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Pink Cadillac

Around eight o'clock Friday night, a council of war gathered in Ria's Central Park South apartment. Despite his teasing that morning, Eric wasn't at all surprised to find that Ria was there: Ria was fiercely protective where Ace was concerned. He didn't say anything, but she'd never been that protective about Kayla, though the two girls were probably about equal in their ability to take care of themselves. He wondered now—did Ria subconsciously feel that Ace was the daughter she'd never had—and probably never would have? Certainly Ace looked enough like Ria to be her daughter; she was as blonde as Ria was, and few people would look past the similarity in coloring to any difference in bone structure.

Some questions were better not asked aloud.

Ace was painfully upset at the prospect of the upcoming hearing. After they'd eaten, when she couldn't put it off any longer, she spoke in jittery disjointed sentences about how much she didn't want to have to face her parents again—and it became clear to the others that while she would find seeing Billy and Donna Fairchild unpleasant, she was truly terrified at the prospect of seeing Billy's assistant, Gabriel Horn, again. And that was disturbing. What was it about Gabriel Horn that had her so spooked?

While Ria had a fairly thick dossier on Billy Fairchild and Fairchild Ministries, it didn't contain much information on Gabriel Horn.

That, to Eric, set off a faint alarm-bell. Ria's investigators were first-rate. She should have been able to name Horn's favorite toothpaste. . . .

All they knew was that he was one of Billy's personal assistants, and had joined the Ministry about a year before Ace had fled. Apparently he was very close to the elder Fairchilds, and Billy trusted him as he trusted no one else. Ace had never been able to articulate any reason for her absolute dislike-bordering-on-terror of the man. From everything Ria had been able to get out of her, he'd never behaved inappropriately toward her.

But Talents were good at reading people, even if that wasn't where the main focus of their Gift lay. All of them trusted Ace's instincts. If she said Gabriel Horn was somebody to watch out for, she was probably right.

"They may have forced a hearing, and moved the venue to New Jersey, but it doesn't change any of the facts," Ria said firmly. "There's no cause for the court to deny your petition. The Fairchilds are not fit custodial guardians—especially if Billy's denying you the right to an education and forcing you to continue to work in his 'Ministry' against your wishes. Derek has been handling your paperwork all along; I'll send him down for the hearing. He'll make mincemeat out of these twerps, trust me. And as for Horn and your parents, there's no reason you should have to be down there for longer than to make your court appearance."

"Can't you go with me?" Ace said, forlornly. Her tougher-than-nails demeanor had completely evaporated in the face of this. "I know you're really busy and all, but I just can't . . ."

"Not that busy," Ria said firmly. "If it wouldn't make things worse, I'd be right there with you. But if I went along, the press would be on me in a New York minute, and we'd have a real sideshow on our hands. That's the last thing you need right now. Once the media gets involved, this whole thing turns into a feeding frenzy that would make the last half-dozen 'trials of the century' look modest and restrained." She grimaced. "That's the problem with being visible. It's worse having been the media darling for being a corporate hero. Now they're just about ready to start looking for ways to shoot me down. And 'stealing' some yahoo preacher's baby girl would be just the ticket to make me into a monster. So far Billy hasn't played the 'trial by television' card, and I don't want to give him any ideas," Ria added broodingly.

The six of them were gathered around Ria's seldom-used dining-room table, with the summons from the Ocean County District Court on the table between them. It was odd, Eric thought, that neither of Ace's parents had sent her any kind of personal message in all this time begging her to come home. He knew Ace would have mentioned it if they had. Maybe they'd tried, and Ria had intercepted them. He certainly wouldn't put it past her.

"Eric and I can go with you," Magnus said.

"Same dirge, different key," Eric said firmly, though he hated to do it. "For one thing, if Fairchild wanted to play ugly, he could certainly ask what my relationship was to a seventeen-year-old girl—and we can't be sure he wouldn't find out I was down there with you, no matter how hard I tried to stay out of sight. For another thing, I'm pretty sure Michael and Fiona have private detectives watching both me and Magnus right now, looking for God knows what. So if I either take him out of school to go off to Atlantic City—or leave him alone to go off to Atlantic City with a teenage girl, well . . ."

"But Ah can go," Hosea said. "An Ah've got the perfect reason, too, so it doesn't matter if he knows Ah'm there."

Everybody looked at him expectantly.

"Well, go on, keep us in suspense forever," Magnus said, grinning crookedly.

"You all know Ah've been doin' a bit o' writin' here an' there these past few months," Hosea began hesitantly.

"Selling it, too," Ria said. "Don't be so modest. You're going to have to give up singing in subways soon and write a novel."

"Don't know as Ah'd be any good at yarnin'," Hosea said placidly, "but Ah do know thet if you say you're writin' an article, people'll let you go just about anywhere and ask 'em just about anything. So Ah guess Ah'll go on down to Atlantic City with Miz Ace and find me somethin' to write about there."

Ace blinked back tears of relief. "Thank you, Hosea," she said quietly.

"It's always a comfort to do a kindness for a friend," Hosea said amiably. "We've got a few days yet before you have to go. Might be Ah cain wangle me an actual writin' assignment in that time. Ah'll look around."

"I can always make a few calls, if you like," Ria said. "And all in all, I'm just as glad that Ace will be going down with the big guns in her pocket—legal and otherwise."

Hosea looked a little self-conscious. "Call it a medium-size gun an' you'd be a bit more on-target, Ah'd guess, Miz Ria. Ah'm nowheres near done learning everything Eric's got to teach me."

"Be that as it may," Ria waved his objection aside impatiently. "You may not be a fully trained Bard, but you're a full-fledged Guardian, and from all I know about them, if Ace asks you for help, you're bound to give it."

"Ayah, that's true." Hosea looked uncomfortable. "Not that Ah wouldn't help her anyway. But this Guardian business don't come to much unless there's hoodoo involved. And I don't expect any kind o' Reverend would have much truck with hoodoo."

"He used me, didn't he?" Ace said bitterly.

"Now that," Hosea said firmly, turning to Ace, "is a whole different kettle, and well you know it. That's a natural gift from God, like what Ah've got, or what Eric has, and it ain't no different than bein' able to dance or do sums in yore haid. You've seen black hoodoo, and not even the worst kind there is. You know you don't want to see it twice, and you know no right person would meddle in it."

Ace nodded, half reluctantly.

Hmm. There's a blind spot we'll need to address some day, Eric thought. Some of these so-called "men of God" would use anything they could get their hands on to turn another buck, "black hoodoo" included. 

Magnus stirred rebelliously, and Eric put a hand over his, silencing whatever his brother was about to say. Certainly neither of them had much good to think about their own parents—unfortunately, they knew them too well for that—but if Ace could manage to think well of her own parents—or at least not too badly of them—it would be for the best. Certainly Billy had wanted to use her Talent to make himself wealthy, but as Hosea had pointed out, there were far worse things in the world than a greedy fool.

Of course, greedy fools had no business raising children either. But that didn't make them Satanists.

"So Ah guess next Wednesday, you and Ah'll take a trip down to the Jersey Shore," Hosea said, satisfied. "And we'll bring you folks back some picture postcards and salt-water taffy."

Ria snorted elegantly. "I'd rather have the judge's head on a plate. But if that's settled, there's cake and ice cream in the kitchen."

"Cake!" Magnus said, as if he hadn't eaten enough to fuel a small army just a few hours before.

"I'll put on the coffee," Ace said, getting up. "You can help—" this to Magnus "—but no picking!"

When the teenagers were gone, Ria looked at Eric and Hosea, one elegant eyebrow raised.

"Gabriel Horn worries me," she said quietly.

"Ayah," Hosea sighed. "He's the frog on the birthday cake for sure."

"Claire hasn't been able to find out anything about him. Of course, he might have been using another name before he hooked up with Billy. 'Gabriel Horn'—it practically screams 'stage name,'" Ria said musingly. "And Ace has no idea why he upsets her so much. I even tried a spell of Remembering—don't give me that look, Eric, I did it with her full knowledge and consent—and there isn't even anything in her unconscious mind to go on. She was just afraid of him from the first moment she saw him. And he's very close to the family. Personal friend, inner circle, close advisor, you name it. And before three years ago, he didn't exist."

"Government agent?" Eric suggested. It made sense. The two sorts of organizations that dealt in cash money in large quantities were drug-rings and churches. It wouldn't be at all impossible for the former to be using the latter to launder money. Government agents gave off pretty unsettling vibes, or at least, the ones Eric had run up against did.

"I do hope so," Ria said. "Unfortunately, I had to call in a lot of markers over the Parker Wheatley thing last year; nobody in Washington would appreciate me asking any questions right now." She shrugged, irritated.

"Well, the upside is, friend of the family or not, there's no reason for him to be at the hearing," Eric said, thinking the matter over carefully. "And no reason for Ace to have to see him otherwise. Not this trip."

"Her family might expect her to visit, but there's no reason for her to oblige them while she's engaged in a lawsuit against them," Ria agreed.

"An' Ah think Ah have an idea that'll let me stick pretty close to her the whole time," Hosea said. "But Ah'll see if it works out before Ah tell you what it is."

Now Eric could put his finger on what was making him so uneasy about all this. It looked as if they had everything together and a good solid plan, but when he started to think about it, he realized that all they truly had was a skeleton and air. There were holes in their plan big enough to send an oil tanker through. But try as he might, he couldn't think of any solution to the problem.

"One good thing about this," Eric said, "is that nasty as this situation is, and unpleasant as it is for Ace, there's nothing the least bit supernatural about it—no ghosts, no elves, no space aliens. Just the possibility of a weird government agency."

"As if that weren't bad enough." Ria sighed. "But nothing I can't handle."

* * *

Fiona Banyon regarded the garish illuminated facade with a distaste that was nearly physical. Only a furious determination to win at all costs could have brought her to this . . . place. Of all the many things that irritated her, religious fanatics were high on her list.

"It looks like a casino." Michael's voice was absolutely neutral, betraying nothing of his feelings.

"Their offices are on one of the upper floors. They come with the highest recommendations," Fiona said tightly. Trust Michael to bring up things they couldn't do anything about after they were already committed.

Neither of them made any move to get out of the car. To do so would be the final admission that they were really here, that they were really going to do this thing.

But there was nothing else to do.

Vandeater had told them—strictly off the record, of course—that it was almost certain their petition to have their "grandson" Magnus's custody awarded to them would fail. He would continue to fight on their behalf—certainly he would do that—but their son Eric's case was airtight in every particular.

An attempt to have Eric declared mentally incompetent and committed to an institution on the basis of his past history, as Michael had suggested, would certainly fail. Perhaps twenty years ago that would have been possible. Now even relatives had to move mountains to prove someone was incompetent even when they actually were. Eric had graduated from Juilliard, he was more than gainfully employed, his circle of friends included officers of the law and the very highly successful Ria Llewellyn. No judge in his right mind would declare Eric incompetent.

As for their search for their missing son Magnus . . .

He was gone as if he'd never existed. Philip Dorland, the expensive and well-recommended private detective they'd hired to find him, had told them frankly that there was nothing to look for and they were wasting their money.

Fiona sneered mentally. There was no point in maintaining the legal fiction that her son was missing in the privacy of her own mind. Dorland couldn't find Magnus because Magnus was in New York, pretending to be his brother's son. She didn't know whether he and Eric had actually fooled that Llewellyn harpy, or whether she was in on their sick hoax, but Fiona Sommerville Banyon had always faced the world with clear eyes and no illusions. She knew her own children. They were weak and vicious, but they had the angels' own talent for music, and she had the drive and discipline to make up for their lack of moral fiber. She'd failed with Eric, but she would mold Magnus into a great artist. He needed her. Magnus was too self-indulgent and blind to see it, but she was used to that.

Michael was much the same when he focused on his work. The rest of the time . . . oh, he had ambition. She could never have married a man without ambition. But he lacked focus. He lacked vision. Without her, he would never have managed to do all that he had done with his life.

But Eric was to have been her greatest achievement: an artist that she could present to the world—famous, respected, legendary. He had failed her.

No, Fiona told herself sternly. She had failed. She had not understood how devious Eric could be, how weak, how selfish, how self-deluded. She should have seen the warning signs. She should have been more careful.

Magnus was her last chance.

He would not follow the path his brother had, into madness and vice.

It would have been nice if Dorland could have found a trail that connected Magnus to Eric, but unfortunately, he hadn't been able to. That left Eric a loophole that he thought he was going to squirm through, but Fiona wasn't going to let that happen. Like it or not, he was still her son. She wouldn't abandon him. Not completely. She would take Magnus back, make him see that his life must be spent in service to his great musical gifts, and perhaps . . . perhaps it was not too late for Eric after all.

But her first duty was to Magnus. She was his mother, after all. And only a mother's love could give her the strength to come to this inexpressibly vulgar place in the hope that her child could be saved.

* * *

The offices of Christian Family Intervention were reassuringly bland, but it was still impossible for the Banyons to forget what they were, or escape the humiliating thought that someone might see them here—even though it was far from likely that it would be anyone either of them knew. The circles in which Michael Banyon moved encouraged secular humanism, not religious fanaticism. Oh, there was the occasional aberration, but they were generally found in the Eastern Studies department, and tended towards gurus, not preachers. Fortunately the two of them didn't have to wait long in the reception area, but were ushered almost immediately into Director Cowan's office.

"Mr. and Mrs. Banyon. How can I help you?"

Michael was glad to see that the man behind the desk seemed to be a reasonable sort. He had the kind of distinguished professorial appearance that was insensibly soothing. In fact, it almost seemed that he wouldn't have been out of place at Harvard. In the English Department, of course.

"Our son," he began, and stopped. "Our son is a discipline problem." Yes, that covered things nicely.

Director Cowan smiled gently. "As you are no doubt already aware, discipline problems are something of a specialty of ours. What is the nature of the difficulty?"

"He's . . . well, he's run away from his school." That sounded better than saying he'd run away from home, didn't it? "And he won't go back."

"How awkward," Director Cowan said sympathetically. "Education is so very important in the young. Perhaps you could tell me a bit more about the lad."

* * *

How odd, Toirealach thought to himself. Unlike so many of the groundlings who came through those doors, intent on opening their budget of misery and perceived ill-usage at the hands of their children, the Banyons needed to be coaxed to speak of their son at all. From skimming the surface of their thoughts, he could tell they thought they were far too fine to come to a place such as this. He savored the rich bouquet of their tangled emotions: rage, shame, cheated fury and twisted love—a far headier brew than that usually offered up to him by his clients.

But a few spells—so subtly cast that even most Gifted wouldn't be aware of them—soon had the haughty mortalkin spilling their guts to kindly old Director Cowan, their dear friend and ally—and telling him far more than they'd intended to. . . .

But wait. Surely his master would be interested in anything involving Bard Eric of Misthold or his kin?

"A moment, please. I'd like to ask a colleague of mine to sit in on this. You'll appreciate that your circumstances—and the personalities involved—render this matter more than normally complex," Toirealach said soothingly.

"Very well," Fiona Banyon said, inclining her head graciously.

Toirealach smiled to himself. Perhaps if matters concluded to his master's satisfaction, Prince Gabrevys would give him permission to take the woman for his sport, and teach her better manners.

He stepped out of the office. It was the work of a moment to locate his master, and to let him know that the Bright Bard's parents had come to them, seeking favors.

A few moments later, Gabriel Horn entered the office.

"My colleague, Gabriel Horn," Toirealach said. "His input is valuable in our more delicate cases. Mr. Horn, the Banyons were just telling me about their son Magnus. Apparently he's left his school in Boston. The particular difficulty in the matter lies in that he's taken up with his much older brother Eric, who has been estranged from his parents for some years and is now living in New York. Eric is claiming to be Magnus's father, and is prepared to go to court to prove it—I gather there's an unfortunate history of mental instability there. Naturally the Banyons would rather settle this whole matter without unpleasantness, but this is a truly awkward situation."

* * *

"How terrible for you both," Gabriel said to the Banyons. He radiated trustworthiness and friendship; a simple enough spell, and—just as the Fairchilds before them—he soon had the Banyons under his thrall. "To lose one son—and then to face the prospect of losing another. I'm sure a day doesn't go by that you don't wish you had Eric back as well. Surely your fondest dream is that both of them will see reason and return to your guiding hand."

Both the Banyons looked faintly puzzled, as if the notion had never occurred to them before this moment. Finally, after a long, long moment, Fiona spoke.

"Why yes, Mr. Horn. Of course we'd like to have Eric back as well. But he's always been so rebellious."

"We are here to help," Gabriel said gravely. "Our mission—our only mission—is to reunite families. We can return both your sons to you as happy, helpful, supportive members of the Banyon family." He nodded at them, reinforcing his minion's spells. "There really is no reason to leave your older boy in crisis when we can save both of them so easily."

"And it can be done quietly?" Michael asked, sounding dubious. "That's important. For Magnus's sake, of course."

"We always act with the utmost discretion," Director Cowan said, taking up the thread of the conversation with practiced ease. "We feel it's important to cause minimal disruption of the family circle. For the sake of the children, of course."

Children. Bard Eric is a man grown; more of a man than this weak limb, his father. Yet they persist in seeing him as being as much a child as the other. Blind. Willingly, willfully blind. My favorite sort of mortal . . .

"Of course," Fiona Banyon said. "So it's settled, then? You'll get Magnus back for us? And . . . make Eric see reason?"

"Indeed we will," Director Cowan said, rising to his feet. "Now, if you'll come this way, there's the small matter of some paperwork, and then we can get started in saving both your children."

* * *

When the others had left the office, Gabriel Horn remained behind. He stood quietly in the center of the room, though he felt like leaping, capering, shouting for joy. Normally, by every treaty and covenant of Underhill, a Bard was utterly untouchable—but here and now, Eric Banyon's own flesh and blood had set Gabrevys and his vassals on, and that gave the prince of Elfhame Bete Noir the license to do what he would with Misthold's Bard, and still stand within the bounds of Sidhe law. Ties of blood stood above all treaty: that was the first law of the Sidhe—and had not the mortal Bard's own parents asked Gabrevys to render him a dutiful and filial child once more?

And so he would. And if, when Gabrevys and his Shadows were done with their work, Eric Banyon was of no more use to Prince Arvin of Misthold, that was no crime to be laid at Gabrevys's door, was it? He would merely have done what was asked of him by the woman who had borne the mortal Bard and the man who had sired him. No more than that. Even Oberon would have to agree, should Arvin complain.

Oh, vengeance was sweet—doubly so since he could take it within the Law!

Rubbing his hands together in satisfaction, Gabriel went to make a few preparations. There was also the matter of Heavenly Grace to consider . . .

* * *

"I can't believe you're going to interview my father," Ace said, for the seventh time since they'd left Guardian House.

"He was happy to agree," Hosea repeated once more, barely restraining a smirk.

"I just bet, once you told him you were on assignment from Rolling Stone," Ace said.

"It's the truth," Hosea said innocently. "Ah wouldn't lie about something like that. 'Sides, it's too easy to check."

It hadn't been all that difficult for Hosea to come up with a convincing pretext for accompanying Ace to Atlantic City after all. One of the other tenants of Guardian House was a freelance journalist, and a contributing editor to Rolling Stone. Dugal had read several of Hosea's other pieces and liked them, and when Hosea had asked him if he thought there might be any interest in a piece on the Reverend Billy Fairchild's "Casino of Prayer," he'd been happy to set Hosea up with the proper journalistic credentials. Of course, that wasn't a guarantee of selling the finished piece to the magazine, but it did give Hosea a good excuse for hanging around just about anywhere he wanted down in Atlantic City for as long as he needed to. He even had an interview set up with Billy for the day after Ace's hearing—and as the hearing itself was a matter of public record, there was no reason he shouldn't even attend, now, was there?

"I wish you'd let me drive," Ace said wistfully, gazing out over the vast expanse of the car's hood. "I can drive."

They were rolling down the road in a bubblegum pink 1959 Cadillac Seville Eldorado hardtop, on loan from another of Guardian House's tenants. It had white leather upholstery. There were a pair of lime green fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror and a bright orange fake fur raccoon tail flying from the radio aerial. It had white sidewall tires, baby-moon hubcaps, and was about as far from inconspicuous as it was possible to get.

"A learner's permit and a history of grand theft auto ain't the same thing as bein' able to drive," Hosea said absently. "An' you know what Margot'd do iff'n Ah got a scratch on her car."

"It isn't exactly the kind of car you'd expect a writer to have. She looks so normal," Ace said, temporarily diverted from the reason for their road trip.

"Come to that, Ah reckon all of us look pretty normal to folks as don't know us," Hosea said reasonably. "An' Ah guess we've all got the odd kick in our gallop somewheres."

"Maybe," Ace said, unconvinced. "But most people don't paint their odd kicks Barbie-doll pink."

* * *

When they reached Atlantic City, they checked into their hotel, which was located a few blocks away from the courthouse where the hearing would be held. Driving through the downtown, hey found the street names had an odd familiarity, even though this was the first visit to Atlantic City for both of them, and that puzzled both of them until Ace remembered that the streets on the Monopoly board were named after the streets of Atlantic City. The board-game street names gave everything even more of a sense of unreality than the distant glimpses of the towering, glittering casinos that lined the boardwalk did, as if she'd stepped into a cartoon.

The hotel was one of the older ones, from before the days when gambling had been legalized in Atlantic City. Ria had booked their rooms through LlewellCo, to avoid any possibility that the Fairchilds would be able to find out where Ace was staying the night before the hearing.

When Hosea went to check in, Ace stayed in the car, hunkered down low in the seat, her cap pulled down over her ears and the collar of her wool coat turned up over her neck. After a moment she reached into her purse and dug out a pair of sunglasses and put them on.

There was no reason any of Daddy's people would be looking for her here. Ria had promised her that. They'd be expecting her to come down tomorrow with Mr. Tilford, maybe, or be staying at one of those big fancy hotels on the Boardwalk.

But nothing about any of this was exactly going the way they'd expected, was it? When she'd filed those court papers, Ria had told her that she wouldn't have to go back to her parents, even though they'd have to know where she was, but she'd expected that they'd at least try to get her to come home. But it had been almost four months, and she hadn't heard one peep out of either of them.

She frowned. Maybe Daddy hadn't told Mama she'd turned up again, especially since she was being so undutiful? It was possible. He'd certainly do that if Gabriel Horn told him to. Daddy would do just about anything Mr. Horn said.

And maybe it was Mr. Horn who said Daddy wasn't to write her. . . .

Soon enough you'll know, Ace told herself grimly. You'll see your father tomorrow. And maybe Mama too. 

Just as long as Gabriel Horn wasn't any part of it.

She shivered, and scrunched down even lower in the seat. She remembered the first time she'd ever seen him. It was a few months before she'd decided to run away. She'd been fifteen then. Not exactly naive—nobody who grew up at the center of Billy Fairchild's Chautauqua could lead a really sheltered life—but she hadn't seen a tenth of the horrors she'd see later, when she took to the road.

But nothing that would ever happen to her later—not the people who tried to hurt her, not the people who tried to take from her, not even the dark things that had chased after her, Magnus, and Jaycie—had been as terrifying as the first time she'd looked into Gabriel Horn's eyes.

Daddy had brought him home to dinner one night. That wasn't unusual; her father was always bringing home people, especially people he was thinking of taking on, and Mama took pride in her table and welcomed guests. Ben and Joshua and Andrew—all of Daddy's inside top-level folks—were there to meet him.

He'd brought Mama flowers and candy. He was dressed up fine, in an expensive suit and a shirt with French cuffs, all smiling and nice-mannered. Daddy'd been excited, Ace could tell.

"And this is my daughter, Heavenly Grace," Daddy had said, introducing her.

"Ah, the little songbird. You must be very proud of her God-given gifts, Reverend."

Gabriel Horn was a tall man, as good-looking as a movie star. He'd taken her hand and bowed slightly, almost as if he were about to kiss it. Startled, she'd looked up.

His eyes were as green as glass, and colder than ice. Something about them seemed to burn, making her feel as if she'd been stripped naked right there. She'd caught her breath in a strangled gasp. Suddenly she'd wanted to turn and run away right then, run and keep running, but nobody else had seemed to see anything wrong with the handsome dark-haired fellow, and Mama was looking at her with that firm expression that told her she'd better not forget her manners.

So she'd forced herself to smile.

"Very proud," Gabriel Horn said again, letting go of her hand. He had a deep voice, perfect for preaching, and she'd wondered for one horror-struck moment if he was one of Daddy's new deacons. If he was, she'd see him every day on stage.

And she'd known right then that she never wanted to see Gabriel Horn again.

Dinner had been horrible. Mama had flirted with Mr. Horn just as if she were a young girl again, and Daddy hadn't seemed to notice or mind. Ace had barely been able to eat a bite; at least she'd found out that Mr. Horn wasn't to be a deacon. He was going to be helping Daddy out with the business end of things. His new advisor, Daddy had said.

But that didn't mean Ace didn't see him. Mr. Horn became a frequent guest at the house—and sometimes, when he thought she wasn't looking, she'd see him watching her. Not in any sexual way—that would actually have been better. She could have understood that, though she would have hated it. But she'd had no words for the look in his eyes when he watched her.

It had been like—like the time she'd seen a blacksnake eyeing a nest of baby birds. That snake knew he was going to get those birds, and eat up every one of them. The parent-birds that were dive-bombing him and trying to drive him off knew it too. He was perfectly patient, and perfectly controlled, and perfectly avid, as if he was already feeling those babies going down his throat. The parent-birds were hysterical, knowing they couldn't stop him. It had been unspeakably horrible.

Gabriel Horn was exactly like that snake. And she was a little baby bird.

She'd known better than to try to get help from her parents. What could she say other than that she didn't like him? And she already knew that both Daddy and Mama liked Gabriel Horn just fine, and more than fine.

And Daddy wouldn't let her stop singing with the choir, and using her Gift in that bad way, and somehow she'd known, now that Gabriel Horn had come, that there would be no escape. Ever.

So she'd run. She'd thought she was free. She'd hoped she was free. But now it didn't look like she was, and if she had to see Gabriel Horn one more time, she didn't know what would happen.

Just then Hosea came back, two key-envelopes in his hand. He opened the car door—the Cadillac was like a bank vault—and got in.

"Our rooms are around the back. Ah thought we'd get settled in, an' then Ah had a mind to do a bit o' explorin', while you rested up."

* * *

But Ace had absolutely no intention of staying behind, especially when she learned what his destination was, so less than an hour later, they were on the road again, heading toward the outskirts of the city.

With only a couple of wrong turns, they reached something called the Heavenly Grace Business Park. A brightly lit archway in bright primary colors proclaimed the entrance to the Heavenly Grace Cathedral and Casino of Prayer, but they drove past that. A few hundred yards farther down the main road there was a more conventional-looking entrance to the rest of the business park. A large sign at the entrance listed the names of various businesses located within the complex: Christian Family Intervention, Red Nails Music Publishing, Fairchild Ministries, Inc., and several others that were so utterly generic that they were completely meaningless. "Worldwide Fulfillment," for example. That could be almost anything.

"Miz Llewellyn says that the Reverend owns all this," Hosea commented noncommittally, as they drove through the secondary entrance.

Ace shifted uneasily on the wide bench seat of the Cadillac. "I never exactly knew everything that was going on," she said, her voice barely above a whisper, "but I wasn't stupid, either. There's a whole lot more money here now than there ever was in Tulsa." Or a lot more debt. 

Neither of them voiced the obvious question: if Reverend Fairchild had suddenly become so wealthy, where had all the money come from, especially without Ace's presence to ensure the contributions of the faithful? If it had been from anything illegal, Ria would certainly have found out, and used the information to blackmail Billy into submission.

But . . . where?

They drove through the empty section of the grounds, past several obviously unoccupied buildings left over from the site's previous incarnation as a more traditional business park. Yellow sawhorses blocked the roads that led deeper into the complex, and parked in front of one of them was a car with a light-bar on the top and two uniformed security guards sitting inside.

"Touchy about their privacy, aren't they?" Hosea commented dryly.

Farther along the road that led back toward the casino, a couple of large work-trailers were parked, and it was apparent that some sort of construction project was in the early stages. Hosea slowed down to take a closer look, but a car parked next to one of the trailers—obviously another security vehicle—flashed its headlights at them in an unspoken warning to move along.

Then they reached the front of the casino.

The cathedral and casino was obviously a new building, and unlike the other buildings in the complex, which were only two or three stories high, it was a true tower: at least ten stories of gold glass and white concrete crowned the casino itself, and like casinos everywhere, the decoration of its facade would put the pipe dreams of an Oriental potentate to shame.

But not even someone familiar with the cheerful excesses of Las Vegas could be prepared for the three-story light-up cross that surmounted the entryway to the Casino of Prayer, the bright facade of lambs, lilies, scourges, crowns of thorns, fish, baskets of bread, and other, less immediately recognizable symbols, that decorated the doorway and marquee of the building. Everything that didn't flash on and off glittered with tinsel, and from within the casino—the doors were open even on this cool March day—came the sounds of familiar Gospel hymns done to an insistent disco beat, intermixed with the ringing of slot machines.

Even at this time of day, the parking lot was filled with cars. There were several tour buses parked at the edge of the parking lot, and as they watched, a shuttle pulled up to the entrance to disgorge a load of passengers before heading on its way. The Reverend was obviously not missing a trick when it came to drawing in the marks.

* * *

If this was not Hell, Hosea Songmaker reflected to himself, it was probably as close an approximation as you could achieve without actual black hoodoo. He was not completely certain, but he suspected this entire production skated pretty close to the edge of blasphemy, provided he understood the word properly. At the very least, it was a bad thing in as much as it made a mockery of God and His good things, and kept people who needed them away from them by turning them into a venal sideshow.

This was not the work of any kind of preacher that he was familiar with. In fact, it made him begin to wonder just what kind of a preacher this Billy Fairchild was.

And it made him just as uneasy as the rest of the business park did Ace.

He wasn't quite certain why. Certainly it wasn't very tasteful, but that didn't make it either Guardian business, or something an Apprentice Bard needed to stick his nose into. And in plain fact, the better Billy Fairchild was doing for himself, the less reason he had to hang on to Ace and her Talent.

But where was the money for all this coming from?

Though the cathedral and casino resembled the casino hotels on the Boardwalk with its crowning tower, Hosea knew from what Miz Llewellyn had told him that there was no hotel here. The tower contained offices for the various components of the Fairchild empire, the broadcasting studio, and some private apartments for some of the senior staff. So there wasn't any hotel money, just whatever the casino brought in. There was money in gambling—Lord knew folks were both weak-willed and too hopeful, sometimes, and lost more money than they could fairly afford to. And even good God-fearing folks who would never have thought of gambling might be tempted and tried when gambling came in with the aura of false sanctity hanging about it.

But was there this much money?

Hosea's eyes narrowed as he watched the doors of the casino. This place was out in the middle of nowhere as far as the casinos went, even with the shuttles the Reverend was running. You wouldn't get any walk-in traffic from the Boardwalk casinos. And a goodly number of people would be put off by the hymns and the crosses, thinking that religion and gambling didn't mix any too well.

He reached into the back seat of the car and laid his hand on Jeanette's case.

The banjo was very old, handed down in Hosea's family for generations. It was the masterwork of a master craftsman, strung with silver. But what made it truly special was that it housed . . . a ghost. The spirit bound to it by Bardic power was a woman named Jeanette Campbell. She haunted the banjo by her own will, remaining tied to the world in order to make amends for all the wrongs she'd done when she was alive. Only Hosea could hear her and speak to her—and then, only when he was actually playing the banjo—but even dormant, Jeanette's presence lent extra power to his Bardic gifts.

He looked again at the garish facade of the cathedral and casino, trying to understand the feeling of wrongness that he felt so strongly, but no explanation came. Whatever the source of Billy Fairchild's newfound prosperity, it was nothing Jeanette could sense—and if it were something illegal, Miz Llewellyn would have found that out, used it against Billy in a New York minute. Hosea knew that perfectly well. Miz Llewellyn was a good woman, but she had the iron in her soul of a Good Book prophet when the need was on her. And like Jael, she used any and every weapon that came into her hand.

So the casino and cathedral, unsettling as it was, was not only mundane, but legitimate.

"Ah'm guessin' you don't want to go inside," he said to Ace, removing his hand from Jeanette's case.

Ace shuddered vehemently. "Even if I could go anywhere near the casino floor without being caught for being underage—" she said, "—no. I know it's been almost two years since any of Daddy's folks have seen me, and I look a lot different than I did then, but if any of them recognized me—if Gabriel Horn saw me . . ."

"Well, we won't let that happen," Hosea said comfortably, backing the enormous pink length of the Cadillac out of the parking place and turning in the direction of the main gate this time. "It's something to have seen the place. An' Ah'm not sure now whether Ah'm looking forward to the tour Ah'm likely to get of it myself—or not."

* * *

Earlier that same day, Billy Fairchild convened his regular Wednesday morning department meeting.

He'd learned early on—as soon as there was more to the Ministry than a broken-down bus and a box of mail-order Bibles—that while the right hand didn't always need to know what the left hand was doing, he needed to know what pockets both hands were in at all times.

Unlike the business meetings, the department meetings focused on information, not money: what was new, what was doing well, what might be introduced: new people, new faces, new ideas. They were held in a much larger conference room than the business meeting—one usually given over to "Praise Training" and "Abundance Orientation" for the new hires and junior staff. The department heads and their assistants who attended filled three big tables arranged in a horseshoe, and there was plenty of coffee and doughnuts.

Today Billy would be formally introducing Parker Wheatley to everyone. They'd be broadcasting the Praise Hour with his introduction tonight, and the rehearsals—without the audience present, of course—had gone very well. Wheatley was a good speaker, strong-voiced and convincing, and if he wasn't full of Gospel fire, that didn't matter too much once he got going. And if he could do what he said, and hand over a by-Jesus demon, then when you came down to it, Billy didn't really care if he sounded like an accountant reading a quarterly report.

But he didn't. He had a passion on him, and what was better, he had a message that would bring the Faithful bolt upright in their seats and make them pay attention, if Billy Fairchild was any judge at all of human nature. People liked signs and wonders and miracles, but even more than that, they loved horrors: they wanted to hear about the gates of Hell, the fiery pit opening wide to suck in sinners, and best of all, demons clothed in human flesh, walking among them, preying upon their innocent children. He'd learned that when he'd started running "Judgment Houses" every weekend in October up to Halloween. People'd pay good money, ten and even fifteen dollars apiece, to get scared in the name of the Lord and special effects.

And if he could do that every day of the year—

That should keep the donations rolling in.

He got to his feet and waited for the buzz of conversation to die down.

"Friends, I'd like to introduce you to the newest member of our little fellowship. This here's Mr. Parker Wheatley. He used to work in Washington D.C., until they threw him out for witnessing to the truth. Now he's come to us to get his message out, and we're glad to have him. He'll be joining me on tonight's Praise Hour—as some of you already know, it's going to be a very special event, and I encourage all of you who can to attend. Of course, we'll be showing it on the big screens down on the casino floor, but it's going to be something you'll want to tell the grandkiddies that you were there for in person. Stand on up, Brother Wheatley, and tell these good folks a little something about your mission."

Parker Wheatley got to his feet amid polite applause. He nodded graciously and began to speak—an expanded and slightly modified version of the speech he had given in Fairchild's office the previous week. As he spoke, the room fell utterly silent.

* * *

At the far end of one of the tables, Toirealach O'Caomhain raised his head and gazed toward his master with barely concealed horror. Several of the others along the tables were doing the same thing—all of them Prince Gabrevys's liege-folk.

* * *

If he ever discovered who among their own had betrayed them so thoroughly, Gabriel vowed silently, that one would not live either long or happily. There was no hint of magic about the green garments Wheatley wore, but there did not have to be: Gabriel recognized the work of a Master Smith.

To mortals, Danu had given three great Gifts: Healing, Bardcraft, and Smithcraft. In the days of Gabrevys's youth, those with the Gift of Smithcraft were great forgers of weapons and cunning engines, for whatever they turned their hand to, that thing they could craft with greater skill than any other mortal, but the gift of Smithcraft extended to the making of all things that could be made with hands. In ancient times, those with that Gift had spun and woven as well, both for good and ill, and their work had passed into legend as God-touched and magickal. One with that Gift could surely weave cloth so strong and fine that it would turn any spell of Seleighe or Unseleighe casting.

And someone had. Someone in the service of one of their own had given Wheatley these weapons—or else how could Wheatley have come by his knowledge of them and their ways? And there was worse. He spoke of methods by which he could infallibly detect the presence of the Sidhe, piercing all glamouries, and Gabriel had no doubt that he possessed them.

Such arts have been admirable—if Wheatley were Gabriel's pawn. And even so, the Unseleighe lord had a grudging admiration for the clever trick. Only think of using a human to slay one's enemies!

But here and now, Wheatley and his deadly toys were nothing other than a terrible impediment to Gabriel's own intentions. For a moment Gabriel wondered if one of his enemies had sent Wheatley here to destroy his carefully crafted plans. If he used them—if he discovered how many of that foolish mortal Fairchild's newly hired employees were in reality the "demons" of his imaginings . . .

All would be lost.

To which Court should he look for such a subtle, elegant sabotage? The Bright Court had known for longer than the Dark how precarious Gabriel's position was; it was the Bright Court which even now held his son and heir Jachiel in its clutches; but such a feint was not Seleighe style, nor had he heard any rumors of a mortal Smith held hostage in any of the Bright Domains. And Wheatley himself might not know who had set him on.

But why concern himself with such things now? Ferret out the cause later; now was the time for direct action, before all his plans were undone!

And after his initial shock, he knew the course he must take to protect himself and his purpose.

Wheatley must die.

Proof against levin-bolts and glamouries his hideous garment might be, but not against a bullet. Gabriel would arrange it as soon as he could find a suitable lackey to bear the Cold Iron weapon.

And Billy Fairchild—who had brought this traitor within the gate, who had concealed his presence from Gabriel with low animal cunning—Billy had outlived his usefulness as well. He was becoming far too independent for Gabriel's tastes. Whether he had acted on his own, or had been tricked by another, he had shown himself too clearly as the liability he was to be allowed to remain alive. Gabriel was far too fond of his own life and his own power for that.

The Fairchild empire would survive. There would be, after all, a grieving widow. So much more malleable, so much more easily controlled. Gabriel was certain that not only would Donna Fairchild take strength from his presence and rise up to take over her husband's ministry, but that she would do exactly what Gabriel told her to.

Yes. Gabriel relaxed fractionally, feeling the tide of red rage receding, and even managed to smile. Tomorrow was the hearing, after which little Heavenly Grace would be coming home. A few days after that would be the concert. And then, he would have time to take care of both Wheatley and his soon-to-be-former employer thoroughly.

And permanently.

* * *

Ace had been too nervous to do anything but stay in her hotel room after they drove back from the casino and cathedral. Hosea had gone out to bring in something for dinner, and she'd dutifully given Ria a call on her cellphone to let her know that everything was all right. After that she'd tried to add a few more pages to her letter to Jaycie, but everything she'd written sounded angry and desperate. She wouldn't want to get a letter like that. Why would he?

Finally, in disgust, she turned on the television and began flipping through the channels. In an effort to lure customers away from the casinos, the hotel offered dozens of channels with crystal-clear reception; she flipped impatiently past program after program, never pausing for more than a few seconds.

Once her attention was caught by a familiar cadence. She'd stumbled across one of the religious channels, where an impassioned young man was leaning forward over the podium, making intense eye-contact with the camera.

"Jesus—" he began.

Ace quickly turned off the set.

She'd just read a book instead.

Half an hour later she was deep into Margot's new book, Bad Companions, reading about Prince Perigord and Azure Bowl's latest adventures as bodyguards to a temperamental princess who really, really, didn't want to get married. Considering that her bridegroom was a dragon, Ace could see her point. On the other hand, the princess was the sort of person that you'd want to get out of the house (or palace) just about any way you could, in Ace's estimation, so there might be some justice on both sides.

About the time she reached Chapter Three, and Princess Klepsydra was about to steal some clothes and go sneaking off in the middle of the night to get into even more trouble, Hosea came back with a couple of large bags of food.

"There's Chinese take-out for tonight," he said, as he came through the connecting door between their rooms, "and juice and muffins for the morning. And I didn't forget your coffees."

Ace took the smallest of the bags from him gratefully, and went over to set them on the dresser, out of harm's way. When she turned back, Hosea was setting out cartons of Chinese on the table beneath the window.

"Just how many people were you planning to feed?" Ace gibed. There was enough food here to feed both of them twice over, she was pretty sure, and she wasn't sure she was all that hungry.

"Well, Ah wasn't sure what you'd be in the mood for, so Ah bought a little bit o' everything," Hosea said. "There's a refrigerator in my room, so anything left over will keep."

But oddly enough, once the cartons were open, her stomach reminded her that breakfast had been a long time ago—and there hadn't been much of it, either. The food was surprisingly good, for take-out bought in a strange city where you didn't know much about the kitchen or the cook, and there wasn't much to tuck away for later when the two of them were finished.

Hosea suggested going out to a movie, but Ace shook her head, cradling her second cup of coffee beneath her chin.

"I know it's silly—I know I'm just as likely to run into him in New York as here—more, if he was really looking for me, but . . ."

"Well, no harm in getting your rest. We have to meet Mr. Tilford over at the courthouse tomorrow morning at nine-thirty. Then Ah'll play least in sight, just like Ah was pokin' around after a story, and you can get shut of this trouble once an' for all. And maybe there's something worth lookin' at on the television for a couple of hours."

He picked up the remote, lying on the bed where Ace had left it, and hit the "power" button.

Immediately the screen was filled with the image of a dignified man in a bright green suit. The dissociation between his face, calm and dignified, and the surreal color of his suit—like something out of a comic book—drew their fascinated attention. He was speaking with calm intensity.

"—have infiltrated our entire culture. These demons are alien in nature to everything we know and understand. There is no possibility of communicating with them on any meaningful level. Anyone who has ever attempted to do so has been horribly murdered. They have the ability not only to influence the thoughts of the weak-minded, but some people have actually become their willing slaves."

"Is this the Sci-Fi Channel?" Hosea asked doubtfully. "Ah don't recognize the movie."

"No," Ace said, sounding baffled. "This is one of the Christian channels. See that logo down in the corner?"

"Worst of all," the man in the green suit went on, "is their obsession with children. I have studied this new demonic outbreak for years, and in all cases where they show themselves, they target children. Your children are their prey, and they can lure them away from you before you have any idea that there is anything wrong. You've all seen those pathetic faces on the milk cartons, the postcards, the television shows! Where do you think they have all vanished to? I know! I can tell you! They have gone somewhere where neither man nor law can ever find them!"

Hosea's brows creased with puzzlement.

"But there are ways to fight these demons, these child-thieves. They can be located, they can be identified—and they can be killed. With the Reverend Fairchild's help—"

Ace gave a strangled gasp and nearly dropped her coffee. Hosea put a steadying arm around her shoulders. Both of them missed the man in the green suit's next few words, but they weren't hard to guess, from the number and address that flashed up on the screen, superimposed over the podium. Obviously this was the point in the spiel where people were encouraged to give, and give generously.

The image on the screen pulled back from the tight close-up, and now Ace and Hosea could see that the man in green was standing in front of a drawing of hideous monster with dead white skin, enormous slanted green eyes without pupils, and long pointed ears. A mane of hair as white as its skin cascaded down its back. It was naked except for a ragged loincloth, and its fingers and toes ended in long hooked talons. Its mouth was open in a snarl, exposing long curved fangs. Above it was written the words "The Enemy Among Us!"

"Tell me that ain't what I think it is," Hosea said, sounding stunned. Not half as stunned as Ace felt, though.

"Thank you, Brother Wheatley, for that inspiring message of hope." Billy Fairchild stepped up to the podium. "What's that you say, friends? 'Reverend, he's telling us demons are after our children—where's the hope in that?' My friends, my dear brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, every day is a battle. And knowing our enemy is the first step to winning the war. It is the hidden enemies—the enemies that masquerade as friends—the enemies that we are forced to pretend are our friends—that do us the greatest harm—"

The camera was focused tightly on Billy Fairchild now, and Parker Wheatley had apparently left the stage. Hosea moved to change the channel, but Ace stopped him.

"No, wait," she said. "I want to hear this."

"—knowing our enemies, fighting our enemies, the enemies of America, whoever and whatever they are, is the first step to living a truly pure Christian life! Every time we discover a new enemy among us—a new enemy we can search out and destroy—there is new hope for our victory in this battle, new hope to create the Kingdom of God on Earth that our Lord Jesus Christ promised us would come! Did he promise it would come through peace? No! The Lord Jesus did not promise us peace, but a sword—and it is the sword and the gun that all good God-fearing Christians must take up now, to purge and purify God's most holy creation of the enemies of God! Only then will we be worthy! Only then will we be able to build the New Jerusalem on the sacred soil of the United States of America: God's own country!"

There was a great deal more in this vein, as Billy Fairchild whipped his congregation up into something little short of a mob. The message was clear, and not all that subtle, either: the destruction of worldly enemies brought spiritual salvation.

At last the image switched to the Salvation Choir, and Hosea hit the "mute" button. The two of them looked at each other uneasily.

"That's new, what he's saying," Ace said. She shook her head, trying to gather her thoughts. "It's . . ."

"It's the kind o' thing that can get a body into trouble—and drag a lot of other fellers down with him," Hosea said.

"And that other man," Ace said. "The one talking about—" she wrinkled her nose "—demons. The one Daddy called 'Brother Wheatley.' Wasn't that man in Washington that Ria was after named Parker Wheatley?"

"Ayah," Hosea said, sighing. "He was hunting the Good Neighbors, so Miz Llewellyn said. And if you looked at the drawing that feller on the television had, it might look a little like one o' them, if you looked at it right. If you wanted to make elves look like monsters," Hosea said, his voice a mixture of anger and disgust. The more he had time to think about it, the more likely it was that this was Wheatley—Beth had told Eric about the lurid green suits that all of Wheatley's agents had worn, suits somehow proof against all Sidhe magic.

"I thought she'd gotten rid of him," Ace said unhappily.

"Got him out of his Washington job right enough," Hosea said. "He was working with one of the Good Neighbors; well, he wasn't good at all, he's a good part of the reason why Jeanette's locked up tight in my banjo here. But Eric did for that one; put him where he can't ever hurt anyone again."

"Don't you people ever kill anybody?" Ace burst out. She covered her mouth with her hand. "I'm sorry, Hosea, I didn't mean that, honestly I didn't, it's just—"

"You've had a powerful fright, Ah know," Hosea said, patting her shoulder. "But Eric didn't want to kill Aerune any more than you would have if you'd been there. Ah reckon nobody with the Shine on 'em really wants to kill anything, less'n it's the only way. And Miz Llewellyn, well, Ah don't reckon she could have expected Mr. Wheatley to go off to work for your Daddy, now, could she?"

That startled a tear-filled laugh from Ace. "And now he's telling everybody that people like Jaycie are demons out to steal their children."

"Trouble is," Hosea said gravely, "there's just enough truth in it that he can make a power of trouble if he can figure out how. We'd better let Ria know, if she doesn't know already."

* * *

"You'll be delighted to know that an old friend of yours is doing well," Claire said without preamble, as she came through the door of Ria's office.

Claire MacLaren looked like a kindly old Scottish grandmother, and nothing could have been farther from the truth. She was one of the very few people in the world who had the right to walk in on Ria Llewellyn unannounced at any time, and that was rare as blue roses. She was a private investigator, one of the very best there was, and more than that, she was a friend Ria could trust absolutely to always tell her the truth. That was even rarer than blue roses; Ria was a powerful woman, even discounting her half-elven heritage, and power made people, even honest people, lie to you. Money made them search for what they thought you wanted to hear. But nothing impressed Claire MacLaren: not power, not position, and certainly not money.

Several months ago, Ria had put Claire in charge of a "watch and warn" list of people she wanted to keep track of. Some of them, Ria was nearly sure would never be seen in mortal lands again—like Robert Lintel, former CEO of Threshold. Others simply needed her watchful protection, like bookstore owner Marley Bell.

And others . . .

"Tell me," Ria said with a sigh, hitting the keyboard to save her work , and sitting back in her seat, as Claire pulled up a chair without needing an invitation. LlewellCo's business day was over, but not by more than an hour or so; a number of employees were still in the building, and Ria expected to be here for several hours yet herself. Besides, it was still the working-day on the West Coast. No point in closing up shop until the domestic operations were over. Disasters always happened five minutes before closing.

"Ye'll recall we were keeping a close eye on young Billy Sunday and his wonder show down in New Jersey," Claire said, the disapproval as strong as the Scots burr in her voice. She was good, hard-headed Scots Presbyterian; the spectacle of televangelists (which she considered to be over-prideful ignoramuses who made themselves into television stars and turned religion into a marketable commodity) grated on her nerves. "Weel, it's that hard getting someone close to him, or getting good information that isn't the open-source glad-handing and PR, but I did manage to place someone on the fringes of his merry band. It seems that bad apples flock together—to mangle a metaphor, if you'll permit. Who should show up on Mr. Fairchild's doorstep to join his crusade but our own Parker Wheatley?"

"Last seen trying to take his government spook-hunting agency private, with mixed success," Ria commented sourly. The fact that Parker Wheatley hadn't simply taken his lumps and gone into an innocuous retirement breeding fancy goldfish or collecting stamps was something of a sore point with her. The man was obsessed, a fanatic, and an ongoing thorn in her side. "I suppose it was only a matter of time before he went looking for a new source of funding, but I wouldn't have thought a respectable televangelist would touch him."

Claire tilted her head to the side. "Weel, Ria my lassie, you've got to wonder just how 'respectable' a man who got kicked off the buckle of the Bible Belt and went on to build a 'prayer casino' is. Maybe launching a crusade against the 'demons among us'—not that the silly fool Wheatley is likely to find any more of the craythurs now than he did when he was in Washington—would fit right in with everything else at Mr. Fairchild's sideshow. But I do wonder what this demon-hunting will actually involve?"

That was a good question, and where Wheatley was concerned, unlikely to have a palatable answer. Wheatley had originally been the pawn of Aerune mac Audelaine, as Ria remembered only too well, and Aerune's plan had been to start a war—not between the Bright Court and the Dark, but between humans and the Sidhe. Aerune had wanted to exterminate the mortals whom he blamed for the death of his beloved Aerete uncounted centuries before. But in forging his cat's-paw, he seemed to have imbued Parker Wheatley with a fixed conviction that the Sidhe were the implacable enemy of humanity and must be destroyed, and apparently Wheatley didn't intend to abandon his mission just because he'd lost his insider position in Washington. Obsession could be a weapon, both for the obsessed and the object of obsession. Unfortunately, Ria had not yet thought of the key to turn his obsession into her weapon.

"He'll want to recruit new spear-carriers," Ria said slowly, "and do as much as he can to re-create the PDI in the private sector. That will take money." And how many of Aerune's Sidhe-hunting weapons does he have left? Any of them? "Billy has money, maybe even enough to fund Wheatley properly, but he'll only hand over so much of it without tangible verifications. He'll want to see one of Wheatley's demons in the flesh. No one really expects you to produce an angel on demand—in fact, suggesting you could would make even the devout think about measuring you for a white coat. But say there are demons, and people will want to see something that convinces them, with or without horns."

Claire studied Ria's face, an uncompromising appraisal in her light blue eyes. "If it couldn't be done, you wouldn't be worried, Ria lass. So you think there's something out there for our Mr. Wheatley to catch—and you don't think it would be a good thing if he did."

Ria hesitated, caught unexpectedly off-guard. She hadn't expected Claire to be able to follow the argument to its logical conclusion so quickly. What should she do? If she told her that Wheatley wasn't hunting demons, but elves, the woman would think she'd gone stark staring mad.

Wouldn't she?

"I don't think it would be good for anyone at all if Mr. Wheatley caught anyone and put them in a cage on television. And as you'll remember from the Marley Bell case, Mr. Wheatley is prone to make mistakes," Ria said carefully. "And I wouldn't put it past Mr. Wheatley to manufacture whatever evidence he needed, either, at this point. He's not going to want to lose another sponsor ever again, and I think he'll come up with whatever it takes to prevent that from happening." There. That covered all bases.

"Then we'll just have to save him from himself—though saving a fool from his foolishness is a fool's errand," Claire said, giving Ria a measuring look. "Any road, he'll be appearing on tonight's Praise Hour to speak his piece—it shouldn't be anything too much different than the speeches he's been giving over the last few months, but I'll tape it and make a transcript for the file. You might want to watch it yourself."

"I think I will," Ria said. "Maybe you'd like to stay and watch it with me—frankly, I'm not sure I can stomach all that Hallelujah-and-send-me-your-money by myself."

Claire snorted in agreement. "And you can send out for dinner—it's nothing to be facing on an empty stomach, and that way I'll know you've had at least one decent meal today."

* * *

The two women watched the program in grim silence on the plasma-screen television that had been concealed behind the panels of an inlaid Chinese screen mounted on the far wall of Ria's office. The remains of their meals were piled up on one corner of the conference table for the cleaning service to deal with—Ria's choice would have been Japanese from Nobu, but she had deferred to Claire's taste and had sent out a messenger for the sort of thing that Claire considered a "real" dinner—in which roast beef figured prominently. Now they sat rather primly together on the leather couch facing the wall. It wasn't the first time Ria had seen Billy Fairchild's Praise Hour, though she'd never let Ace suspect that she watched it. Ria believed in knowing her enemy.

Claire had gotten Ria tapes of his older shows, the ones out of Tulsa, when Ace had still been leading the choir, and she'd watched them too—both for comparison, and to give herself a better idea of the range of Ace's power, since she'd never seen her young charge's Talent in action.

The difference was astounding . . . and disturbing.

Oh, the sets hadn't changed very much. The production values were a little slicker, there was the look of a bit more money, but that wasn't it.

Before, he'd been pretty much indistinguishable from the rest of his kind: love, forgiveness, hellfire, and Full Gospel. Having Ace had been what made him special enough to break out of the pack.

Now, his message had changed. Profoundly.

Oh, it was cleverly done, of course. Unless you were listening closely you wouldn't quite be able to put your finger on the difference. But now Billy was preaching hate, not love. Hate the sinner and the sin. Salvation through purification: purge yourself of weakness (and Billy identified tolerance with weakness), purge your country of sinners, take vengeance upon the ungodly for past wrongs. . . .

That was the heart of the problem. It wasn't enough to purge yourself of your so-called "weakness" and pack yourself full of prejudice, no, you were supposed to inflict your intolerance and prejudices on others, and institutionalize them as the law of the land.

He was calling for a crusade in the most ancient sense of the word: a real-world war against everybody who didn't share his exceptionally narrow vision of what was right.

And in the background was Parker Wheatley. Just as Claire had said he would be. And since he was right up there on the podium, leprechaun-green suit and all, it was pretty clear he was going to get his chance at the microphone before the program was over.

Right now, though, Billy was holding forth on his idea of the New Crusade. And it was ugly. This was very new, and part of the program that, had any of Billy's followers somehow missed the last several months of broadcasts, would be something of a shock to the system.

This, Ria thought, faintly chilled, is very interesting. It's ratings suicide. You can't grow a market share with a message like this, not in this day and age, not for long—and whatever else Billy Fairchild is, he's a clever little demagogue who loves power and money more than he loves his version of his God. Sure, he'll pick up the hardcase audience, but at some point he'll be losing followers at the same rate that he gains them, and once he's got the fringe-fanatics, he'll plateau. Say what you like about American people, when you go to either extreme, you lose all but the lunatics. 

So why is he doing this? Does he mean to make the Sidhe his target? Wheatley can't have convinced him of their existence this fast—and if he had, Billy would be putting out a far more focused message. Besides, he's been hatemongering ever since Ace left, from what I can tell. Odd, that. He might have changed the message, but more than that, the intensity of the message had changed. It's not just that he's gotten a lot more blatant about it over the last few weeks . . . he's gotten more aggressive, too.  

Parker Wheatley, as expected, said his piece. Ria nobly restrained herself from putting an expensive little antique bronze statuette through the television. But she certainly thought about all the things she would like to introduce Wheatley to, and vice versa. About the time the choir had finished singing and a message was being displayed about an upcoming free Christian music concert to be held on the casino grounds, Ria's private phone line rang.

She picked up the phone. There were only a handful of people who had that number, and she would leap out of a shower if any of them called—because none of them would call "just to chat."

It was Hosea, calling to see if Ria knew about Parker Wheatley's peculiar reappearance.

"Yes-s-s," Ria drawled. "I do have to say that I don't think green is really his color, Hosea."

She heard an appreciative chuckle from the other end of the line. "Ah'll be sure to tell Ace you said so, Miz Ria."

"Do. And tell her this certainly isn't anything for her to worry about. She just needs to concentrate on her court date tomorrow, that's all. If Wheatley wants to chase little green men that he has no chance of catching, that's his privilege. Certainly his association with Billy Fairchild isn't going to do either of them any good. I doubt that the judge is going to find the pursuit of imaginary creatures—no matter what Billy calls them—to be any sign of a stable mind."

"That's all right then," Hosea said agreeably. "We'll see you some time tomorrow."

"Don't do anything I wouldn't do," Ria said, and Hosea laughed out loud.

"Ah speckt Ah'd better mind my manners a deal better than that, ma'am," he said.

Ria acknowledged the joke with an answering laugh and hung up.

"Brave speeches to the troops?" Claire asked, with a tilt of her head towards the phone.

Ria sighed. "No sense in worrying the children. And even if Wheatley is planning to go back on the game, it will take him time to put even a small tactical force together. And unfortunately, he isn't breaking any laws that I know of by being a nutcase. Or a nuisance." The only problem is that I can't tell from this if he's managed to find another Unseleighe patron who thinks they can play with mortal fire and not get burned. I suppose the simplest thing to do would be to ask Eric to check that out through Prince Arvin, but I hate to distract him when he's so involved with his custody case right now—and besides, I REALLY hate owing favors to elves. 

"So there's nothing to hang him on . . . until he goes out and starts kidnapping people again," Claire said grimly.

"Look on the bright side," Ria said lightly. "Maybe you'll find out he has a drug habit first. Or likes underage hookers. Or surfs kiddie-porn sites on the Internet."

"Aye," Claire said. "There's always hope. But I doubt anyone who survived in Washington as long as he did will be so cooperative."

"Oh, you never know," Ria said absently. "Sooner or later, everyone makes a mistake."


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