sounded through the hall as she backhanded Henri across his face. "Damn you!" she screamed at him. "This is it, do you understand? This is the last time I'm fighting your battles for you. I swear to God, if you come running to me again, next time you won't have to worry about some hunter claiming your head. I'll take it myself!"

Henri stood motionless, rubbing his stinging cheek and staring, as Lucinda staggered past him into Methos's waiting arms. "Take me home," she choked. "Please, just get me the hell out of here."

Without so much as a glance back at Henri, Methos wrapped an arm around his wife's waist and guided her out through the door. She collapsed before they'd made it across the street, and Methos was forced to carry her back to the gallery, drawing curious stares from passersby which he manfully ignored.

***

Once she'd revived and was safely back home, Lucinda spent the better part of an hour in the bath, letting hot water beat down on her. When she emerged from the shower, wrapped in a blue velour robe, Methos was waiting with a snifter of brandy for her. He led her to the window seat and sat down with her. Grateful for his patient silence, Lucinda finished most of the wine before she finally spoke.

"It's not guilt, you know," she said. "That Wen Chang was a right bastard. He was a Mongol who rode with Genghis Khan--and he didn't know when to stop raping, pillaging and burning."

"That wouldn't please the Khan very much," Methos said, pulling her against him with an arm around her shoulders. "The Mongols were ruthless when they invaded new territory--utterly without mercy or remorse--but once their rule was established, it was both tolerant and absolute. The conquered peoples were allowed to keep their own customs, religions and languages, provided they submitted to Mongol law." He smiled wryly in remembrance. "It was said that at the height of Genghis's reign, a naked virgin could ride bareback with a sack of gold from the coast of China to the western steppes of Russia--and no one would dare molest her."

"Chang was considered a renegade, even by his fellow Mongols. They would have taken his head off, but he bore some blood relation to the Khan, and Genghis didn't want blood he shared on his followers' hands. They buried him under a mountain of stones, and he suffocated. He was stuck there for centuries before an earthquake freed him, and he didn't wake up in a very good mood."

"I expect not."

"He always preferred taking the heads of those he felt sure he could defeat. He preyed on those he saw as weak, helpless, unable to defend themselves. He never would have challenged someone like Kerrigan." She wrapped her arms around herself to suppress a shudder. "When he couldn't find any Immortal heads to take, he amused himself by tormenting mortals. He was at Kanto, Nanjing, Nogun-ri, My Lai, Cambodia, Tienamen Square...and that was just in the last century, the most recent memories he had."

"Shush." Methos stroked her hair. "Don't fight it so hard. Take it in, accept it, and let it go. Don't let it eat at you like this."

She shook her head. "I won't. I'm not. I'm just not used to it anymore." She buried her face in his shoulder, taking slow, deep breaths until she stopped shaking. "I could have just run him through and dumped him in the river instead of taking his head..."

"He would have come back. You know he would have."

"I know. I didn't even think about it, really. The old instincts just took over."

"That's the way I trained you. Avoid conflict whenever possible, but once the fight's engaged, you fight to win."

"You know what really bothers me?"

"Probably, but why don't you tell me anyway?"

Lucinda sat up, tucking her hair behind her ear. "It's all for nothing. In the end, it won't make any difference at all."

"You saved Henri from being killed."

"Today I did. What about tomorrow, or next week, or next year? It's only a matter of time before the prat loses his head when one of us isn't around to protect him." Lucinda folded her arms crossly. "Henri won't fight. Not can't--won't. I've tried to pass it off as pacifism, an aversion to violence...but if I'm honest with myself, I have to admit that I think he's just..."

"A coward?"

"It isn't that. Being afraid to fight, not wanting to die--that I could forgive. No, it's...laziness, I suppose. He doesn't want to fight--and that's fine as far as it goes. I'm not all about it, either--not anymore--but if someone comes for my head and I can't avoid a confrontation, I'm not going to run to you or Kerrigan or anyone else to fight my battles for me. When it comes down to it, I'll stand my ground, draw my sword and take my chances rather than asking anyone else to risk their neck for me. Henri can't be bothered to defend himself because he knows there are four other Immortals in the city who would be willing to protect him if he asked."

Methos scowled. "You said he's from the 1880s. How has he survived this long?"

"His first teacher--before Kerrigan--was a cavalier. Francoise Laurent. I never met him, but from what I've been able to gather, he protected Henri. He wasn't really a teacher at all; he did all the fighting for both of them."

"Until someone came along and--"

"Yeah. When Henri came here, he was scared out of his mind, with the headhunter hard on his heels." She scoffed quietly. "That one was a nasty piece of work, too..."

***

New Orleans, Louisiana
8 August, 1991


The Sword and Stone was empty of customers when the pale, thin man in a ripped T-shirt and jeans burst in through the door. Aidan Kerrigan looked up, sensing that the boy was an Immortal, as he was. A young one, no more than a century on him, and clearly terrified out of his mind. "Please help me!" he choked. "He's going to kill me!"

"What the hell is going on?" Lucinda had taken a rare day off from her gallery to spend an afternoon sparring with her friend of four decades. Clad in a sweatsuit, her hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, she looked the newcomer up and down and assigned him the automatic label of small threat. "Calm down," she ordered. "Who are you, and who is going to kill you?"

"He's right behind me. He's been following me since I left Montreal." The man kept casting terrified glances at the door behind him. "No one will help me, they're all too afraid of him--"

The presence-sense hit, and Lucinda and Kerrigan exchanged looks. "Get in the back," Kerrigan ordered the boy, "and don't move a muscle until I tell you it's all right. Go on!"

No sooner had the boy left than the door was slammed open hard enough to rattle the glass in its frame. The man who entered was solidly built, but not stocky; his dark hair was close-cropped, and a vertical scar ran down the right side of his face from hairline to cheekbone, bisected by his eye. He looked around, sized up the huge man behind the counter and the woman in the sweatsuit, and removed from his black leather jacket a hand-and-a-half sword longer than he should have been able to wield. He handled the oversized blade with incredible ease. "I don't suppose you good people will be kind enough to tell me where my opponent is hiding," he said in a voice that was amazingly cordial.

"We don't want any trouble," Lucinda said with cool civility. "My name is Lucinda; this is Kerrigan."

"Melvin Koren," the stranger replied with a polite nod of his head. "I've heard of you, Kerrigan. You were quite the terror back in the day, weren't you? Word lately is you've gone soft. I wonder if it's true."

"If your 'opponent' is that skinny goth boy you were chasing," Lucinda broke in smoothly, "you must be pretty hard up for competition."

Koren turned on her, bringing his sword around to point at her throat. "Maybe you'd like to give me a different target?"

Lucinda didn't even flinch. "I'm not interested in fighting you, Koren. I'm just saying that if he won't face you--and he doesn't seem like much of a challenge, frankly--you could probably find better sport elsewhere."

"Oh, I could, I could indeed." Koren looked Lucinda up and down, judging the shape and fitness of her body under the shapeless sweats. "But I don't like leaving unfinished business."

"A sporting proposition, then," Kerrigan said. "Between two men of the world?"

Koren lowered his sword and turned his attention to the Irish giant. "I'm listening," he said.

"Allow me to train the boy up a little. Just a few years. People like us, we have all the time in the world, don't we? Once he's learned which end of a sword to hold without cutting himself, come back for a visit and you can settle things with him then." Kerrigan leaned on the counter and gave Koren a sharp, bitter smile. "And all the time I'm training him, he'll be seeing your face instead of mine. He'll know the entire time that you'll be coming after him some day. That might make him fight all the harder, or it might completely paralyze him. Either way would be more entertaining than taking him when he's almost run out and on the point of exhaustion."

Koren lifted his chin; Lucinda could see that he was impressed in spite of himself. "I like the way you think," he said with frank admiration. "Very well. Let's see, what day is it...?" He glanced over at the calendar on the wall behind Kerrigan. "Let's keep it simple, shall we? First of January, 2000? That gives the brat the rest of the millenium to live."

"Done."

Koren looked over at Lucinda, giving her that half-appraising, half-hungry look of his. "I'll see you then, I hope," he said with a feral grin.

Lucinda gave him a look of carefully-calculated calm neutrality. "I'll be here."

With a mocking bow, Koren turned and left. Once the sense of his presence had faded, Lucinda felt her knees turn to water, and she slumped against a display case. Her heart was hammering. Something about the scarfaced man had frightened her on a visceral level she couldn't completely comprehend. She'd been threatened before in her long life, certainly; she'd had a sword held to her throat more than once, and she'd faced opponents who appeared more formidable...but this Melvin Koren character was one Immortal she prayed she'd never have to fight. She had an inexplicable, soul-deep conviction that if they fought, she would lose. And he could do a lot worse than kill me.

Kerrigan went into the back and returned with the shaken, terrified boy in tow. "What's your name?" the tall man asked roughly.

"Henri. Henri de Lioncourt."

"I'm Kerrigan. That's Lucinda. You'll be safe enough so long as you stay in the Quarter, but you're going to have to learn how to look after yourself."

"But I heard--when he comes back--"

"If he comes back," Kerrigan interrupted, "he'll be dealt with. One way or the other."

***

New Orleans, Louisiana
9 January, Present Day


"Henri threw himself into his training," Lucinda said, "at first. He spent most of the year 2000 in a constant state of terror, but when Koren didn't show up, he abandoned his training entirely. It was only a matter of time before one of us had to take a head in order to protect him. That's the real reason I'm so pissed off at him--he's not hopeless with a sword, Kerrigan saw to that, but he refuses to fight. He simply can't be bothered." Lucinda looked Methos and blinked at the look of abject horror on his face. "Methos? What's wrong?"

"Kronos..." he said hoarsely.

"Pardon?"

"His real name wasn't Koren. It was Kronos."

"What?!" Lucinda jumped to her feet. "You have got to be joking. One of the Horsemen?"

"The leader of the Horsemen." Methos sounded almost ill. "'Melvin Koren' was his most recent alias. A man about your height, pale eyes, scar running right down the side of his face--"

"Big-ass sword with backspikes near the crossguard?"

"That's him. Or it was," he amended at Lucinda's look of alarm. "He's dead. MacLeod took his head years ago."

"Good." Gingerly she sat back down. "I'm glad I didn't have to fight him."

"That makes two of us." Methos pulled her into his lap and wrapped his long arms tightly around her. She settled against him, her earlier distress completely forgotten, and they sat that way quietly for most of the afternoon.

***

That night, with Lucinda sleeping softly in his arms, Methos lay on his back and stared at the ceiling, unable to close his eyes. The sounds of traffic drifted up from the street below; even on a Sunday night, the streets of the French Quarter were busy well into the small hours of the morning.

Kronos had been here. He had been in New Orleans years before Methos encountered him again in Seacouver. He had seen Lucinda, spoken to her, never realizing who she was, or what she had been to Methos. His sword had been at Lucinda's throat. If she'd fought him, she most likely would have died.

It didn't happen. It's not going to happen, because Kronos is dead. All the Horsemen are dead, except for me. Woven into the threadbare relief of that knowledge was a strange and complicated pattern of grief and loneliness. Kronos, Silas and Caspian had been his brothers; Kronos in particular had understood Methos as no one now living could, not even Lucinda. He'd never had much affection or respect for Caspian, whom he'd always considered expendable; but he did feel a twinge of remorse over Kronos. Only a twinge, since the modern world, large as it was, probably didn't have room for both Kronos and Methos in it. On the other hand, Silas was a large part of the lingering regret he felt over what had happened in Bordeaux; he hadn't wanted the big axeman involved at all, but he could think of no other way to convince Kronos to spare his life after letting MacLeod escape in Seacouver except to promise him the reunion of all four of them. Methos had taken Silas's head with his own hands, a betrayal of a brotherly bond that had endured for three thousand years, and the mere thought of it still pierced him to the soul. If there had been time and opportunity, he might have found some way to keep Silas alive...but there had been no time, no opportunity, and it when came down to a choice, an impossible yet inevitable choice, Methos took the option that left Cassandra alive, as well as MacLeod and--admittedly--himself.

If it came down to a choice between Lucinda's life and mine...what would I do? Methos knew he could never honestly answer that question. Not until the situation presented itself. He prayed silently to every god he had ever worshipped--any god that would listen to the likes of him--that it never would. He didn't want to die, and he didn't know how he would live with himself if he allowed Lucinda to die instead of him.

He rubbed his eyes wearily, grunting in disgust at himself. Lucinda stirred, turned in his embrace and blinked up at him. "...wha'...?"

"Nothing, dearest. Go back to sleep." He gave her a kiss and settled down beside her, resting his cheek atop her head. Resolutely he shut his eyes and willed his body to relax. Sleep was long in coming, but eventually it came, and if Methos dreamed, he didn't remember any of it upon waking.

***

Metro Firing Range
New Orleans, Louisiana
15 January, Present Day


"This is stupid."

"No, it would be stupid not to take every measure possible to ensure your own safety. Now pay attention." Methos handed the sleek handgun to her, showing her how to hold it properly. "This is a Ruger rimfire pistol. It's only a .22 caliber, so it's not got a lot of stopping power, but I thought it best to start you out with this and work you up to something a little more impressive." With Lucinda's upper-body strength, she could probably handle anything she took a fancy to, once she had learned the basic mechanics of handling a gun.

Lucinda made a face, but she did as Methos directed her. "As if longbows weren't bad enough," she muttered.

"But you learned to use them, and crossbows as well."

"Only because you insisted."

"And I'm insisting on this too. Now, there's the target. Aim from the shoulder...pull the trigger, don't squeeze it..."

By the time the morning was over, Lucinda was hitting body shots on the target fairly consistently, and she had learned how to load and unload the pistol herself. To reward her efforts, Methos took her by streetcar to Cannon's on St. Charles for lunch.

"I still don't understand," Lucinda said, toying with her salad. "Why the sudden drive to teach me this? I mean, I know you're all for self-preservation, but..."

"Do you know what the average life expectancy of an Immortal is?"

"Uhm...let me guess...forever?"

Methos shook his head. "I mean realistically. How long will one of us survive, on average, before someone takes his or her head?"

"I wouldn't have any idea."

"Six hundred years, give or take."

"Well, that would put you a bit past your freshness date, wouldn't it?"

"Lucy, I'm serious." Methos fixed her with his steady gaze. "I didn't last for five thousand years by ignoring progress. From bronze to steel to arrows to black powder weapons to automatic pistols--when something new in personal defense comes along, I'm going to learn how to use it. If you want to survive, you'll do the same."

"Guns aren't part of the Game, love. You said so yourself."

"And so they aren't, but that doesn't mean you can afford to disregard their existence."

Lucinda gave a little half-shrug that Methos recognized as a sign of reluctant acquiescence. "What kind of gun do you use?"

"Well, I used to use a Walther PPK; elegant weapon, good all-around sidearm, but the damn thing jammed at the worst times. These days I prefer a .45 ACP; a bit militaristic, but quite reliable."

Lucinda pursed her lips thoughtfully. "Maybe you'll let me try it out sometime."

Methos arched one dark eyebrow. "Oh, do you think you can handle my gun?"

"I'd be willing to give it a try whenever you think I'm ready. Does it have a hair trigger?"

"I've never heard any complaints in that regard."

"I'm sure it's dangerous to handle carelessly."

"Well, I do keep it fully loaded."

A soft but insistent ring-tone interrupted Lucinda's rejoinder. With an apologetic glance at Methos, she took her phone out and answered it. "Speak." Methos saw her roll her eyes with either impatience or frustration. "Lovely. We're over on St. Charles right now, we'll have to catch a cab back--would you? Aidan, you're an angel. Yes, you are. Be sure you get Pat to back you up. I mean it. Kerrigan--" She sighed and turned the phone off. "Stubborn git."

"Trouble?"

"Another newcomer. Unknown quantity. Technically it's my week to meet and greet, but Kerrigan doesn't want to spoil our day out."

"That's kind of him." Methos was aware that the big, burly Irish axeman was at least half in love with Lucinda, a fact of which the woman herself seemed completely unaware. He'd hoped there wouldn't be a repeat of 1016, when King Edward had challenged Methos for Lucinda's affections. Kerrigan's got more sense than that, at least. He knows that I'm the one Lucinda loves, and he won't win her heart by taking my head. Methos had developed a grudging respect for Kerrigan over the past few months that had almost--but not quite--eclipsed his lingering wariness over their first encounter.

***

Ireland
341 AD


"Cowardly wretch! Stand your ground and face me!"

Not a chance, Methos thought fiercely. He did not answer the giant's challenge; he didn't have the breath to spare. For nearly a fortnight the headhunter had dogged his footsteps; several times he'd believed himself safe, and begun cautiously to relax his guard, only to feel the threatening presence loom once more.

Kerrigan was persistent, certainly. Methos had ridden two horses to death across the large green island of Eire in his efforts to escape the sweep of the huge, heavy axe. Kerrigan, always on foot, had managed to seek him out in his every refuge.

It was certainly possible that Methos could best him in one-on-one combat, but the odds were a bit too narrow for the elder Immortal's comfort--particularly since Kerrigan, a devotee of the native druidic religion, saw Methos as a patron of the newly-established Christian faith. Just because most of the literature and history is kept in monasteries these days. Even worse, Kerrigan could sense the age and power resident in Methos, and he had gotten it into his thick, rattling pagan head that with that much additional power at his command, he could drive the Christian "heretics" out of his homeland.

Call it part of the Game, or call it a mission of the gods--it all adds up to me being minus my head! Methos had seen religious fanaticism too many times before not to be particularly wary of it, especially in someone as formidable as Aidan Kerrigan. He could beat the man in a fair fight--or even an unfair one--possibly.

Best not to take any chances.

Methos dove through a cluster of low-lying branches in the wood, and Kerrigan crashed through, hot on his heels. He completely missed the rope snare until it closed around his ankles and hoisted him a full twenty feet off the ground.

The headhunter roared with indignation, cursing Methos in lusty Gaelic. Methos darted forward to retrieve the axe. He had to strain to lift it, and with a single spin around he flung it as far into the trees as he could. Dusting off his hands, he smiled wryly up at the furious, flailing figure. "Better luck next time," he called out as he turned on his heel and vanished into the wood. He didn't know how long that branch would hold Kerrigan's bulk, but he hoped it would give him time to lose the big man for good and all.

***

Cannon's Restaurant
New Orleans, Louisiana
15 January, Present Day


"What are you smiling about?" Lucinda asked.

"Mm? Oh, me? Nothing. Just woolgathering."

"Hmph. You looked for all the world like a fox recollecting the last henhouse he broke into."

"No worries, darling, yours is the only henhouse I frequent these days." Methos reached forward and tapped the golden claddagh on Lucinda's ring finger.

She slapped playfully at him, but didn't press the issue. Methos always kept his secrets very close, and after all these centuries, Lucinda knew better than to try and pry anything out of him he wasn't willing to share. He'd tell her when, and if, he was ready to. And anyway, what did it matter? He was here with her, in the city she considered theirs. He didn't seem in any particular hurry to be off anywhere, and if he did leave, she felt reasonably sure he'd take her along. It was enough.

***

It was after three o'clock when they caught the streetcar back for the French Quarter. On the way, Lucinda checked her phone for messages, then dialed Kerrigan's number. Methos watched her expression change from complacent to confused to mildly concerned. "No answer," she finally said, ringing off.

"Maybe he had to step out."

"No, he would have put the machine on." She looked out the window as they passed the lush Garden District houses. "I've got a bad feeling about this."

Methos scoffed. "You get bad feelings when someone drops a salt-cellar. Kerrigan can look after himself, you know."

Lucinda nodded, but she still looked worried. "We'd better stop by the shop," she said.

"But if he isn't there--"

"I don't know where else to start looking." She looked at him with pleading eyes. "Please?"

Methos sighed, but he nodded.

The Sword and Stone was only a few blocks' walk from the streetcar line. Nothing looked out of place from the storefront; Lucinda tried the doorknob, and it turned easily in her hand. She cast a look of alarm at Methos--no one in the Quarter would leave a door unlocked, let alone a merchant--and she reached inside her coat as she eased the door open and slipped inside. Methos followed her, reaching for his own concealed sword.

If the outside of the weapons shop looked normal, the inside was a shambles. The display cases were shattered, shards of glass littering the carefully-arranged display pieces on the black velvet linings. A rack of hand-crafted sword-canes had fallen over and lay smashed on the tiled floor, its former contents scattered like so many oversized pick-up sticks. There was a deep axe-cut in the top of the counter, and the cash register lay on its side on the floor. Lucinda had her sword drawn now, her face white with dread. Her eyes cast about the ruined showroom, and without a word she ducked through the curtain behind the counter.

"Lucinda!" Methos hissed, hurrying after her. Damn it all to bloody hell, one of these days she's going to go charging headlong into the fray and come out missing her head--

As he cleared the curtain, he heard Lucinda scream--an awful sound of rage, shock and soul-deep grief. His broadsword at the ready, Methos covered the short hallway in three strides and entered the storeroom, already knowing what he would find.

Lucinda fell to her knees, her sword clattering to the concrete beside her. Methos lowered his weapon and stepped forward, looking down somberly, and put his hand on Lucinda's quivering shoulder.

If the showroom was a shambles, the storeroom looked like a tornado had blown through. Crates had been burst open, various bladed weapons lay bent and broken as though struck by racks of lightning, and the electrical fixtures overhead were still spitting intermittent sparks.

On the cold, damp concrete lay the body of Aidan Kerrigan, born in the year 268 AD in the wild woods of Eire.

Several feet from his body lay his severed head.

With a cry that sounded born of pain, Lucinda lunged for her sword. Methos dropped to one knee and wrapped a long arm around her. "No, Lucinda. Whoever it was is gone. We have to warn the others." He was already reaching for her cell phone, holding her against him with one arm while he dialed the first number on her memory list. When the phone in the front showroom began ringing, he hit the disconnect button and tried the next one. "Marie? Yes, it's Adam. Kerrigan's dead. The Immortal who killed him is gone. Lucinda's here, with me. Warn Finnegan and Henri." He felt Lucinda's head fall to his shoulder as her grief began to overtake her rage--which, at the present moment, was really for the better. "There's a headhunter out there."

***

St. Louis Cemetery
New Orleans, Louisiana
17 January, Present Day


Lucinda seldom wept. After that one breakdown in the shop, she shed no further tears for Kerrigan. She was as hard and cold and unyielding as stone when she stood before his crypt with the other Immortals of the Quarter. Methos stood beside her, wearing his one black suit and tie and an expression of quiet respect. He had his arm around Lucinda's shoulders, but he may as well have been embracing one of the cemetery's many sculptured angels for all the response she gave. She hardly seemed to know he was there.

Henri was desolate. Marie was all but holding him up bodily as he wept for his teacher and protector. "I should have been there," he sobbed brokenly. "I could have done something--"

"You couldn't have interfered," Finnegan said quietly. "The Game--"

"To hell with the Game!" Henri shouted. "The bastard shot him, Finnegan! It wasn't a fair fight. No one could have beaten Aidan in fair combat. The son of a bitch shot him and then took his head!"

Methos said nothing. Inside he was seething with barely-contained rage. Part of his anger was at himself, and the other Immortals here, for being foolish enough to believe the Game could be avoided--but it was more than that. Kerrigan was the reason most Immortals avoid New Orleans, because of his reputation. It could have been someone with a grudge against him from his headhunting days, but somehow I don't think so.

Marie hugged Finnegan, then Lucinda, who was still stiff and unresponsive. She pressed a kiss to Methos's cheek and whispered "Take care of her..." in his ear before pulling away. Methos simply nodded. I always do, he answered silently, and he felt sure that Marie understood.

Marie and Finnegan led Henri away. Methos stood there with Lucinda for a while longer. "It wasn't your fault," he said quietly to her.

"I should have been here." Her voice was cold, flat, dead. "It should have been me."

"No." He took her by the shoulders and turned her to face him. "It wasn't you they were after. Did you see the way he'd been killed? It took several blows to separate the head--"

"Stop!" Lucinda shouted, her voice ringing echoes off the statuary around them. She clapped her hands over her ears like a child trying to avoid being scolded.

Patiently, relentlessly, Methos pulled her hands away and down to her sides. "It was an Immortal who killed Kerrigan," he persisted, "but Kerrigan wasn't killed the way an Immortal would have done it. Whoever it was doesn't know a damned thing about the Game, and doesn't care about the rules. Anyone's rules. We're not dealing with a headhunter, Lucy--we're dealing with someone who doesn't know bugger-all about what we are, except that we can only die if our heads are struck off. That, if anything, makes them more dangerous." He put his hands on either side of her head and lifted her face up to his. "We've got to keep it together, now. We've got to use our heads before anyone else loses theirs. Do you understand?"

Lucinda looked on the verge of tears, but her eyes were dry, and she nodded. Methos gathered her into his arms. Another admonition to stop blaming herself died on his lips. No wonder I'm 'the world's only guilt-free man', as MacLeod once so charmingly put it. Lucinda feels enough guilt for both of us.

***

Ex Libris Bookstore
New Orleans, Louisiana
18 January, Present Day


File: Aidan Kerrigan
Known Aliases: None
Born: c. 340 AD, Ireland
First Death: 375 AD
First Teacher: Unknown
Original Cultural Affiliation: Celtic
Recent Base of Operations: New Orleans, Louisiana
Occupation: Swordsmith and shopkeeper
Roster Status: Deceased
Watcher: Beauregard Rimbaud

Aidan Kerrigan was a savage headhunter for most of his Immortal life. Failing to drive the Christians from his native Ireland, he soon turned to mounting periodic rebellions against the occuping English forces. In the early 20th century he became allied with the Irish Republican Army, but after the liberation of Ireland proper he felt his work was done. Disillusioned by the continued bloodshed between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, he came to the New World in the 1940s, taking up residence in New Orleans.

In January of this year Kerrigan was beheaded by an Immortal whose identity and whereabouts are currently unknown. I will be remaining in New Orleans until Kerrigan's assailant, who apparently has no Watcher of his own, is identified for the Chronicle.


Beau Rimbaud saved the file and closed the laptop with a weary sigh. "End of an era," he muttered to himself. He looked up as his granddaughter appeared in the door. "Marie-Anne?"

The dark-skinned teenager grinned at him. "Mr. Pierson's come by to see you, Paw-Paw."

"Send him on in, honey." Rimbaud rose stiffly from the kitchen chair to put on a fresh pot of coffee. When he turned back to the door, he nodded to the lean, pale, dark-haired man in the trench-coat. "Mornin', Adam. Have a seat. Coffee?"

"Thanks."

"Nice to hear you got back in," Rimbaud said as he poured two cups of the strong chicory blend he favored. "Been having too much trouble settling?"

"Not too much. Paperwork, mostly. I've been banned from field work for life, which suits me just fine, actually." Rimbaud's fellow Watcher took the cup with a smile and nod.

Rimbaud sat back down in the opposite chair. "How's Miz Lucinda doing? I heard she took Kerrigan's death pretty hard."

"She's coping. She's a strong woman."

"I imagine she must be, she's seen enough." Rimbaud looked over the rim of his cup at him. "Must be interesting, living with an Immortal woman."

"It has its moments." The hazel eyes glinted with wry amusement. "It must be equally interesting trying to keep the Tribunal from finding out that Kerrigan isn't the only Immortal in this area."

"It's gonna be nigh damn impossible now Kerrigan's gone an' got himself killed." Rimbaud shook his head. "It wasn't any of the others that done it. They woulda cut clean--if they'd done it at all."

"Mm, well, you never can tell with Immortals, can you? Who knows what drives them?"

Rimbaud studied the other man for a moment. "How's your special project coming?"

"The Methos Chronicle? Well, Amy Zoll did a lot of work, but it all turned out to be a wild goose chase, apparently. We're back to square one. I'm no closer to finding the old man than I was before they discharged me back in 1997."

"Maybe you should try looking in a mirror."

Methos almost dropped his coffee cup. "Sorry?"

Rimbaud chuckled. "You really think you could waltz your five-thousand-year-old ass in here and have me not know about it? I may not have seen the Bronze Age, but I ain't blind or senile. Not yet."

"But the records were sealed, you couldn't have--" Methos's shoulders slumped. "Kerrigan."

"We didn't have too many secrets from each other." Rimbaud grinned at the Immortal's discomfiture. "Don't you fret, I didn't put a word about it in my reports. Your secret's safe--'Adam'. Way I see it, what the powers-that-be don't know won't hurt us. I got my own secrets to keep, though God knows how I'm gonna keep 'em from finding out about Lucinda and the others now."

"Well, none of the others have Watchers, and mortals can't sense Immortals, so you might not have too rough a time of it, just at first...but with Kerrigan dead, other Immortals will come. For good or ill, the dynamics are about to change drastically."

"What you're trying to say without saying is that the Game is coming back to New Orleans. Hate to admit it, but I'm afraid you're right--what is it?"

Methos had gone suddenly still, wary and alert. He glanced towards the door. "Expecting someone else, were you?"

"Not this time of the mornin', no."

After a moment Methos relaxed slightly. "Gone. Whoever it was."

"Coulda been Finnegan, out on the prowl for whoever killed Kerrigan," Rimbaud suggested. "Or Marie, makin' a visit to one of her people. Maybe even Henri comin' home late from one of the clubs."

"Or," Methos said, "it could have been the killer."

***

One of them was in the bookstore. A powerful one; maybe the one he'd come to finish off. He had been foolish enough to think that a midair explosion would be enough to kill one of them, but he'd been proven wrong. He wouldn't make that mistake again.

John Buford "Bubba" Kelroy paused at the corner and lit a cigarette. It was his one remaining vice. The morning air was cold and damp. He wished someone else had been chosen for this task.

How many of them were there? He'd killed more than a dozen in the past ten years, but there always seemed to be more. Not surprising, really; the world was literally going to Hell, and Satan's minions were everywhere. Only he had been blessed with the ability to discern the demons from ordinary people, and with that knowledge came a sacred duty--to destroy the evil wherever he encountered it.

It had taken Kelroy years to learn how to kill the demons. If you shot them, or stabbed them, or strangled them, they simply got back up and walked away. Finally he'd captured one alive, taken it to the old packing plant in Jackson, and spent several days determining what it took to kill the things. The demon had taken on the guise of a little boy, alternating between pleas and sudden bursts of resistance, but in the end, the fire-axe had silenced him forever. Separating the head from the body was the only way to ensure they would stay dead. That was the first time he'd felt the strange, apocalyptic rapture that accompanied the death of a demon--the lightning, the fire, the visions. With each victory he grew stronger, more capable of doing the Lord's work.

"If thine eye offend thee," he muttered into the gray chill, "pluck it out." He threw the butt of the cigarette to the street and crossed to the other side, towards the restaurant on the far corner. He could set up on the roof, and wait. The demon had to come out eventually.

***

There were few things Lucinda detested more than a blank, untouched canvas staring back at her. She stood in the studio on the top floor of her gallery, an oversized shirt thrown over her sweater and jeans, palette and brush in hand, and stared at the mocking, featureless field of white before her. It was her custom to start with a clean canvas; she seldom did preliminary sketches or drawings. Her skill with the brush had been carefully honed over the past six centuries, and to her painting came as naturally as speaking, or walking across a room. She could paint still lifes, portraits, or landscapes with equal skill and faithful reproduction. She had a particularly good memory for faces and she could produce an excellent likeness from memory.

She tried to focus on her memories of Aidan Kerrigan; she wanted to paint his portrait before the details began to wear away under the natural passage of time. But every time she tried to bring his face into focus, she saw him lying in the storeroom, his head severed from his body, the eyes blank and staring...

With a scream of frustration Lucinda threw down the palette and kicked the easel over. The empty canvas clattered to the floor. She stripped off her work-shirt and headed for the stairs; she needed to get out and clear her head. She was no good to anyone like this, not even herself.

***

"You have a good day, now, Mr. Pierson," Marie-Anne beamed at Methos as he passed through the bookstore.

"Do my best, love," he smiled at her.

The street outside was quiet; it was early on a weekday, and not many people were out and about just yet. He stopped at the corner, leaning on the lamp-post for a moment. Lucinda would probably still be up in her studio painting. He had time for a quick canvass of the Quarter.

Bad idea, he told himself. If the headhunter's anywhere about, he has a gun, and he has no qualms about using it. Better to keep a low profile until he's found.

And what if he takes another head in the meantime?

So long as it's not mine.

What if it's Lucinda's?

Oh, shut up.
Methos pushed himself away from the post and made ready to cross when he sensed another Immortal's approach. He reached carefully inside his coat and searched the street.

It wasn't hard to spot the tall blonde woman in jeans and a jumper walking towards him as though she were off to battle. Methos's shoulders slumped a bit with relieved irritation. "Lucinda, what the hell are you doing here?"

Before he could hear her answer, a sudden burning pain hit him in the chest, knocking him off his feet. He hit the brick wall behind him with an audible thud. Stunned, he looked down and saw the blood coursing from the bullet-wound. "Lucinda..." he choked, "...run..."

Lucinda didn't hear him. She screamed as Methos collapsed bonelessly to the sidewalk. She ran to him, kneeling beside him as he shuddered and went limp. She looked around frantically for the gunman, but saw no one.

Then she chanced to look up, and saw the sniper on the roof across the street. "No!" she screamed, flinging a hand up as though that could ward off the coming shot.

The bullet took her in the left breast, and she fell to the cold cement. She fought to rise, trying to pick Methos up and carry him to safety, but a second shot struck her square in the back. She stopped moving and slumped across her husband's body as though trying to protect him.

Kelroy shoved the Walther into the holster concealed inside his jacket and clambered down the fire escape to the street. He crossed over to where the two bodies lay and carefully removed the woman, laying her aside. "Forgive me, ma'am," he whispered, "but at least now your soul will rest in the Lord's grace." He turned and stood over the demon's body, glaring down at the long-limbed figure sprawled at his feet. "And you," he snarled, "are going straight back to Hell where all your kind belong." He pulled the hatchet from his belt, grasped it in both hands, and prepared to start chopping at the exposed, vulnerable neck.

Clawlike hands grabbed him from behind, toppling him off-balance. With a shock, he realized that the woman wasn't human after all. She was still bleeding profusely, but she wasn't dead yet. She was shrieking at him in a language he didn't recognize, trying to rip the hatchet from his hands.

He kicked her hard in the stomach, knocking her back against the wall. He swung the hatchet and buried it between her breasts. She froze, shuddered, and coughed up a gout of blood as she slid to the ground, her dead eyes staring up at him.

Demon bitch, he thought, renewing his grip on the bloody hand-axe after tugging it free. He drew back for the first beheading strike, but a sound behind him made him turn around sharply. He ducked barely in time to avoid the broadsword cut intended for his neck.

The demon had revived. The angular face was a white mask of fury. There was no fear, no compassion in those strange eyes of his, only cold, flat murder. Kelroy stumbled backwards, reaching inside his jacket for his gun. It was his only chance to survive. He thrust the gun in the monster's face and pulled the trigger.

Click. The gun was jammed.

As he pulled uselessly on the unresponsive trigger, the broadsword struck again. Kelroy howled as the Walther fell to the sidewalk, his hand still wrapped around it. He clutched the bleeding stump to his chest, realizing too late that he'd dropped the hatchet to do so. "Dear God--help me!" he cried, falling to his knees, praying for deliverance.

"You'd better give your heart to Him," the demon snarled, "because your head is mine."

The last thing Kelroy ever knew was the bite of the keen-edged blade against his throat.

***

Marie-Anne heard the crack of lightning, and ran outside to see what was causing the sudden flash and fury on the street. Her screams brought her grandfather out of the bookstore. He stared for a moment as Methos writhed in the throes of Quickening; then he took Marie-Anne by the shoulder and shoved her back towards the door. "Get inside, girl!" he shouted. "Git!" Sobbing, his granddaughter hurried into the shop.

The traffic lights at the intersection were still showering sparks. The street lamp was blown out, its glass shattered. Rimbaud limped forward, cursing his arthritic knee for choosing this particular morning to "act up".

By the time he reached the corner, it was over. Methos was on his hands and knees, gasping for breath. Rimbaud's sharp black eyes caught sight of Lucinda, her chest torn wide open, but her head still attached. The same could not be said for the stocky redneck in camouflage pants; his head lay several feet from his body.

Rimbaud looked around. The street was still deserted, but it wouldn't stay that way for long. Not with all the sturm und drang that went with a Quickening. "Come on, son," he muttered, helping Methos to his feet. "Let's get you an' your lady inside."

Methos managed to pick Lucinda up off the ground, but he had to rely on Rimbaud to help him support her dead weight as they made their way back to the bookstore. Marie-Anne watched with wide eyes from behind the counter as her grandfather guided Methos to the stairs. "We'll put her in the spare room," he said. "Gonna take her a while to come back from somethin' that deep." He helped lay her down on a narrow Army cot in the small, cluttered back room. "Somebody's gonna be callin' about what happened; don't you worry, I never saw you or Miz Lucinda anywhere near the place. Marie-Anne didn't either."

"Thank you, Beau." Methos settled on a chair beside the cot and rested his elbows on his knees, waiting for his head to clear and his strength to return. Crazy git. He's been killing Immortals for years, thinking he was God's "chosen one", the only one able to identify demons in human guise. He's used bombs before, car bombs, mostly--smaller space, more confined blast, instant dismemberment, as good as a beheading. He sensed me in Atlanta, but I never left the airport so he couldn't get at me that way, so he found out what flight I was taking and planted a bomb big enough to take out the whole bloody plane. He killed two hundred innocent people trying to take me out.

He heard a footstep at the door and looked up. Rimbaud's grandchild stood there, looking very young and lost and uncertain. He smiled wanly at her and gave her a nod.

"You all right?" she asked tentatively.

He nodded. "I'll live." He looked over at Lucinda's motionless form. "She will, too, believe it or not."

"I know." Marie-Anne swallowed hard. "I know all about Immortals. In a coupla years when I turn eighteen, Paw-Paw's gonna send me off to learn how to be a Watcher, too." She stepped just inside the room and leaned back against the wall, pulling one leg up under her and resting on it. "I din't know you was one of them, Mister Adam."

He chuckled wryly and looked down at his clasped hands. "Not many people do."

"The Watchers wouldn't like it much, would they?"

"No, they wouldn't." They didn't, in fact; but thanks to Joe, they're willing to overlook it, at least for now. "You're not going to tell on me, are you?"

"Nossir." The girl picked at a small hole in the knee of her faded jeans. "Does it...does it hurt?"

"Getting shot, you mean?" He grinned. "Yes, it does, quite a bit."

She shook her head. "No, I mean...the lightning and such. That Quickenin' stuff."

Her curious innocence defused his habitual caution. It was people like Marie-Anne who reminded him why he so enjoyed the company of mortals. "It's a bit difficult to explain, really," he replied. "There's pain, yes, and--other sensations. There's no correlating experience for mortals. It's the sum of all the memories and emotions of the fallen Immortal, borne on the energy of their life essence as the victor absorbs it."

"It makes you stronger?"

"Substantially, yes. When one Immortal beheads another, he absorbs the other one's power."

"And that's why you kill each other? To take each other's power?"

"That's why some of us do it." Methos reached out and took Lucinda's cold, lifeless hand. "Some of us just want to survive."

Marie-Anne nodded. "Yeah, that's why them in the Quarter don't fight no more. I was real sorry to hear about Mister Kerrigan. He looked mean, but he was kinda nice. I liked him."

"I liked him, too," Methos said, and realized he meant it. Given time, he and the big Irishman might even have become friends, despite their earlier difficulties. Now, it would never be.

"I brought another shirt for Miz Lucinda," Marie-Anne said, holding up a faded black sweater. "Thought it might make her feel better when she...you know...when she wakes up."

"That's very kind of you, Marie-Anne."

"I like Miz Lucinda a lot. She's always real sweet to me. She taught me how to do gravestone rubbin's when I was little. Nowadays she helps me with my art assignments--says I'm real good with charcoal." She handed the sweater to Methos. "She tol' me I could get a art scholarship if I wanted to."

"You should listen to her. Lucinda knows a good deal about art. She wouldn't encourage you if she didn't think you had the talent for it."

"That's what Paw-Paw says." She looked down at Lucinda with genuine affection. "You want me to stay with her a while, Mister Adam, sir?"

"No, that's all right. You go and see to your grandfather. It's best if I'm with Lucinda when she wakes, so she knows I'm still here."

"Yessir. Oh--Paw-Paw said you might want this, too." The girl set a cold bottle of Guiness on the tray table beside the cot before scurrying out of the room.

Methos looked at the beer for a moment, then laughed out loud. "Beau, you do your homework, don't you?" he said as he reached for the Guiness and twisted off the top. He took a long pull from the bottle and settled back in the chair. Glancing fondly at the woman on the cot, he murmured, "You're right, Lucy...we are quite a pair."

***

It was mid-afternoon before Lucinda stirred. The return of her presence snapped Methos out of a half-doze, and he sat up in time to see her eyes open. He moved to sit on the edge of the cot, holding her down as she choked and struggled to rise. "Lie still," he told her. "You're still mending."

"That...sounds familiar..." she coughed brokenly, laying her hand on her chest. Methos had cleaned her up, and she now wore the scratchy wool sweater Marie-Anne had brought. "What...where is...?"

"He's dead, we're alive, that's all that counts." He settled her back on the thin pillow, stroking her hair gently. "The police have come and gone; Beau's convinced them that the guy got his hand and head chopped off with the convenient hatchet they found at the scene. Just another bizarre unsolved murder in the Big Easy as far as the local constabulary are concerned."

She relaxed. "So. It's over."

"Yes. Unfortunately."

"What?"

"With Kerrigan gone, other Immortals will come. I'm afraid the peaceful anonymity you and the others have enjoyed for so long has come to an end, dearest."

Lucinda frowned, but she nodded agreement. "We all knew it couldn't last forever. A century or two would have been nice."

"Perhaps in another time it would have been possible, but not in the Information Age. News travels too fast these days." Methos picked her hand up and kissed it fondly. "All we can hope for now is sufficient damage control."

***

To: Tribunal Office, Paris, France

From: B. Rimbaud, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA

Date: 21 January

After considerable investigation, I have come to the conclusion that the individual who took the head of Aidan Kerrigan on 15 January was a hitherto-unknown Immortal by the name of John B. Kelroy. Known as "Bubba" to his survivalist associates, Kelroy has been implicated in a number of prior beheadings since his first death at Waco on 19 April 1993. His first encounter with another Immortal happened a year later in San Francisco; from sporadic eyewitness accounts, it seems clear that Kelroy had some idea that Immortals were evil, and had no idea that he himself was one. When he arrived in New Orleans, he killed Kerrigan. He has since been slain in kind, but the Immortal responsible has yet to be located. I have been requested by the regional manager, Dr. Mildred Nesbitt, to remain here in New Orleans pending further developments. I will keep her and the Tribunal advised of the results of my ongoing investigation.


"That should keep them happy for a while, anyhow," Rimbaud said as he clicked the mouse pointer on the Send Mail button. "Sooner or later I'm gonna have to tell 'em there's at least one Immortal still hangin' around."

"Well, unfortunately, the Tribunal knows who I really am," Methos said, leaning on the counter. "They're likely to guess that I'm the one who took Kelroy's head, but they won't make too much of a fuss about it. They don't want word getting out that one of us managed to infiltrate the Watchers."

"I reckon they don't," Rimbaud chuckled. "You know, I coulda told 'em that Lucinda whacked Kelroy. They'd probably assign me as her Watcher, an' no more questions asked."

Methos shook his head. "I'm married to her, remember? She's Mrs. Adam Pierson now. The Tribunal would go spare. Probably come after her and me."

"Have you told her anything?"

"Not about the Watchers."

"Don'tcha think you should, Adam?"

"She's paranoid enough as it is, Beau! If she knew there were mortals watching our every move..." Methos shuddered to think of it. "She knows I have secrets from her, and this is just one more." He tapped the tattoo on his wrist. "If she asks, I'll tell her...something. Otherwise, let her continue in her innocence."

"What she don't know won't hurt you?"

"Something like that, yes."

Rimbaud grinned. "Spoken like a true married man."

"Thanks a lot."


***