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The carpenters hadn't quite finished, and the power still tended to flutter unpredictably at times, but it was a pretty impressive job of world-building for five months flat. Ria Llewellyn looked around her domain—corner office, executive suite, barricaded on the umpteenth floor of one of those soulless glass boxes that was taking over Midtown Manhattan. Her new home, and she had to admit that it was a better fit than L.A. had ever been. New Yorkers lived to work, and so did Ria.

She hadn't meant to move LlewellCo's corporate headquarters to New York. That had been the last thing on her mind when she'd come out here last December chasing Eric Banyon. But after the Threshold debacle, there'd been no one else to put out the fires that sprang up all over LlewellCo East, and as the days stretched into weeks and started looking like months, the problem seemed to get worse, not better.

It was bad enough that a couple of her subordinates had thought that buying Threshold was a good idea—she didn't know how far Baker and Hardesty had been in Robert Lintel's confidence, but they'd certainly known something was rotten there—and had kept on funding it. It was worse that Lintel had come up with the notion of whipping himself up a bunch of ninja-wizard super-soldiers with the help of a chemist who'd used to cook meth for a biker gang, and had decided to conduct field trials for his pet drug on most of the city's homeless population. But as she'd laboriously unwound the paper labyrinth that tied Threshold to LlewellCo, she discovered that wasn't, after all, as bad as things got.

What was the worst thing was that buying companies like Threshold and letting them do whatever they wanted had become the sort of thing LlewellCo did.

In a way, it was only to be expected. Ria's father, the power-mad elf-lord Perenor, had built the company to strike out at his enemies in a way that wouldn't draw attention from the other elves until it was too late. In its deepest essence, LlewellCo was fundamentally flawed: designed as a weapon, it carried destruction in the bones of its corporate culture.

Not that anyone saw that but her. Ten years ago, she wouldn't have seen it either—or if she had, she wouldn't have cared. She was dazzled by Perenor's profane charisma in those days, still dancing to his piping. But all things—good and bad—come to an end. Hers had come courtesy of a blow from a Fender guitar that had put her into a coma for a very long time, followed by an even longer period of recovery with the help of some very good—in all senses of the word, for a change—people. And while she'd been gone, LlewellCo had continued on its corrupted way.

She didn't blame Jonathan, her second in command, for what the company had done. Jonathan Sterling was principled and fiercely loyal. He'd done nothing she wouldn't have done if she'd been there. No one at LlewellCo's highest levels had really known what Threshold was up to, though maybe a more suspicious sort of person would have called them to account a little earlier. But returning after her long absence—and the wake-up call from Threshold—had made her see things in a different way than she ever had before. It made her see that LlewellCo needed to do more than simply clean up after Threshold. It needed to be reborn. And that meant giving everything—all their holdings, all their policies, all their plans—a very close look, and then changing the way they did things. Everything. Acquisitions, mergers, hirings, firings, R&D fundings, and venture capital outlay.

It would have been easier to sack everyone, divest the company of all holdings, dissolve it, and start over, but Ria had never been a fan of the easy way of doing things. That way, the innocent would suffer along with the guilty, and besides, LlewellCo was hers. She would not abandon it.

But—as someone once said about Hell—the paperwork went on forever.

Ria set the report she was reading down on the leather top of her rosewood desk and sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. Monday morning—and she'd spent the weekend here as well, just as she had for the last six months. The Threshold debacle—the lawsuits, civil and criminal, the investigations that unfortunately seemed to lead right back to government at the Federal level—showed no signs of being over any time soon. If not for Eric, she'd be mired in the middle of it, guilty by association. As it was, she was the media's darling, the valiant corporate whistle-blower who'd stepped in the moment she'd suspected trouble and brought Lintel's evil empire crashing down.

That particular urban fairy tale was pretty close to the truth for once, and if nobody knew she'd chased Lintel to Underhill and executed him there, it was just as well. There were plenty of other villains to chase. The government clients who'd bought Lintel's voodoo pharmaceuticals, for one.

Jeanette Campbell, for another. The chemist who'd given Lintel the power to do so much harm.

You can run, but you can't hide. I'll find you. And when I do— 

The intercom buzzed.

"Claire MacLaren," Anita said. "Your two o'clock, Ms. Llewellyn?"

"Sure. Send her in," Ria said with a sigh. "And send in some coffee, too, would you?"

"Sure thing, boss," Anita said. Ria could almost hear the phantom popping of gum: Anita liked to project a persona straight out of vintage film noir, but Ria wouldn't have hired her if she hadn't been formidably competent. Anita Drake was Ria's personal assistant, watchdog, and gopher (as in "go fer this, go fer that . . ."). She wasn't a secretary. Secretaries worked for her. She'd come from someplace like St. Louis, and said she wanted to try a job where everyone wasn't out to kill you and suck your blood. Just wait till you know this world better, Ria thought. Corporate dueling made the kind done with swords or pistols look bloodless.

The door opened, and Claire MacLaren walked in. She was a private investigator—Jonathan had found her and used her to locate Eric for Ria last year, and Ria had been impressed enough with her work to add her name to the little black book of utterly dependable specialists—some with quite exotic specialties—that she kept. Ria'd tried to hire her to come to work for LlewellCo full-time, but Claire preferred to keep her independence—"It's to your advantage, dear, especially considering the sort of thing you're sending me after."

"Come in, Clairy," Ria said, rising to meet her guest.

"Ria. Thanks for seeing me on such short notice. I know how busy you are."

Ria grimaced. "That never changes. But come, sit down. I hope the news is good."

Claire sighed. She was an uncompromising woman in her fifties, who made no effort to hide either her age or the fact that her figure had long since lost, if it had ever possessed it, the whippet-slenderness of youth. She resembled the Miss Marple sort of detective, gray-haired and kindly, but in spirit she was more akin to the Borderers who had made the wild lands of the Scots borders such a constant trouble to the English. Like her ancestors, Claire MacLaren never gave up.

"It all depends on your notion of `good,' I suppose. But it's all in my report," she answered, gesturing with the slim portfolio under her arm. She settled onto the couch with a sigh. "You won't like it."

"You haven't found her," Ria said, sitting down in a chair opposite the detective.

"Our Miss Campbell is either dead, or very good at disappearing. She hasn't been arrested, used a credit card, or taken her motorcycle into an authorized dealer for servicing, and there's been no activity on any of her accounts. No one matching the description I've been given has left the country in the last six months—no one who didn't check out, at least. She hasn't contacted any of her old associates among the Road Hogs. No unclaimed bodies matching her description have turned up in any morgue in the United States, nor has the gun registered to her turned up. I can keep looking, but I'm afraid it's a waste of your money. If we're to find her, she'll have to make a mistake."

"She will," Ria vowed. "She has to." If Threshold hadn't sanitized Campbell's apartment so thoroughly in its own attempt to find her, there might have been something left behind that would have let Ria find her magically, but by the time she'd been able to start looking, the trail was both cold and muddled beyond repair.

"Oh, aye," Claire answered. "Eventually. But good as I am, as well funded as I am, I can hardly match the FBI's resources. Why not leave the police to do their job?"

"You know why I can't," Ria said.

The office door opened again. Anita entered, pushing a trolley with a silver coffee service on it. She laid out the cups and saucers—fine bone china with the LlewellCo red dragon logo—on the table between the two women, and added a plate of pastries. She poured both cups full, and set the pot, creamer, and sugar down before wheeling the trolley out again.

"The service here is lovely," Claire remarked.

"I pay for service," Ria said. She rubbed her forehead again.

"But there are some things that money can't buy," Claire pointed out. She added sugar to her coffee and took a pastry. "My dear, if you'll forgive a presumptuous observation, you look as if you're worn right out. You need to take a break from all this."

"And have it fall all to pieces the moment I turn my back?" Ria demanded sharply. She sighed. The headache was making her irritable. "I'm sorry, Clairy. It's not you. It's everything. If I don't find that little bi—find Campbell, we'll never know everything that Lintel was up to. Most of the people involved in Threshold's Black Lab operations are dead. Lintel's records have been destroyed. Beirkoff wasn't involved with anything beyond the manufacturing of T-Stroke. He can't tell me what I need to know."

"You feel responsible." It wasn't a question. "But Ria, you've done as much as anyone could to repair the damage that brash young gentleman caused. The commitment LlewellCo's made to the homeless—spin-doctoring or not, it's doing real good here in the city."

" `The corporate crusader with a heart.' `The avenging angel of Wall Street,' " Ria quoted mockingly. She held up a minatory hand. "I know, I know. No one person can do it all. But I have to do what I can. I want you to keep looking, Clairy. I know the police and the Feds will keep looking, too, but they have other things to do. They can't spend all their time looking for one woman. But I can. And I want her." Determination turned Ria's voice harsh. She pulled back from her emotions with an effort and took a sip of her coffee.

"Ah, weell," Claire said philosophically. "If you won't be told, you won't. I'll keep looking, but you're going to need a miracle."

"If you can tell me where to buy one, I'll get it," Ria said, forcing herself to smile. "If there's anything you need . . . ?"

"I'll ask for it, never fear," Claire said. She got to her feet. "Shall we say lunch next time? It'll do you good to get out from behind that desk."

"Lunch, then," Ria said, getting to her feet. "And maybe by then I'll have figured out how to broker a miracle."

After Claire left, Ria took her cup and stood looking out her window for a while. The streets below were yellow with taxi-cabs, the sidewalks filled with late-lunching pedestrians.

Claire's news was only what she'd expected, but she still wasn't happy with it. Though she'd done her best to conceal the fact, she was afraid Claire knew that Ria's hunt for Jeanette Campbell was something of a vendetta. Claire wouldn't go along with something like that. She'd made it clear from the first that any information she found about Campbell's whereabouts would be shared with the police as well as with her employer, and Ria respected her for it. But she had more reason to want Campbell found than simple vengeance.

Wherever she is, she knows how to make the drug that turns ordinary people into mages. And that's information I don't trust anybody to use wisely. Especially Lintel's former clients. They're probably looking for her as hard as I am, and if she disappears into somebody else's think tank, there will be hell to pay. Literally, in fact. Aerune's still out there, and if I know my Sidhe, he isn't even close to giving up. 

And the Sidhe, as befit a near-immortal race, were accustomed to taking the long view. Aerune would be willing to wait years, even decades, for his plans to fall into place. Despite her half-Sidhe heritage, Ria was mortal. She didn't have the time to outwait him. Campbell had to be found. And neutralized.

The phone rang.

Ria glanced back at her desk. She'd told Anita to hold all calls unless it was a certified emergency, but the light for her private line was flashing. Very few people had that number.

She picked up the phone.


"Have I called at a bad time?" a familiar voice asked.

"Eric!" Ria felt herself smile—a genuine smile this time. Her relationship with Eric was the one authentic bright spot in her life, stormy as it sometimes was. "How are you?"

"Not as busy as you seem to be. You sound tired."

"So they tell me," Ria said shortly. Eric ignored the warning note in her voice, though she knew he'd heard it. Eric was a fully-trained Bard. He was a lot smarter about people now than he'd been when she'd first met him.

"It seems like things should be quieting down, though," he went on, with that guileless note of teasing in his voice. "I haven't seen a story about you in the news for, oh . . . a week or so."

"Not so much quieting down as reaching a series of dead ends," Ria said wearily. "Look, I—"

"So I figured you could use a break," Eric said, interrupting. "So I wanted to invite you to a party."

"What kind of a party?" Ria asked, a note of suspicion in her voice. The one thing that hadn't changed about Eric Banyon in all the time she'd known him was his puckish sense of humor, and it hadn't been blunted in the least by all the time he'd spent Underhill learning his craft.

"A Naming kind of party. Maeve's been born, and Beth and Kory want me to come to Elfhame Misthold to see her Named. We can use the Everforest Gate, and be back before we've left, or almost. I even promise to talk Lady Day into turning into something with doors and a roof."

Ria stared at the phone. Maeve was Eric's daughter by Beth Kentraine, the woman whose Fender guitar had done such a thorough job of rearranging Ria's life. Eric had ceded his rights in Maeve to Kentraine and the Elven Knight Korendil, since he wasn't ready for the ties and obligations of parenthood, but apparently Kentraine intended for Eric to play some part in his daughter's life.

"Either you've gone mad, or I have," Ria said bluntly. "You're inviting me to come Underhill? To the Sidhe? To a Naming? To a party that Beth Kentraine is throwing?"

"Well . . . yes." Eric's voice lost its bantering note as he realized this would take some persuasion. "It'll be fun. You've never been Underhill—well, not socially anyway. And I'm allowed to bring a date."

" `Fun,' " Ria echoed. "You want to invite me to one of the Sidhe's High Holy Days—me—and you think it'll be `fun'?"

The Sidhe loved children. Though Ria was a half-breed, raised in the mortal world, even she knew how seriously the elves took anything to do with children. Though Maeve was of fully human parentage, she was the daughter of a Bard and a witch, and in some sense Korendil's daughter as well. Elven children were an exceedingly rare occurrence and cherished accordingly. The Sidhe would consider her one of their own, and would take her Naming Day very seriously.

It was hardly the sort of thing to which they'd welcome the daughter of a renegade and a traitor, let alone a half-breed, the circumstances of whose conception were, to the Seleighe Sidhe, the vilest sort of sacrilege. Children born to a Sidhe/mortal pairing were even rarer than full-blooded Sidhe children, and Perenor had used the foulest sort of blood-magic to father Ria on her mortal mother—not to mention the fact that he'd tried to use Ria to destroy the Sidhe of Elfhame Sun-Descending. For years she'd lived in fear that the Sidhe would seek revenge for what she'd done, and once upon a time she'd thought that Eric had been sent back into the World Above to lure her to their vengeance.

And while he'd said that most of them really didn't care about what she'd done—considering how high a price she'd paid to thwart her late father's plans—that didn't mean they'd be happy to see her. . . .

"Okay, maybe not fun," Eric said as the silence stretched. "But I have a right to bring anyone I want as a guest and witness, and I think it would be good for you to meet some of the Underhill folk. You can't spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder. If you come to the Naming, everyone will see that the Seleighe Sidhe have no quarrel with you, and that starting up with you will be the same thing as starting up with Elfhame Misthold."

"When did you suddenly become so savvy at politics?" Ria asked, and Eric chuckled.

"Live with the elves for a while, it's the equivalent of a master class. What else do a bunch of near-immortal wizards have to do with their time? The point is, they owe you for what you did against Aerune, and they need to know that. You do, too."

"I didn't do it for them." It didn't matter to Ria what feuds the Sidhe conducted among themselves. But Aerune had been after Eric, and that mattered to her a great deal.

"Yeah, well, elves are very results-oriented. It's what you did that counts."

"So you want me to come to the party."

"Yeah. I do. Besides . . . it'd be nice to have someone from this side of the Hill to keep me company. And I think it's time you and Bethie settled things between you."

So THAT's what's behind all this! 

"So you want me to come and help her bury the hatchet?" Ria asked. The notion had a certain perverse appeal—and Eric was right that it could only do her good to form relationships and alliances Underhill. She lived in the human world, but like it or not, she was part Sidhe, and that heritage couldn't be ignored. "So long as it won't be buried between my shoulder blades." She took a deep breath. "All right. When? And what shall I wear? I've never been to one of these."

"Oh, just wear whatever you'd wear to your average Royal wedding," Eric said breezily. "I'll pick you up Saturday. That'll give you a week to shop."

"In a car," Ria reminded him. "With seats. And doors. And a roof."

"I'll talk to Lady Day. And Ria? Don't worry. I won't let anything bad happen to you."

Ria made a rude noise of mock outrage, but found her smile staying with her as she hung up the phone. She and Eric made an unlikely romantic pair—not that Ria was entirely sure, sometimes, whether what they had going could be contained by any term so mundane as "romance." There'd been a bond between them from the first moment they'd met as adversaries, she as Perenor's pawn and he as the Sidhe's last hope. Both of them had cut the strings that bound them to the purposes of others, but the tie between them was not so easily broken.

A half-elven sorceress with a Fortune 500 company and a human Bard who prefers busking to playing at the courts of kings. We're a fine pair. 

And if there's to be more to it than this, it's going to have to wait until neither of us is quite so busy with our own lives. Whenever that might be . . .

Still smiling faintly to herself, Ria picked up the report on her desk and began to read.

* * *

He was home. Or if not home, exactly—for it had been many years since he'd been able to call any particular place "home"—then at least he was back on Earth only a few months after he left.

No one had followed him.

Elkanah Youngblood found himself standing in the middle of a country road. It was night, and it had been raining. He could smell the summery scent of wet earth and growing things. He got to his feet, still aching and bleeding from the injuries he'd taken during his run from the Great Hunt. The antlers were gone, a kind of proof that Lord Aerune's spell didn't run here. He took that as a sign that his luck had finally changed. He was free.

He didn't waste time wondering how it had happened or worrying about what happened next. He had two items on his agenda.

Survive until morning.

And find Jeanette Campbell and wring the bitch's neck.

Survival was easy. Less than a mile away a hay barn provided shelter while he stole a nap to shake off the worst of his exhaustion. When dawn gave him enough light to see by, he followed power lines to the nearest house. It was an old farmhouse, with nothing around it but fields. He guessed he must be somewhere in the South or Midwest, and smiled grimly. Being in the wrong place with the wrong skin color was the least of his worries right now. He was pleased to see a fine cash crop of mary jane ripening in the field out back of the house: whoever lived here would be less likely to run to the cops than an honest citizen, but just to be sure, he cut the phone lines with a set of shears he'd found in the barn before venturing inside. The back door wasn't locked, but it wouldn't have slowed him down much if it had been.

The householders were still in their beds. By the time he woke them he'd found a shotgun. The sight of a naked, six-foot bronze-skinned man holding a shotgun had quieted them both down a good deal. They hadn't made much trouble when he tied them up and put them down in the cellar. If they kept their heads, they could work themselves free of the torn-up sheets in a few hours. He intended to be gone by then.

When he saw himself in a mirror, he was surprised at how normal he looked. A little thinner, a little banged up. Hair a lot longer. The beginnings of a beard. But no horns or scales or staring red eyes. He'd almost expected something like that, some kind of visible evidence of everything he'd been through. But there wasn't anything.

If I were dumb and stupid, I could convince myself it was all some kind of bad dream. But I don't have dreams like that. 

Fortunately, none of his wounds was deep enough to need stitches. He washed off the dried blood, and after a shower and coffee, Elkanah made a thorough search of the house. As he'd expected, he found a small recreational stash of goodies, a lot of cash, and some very nice guns. He took the .45 and the .357, and left the shotgun and the rifles where they were. He scattered the drugs around the living room. They'd have to clean the place up before they called in the law, and that would buy him even more of a head start.

The man's clothes were all much too small for him, but he found a T-shirt and a pair of sweat pants that would stretch to fit and a gimme cap with a movie logo on it. He forced his feet into a pair of the guy's Nikes. His first stop would have to be for better clothes—if you looked like you belonged, you didn't attract attention. That was the first lesson of infiltration.

He'd found car keys in the kitchen, so he knew there had to be a ride around somewhere. He stuffed the guns and the money into an old backpack he'd turned up and went to look for it.

Stupid, stupid, stupid . . . Elkanah shook his head. The house and the outbuildings were falling apart, and those idiots had a Lincoln Navigator stuck in the cowshed: about 50K of luxury 4x4. Just the thing for driving to the local 7-11 inconspicuously! As well they lost it then. It probably wasn't even insured. He was almost doing them a favor.

The engine started on the first try.

By the time he hit the main road, he was pretty sure he was somewhere in Pennsylvania in August. He got directions to the nearest town at the first place he stopped for gas, picked up the local paper, and got the date. It was only about six months since he'd left.

Good. The bitch wouldn't have had time to run far.

He picked up clothes, a razor, and some basic medical supplies. He changed clothes in the men's room and slipped out the back, leaving the stained sweats in the dumpster. While he was in the parking lot he took the opportunity to swap the Navigator's plates for a set on another car. The unsuspecting donor probably wouldn't even notice. The trouble with people these days was that they just weren't detail oriented. God was in the details. His pappy'd always told him that.

He still didn't have a driver's license, or any kind of ID, but he didn't think it would matter. From the shopping mall he headed east, not questioning why he chose that direction. From the interstate he switched to the local roads, where he stopped and picked up a couple of bags of groceries, then hit the back roads, driving several hours before finding the place he wanted, an old beat-up no-tell motel, the kind of place that came with hot and cold running roaches, and where the sheets were changed once a month if you were lucky.

It would suit him just fine. He parked the Navigator out of sight of the office and walked back. A few minutes later he had a room for the week under the name Valentine Michael Smith, and he hadn't had to provide either a driver's license or a vehicle registration number.

He went in the room, locked the door, moved the dresser over to block the door, stretched out on the bed, and slept for two days.

When he awoke on the evening of the second day, his body was stiff from disuse, and he was lightheaded as though he'd just broken a high fever. But he was still here, and the room was still here, and his sleep had been without dreams.

Find the bitch. That was Job Number One. But before he did that, he should scope out the lay of the land a little. Find out how things stood with Threshold. Pick up one of his spare identities from one of his drops and find out if it was safe to come out. Housekeeping chores, really.

On the other hand, maybe they could wait. If he went straight for the bitch, he'd have a bargaining chip. He knew right where she'd be. He thought she'd told him about it once, this little bolt-hole she had squirreled away somewhere in Godlost, West Virginia. A good place to hide, she'd said, if anything happened she didn't like. She'd probably run straight to it when the balloon went up and been hiding under the bed ever since.

Morton's Fork, that was it. She'd said it just like he wouldn't know where it was, but he'd grown up in Pharoah, about twenty miles from Morton's Fork, West Virginia.

He shook his head and frowned, a headache starting to build behind his eyes. Hadn't he . . . ? His daddy had been a New York City cop. He'd never been anywhere near West Virginia. What was wrong with him? He found the bottle of aspirin he'd bought and shook half a dozen into his mouth, washing them down with a bottle of warm beer. The headache faded, and with it the sense of confusion and unease. Of course he'd grown up in West Virginia. He'd been a lot of strange places since, but you didn't forget the place where you were born. He'd go to Morton's Fork and find the bitch. That was Job Number One.

And wouldn't she be surprised when her worst nightmare came calling?

* * *

The gigging on Sunday had been great. They'd hit up half a dozen of Eric's favorite spots, and even without workday crowds to play for, the take had been more than ample. Hosea had insisted they split it right down the middle, and wouldn't take "no" for an answer.

"You're giving me a roof over my head, Eric, and I'm not one to take charity. If you're worrying about me getting together a stake for a place of my own, I'll be keeping what I make playing in the Park while you're hitting the books, and I guess I'll do all right."

There was no budging Hosea once he'd made up his mind, Eric had already realized—and in the same situation, he too would have been reluctant to take a handout. So he'd agreed to the split—but he'd stipulated that he'd be the one buying the groceries. And with the way he packs it away, I think we'll manage to make this a more reasonable split on the take. 

He'd meant to call Ria before he left for Juilliard on Monday, but then he and Hosea had stayed up late talking, and a couple of friends had dropped over, so by the time he remembered Ria, he was nowhere near a phone. But Hosea had been out when he got back—Monday was a half day—and he'd been able to call Ria then. Hosea was good companionship, and fastidiously neat—the couch had been folded up, the sheets neatly folded and tucked away, and as far as Eric could tell, the duffle still hadn't been unpacked—but he'd been just as glad Hosea wasn't around to hear that conversation, as it would bring up things Eric wasn't really ready to discuss with him.

Elves, for one thing. Hosea had been pretty cool about Greystone, but there was something about elves that seemed to trip people's circuits. Half the time they started babbling about Disney and Elfquest and the Smurfs until you never could get them to settle down again. He didn't want to go there with Hosea.

But at the back of his mind, even when he'd been talking to Ria, was his Saturday night conversation with Hosea. Hosea was looking for someone to teach him the music-magic, and Eric knew some pretty good teachers. Magic was a peculiar force, and Talents were stubborn things. Once the magic had made up its mind to manifest one way, it was almost impossible to train it into a new path. If Hosea said he needed to be taught by a music-mage, he was probably right. Eric wondered how Master Dharniel would take to another human student. At any rate, he'd be seeing Dharniel at the Naming, and Eric could bring the matter up to him there.

* * *

It got dark early here in the hills. Jeanette sat at her worktable, measuring white powder into gelatin capsules by the light of a kerosene lamp. A cup of cold instant coffee sat by her elbow.

It was sweltering in the little shack, but she'd closed all the doors and windows and tacked up sheets over them to keep out any breath of air. There was a storm on the way, and all she needed was for a gust of wind to give her a face full of T-Stroke. That'd kill her for sure.

All drugs were poisons. In small doses they cured, but enough of anything, even aspirin, was toxic. Only T-Stroke was different. With T-Stroke, the more you took, the better chance you had of surviving.

Maybe. If she'd guessed right. There was no way to tell without a test.

And the only person around to test it on was her.

Russian roulette, with five bullets in the chamber instead of one. 

She kept filling capsules—a thousand empty gel-caps bought from the health-food store in Pharoah when she made her weekly run for supplies. She wasn't sure what she was going to do with them, but they were a lot more portable than a bottle and a needle. Easier to move, easier to take.

If she decided to take them.

She sighed. It kept coming back to that.

She stopped what she was doing and listened intently. She thought she'd heard an engine. Watchman's Gap Trace ran past the cabin, and people did still use the old road—moonshiners, mostly—but there shouldn't be anybody out at this time of night. She checked her watch. Two-thirty in the morning.

Maybe it'd just been the wind.

Or maybe the Feds've gotten lucky, you spineless git. 

She hesitated, and then got to her feet. Her .45 was lying on the bed—Road Hog had always said there wasn't any point to a little gun, when you wanted to show you were serious—and she picked it up. The oiled weight of it in her hand was reassuring.

She picked up the lantern and moved it to the far corner of the room. She lifted the edge of the sheet spread over her worktable and draped it over the mound of white powder. Then, swallowing hard, she catfooted it over to the door, pushed aside the blanket, and lifted the latch.

The air outside seemed stiflingly cold after the stuffy heat of the cabin. Wet wind dashed droplets of rain against her skin, mingling with the sweat. She could hear the Little Heller creek running hard, and hear the wind tossing the trees.

Nothing else. She stepped outside, letting the door close behind her. There was no light. Even after her eyes adjusted, and she could see the faint shapes of trees against the sky, there was nothing. No lights, no engines.

You've come too far to screw yourself over with an attack of nerves, girl. She waited a moment longer—of all the things I've lost, I miss my air conditioning the most—then backed inside and closed the door again.

It was a relief to put the gun down. Jeanette actually hated guns. If you were waving one around, that meant things were already out of control and heading from bad to worse.

She took a deep breath, rolling her shoulders to get the tension out. There was still some ice from this morning. She'd crack a Coke and relax for a few minutes before getting back to work. She didn't like leaving all that powder out loose. It was too dangerous—this shack was a far cry from Threshold's pristine sterile laboratory conditions.

She opened the ice chest and stood for a moment, rubbing a handful of cubes across her face and throat. She'd thought a thousand times about dumping all the T-Stroke in the creek, but she'd given up so much to get it that she couldn't bear to, and sometimes now it was hard to remember why she'd wanted it so much.

There was a knock at the door.

Jeanette froze, the ice cubes dripping down her arm. Her mind was scrubbed white with shock and sudden terror—they were hunting for her, and now they'd found her, whoever they were. The knocking came again, hard and slow, as if Death himself were outside.

She dropped the ice cubes and lunged for the gun that lay on the cot. There was a thud at the door, and a creak as the wood gave. Cold air filled the room.

The gun was slippery and heavy in her hands. She scrabbled to get her finger on the trigger, falling to her knees.

Something landed on her. The gun went off and was torn from her hand. It was all over so fast. She lay on the floor, half under her cot, staring down at the soft splintery white pine floorboards of the cabin. She would not look. Whoever it was could kill her, but they could not make her look.

"Is that any way to greet an old friend, Ms. Campbell?"

The voice was familiar. Jeanette bit down hard on her lower lip to keep from bursting into tears. She was furious and terrified, and the game was over, but she would not let him see her cry. After a moment she got her breathing under control and sat up.

Elkanah—she'd never known if he had another name—stood in the doorway, her gun in his hand. He was wearing black jeans and a black T-shirt. She'd never seen him in anything but his Threshold Security uniform. She'd thought he looked scary then. He looked terrifying now. The door hung inward, and she could see the white splinters where the bolt had broken in half. The blanket she'd nailed over the door billowed in the wind.

"Elkanah." Her voice came out in a hoarse croak, but steady. She knew her hands were shaking. With an effort of will she got to her feet, hating the fact that he was seeing her barefoot, in a grubby sweat-soaked T-shirt and cut-off jeans. Hating the fact that she was helpless. "What are you doing here?"

"A lot has happened since you left us, Ms. Campbell," Elkanah answered in that maddeningly slow soft drawl of his. He glanced at her chopped-off hair. "Black isn't a good color on you. Maybe you ought to sit down. You don't look well."

"Neither do you," Jeanette shot back. Even in the dim light of the cabin she could see that. He'd lost weight. His skin was stretched tight over his bones, and there was a look in his eyes—a glittery, crazy kind of look—that told her he was capable of anything.

Of all the people she'd expected to come looking for her, he was the last on the list. Her legs trembled. She sat down slowly on the edge of the cot, feeling it creak under her.

"Okay. Now what?" she asked.

"Why don't you just sit there while I have a look around?" It wasn't a suggestion. She sat, careful to give him no reason to shoot her.

He closed the door, kicking it into place with his heel and letting the blanket drop. She watched as he looked carefully around the room before he moved. First he tucked her gun in the waistband of his pants, then went over to pick up the lantern. He set it back on the table and peeled back the sheet.

"My, my, my. What have we here?"

Jeanette didn't answer.

"You can tell me, or you can eat them." Elkanah's voice was mild, as disinterested as if he were commenting upon the weather.

"It's T-Stroke. All I have left," she added, for no other reason than that anything she knew and he didn't gave her a little power.

"That got us all into a lot of trouble," Elkanah said. "Mr. Lintel dead, the company gone. A lot of trouble. And that leaves me at loose ends, you might say."

Jeanette stared at him. She'd thought Elkanah was dead. If he wasn't, the Feds were looking for him as much as they were looking for her. But that didn't do her a lot of good while he was standing here with a gun. She had no idea what he wanted, and that worried her. If he'd meant to turn her in to plea-bargain his way out of things, why weren't the Feds right behind him?

And how had he found her?

"Lintel's dead?" she asked, just to keep the conversation going. "How did that happen?"

"You know the answer to that." Elkanah moved away from the table and the glistening pile of white powder. He rubbed his forehead as if it hurt. "It's your fault."

"I worked for him the same way you did." It was suicidal to argue with him, but she couldn't help herself. "What he did with what I gave him was his business." But you didn't have to give it to him, did you, Jeanette? You didn't have to go to work for him. If Robert killed people, he did it with the weapon you made for him. 

"Business. That's what it all comes down to, doesn't it, Ms. Campbell? We're all just doing business. And that's why I'm here."

He'd moved back in front of the door again, just as if there were any real possibility she would try to run. Jeanette braced herself to hear bad news.

"That T-Stroke. You can make more of it, can't you?"

"Yes." There was no point in lying about that. It was the only thing that might keep her alive, the only thing of value she still possessed. "I'd need a setup and some supplies. But I can make more."

"That's good. In that case, I think we can do business. Get your things. We're leaving."

Jeanette got to her feet. "Where are we going?"

Elkanah smiled. It wasn't a nice smile. "I think that's on a need-to-know basis, don't you?"

I think I'm about to take a bullet, Jeanette thought, but oddly, she wasn't afraid. The worst thing she could imagine happening had just happened. She didn't have to be afraid of it any more, and that freedom brought clarity in its wake. Boy, I really made a mess of my life, didn't I? She moved over to her worktable.

If she were an action-movie heroine, she could blow the loose powder into Elkanah's face, blind him, and escape. But she wasn't. She was just another loser with very sharp teeth—she'd spent her whole life being taught that particular lesson. Life wasn't a movie, and even if it was, Elkanah wasn't working off the same script she was. He was at the other side of the room, out of reach.

She scooped the loose powder carefully back into its plastic jar and screwed the lid on tight. All the filled capsules were already in their jar. She put the lid on that one, too.

The Harley's saddlebags with her clothes were in the corner, and for a panicked moment Jeanette thought Elkanah might ask what had happened to her bike. She pulled jeans and a clean T-shirt out and turned her back to him to put them on.

"Afraid I'm going to lust after your lily-white body, Ms. Campbell?"

Jeanette set her jaw. She knew she wasn't any man's idea of arm candy, but she was glad Elkanah had spoken. It made it so much easier to hate him. If at all possible, I'll see to it you die screaming, you Neolithic slab of rent-muscle. She buckled the jeans and slid her feet into her engineer boots. Her leather jacket was way too warm for the weather, but she picked it up anyway. She'd need it later, if there was a later.

Carrying the saddlebags and her jacket, she turned back to the table and picked up the two jars of T-Stroke, glancing at Elkanah to see if that was okay. He didn't seem to object, so she stuffed the jars into one of the bags and buckled it shut, then slung them over her shoulder. Her guitar, her Walkman, and her tapes she left where they were. Music had always been her vulnerable spot, and she didn't have any time for vulnerability now.

"Okay," she said. "I've got my things. Now?"

"Now we go, Ms. Campbell." He stepped away from the door. "After you."

She went to the door and pulled it open. The top hinge had torn loose when he broke in and she had to drag it. She walked out into the night. It had started raining in earnest, and the rain plastered her short dyed hair to her scalp. She set down the saddlebags and pulled on her jacket.

Elkanah came out behind her. He was holding a flashlight in his hand. There was a red gel over the lens. A faint red beam illuminated the trees and turned the rain into a shower of blood.

"This way," he said, gesturing with the beam. "You first."

She stumbled through the rain, hearing him move more gracefully behind her. They were heading in the direction of Watchman's Gap Trace. His ride was probably parked there. If only she'd bolted the first time she'd heard an engine . . .

Too late for regrets, Campbell. By about a lifetime, I'd say. 

She slid on last year's leaves and stumbled over rocks and branches. He did nothing to help her, but she didn't expect it. Occasionally he corrected her path, herding her uphill. About the time she thought they'd managed to miss the road entirely, Elkanah's light shone on the side of a panel van. It was painted primer gray—a totally nondescript vehicle. The Sinner Saints had used something like it to make bulk deliveries. It was the kind of ride you could park anywhere and have it go unnoticed.

"Stand still." She stopped. Elkanah walked up close and pulled the saddlebags off her shoulder. He walked past her to the van and opened the passenger side door. He threw the saddlebags in the back. Jeanette winced at the sound of the impact. Lucky everything comes in plastic these days. 

The rocker panel on the passenger side door had been removed. There was a length of glittering chain welded to the steel beneath, with a handcuff on the end.

This would be a good time to run, Jeanette thought, knowing she couldn't do it. There was no place to go. And she was tired of running without a destination. In fact, she was just tired. Tired enough to sleep forever.

"Come here. Hold out your wrist. And be a good girl."

Sullenly, Jeanette did as she was told. Elkanah closed the cuff around her right wrist. It felt cold and heavy.

"Now get in."

She climbed onto the seat and pulled the door closed behind her. The inside of the van was shabby and well-used, but scrupulously clean. Sanitized. The rain made a faint tattoo on the roof. Elkanah opened the other door and climbed in. He fitted the key into the ignition. The motor roared to life, and a moment later the headlights flared into brightness, throwing the road and the trees into sharp relief.

The road was so narrow that Elkanah had to drive almost up to the ruins to find a place to turn around, and for a moment Jeanette thought he knew she'd lied and was going after the rest of her stuff. But he just turned around and headed back down the Trace, out of Morton's Fork.

How did you find me? she wondered again, but she didn't ask. There'd be time enough to ask questions later.

Or there wouldn't.

* * *

She had to find someplace to get in out of the weather. Damn all well-meaning fools—her last ride had told her she could pick up the main road just over the hill, and now she was wandering around in the rain, no sign of a road, and about as lost as a body could get and still be in West Virginia. Without her flashlight, she'd probably have broken her neck already.

Got to keep going, she told herself stubbornly. At least she was on some kind of a road. Roads had to lead somewhere, didn't they? Just not always where you were planning on going. 

She wished she had something to eat. She wished she had a home where she could feel like somebody's daughter, instead of like another employee.

But that's over with, now, isn't it? You've picked yourself up and gone to Canaan, and if Lord Jesus wants you back the way Daddy's always saying He does, then He can come tell you so Himself. 

Her name was Heavenly Grace Fairchild—though she preferred "Ace," and if she had her way, nobody was ever going to call her by her birth name again. Heavenly Grace, Inc. was her father's ministry, carried for an hour three times a week on several thousand Christian networks coast-to-coast. Her earliest memories were of riding in the ministry's bus from one tent revival to the next, of singing hymns at the head of the Heavenly Grace Choir, but that had only been the start of things for Billy Fairchild. He'd had plans—first, for the Cathedral of Heavenly Grace, now a 25-story office building in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and then for a worldwide empire.

But she didn't want to be a part of that. It seemed that the more houses and cars and thousand-dollar suits her daddy got, the more he and Mama argued. And no matter how righteously her daddy pitched the Gospel, it always seemed to stop the minute the cameras stopped rolling. Jesus had been a poor man, hadn't he, bringing words of comfort and love to poor people? The older she got, the less she could see how what her daddy was doing had anything to do with Jesus. She'd begged him to let her stop performing, whipping up the audiences with hallelujah hymns in the studio, but he wouldn't hear of it. And when he'd hired that secretary of his, Gabriel Horn, she'd known that she'd never be allowed to stop. The plans for her going off to college that her mama had talked about so proudly had been set aside. There was plenty of money—there'd always been plenty of money, for as long as Ace could remember—but she wasn't going to be allowed to leave. Not if Daddy and Gabriel had their way.

So she'd run. She didn't know where she'd end up, but anywhere had to be better than Tulsa. And maybe they wouldn't want her back, now that she'd rebelled. Lucifer had rebelled, and been cast down out of Heaven for doubting God's word, but Billy Fairchild wasn't God, and Ace thought that sometimes you had to take matters into your own hands.

A flash of lightning turned the sky white, and in the brief illumination she could see a set of iron gates up ahead. That meant a house. Maybe they'd take her in for the night, or maybe at least there was a garage there she could hide out in until it stopped raining.

But when she got to the gates, she saw they were old and rusted, and the building beyond was only an old ruin, charred by fire. Still she kept on, hoping for shelter. The rain had stopped as she walked, and the clouds rolled back, leaving a full moon riding high in the sky. It gave her enough light to see by, but now the temperature was dropping—even in summer, wandering around at night in wet clothes was a good way to catch your death. She had dry clothes in her pack. Maybe there'd be someplace here she could change into them.

But when she got inside, she found that the years and the fire had left nothing behind but the house's shell. The upper stories had caved in and burnt to ashes, and where there had been cellars, those too stood exposed. Tears of disappointment filled her eyes, but she scrubbed them angrily away.

As her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she saw a bundle off to one side, something under a tarp. She set her pack down in the doorway and went over to look.

Somebody's left a bike here! She pulled the tarp all the way off, staring at it in wonder. A gleaming Harley-Davidson motorcycle, looking just like it had wheeled off the showroom floor. The keys were even still in the ignition.

I won't take it, she told herself, even if Johnnie had taught her to ride his old Indian before Daddy'd canned him for looking too familiarly at his only daughter. But whoever left it here has got to live around here. I could just take it and ride it down to the road and leave it for them. She hugged herself, shivering, but need won out over scrupulous honesty. She slipped her backpack on again and swung her leg over the saddle.

The bike started on the first try. She wheeled it down the steps and back onto the road.

When she saw the lights off to the side of the road, Ace couldn't keep her conscience quiet any more. This wasn't borrowing. This was stealing, and if she did that, she'd be just as bad as Daddy, taking things from people and saying it was okay because he needed them more than the other people did. She sighed, and turned the bike off the road, toward the light. At least she could tell the bike's owner that it wasn't a good idea to leave your ride out in the middle of nowhere with the keys in the ignition.

But when she got there, nobody was in the cabin. She knew the bike belonged here—there was a helmet in the corner, maroon and cream just like the bike. It looked like they'd left in a hurry, too—there was a glass of Coke sitting on the table, still cold and fizzy. The light was coming from a kerosene lantern, and it wasn't a good idea to just go off and leave something like that burning. When she went back to shut the door, she saw it'd been torn off its hinges, and the bolt was snapped clean through.

Somebody in a mean mood broke in here, Ace thought to herself with a shudder. She knew she ought to leave right now, but she was cold and wet and hungry—and worse than any of these, she was tired and lonely. I'll just stay for a little while, until I dry off and warm up. Maybe I can figure out the right thing to do, something that'll help me and won't hurt anyone else. Or maybe they'll settle their problems and come back. 

But she had a cold feeling down in her bones, like whoever'd been here wasn't going to be coming back any time soon.

I'll just stay for a little while. Until I can figure out what to do. 


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