"We read five times that you were killed, in five different places."
"As you can see, it was true every single time."
October 1999, Paris
Amanda let herself in the alley door by force of habit. Holy ground or not, she'd learned the hard way that when you settled in one place, especially a place as visible as her club, it paid to make a quiet entrance—preferably by a back route that gave you a good view of the room before you made your presence known.
She'd left town not long after Nick had fled in the spring, and by the looks of things, the club had stood deserted since then. Dust motes swirled in the slanting afternoon sun that streamed through the stained glass. Amanda stopped near the bar, tossing a handful of mail onto a dusty bar top.
"Honey, I'm home," she said to the empty room.
When only silence answered, she sighed. She wanted a bath, and maybe a gin and tonic. Most of all, she wanted to find Myers, and see if he'd heard anything from Nick.
She was out of luck on that count; it was obvious that Myers wasn't here, and hadn't been in weeks. The fine layer of dust coated the polished floor, and no footprints disturbed it save her own. And okay, maybe she'd half-hoped to find Nick waiting for her, demanding to know where she'd been the last few months, but it wasn't like she was surprised.
Her eyes strayed to the pile of mail. A long shot, but what was the harm in looking?
She fanned through the stack, and an express mail envelope caught her eye. The handwriting was familiar, but it took her a moment to place it. Not Nick's—Duncan's. No return address, but the postmark said New York.
Intrigued, she slid the letter from the pile and was about to open it when the sound of a footfall and the awareness of someone behind her made every one of her senses stand up and do the merengue.
Amanda slipped the envelope into her jacket without thinking about it and turned, as a woman's voice said, "Hope you don't mind. The door was open."
Not one of Myers's then—his brand of trouble never worried about the finer points of trespassing. And not an Immortal.
"I'm afraid you'll have to come back later," Amanda said in French. "We're closed."
Her visitor stepped forward into the light. The woman was blonde, American by the accent, early thirties. Attractive. Her wide-set, almond-shaped eyes were large, and an unusual shade of dark gray, highlighted by her gray wool suit.
"Ms. Montrose, my name is Renee Delaney. I'm sorry to barge in on you like this, but I need a few minutes of your time. It's very important."
She wasn't holding a weapon, but looked like she knew how to handle herself. Cop, Amanda thought, and revised her exit strategies accordingly.
She raised one eyebrow. "Do you have a warrant, Agent Delaney?"
The woman smiled, and held up her gloved hands. "Okay, you got me. FBI. And I don't have a warrant, not yet, but I can get one." Amanda opened her mouth, but Delaney rushed ahead. "Maybe if you hear what I have to say, we can avoid all that messy paperwork, and keep the French police out of this. What do you say?"
Amanda considered. "Sounds reasonable," she allowed. She moved behind the bar, and let her face relax into a more friendly expression. "Why don't I make us a coffee, and you tell me what this is about?"
Delaney took a seat on the other side, her eyes never leaving Amanda's face as she said, "It's about your friend Duncan MacLeod."
Amanda, who'd had plenty of experience with law enforcement ranging back across twelve centuries, didn't bat an eyelash. "I'm sorry, who?"
Delaney looked impressed. "You're good. But I happen to know you two have a history." She pulled out a faded program and spread it open on the bar. It was from Marco's show, in Russia. A full-color photo of Amanda and Duncan in their knife-throwing costumes, arms raised and hands clasped, damned Amanda as a liar. "That is you, isn't it?"
Amanda laughed. "Oh, that MacLeod. Silly me. Such a long time ago."
"When was the last time you spoke?"
"Hard to say." Amanda flashed Delaney a keen look. "You still haven't told me what this is about."
"He's disappeared," Delaney said. "And it's my job to find him."
"And what makes you think I can help?"
"Because," Delaney said, "you were the last person he tried to call."
* * *
"So, when you say disappeared...?" Amanda prompted, when the espresso was ready. She poured one for each of them and set Delaney's before her.
"Vanished, presto change-o, not a trace. No sign of a struggle. Left two bodies in his hotel room in New York and hasn't been seen since."
"Bodies!" said Amanda. "My goodness. I'm sure I don't know anything about that. Sugar?"
"No thanks, I'm good."
Amanda leaned against the bar and sipped at her coffee, wrinkling her nose at the taste. She didn't have Pascal's touch.
She set her cup aside and rested her hands on the bar. "Two of them, you said. So, who were they?"
"We're working on that."
Which meant either they didn't know, or Delaney didn't want to tell her. Amanda wished she could think of a subtle way to ask the cause of death.
"And how do you know he wasn't taken by somebody?" she said instead.
"Hotel security cameras show him leaving the scene under his own power."
"I see. And when was this?"
"Three days ago," Delaney said. "But after that, he's a ghost."
Two days after the postmark on Duncan's letter. Amanda kept her expression clear, but Delaney's gaze was sharp.
"Ms. Montrose, if you know something—"
"I wish I could help, Agent Delaney, I really do, but I don't know anything about this. I've been out of the country, so if MacLeod tried to reach me, I wasn't aware of it. I'm afraid you came all this way for nothing."
Before Amanda could turn away, Delaney reached out and laid her hand over Amanda's. She'd taken her gloves off, and her fingers were warm. "Ms. Montrose, look, this isn't very professional of me, but there's a reason I took this case. Duncan's a friend of mine. Or, at least, he was. I think he's in trouble, and I'm trying to help. The only thing I have to go on right now is you, and I know you're not just some club owner. You've done high-profile security work. So, what do you say? Can you help me out?"
Amanda gave Delaney a long, assessing look. Under the weight of it, the color rose in Delaney's fair skin, and she withdrew her hand but didn't drop her gaze.
Amanda trusted her instincts when it came to judging people, and her instincts told her Delaney was telling the truth. She decided to offer a little herself, and said, "Duncan never mentioned you."
Delaney's blush deepened. "It was years ago. We worked a couple of cases together, that's all. But he kinda made a strong impression."
"Mm," Amanda said. "He does that." She considered. "So he's a suspect?"
"The only one we've got at the moment."
"But you don't believe he did this."
"No, Ms. Montrose. I don't."
Amanda weighed her options. "Tell you what. If he does get in touch with me, I'll tell him you were here. How should he contact you?"
Delaney wasn't happy about it, but gave Amanda her card. "Don't hesitate to call any time," she said, and Amanda promised she wouldn't. Then she showed Agent Delaney the door, and locked it firmly behind her.
When she was alone, Amanda slipped Duncan's letter out of her jacket and opened it. Inside the envelope, a single page of hotel stationery bore a crudely drawn, familiar symbol, and a warning: Trouble. Get out of Paris. Watch your back. Don't talk to anyone. That last word was underlined. And then, I'll be in touch.
"Great," Amanda said. "Watcher trouble. My favorite." Then she sighed, and went to break into Myers's office.
* * *
By anyone, Amanda assumed Duncan meant Methos and Joe. It had been almost a week since he'd written that, so one of them might know something. Before she contacted them, though, she wanted a better idea of what they were dealing with.
First things, first: she needed to get out of here and make sure she wasn't followed.
She got into Myers's desk without too much trouble and took the fresh burner phone she found there, still in the package. A quick trip to her own apartment to change clothes and pick up a few tools of the trade, and she was out the door.
She walked briskly, keeping an eye on the reflections of shop windows for anyone tailing her. There—that man in the gray scarf. And maybe the guy in the Peugeot across the street, too. Damn. She'd gotten good at shaking them these last few years, but they'd been waiting for her, just like Delaney.
What would the Watchers want with Duncan these days? she wondered. The last time she'd seen him, it had been over that O'Rourke mess a year ago. She'd gone back to the states, and he and Methos had split for parts south, as far as she knew. The last time she'd seen Joe had been the same night, at the barge. Amanda had no idea whether he was even Duncan's Watcher any more. She hoped like hell he wasn't mixed up in this, but that seemed like wishful thinking.
One thing she knew for sure: Duncan had done his best to warn her, and then he'd dropped off the map. Whatever this was, she was in it up to her neck, and she didn't dare go to Methos or Joe without taking precautions.
She hailed a taxi at the next corner and directed the driver along a circuitous route into the city center. It was rush hour, so they were snarled in traffic in no time, and it was an easy matter to jump out and hurry away on foot, losing the Peugeot in seconds. And as much as Amanda disliked public transportation, at times like this, a girl couldn't afford to be picky. A quick duck into the Metro and two last-second train changes, and she felt reasonably confident she'd lost any pursuit.
Dialing the number she had for Duncan took her to voice mail on the first ring, and though it wasn't entirely unexpected, it left her at a loss for a moment. She needed to stay off the street, she thought. As tempting as it was to lose herself for a few hours in the shops along the Avenue Montaigne, what she needed was someplace out of sight, where she could come up with a plan.
"Thank you for meeting me," Amanda said, as Renee Delaney slid into the other side of the bar booth. Barely three hours had passed since the last time they'd spoken.
"Gotta admit, I didn't figure I'd hear from you so soon."
"I thought about what you said, and I want to help."
Delaney searched her face, then seemed to take her at her word. "Glad to hear it," she said. "Did you hear from MacLeod?"
"Afraid not. But I'm starting to think whoever was after him might be after me, too."
Delaney frowned in concern and leaned forward. "What makes you say that?"
"Just a feeling I have. I think maybe he was trying to warn me."
Delaney started to ask something else, but the waiter arrived, and placed two large, cherry red cocktails on the table between them. "I hope you don't mind," Amanda said, picking up her glass. "My nerves are a little shot."
Delaney's eyebrows rose, but she shrugged and followed suit. "I guess one can't hurt, right?"
Amanda gave Delaney her best smile, and raised her glass.
* * *
Half an hour later, Amanda was beginning to like Renee Delaney despite herself. The woman was refreshingly frank and unpretentious, with a charming Texas twang, a quirky sense of style, and a way about her that managed to hit just the right note between self-deprecation and competence. Amanda could see why Duncan would have been attracted to her. More than that, she was starting to think Delaney had been telling the truth from the start. Amanda didn't make a habit of trusting cops, never mind federal agents, but maybe Nick had been more of a bad influence than she'd thought.
It didn't take long to learn what Delaney knew about what had happened in New York—which was to say, not much. The men killed in Duncan's hotel room had been shot execution-style, once to the heart and once to the head. When Delaney showed Amanda pictures, they didn't look familiar. They'd had no ID on them, and hadn't shown up in the criminal databases. Nor had the cops been able to tie them to MacLeod, except by the fact of his disappearance.
"You weren't kidding when you said MacLeod made a big impression," Amanda said, as she tried to figure out a way to ask about matching tattoos that wouldn't give away the whole game.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, you're really going out of your way for him. Flying all the way to Paris?"
"Not the first time," Delaney said. She sipped at her second drink, and tucked her hair behind one ear. "I owe him a few. He helped me out on a couple of tough cases."
"Maybe so, but it's more than that," Amanda said. "You're worried about him. Hey, don't get me wrong, I'm glad. It's nice to know he has someone like you looking out for him. I'm just surprised he never mentioned you."
"Just one of those things, I guess. Two ships passing in the night, you know the drill." Delaney said it with a smile, but Amanda wasn't fooled.
"How did you guys meet?"
"Me and Duncan? I mean—MacLeod?" Delaney toyed with her napkin, blushing again. That fair skin had to be a serious liability in her line of work, Amanda thought, even if it was rather endearing. "I pointed a gun at him. Well, no, first he helped me fix my car and carry my groceries. Then I pointed a gun at him."
Amanda raised her eyebrows. "I can see why you made an impression on him."
Delaney laughed. "Yeah, I guess so. I was CID back then. And he—well, he wasn't who I thought he was, that's for sure. I mean, I gotta tell you, I've never had a guy throw me so far off my game so fast."
Amanda smiled. "If it makes you feel any better, you're not the first."
"Honestly?" Delaney smiled back. "Not really." She studied Amanda's expression. "Did you ever have one of those things with a guy where you had the feeling it could have been the best thing ever, if only you could get your timing right?"
"Are you kidding? All the time."
"Yes, really." Amanda meant to leave it there, but Delaney's understanding gaze was hard to resist. "There's this guy. Nick? I swear, it's been like that since the day we met. He makes me crazy, and I know I do the same to him, but when we do get it right—"
"It's like all the rest of it doesn't matter?"
Amanda let out a breath. "Exactly." She lost herself in thought for a minute, sipping at her drink. When she looked up, Delaney was watching her. "What?"
"Nothing, really. I just assumed you and MacLeod... but it's none of my business."
"Me and MacLeod?" Amanda shook her head. "Not lately. It's more of an on-again, off-again kind of thing." That didn't begin to cover what she and MacLeod were to each other, but it was close enough. "I'm not really his type."
"You're kidding," Delaney blurted, then dropped her gaze, embarrassed. "I'm sorry, that's not—like I said, it's none of my business. It's just, you know, you're the kind of woman most men dream about." She laughed. "Jeez, I'm just digging myself in deeper, aren't I?"
Flattered, and charmed despite herself, Amanda said, "Don't apologize. You say what you think. I like that about you." She'd be willing to bet Duncan did, too.
Delaney's eyes met hers. "And you don't? Say what you think, I mean?"
Amanda shrugged. "Depends on the circumstances."
"But MacLeod trusts you. When he was in trouble, he called you."
"We've been through a lot," Amanda said. "We watch out for each other."
Delaney's tone was wistful when she said, "I'm glad he has friends who care about him."
Yes, Amanda could definitely see what Duncan had liked about Renee Delaney. That tough-as-nails attitude combined with the guileless, heart-on-her-sleeve earnestness was hard to resist. It was painfully obvious that Delaney still carried a torch for him, and Amanda would bet the crown jewels that it was what had ultimately kept MacLeod at arm's length. No matter how attracted he was, the thought of hurting a woman like Delaney would have scared the hell out of him. Worse would have been the idea that she might get herself killed, hanging around his orbit. He wouldn't exactly be thrilled that she was mixed up in this because of him.
"What about you?" Amanda asked gently. "Anybody special in your life?"
Delaney met her eyes. "I was engaged, for a while. Didn't work out. I don't know, maybe I'm not cut out for marriage."
"I know the feeling."
"Ever tried it?"
"Once," Amanda admitted. "Believe me, that was more than enough."
"Yeah, I hear you."
Amanda heard the sadness in it, and hated that she had to be the one to break bad news. But it would be worse to let her hope.
"Renee... can I call you Renee?"
"I'm telling you this because I figure it's better you hear it sooner than later. Duncan's with someone."
"He is?" But rather than the disappointment Amanda expected, Delaney's attention sharpened. "Have you contacted her?"
Amanda blinked, but refrained from correcting the pronoun. "Not yet."
Delaney relaxed. "Good. She's probably safer that way."
Amanda recognized an opportunity when one presented itself. She let a hint of fear show, and toyed nervously with her glass. "So, you do think someone's after me?"
"Better safe than sorry, right? If I could trace your number, so can the bad guys."
"Probably a bad idea to use my credit cards, too." Amanda let her gaze fall. It wasn't that hard to pretend she was scared; if Duncan was on the run and radio silent, the situation wasn't good.
She thought she might have overplayed it, but Delaney fell for it. "Listen, you better stay with me tonight," she said. "Just in case."
"Oh, no, I couldn't—"
"Sure, you can. Place I'm staying has plenty of room. You'll be safer with me. Tomorrow, I'll help you figure things out."
"You sure?" Amanda played up the relief, careful not to overdo.
Delaney smiled. "I'm sure."
* * *
Delaney hadn't exaggerated. Amanda's estimation of her went up a notch at the size of the apartment she was staying in; Amanda had expected a hotel, but obviously, Delaney had connections, and enough pull to warrant more comfortable accommodations.
It was very tempting, as she waited for Delaney to fall asleep in the next room, to call Methos's number or try to reach Joe. The not-knowing was getting on her nerves. What could it hurt? Amanda told herself, trying to make herself believe it. Her phone was untraceable. Even if she hung up without saying anything, at least she'd know they were okay.
She didn't trust this place, though. It was government issue all the way, with all the Big-Brother-Is-Watching that implied. Until she had more intel, better to play it safe.
An hour later, the apartment was quiet, and Amanda rose on cat feet to pad out into the hallway. She crept to Delaney's door and listened; nothing stirred on the other side, so Amanda crossed the living room to the small office she'd seen on her way in. Easing the door shut, she sat down at the computer.
Most of what she needed, she found in a hard copy file locked in the desk. Additional photos of the victims weren't much help—she still didn't recognize either of them—but the report confirmed that they'd both had tattoos on the inside of their wrists. Also interesting, they'd both had contusions and showed signs of a fight.
A video still from the surveillance camera showed MacLeod leaving the scene, like Delaney had said. The time stamp on the photo said 6:55 P.M. Amanda studied the image for a minute, but it was too blurry to make out much of Duncan's expression. She took the video CD, photographed everything, and locked the file back in its drawer.
It made sense, she thought. MacLeod wouldn't have killed Watchers if he could help it, even if he wanted to. She'd be willing to lay money he was responsible for their bruises, but whoever had killed them, it had happened after MacLeod left the scene.
She slipped the disk into the computer. On it were two surveillance video files, one from the lobby, the other from the hallway. Amanda scanned through the one from the lobby first. Scores of people passed through the frame—maybe two hundred or more. At dinner hour on a Saturday night, the hotel had been busy, people checking in, leaving for an evening out, enjoying a drink in the lounge. Nothing jumped out at her.
She brought up the second file and scrolled to the 6:55 mark. There was MacLeod; she watched him move through the frame in slow motion, but saw nothing more than the still image had told her.
From that point, she scrubbed forward, playing the image at half speed whenever someone entered the frame. Maybe a dozen people passed by in the ten minutes after MacLeod did. She rewound and played the same sequence again. And this time, one of the figures caught her eye.
He was only on screen for a few seconds, and he didn't look up, so the camera never caught his face. But Amanda hit pause when he appeared, then ran the video forward frame by frame.
She stopped when the tall, angular figure was centered in the image, silhouetted by the sconce on the wall so that his outline was in sharp contrast. "Son of a bitch," she murmured.
At that moment, the lights came on. Caught, Amanda turned; Delaney stood leaning in the doorway, her arms folded across her chest.
"Find what you were looking for?"
There was no point in denial, so Amanda decided on candor. "Might have. What can you tell me about this guy?" She turned the monitor toward Delaney. The longer Amanda looked at the grainy image, the more sure she was. It couldn't be him, of course. Dan Geiger, the scheming little weasel who'd once tried to steal the Methuselah stone, was dead—Amanda had shot him in the back herself. But the camera didn't lie.
Delaney gave her a long look, but finally uncrossed her arms and came into the room. "Hotel employee, judging by the uniform. We questioned everyone who was on duty that night, but I don't remember him. Why?"
"Because that's your guy."
Delaney leaned her hands on the desk and scrutinized the photo. Her hair spilled down around her shoulders in soft waves, but there was nothing soft or vulnerable about her expression.
"How can you be sure?"
"Trust me. It's him. I don't know what name he's using, but that's him."
Delaney straightened up. "What does he want with MacLeod?"
Amanda pushed back from the desk and rose, too. "Well, that's just it. I don't think it's MacLeod he's after." She headed toward the guest room, Delaney in her wake.
"You think they went after him to get to you?"
She was quick; Amanda liked that. "Much as I hate to say it, looks that way."
"My sparkling personality, I'm guessing." Amanda reached her room and went to the closet for her clothes. "Do you mind?"
Unfazed, Delaney didn't budge. "That's why MacLeod pulled the Houdini act. He's trying to get the drop on them."
"Sounds like him, doesn't it?"
"No argument there. But what does this guy want with you? You must have some idea. And those tattoos, what do you think that is? Some kind of insignia?"
Amanda regarded her carefully. Nothing Delaney had said made her think she knew about Immortals, and there was no way to explain the Methuselah stone or the Watchers without complicating the situation.
"Believe me, if I could tell you, I would. But if you get in the middle of this, you could get hurt—I don't care if you are a cop."
Delaney's expression twitched. "This is another one of those 'I wouldn't understand' things, isn't it?"
"Something like that."
Delaney didn't look happy about it, but after a minute, she nodded. Then she said, "One thing's for sure. We need to get you out of Paris."
Amanda's eyebrows rose. "Excuse me?"
"These guys are dangerous. They've left a trail of bodies already."
"Yeah, that much I get. But why would you want to help me? You don't know me from a hole in the ground. And you said it yourself, I'm not exactly damsel-in-distress material."
Delaney raised her chin and met Amanda's gaze. "Duncan thinks you're worth protecting. That counts for a lot with me."
"Thank you. That's very sweet. But I can take care of myself."
"Great!" Delaney said brightly. "And I can help."
Amanda was taken aback for a moment. "Weren't you listening? The last thing Duncan would want is for me to put you in danger. Enough of our friends are targets as it is."
For the first time, real irritation surfaced in Delaney's face. "So you think you can break into my office, read my classified files, and waltz out of here like nothing happened?"
"Would you have shown them to me if I asked?" Amanda countered.
"Maybe." At Amanda's look, Delaney rolled her eyes. "Okay, probably not."
"Look," Amanda told her, "I promise I'll do whatever I can to help you get these guys. But you have to let me do it my way. Otherwise, more people are gonna get hurt. Deal?"
Delaney looked like she wanted to be angry, but her lips curved upward. "Do I have a choice?"
Amanda dimpled. "I knew there was a reason I liked you." She sat down on the bed and pulled on her leather pants under her borrowed robe, then stood up and turned away for a moment to put on her bra and shrug her sweater over her head.
When she smoothed her hair and turned back, the color was high in Delaney's face again, and Amanda spared a moment to note that was interesting, before she slipped into her shoes, then leaned in quickly and kissed Delaney on the cheek. "You won't regret this," she said gently. "These guys don't play by the rules. Let me deal with them."
"You know I can't just give up and go home," Delaney called after her, as Amanda strode past, heading for the door. "This is still a murder investigation."
"Well, then, arrest me, because I don't have time to argue about it!"
It might have been a close thing; Amanda wouldn't have laid odds on it. But she made it to the door without Delaney pulling a gun on her, or calling for backup, and for that she was grateful.
She slipped out through the back door of the building, and melted into the night.
A chill wind had picked up by the time Amanda hurried into the alley behind Le Blues Bar, and she pulled her jacket tighter, grateful that at least she'd taken the time to change before she'd left her place. Her timing was good, too; the bar was closing as she jimmied the back door of Joe's SUV. She didn't have long to wait before Joe himself appeared, crossing the street in her direction. Her relief at seeing him alive and in one piece was intense.
He got in, closed the door—and Amanda's relief was quickly replaced by the adrenalin rush as he turned, faster than she would have believed possible, his gun pointed into her face.
She raised her hands and popped up from the back seat. "Hey, don't shoot! I come in peace!"
When he saw who it was, he huffed in disgust. "Amanda! You almost gave me a heart attack." The gun vanished as quickly as it had appeared. "That's a good way to get your head blown off."
"I was trying to be discreet. Nice to see you, too!"
Joe checked the mirrors, and scanned the street. "Keep your head down," he growled.
Amanda did as she was told, and Joe started the car, pulling away from the curb. Streetlights traced streaks through the darkness, reflecting on the windows. He drove for a few minutes in silence, until Amanda said, "Anything?"
"Thought I saw somebody near the club, but I could be wrong. Can't be too careful." He kept driving, still watching his mirrors. "First Mac drops off the grid, then you. What's a guy supposed to think?"
"So you haven't heard from him?"
"Not a damn thing. All I know is, he's got half the Watchers in North America on his tail."
"Well, that explains why he hasn't called you."
"Yeah. Trying to protect me, the stupid S.O.B. What else is new?"
"You're not the only one. What about Methos?"
"Gone. Mac must've warned him before the shit hit the fan."
Which meant he was in the wind, too—and if Amanda knew him at all, likely planning some ridiculous stunt to try and save Duncan's neck, as usual.
"MacLeod didn't kill those Watchers, Joe. You know that."
Joe met her eyes in the rear view mirror. "You say that like you know who did."
"Dan Geiger," she said grimly. "Remember him?"
Joe gave her a long look. A few blocks further on, he pulled into an alley and shut off the engine, killing his lights. Amanda climbed into the front seat and turned to face him.
Joe's face was set in a scowl. "Dan Geiger died three years ago."
"Yeah, well, not exactly."
Amanda arched her eyebrows. "Is it? He was holding the Methuselah stone when he died."
Joe stared. "You're not serious." When she didn't answer, he shook his head in disbelief. "You are serious." Amanda said nothing, letting him turn it over. "He set Mac up? Why? And why would he be killing Watchers?"
"Covering his tracks, maybe? Or maybe they double-crossed him. He wants the crystal, and he doesn't care who has to die for him to get it. Maybe he's not the only one."
"But if you have what he's looking for, what does he want with Mac?"
"The way I figure, Geiger came looking for me, and when he didn't find me, he went after the one person he thinks I might trade this for." She touched the crystal pendant under her sweater. "MacLeod must have been more than his goons could handle."
"But what would he want with one piece of the crystal? It's no good to him unless—" Joe broke off. "You think he somehow got his hands on the rest?"
"You tell me. I thought the Watchers kept an eye on that river."
"We did." He digested that, and his scowl deepened. "Which means, if you're right, somebody's been doctoring reports."
"Joe, he knew where MacLeod was. Somebody tipped him off." Amanda let that sink in. "I'd say, odds are pretty good my crystal is all that's standing between them and the whole ball of wax."
"If that's true, we gotta get you out of Paris." He gave her a hard look. "I suppose it's too much to ask that you get rid of it."
"It's the only leverage we have if we want to bring the bastard out into the open." Not to mention, she'd give up her last connection to Rebecca when Hell froze over.
They looked at each other for a long moment, in which Amanda could see him coming to all the same conclusions she had.
"So, what's the plan?" Joe asked. "Because obviously, you have one."
Amanda told him what she had in mind.
Morning sun streamed through the stained glass, and in its warm, autumn glow, Amanda sat serene, sipping an espresso. The tranquil scene was spoiled by the sound of several semi-automatic pistol slides being pulled back.
Six men poured into the club, one of them armed with a sword. Amanda put down her coffee and held up her hands, trying not to give the appearance that the sword worried her. "Six of you? For me? I'm flattered." The big blond one dragged her rudely to her feet by one arm. She withstood his pawing at her neck with as much grace as she could, but at last jerked her elbow out of his grasp.
The guy with the sword had a Watcher tattoo. When they'd finished searching her, he raised the blade and demanded, "Your necklace. Where is it?"
"Next time, try asking nicely," she suggested. "If you even know how."
He held her gaze for a long moment, pressing the cold edge of the sword against her skin. She didn't flinch, though it took most of her self-control. At last, he snapped, "She doesn't have it," into his headset. Amanda could hear the screamed reply even through his earpiece, but considering the sword to her neck, she didn't feel much sympathy.
"Should we search the place?" he asked. At the reply, he regarded her coolly. His eyes were a cold, flat blue that said he was enjoying this far too much. Amanda didn't flinch, but she permitted herself a moment of relief when he took off his headset and handed it to her.
"Ew, just for the record," she said, but put the headset on.
It was Geiger, all right. She'd recognize that obnoxious drawl anywhere.
"Well, if it isn't the idiot. Wait, didn't I shoot you?"
"And still as charming as ever. I do hope for your sake that you intend to be reasonable about this."
"I could have sworn I shot you."
"I'm not playing games with you, Amanda. Where is it?"
"Funny, I can't quite remember."
Geiger paused, but when he spoke again, he sounded self-satisfied rather than annoyed. "I suggest you try, if you ever want to see Dawson alive again."
Damn. She'd hoped he wouldn't bother with insurance, but he always had been a careful little bastard. And not, despite her scorn, an idiot. "If you hurt one hair on his head—"
He cut her off. "Come on, Amanda, we're wasting time. Tell me where the crystal is, and I might decide to let one of you live."
Amanda remembered again how much she hated Geiger; she hadn't loathed anyone this much in a while. "It's in a safe deposit box," she told him. "I'm the only one who can get it."
His voice came cold and smug, almost bored. "So, what are you waiting for?"
* * *
Goons one through three bundled her into a black sedan, while the rest of them followed in a second car. It was a fifteen minute drive to the bank.
Amanda counted on one thing, and that was the fact that Geiger wouldn't entrust the crystal to anyone else. He had to be close by, and once he believed he was in control of the situation, he'd show his face.
He didn't let her down. They parked on a shaded street half a block from the bank, off the main drag, and Geiger got out of a car across the street. He looked as weasel-like as Amanda remembered, the same sneering curl to his lip and the same cold, calculating look in his eyes. But her gaze was drawn to Joe Dawson in the back seat of the car. Geiger made sure she got a good look at the mook with a gun pressed against Dawson's ribs before he shut the door and strode toward her. A moment later he yanked open her door, grabbed her by the arm, and pulled her none too gently from the car.
"You're a real piece of work, you know that?" she told him.
"No more games, Amanda. You give me the crystal, or Dawson is history. End of story."
"How am I supposed to know your goons aren't going to drive off with him?"
"Well, I guess you've got no choice but to trust me, now do you?"
"When pigs fly," Amanda muttered, but she let Geiger march her toward the bank. "I suggest you take your hand off me, if you don't want them calling the cops."
Geiger shot her a nasty look, but let her go. They marched up to the door.
Inside, Amanda asked for the manager, and they were directed to wait in a well-appointed, sedate office at the front of the lobby. Amanda moved closer to the window so she could see the car down the block, and Geiger slouched, ill-tempered, into one of the chairs.
She said, "You'll never get away with this, you know."
"So you keep saying."
"What happened in New York? MacLeod give you more trouble than you expected?"
"You're all more trouble than you're worth. I look forward to the day when I've outlived every last one of you."
"Good luck with that." She shot him a measuring look. "You realize if you kill Dawson, they'll never stop hunting you. Bad enough that you killed your attack dogs." She paused. "It was you, right?"
Geiger shrugged. "There's more where they came from. I'm not the only one who hates your kind."
"Still. Messy, racking up a body count like that. What happened, they turn on you?"
"Let's just say they'd outlived their usefulness." Geiger looked around, searching for a bank employee. "What the hell's taking so long?"
Amanda, watching the street, smiled. "Surprise," she said under her breath.
The door opened, and Renee Delaney stepped in. She was flanked by three French police officers and another American agent, all with weapons drawn.
"Daniel Geiger," the head officer said, "I'm authorized to place you under arrest in cooperation with the United States Federal Government." Geiger barely had a chance to gain his feet and shoot Amanda a deadly glare before the officers had him pinned face-first against the wall, arm twisted against his back as they searched him for weapons.
"This is absurd," Geiger snapped. "You have nothing on me."
"On the contrary," Delaney told him. "We have you on video near the time of the shooting. We have evidence showing that you flew to New York under a forged identity and returned to Paris after the murders." She reached under the edge of the desk and retrieved a small microphone, holding it up. "We have the recording of your conversation with Ms. Montrose a few moments ago, and thanks to Mr. Dawson, we have evidence of payments you made connecting you to both victims. With any luck, we'll be able to match your DNA with evidence found at the scene. Not to mention, the French police have you on record as a suspect in several open cases."
If he hadn't been cuffed, or if looks alone could kill, Amanda thought the feds might have had another death on their hands. As it was, Geiger's murderous expression wasn't enough to hide the sinking fear that crossed his face. It was small consolation for the fact that the police search turned up nothing on Geiger's person. Wherever he'd hidden the rest of the crystals, they weren't here.
Delaney called her supervisor. After she hung up, the bank's security chief made a brief appearance. Then the French gendarmes hauled Geiger out of the room. Delaney's man and the security chief went with them. Delaney turned to lean against the edge of the desk as Dawson came in.
Amanda scrutinized him carefully. "You okay?" she asked, though he looked none the worse for wear.
"Fine. Easy as pie. Did you get what you needed?" He looked at Delaney, but his question was for Amanda. He glanced at her briefly and she shook her head.
"Looks that way," Delaney said. "The information you gave us panned out. Besides, the passport fraud alone should get him put away for a while." She looked at Amanda, pleased. "We make a good team."
"I guess we do."
"Now," Delaney said, smiling brightly and glancing between them. "Who wants to tell me what's really going on?"
* * *
"She's not going to leave it alone, you know," Amanda said, when they'd made their statements and Delaney had gone outside to wrap things up with the police. Amanda and Joe were alone, making their way toward the door. "Those tattoos are gonna be a problem, one way or another. We're lucky she didn't see yours."
"Yeah, well, let's keep it that way." Joe stopped outside the bank, watching the proceedings, then headed toward his own car. "Geiger's not gonna make it to trial, anyway. He'll be lucky if he makes it to the end of the day. If there's one thing the Watchers know how to do, it's clean up their own messes."
Amanda had witnessed the Watchers' idea of due process first hand, and she agreed that prison would be the lesser evil. "Speaking of which, who's your rat?" she asked, jerking her chin toward the man in question—the guy who'd held a sword to her neck earlier that day. He sat, sullen and under arrest, in the back of a white police sedan.
"Name's Gibson. He was on the short list for assistant director a couple years ago, but got passed over. He's got a lot of friends in the organization, though." Joe sighed. "This is gonna get messy."
"We gotta figure out where Geiger hid the rest of the pieces," Amanda said as they reached Joe's car.
"Yeah, no kidding. Thing's like an unexploded nuke. Better question is, what are we going to do with it when we find it?" He unlocked the door and got in. "You coming?"
Amanda, leaning in the open door, shook her head and glanced toward Delaney. "Think I better stick around, do some damage control."
He made a bitter sound of amusement. "Damage control. Name of the game, lately, ain't it?"
The weariness in his tone made Amanda look more closely at him. "You sure you're okay?" she asked.
"I'll live." He put the key in the ignition, then met her gaze. "It's gettin' old, is all. When I think about how many times in the last few years the Watchers have crossed the line."
"Rebecca knew how dangerous the crystal was," Amanda said. "That's why she tried to keep all the pieces separate."
Joe nodded. "Gotta admit, I'm kinda hoping he hid it so well nobody will ever find it again."
"We should be so lucky," Amanda agreed. "Not everybody can do what you do and not want to be like us."
Joe grunted. "Then they're not paying attention."
Amanda touched his cheek, then kissed him there for good measure, and cupped her hand against his bristly face. "Take care, Joe. Don't be a stranger."
He hugged her close for a second, then let her go. "You either. And if you see Mac before I do, tell him and that pain-in-the-ass he hangs out with to come see me."
Amanda fought the prickle of unexpected tears. "I will."
When Joe had gone, Amanda took a moment to get herself together, then crossed the street, heading back toward the bank. Delaney had mostly wrapped things up by the time she got there.
"Thought you'd be long gone by now," Delaney said, surprised to see her.
"Just wanted to say thank you," Amanda said. "I could have handled Geiger on my own, but this way, Duncan's off the hook. We both owe you one."
"Let's call it even. I would never have ID'ed Geiger if it wasn't for you." She sighed. "Now, I've got a metric ton of paperwork, and about a million unanswered questions. You sure you won't come in with me? Shed some light on a few of them?"
"Not unless you force me to."
Delaney cocked her head, and a smile played around her eyes. "Tempting."
Amanda had to admire her style. "You don't give up, do you?"
"You're not the first to say that."
Amanda regarded her for a long moment. If she left things the way they stood and walked away, and Geiger didn't make it to trial, Delaney would never trust her again. Amanda was surprised to realize she cared what this woman thought. Renee Delaney had crossed an ocean and taken risks to help MacLeod, and offered to do the same for Amanda on the strength of her instincts alone. Amanda liked a woman who wasn't afraid to follow her intuition. More than that, she recognized the value in winning the trust and friendship of someone like that.
Besides, Delaney was lonely, and maybe Amanda was, too.
"Tell you what," she said. "Let me buy you a drink later. My place? We'll talk."
Delaney blinked. For a second, she was at a loss for words—but the sudden flush in her cheeks told Amanda that she hadn't been imagining things the night before.
"I'd like that," Delaney said at last. "A lot."
On the way home, she called MacLeod. This time, when the recorded voice told her to leave a message, she did. She called Methos for good measure, and left the same message: The coast is clear. You can go home. And if you don't come visit me soon, I won't be responsible for what happens, so call me, you jerks.
Much later, she sat at the bar, sipping at a glass of wine and toying with the crystal around her neck, watching it catch and reflect the light.
They had proof, now, that it really did work. She'd shot Geiger in the back from six feet away. Somewhere, the other pieces were waiting to be found. But what it would mean for all of them, she had no idea; if there'd been a way to destroy the crystal, she thought Rebecca might have done so. There were still so many things she wished she'd thought to ask Rebecca before she died.
The back door opened, bring with it a gust of cool air and the sound of the rain. Amanda slipped the necklace back into her sweater, feeling a rush of gratitude that she didn't have to drink alone tonight.
"Hey," she said, when Delaney appeared. Despite the weather outside, she looked fresh, like she'd gone home to change. Her golden hair gleamed in waves, catching the light much like the crystal.
"Starting without me?" Delaney came into the room, taking off her hat and coat.
Amanda shrugged. "I got bored. You can leave those anywhere—come sit with me."
Delaney did so, and took the bar stool opposite. She accepted the wine glass Amanda handed her, watching as Amanda poured. At her first taste, her eyebrows rose. "It's good."
"It should be. You don't want to know how many favors it cost me."
"I'm flattered," Delaney said. Her color was high, and Amanda wondered idly whether she blushed like that everywhere.
"I'm glad you came," Amanda said.
Delaney smiled, a slow smile that reached her eyes before she looked down and crossed her legs, mirroring Amanda's posture.
"Can I tell you something?" Delaney asked.
"It's my birthday today."
Amanda straightened. "It is? Happy birthday!"
"Thank you. I've had worse." She stole a glance at Amanda's expression, the smile still playing at the corners of her mouth. "And I didn't really want to go home to an empty apartment. So, you know, thanks."
"My pleasure, believe me. And I can't blame you. I hate spending birthdays alone." Amanda raised her glass. "To new friends."
They clinked glasses and drank. Amanda watched Delaney over the rim of hers; when things were in danger of becoming awkward, Delaney leaned forward and said, "Listen, was I crazy for thinking you were sort of flirting with me earlier? I mean, maybe I'm imagining things, but—"
Amanda laughed. "No, you're not. I was definitely flirting with you."
"Really? That's great!" Flustered, she laughed, too. "What I mean to say is, I'm glad I read that right. I don't, always."
"That's okay," Amanda told her. "You want to know the truth? Sometimes I'm not sure myself. Gets to be a bit of a habit." She met Delaney's eyes. "But trust me, with you, it's intentional."
They held one another's gaze. Amanda was captivated again by Delaney's unguarded scrutiny, and felt an unexpected fluttering in her belly. It had been a long time for her, and even longer since she'd been with a woman she really liked. Someone she hoped might become a friend.
Conscience got the better of her. "Listen," she confessed. "Just so you know, this might be a bad idea."
"I'm kind of famous for those," Delaney admitted.
"Yeah, I'm getting that." They shared a smile. "What I need to know is, can you be okay with not knowing everything about me? It's just, I have a lot of history. And some of it isn't pretty."
"I'm a big girl, Amanda. And you don't owe me anything."
"That's not exactly true," Amanda told her. They regarded each other for a moment, and then Amanda set her wine glass down and leaned forward. "But we can talk about it in the morning."
Delaney's lips were warm, and very soft. She had a wide, curving mouth made for kisses, and at the first touch, Amanda felt the old, sweet ache of kissing another woman. How much of it was memory, and how much the long-conditioned awareness of doing something a little forbidden, she didn't know, but she liked it all the same. It was exactly what she needed. She closed her eyes and breathed in the faint scent of Delaney's perfume. It was subtle, but refreshing, like the woman herself.
After a long moment, Amanda pulled back and made an appreciative sound. "Well. I certainly feel more festive, how about you?"
"You can say that again." Delaney studied her, and swallowed. "It's been… a really long time for me," she admitted.
"Is that right?"
Delaney nodded. The pulse beat visibly at her throat, and the delicate flush of her pale skin disappeared under the blue silk of her blouse. Her lips parted, and she wet them with the tip of her tongue. When she looked up, Amanda read the invitation like it was written on parchment.
Amanda slid down off the bar stool and moved closer. She trailed her fingers along Delaney's elegant throat, then twisted them gently to unhook the top button of her blouse. Delaney's blush deepened, and Amanda couldn't resist kissing her throat below her ear, smoothing her hair back. Amanda wound a dark gold curl around her fingers and stroked Renee's quick-beating pulse with her thumb. "Duncan really missed out," she whispered.
Amanda leaned in and kissed her again, a soft, slow caress. Delaney's full lips met hers, and she did something with her tongue that sent a thrill of heat through Amanda's belly. When Amanda pulled away at last, she drew a deep breath. "Yes, definitely. No question. But his loss is my gain."
Delaney's gaze lifted. "You think he'll mind? You know, that we…?"
"Somehow, I think he'll live." Amanda smiled. Then she took Delaney's hand and drew her toward the elevator. As the doors slid shut, she gave Delaney an arch, speculative glance. "So, any thoughts on the tradition of birthday spankings…?"