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Backstage 19 - Phase Shift

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Banner by SRoni

Phase Shift
by Aadler
Copyright September 2005

Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel: the Series are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.

Special thanks to SRoni, who first suggested the idea for this story, and then graciously turned it over to me when I made the request.

The events depicted herein take place in the alternate reality first presented in my story, “In Ev’ry Angle Greet”.

She had never cared for mysteries, and intensely disliked surprises. The craft she practiced demanded precision, required that every route be mapped, every schedule memorized, every circuit diagrammed, every eventuality anticipated and covered. Even apart from professional necessity, however, she had a pronounced aversion to the unexpected. She had seized control of her own life long ago, and did not happily greet anything that might threaten that control.

The seedy man in the absurd shirts did not remotely resemble a threat. But he was a mystery, and therefore unwelcome.

*                *               *

The first time she saw him, she wouldn’t have noticed him at all — he was that thoroughly unremarkable — if he hadn’t been so openly watching her. She was accustomed to being the center of attention, indeed went to some lengths to ensure it, but he wasn’t looking at her with either a man’s open hunger or a competitor’s wary appraisal; he was simply watching, from the sidewalk next to the parking garage entrance of the building that held her penthouse suite, neither obtruding nor hiding himself, noting all the details but giving no sign of considering any of them important. Physically unprepossessing: barely as tall as she was (if that), junkie-thin, with pinched cheeks and unruly hair and a complexion that clearly didn’t have much acquaintance with the sun. And the clothes; they were what people might have worn in the Eighties if they weren’t even trying to be stylish. Cheap cut, muddy colors, and slept-in rumpled. A man who dressed that way generally fit into one of two types: he knew how ridiculous he looked, and was defensive or angry about it; or he didn’t have a clue, and actually congratulated himself on the figure he cut.

This man seemed not to care at all. He watched as she drove into the parking garage, turning his head to follow her path as she passed him, then she was inside and out of his view. She gave maybe fifteen seconds’ thought to his presence on the sidewalk, before dismissing him as unimportant.

*                *               *

After the first sighting, he became a regular feature, appearing without any discernible pattern but with dismaying frequency. It wasn’t so much that he was everywhere, as that he seemed able to pop up anywhere. She was confident that he wasn’t following her (she had some skill at spotting, tracking, and losing a tail), but she never knew when he would be waiting ahead of her, to watch with that same indifferent attentiveness as she passed by.

Had he been there before? Was she seeing him almost every day now (sometimes two or three times a day) only because she had at last noticed him? That seemed possible but not plausible. His purpose was to be seen; she simply didn’t know why.

If he had ever approached her, spoken to her, stood too close to her chosen path, she would have dealt with the matter instantly and decisively. If he had tried to watch from concealment, she would have sought him out. If he had so much as avoided her gaze, that would have been all the provocation she needed. He did none of those things. In a way she couldn’t define, it was as if she would somehow lose if she made the first move.

It didn’t matter. It was inconsequential, meaningless.

It was intolerable.

*                *               *

One day, chance — or something she could accept as chance — allowed her to act. She was about to leave the Japanese Tea Gardens, and he was posted at an unobjectionable distance from the exit, when her response to the movement of a tourist group put her two steps closer to him than she would otherwise have gone, and her pause until they had proceeded onward kept her there an extra few seconds. They regarded one another, and he nodded acknowledgment. She let a minute tilt of her head say, Well? She saw him think about it; then he said, “Not yet.”

She could have pressed, but there was no need; the fundamental barrier had been broken, and the initiative was hers now, to be exercised whenever she wished. “You have a name?” she asked.

He nodded again. “Doyle.”

She continued on her way, satisfied. The next time — the very next time — she would demand answers, and he’d give them or suffer for it.

It was almost three weeks before she saw him again.

*                *               *

The job had gone exactly as planned, which was in fact slightly disappointing; there almost always were minor bobbles, and it was exhilarating to meet and crush them under the inexorable mass of her advance preparation. None such this time, until she reached the darkened section of the parking lot where she had left the Karmann Ghia, locked and alarmed, and spotted the thin-shouldered figure beneath the awning ten feet away, narrow polyester lapels glowing like neon in the reflected light from the distant street. She turned off the alarm almost as easily as thinking it — no need for a remote, she was attuned to the system — and flung open the door on the passenger’s side. “In,” she commanded, and he moved to comply with no visible evidence of eagerness or trepidation.

If he had wanted to blow the whistle on her, he could easily have done it already, but still she put twelve blocks behind her before she spoke to him again. “Okay,” she said flatly. “You’ve got my attention, and odds are you’ll wish you hadn’t. What’s all this about?”

He looked to her with eyes that, for all the mildness of his expression, told her exactly nothing. “Well, now,” he said, “the answer to that’s in the way o’ bein’ a story.”

The accent was a surprise; he looked and dressed like a Jersey bus-terminal hustler, but the lilt behind his words was raw Irish, the genuine article rather than movie brogue. She wasn’t about to be distracted. “So tell. But be warned, I’m not a soft audience.”

“All right, then.” He settled back in the custom seat. “There was this fella once, that Fate was settin’ up ta be a champion. He didn’t know it, an’ wouldn’t’a believed it — he’d been a waster, y’see, an’ then he’d been an utter bastard, an’ then he’d been a total worthless self-pityin’ bum — but along the way he’d learned the ins an’ outs o’ villainy, an’ fought in fifteen wars, an’ he had some special abilities that woulda come in uncommon useful.” He glanced pointedly at where her gloved hands rested on the rubber-sheathed steering wheel. “I’m thinkin’ you might know somethin’ yourself about special abilities.”

She had long since come to terms with herself and her situation, so she took the corner exactly as she should have, no harder. “So far, so dull. Is this line of patter supposed to charm me into kissing your Blarney Stone? because I’m completely untitillated here.”

“Ayeh, well, it’s not much of a story. See, somethin’ went wrong. He met this girl: pretty little blonde thing, all soulful puppy eyes an’ vows of endless undyin’ love. She was s’posed ta show him his true path; instead, she showed him exactly the wrong kind o’ good time, an’ woke up the devil inside him, an’ the next thing y’know, he’s lightin’ the fuse on the big menace he was ta be buryin’. So Miss Puppy-Eyes gave him the chop.”

“You’re right.” She steered the Ghia into another parking lot, cut the engine, and turned in her seat to face him square-on. “It’s not much of a story. So I’m hearing it why exactly?”

“I was just gettin’ ta that part.” From the way he regarded her, he knew that she had parked so she could deal with him more easily and comfortably if she wanted. If that possibility concerned him, it was only to the extent of keeping himself where he was unlikely to touch her by accident. “Like I said, this guy was bein’ groomed by Fate, an’ Fate’s a terrible sore loser about these things. Me, I was t’be his messenger, his conduit ta the Powers That Be; only now, I got two sets o’ newsreels rollin’ through my skull, the way it was s’posed t’be an’ the way it’s s’posed t’be now, an’ I gotta make sense out of ’em.”

“Not making much sense to me here, Muldoon.” She leaned toward him, and at last had the satisfaction of seeing him shrink back just the least bit. “If you’d done anything except stand where I could see you, you’d be crispy bacon already, and unless you start making the right noises, that little item is still on the menu.”

He didn’t like her being so close, she could see that, but after the first reaction he kept his place. “So you can be dangerous. I know that. We wouldn’t be talkin’ here otherwise.”

“If you know I’m dangerous, then you’ll also know I’m not long on patience.” She was very close to him now, and she spoke softly, almost a whisper, her lips not quite brushing his cheek. “Any point you have, you think we could be getting to it now?”

He had held his breath in order to remain absolutely still; he let it out as she sat back again, and then went on in exactly the same tone as before. “The point is, Fate still wants its champion. It can be dreadful persistent that way. Which brings me to another story.”

Her laugh was sharp and short. “The whole Arabian Nights thing? the deal on that was that Scheherezade kept herself alive by spinning out one tale after another. You, on the other hand, the longer you go on, the more I want to hear you not talking.”

“There were these two people,” he said, unconcerned. “They were rich an’ they were good-lookin’ an’ they had each other; but they didn’t have a child, an’ in the way o’ these things, what they couldn’t have came to matter most to ’em. So they saw all kinds o’ specialists, an’ they got all kinds o’ treatments, and a lot o’ the things they tried weren’t exactly board-certified. But they got their child, a darlin’ little girl, so everybody’s s’posed ta be happy, right?

“Only, it turns out this little girl is somethin’ of a …” Again his gaze rested on the elbow-high gloves she wore, black satin with a special insulated liner. “… live wire. So they try to do the best they can for her, only their idea o’ what’s best doesn’t really match with hers. She doesn’t like bein’ fenced in, so she learns how ta get outta places that want ta keep her in; an’ then after awhile she starts studyin’ up on how ta get inta places that want ta keep her out; an’ before ya know it, there’s nobody better at it than she is, an’ she’s made a place for herself in a world that don’t know what ta do with her.”

Enough. She pointed at the door on his side of the car, and said, “Get out.”

“The problem is,” he went on, unheeding, “the place she’s made still don’t connect her ta anybody. She takes from one bunch, sells to another bunch, an’ cruises between the two all clear an’ easy. But sooner or later, somethin’ll go bad. Sooner or later, somebody’ll interrupt one o’ her little projects at just the wrong moment … an’ by then, she’ll have been carvin’ out her own path for so long, it’ll seem perfectly reasonable to her ta fry some poor bozo who’s just tryin’ ta do his job.”

“I said out.” She began to peel off the gloves. “Now.”

He opened his door and got out, without hurry but also without dallying. “Shuttin’ me out don’t change things,” he told her. “You got a road splittin’ ahead o’ ya, an’ you still have ta choose which fork ta take.”

“Really?” She leaned across the interior of the car to take hold of the door handle and yank the door shut. “Go fork yourself, buster.” Then she fired the ignition with a touch, and spun out of the parking lot in a tire-squalling surge that left a haze of particulate rubber in the air around him.

*                *               *

In her next two client conferences, she was more than usually peremptory. Her independence was part of her style, reinforcing her reputation and the respect she got from those with whom she dealt professionally; now, however, she was behaving excessively, and even she knew it. She got the things she demanded, because she was worth it and the clients couldn’t afford to choose a different operator this late in the negotiations, but she was aware that she was making herself unpopular to an extent that would eventually cost her.

Eight days after the conversation in her car, she saw him standing on the pier in Venice Beach, and went to confront him. This time he wasn’t watching her; he didn’t even look in her direction until she was within a dozen feet of him, and stopped in the act of troweling relish onto a hot dog. Though her anger was subverted by the realization that this encounter at least was accidental, she had come too far to retreat. “Drop the shadow routine,” she told him. “You delivered your spiel, and it didn’t take. That was the only shot you get.”

“An’ if it was up ta me, you’d have no argument,” he said, nodding. “It ain’t, though. Don’t be confusin’ the messenger with the message.”

“Am I supposed to ask what that means?” she demanded. “Because first I’d have to care.”

“Care or not, it’s happenin’.” He shook his head. “Destiny’s headed for ya like a freight train. If I can make ya believe it, good, but either way you’re gonna get hit.”

“No sale, Joe Isuzu.” She turned away from him. “Tell destiny it can go chew on somebody else.”

His voice halted her. “Ya still don’t get it, do ya? You are the somebody else.”

By now, their interchange — or the heat from her side of it — was attracting attention from others on the pier. She ignored it, swinging back to face him. “No, you don’t get it. You really think fate wants me to be some kind of champion? I’m a thief.”

He sighed, shook his head again. “We’re all of us somethin’,” he said. “Matchin’ up what we are with what we oughtta be, now, that can bring on a bit of a rumpus.”

This time he was the one to turn away, looking out over the surface of the ocean and taking a bite from the hot dog. She stood for another few moments, hating to leave him with the last word but unable to choose between verbal or physical assault as a satisfying response; then she let it go and stalked off the pier.

More than a few people moved out of her way.

Lucky for them.

*                *               *

It wasn’t over, she could see that, but she told herself there was no need for her to take action. If he didn’t seek her out again, that was that; if he did, she’d settle the matter once and for all. Meanwhile, she had personal interests to pursue and business to transact.

A week went by without him appearing, and then another. She should have been reassured. She wasn’t.

*                *               *

Perhaps he, too, understood that the previous pattern couldn’t continue, because when he came to her again, it was with a brashness tantamount to suicide. She was at a restaurant (pleasure, not a professional meeting, she had even dressed with what, for her, was restraint), and he stepped around her from behind and had seated himself across from her at the small table by the time she was fully aware of what was happening.

She smiled at him. It was not a social gesture — there were hard-bitten men who would have flinched at that smile, and wished to themselves that they had adjusted their budgets to include more bodyguards — but it was genuine; finally, this was all about to end. “You know,” she observed, “most of the places I dine, they wouldn’t have allowed you six feet past the front door.”

“Eyah, I know.” He gave her a nod that took in their surroundings. “Still, ya got good taste. It’s a cozy spot; not so snooty as some, but a fella can see the quality.”

“I hadn’t made my menu choice yet,” she said in the same light, pleasant tone as before. “Is there anything particular you’d like for your last meal?”

“Don’t think I’ll be havin’ time for that, sorry.” He was either unaware of the danger crackling across from him, or unconcerned by it. “Actually, I came ta say, you win.”

“You could have left a note,” she pointed out. “After all, you know where I live.”

“Wouldn’t’a been polite.” He waved away the thought. “I mean, what were the Powers thinkin’? Wasn’t any way I was ever goin’ ta make ya do anythin’ you didn’t want ta do. I knew that from the beginnin’, but they’re not ones ta take unwelcome news from the help.”

“The words are good,” she told him evenly, “but the music bites. You changed directions too quick, so I know this is just a hook for something else. I only need to decide what’s the best way of making it absolutely and … irreversibly clear to you that we have no further business together.” Now even the menacing smile was gone. “I’m sorry it has to be here, though. I like this place, and I won’t be able to come back once we finish our conversation.”

“Doesn’t matter,” he said, dismissing it. “They’d be havin’ ta close down for awhile anyways.”

“Oh, I know that wasn’t a threat.” Her expression had gone hard. “There is no way you could be dim enough to make threats to me.”

“Absolutely not,” he agreed. “I’m just lettin’ ya know how it is. Y’see …” He leaned toward her over the table, and lowered his voice. “What I was tellin’ ya about Fate, I got a dose o’ that myself. The messages I’m s’posed ta pass on ta the Powers’ champion, they come to me as visions — accompanied by great thunderin’ headaches — an’ it’s always bad news for somebody, ’less it can be stopped. Stoppin’ it, now, that’d be the champion’s job.”

She started to stand up. “And once again, none of that has anything to do with me.”

“Not for you, no.” He tilted his head to indicate something across the interior of the restaurant. “For her, now, it’s pretty much gonna be the end of the world.”

She looked. She couldn’t help it. Her table was against one of the walls, giving her the extra space she always preferred; but at the central area that most people found desirable, seven people — obviously a family grouping — were laughing and chattering and raising their glasses. The object of their congratulations was a young woman: slender, well-dressed, with hair cut in a style that didn’t quite suit her, and features that strictly should have been described as homely … except that they were lit from within by happiness, animated and transfigured, and an echo of that happiness could be seen in the man who sat next to her, his hand resting over hers on the table.

“He just proposed to her yesterday,” Doyle was saying. “She’s been in love with ’im forever, but she never really believed it could happen; her family’s flush, but ya can see she’s not much of a looker, an’ on top o’ that she has a history of seizures. Medication’s got it mostly under control now, but she thought of herself as a freak for so long, it got t’be a habit.”

She made herself look back to him. “So, what, the guy’s about to dump her? It’s not exactly breaking news that men are jerks.”

“No. He’s not gonna dump her.” There was something in his voice that fixed her attention on him, though his own eyes never left the young woman at the central table. “The Powers don’t bother ta send warnin’ about broken hearts, it’s more on the order o’ death an’ maimin’. Now and again that comes out o’ ordinary human awfulness, but as a rule they don’t give me a skull-crushin’ heads-up ’less we’re t’be gettin’ over-the-top evil.” He looked to her at last. “There’s a young woman slated ta die, an’ only one person here with the power ta stop it.”

He had reached her, there was no use trying to tell herself otherwise, but she hadn’t been captured yet. “You’re the one who gets the warnings,” she said, rising from her chair. “You stop it.”

“I don’t have that kinda juice,” he said in reply. “Y’don’t have ta take my word for it, you’ll be seein’ what I mean in …” He looked around. “… well … now.”

From the tone of his warnings, she had known that whatever happened next would be extreme; but she wasn’t prepared for what came through the restaurant doors.

*                *               *

Through them, in an explosion of frosted glass and elegantly carved wood. It was an entrance calculated for effect, but only barely unnecessary; the man standing in the shattered door frame was so massive, he had almost needed to create his own opening. Close to seven feet tall, impossibly broad across the shoulders, and the color and contours of his face were of a heavy golem unhumanness that she thought must be a mask until she saw it shift into a wide grin of delight. Then he was moving toward her with grizzly-bear quickness, for a quirk of interior geometry had seated her between the doors and the central table; and Gwen Raiden — thief, freak, threat, outcast, one who had been taught by bitter life to look out strictly for herself and to hell with everybody else — shouted to Doyle, “Get her out of here!”, and leaped to meet the intruder.

She was stronger than most men and more agile than most gymnasts, for both the contractile strength of muscle tissue and the neural transmission speed of nerve fibers were enhanced by the current coursing through her. She dodged his first blow and stopped the second with an elbow-strike to the inside of his arm, delivered with enough force and focus to temporarily render it an inert slab of meat; and he grunted, seemingly more from surprise than pain, and sent her tumbling away with a backhand smash from the should-have-been-deadened arm.

People were screaming somewhere, and green flashes strobed inside her head, but force of will brought her to her feet again. She had been hurt worse than this; what stunned her was the casualness of the power with which he had slapped her away. He was watching her with that same genial grin, and as her eyes centered on him, he gave her a nod and came at her once more. She wasn’t there when he arrived; she had learned, whirling out of his path and snatching up one of the metal posts that held the velvet partitioning ropes, and when he wheeled to face her she was already swinging it with all her not-inconsiderable strength.

The shock of the blow sent a jolt up her arms and snapped his head back; but he didn’t fall, and she spun and hit him again, and again, using the torque of her body rather than the power of her arms to slam the post across his shoulders, his knees, the back of his neck, pounding at him with furious desperation and growing astonishment as he refused to fall.

It couldn’t last, and didn’t. One of his feet slid on fallen silverware, and he went to his knee just as she was swinging again; the impetus of the miss carried her past him and almost into the wall, and when she turned back to him he was standing again, the grin bigger than ever. With another small shock of surprise she saw that the blood seeping from one split cheek was darker than indigo … and his skin really was a grayish-blue, that wasn’t makeup. “I’m very impressed,” he said. His voice wasn’t as deep as might have been expected from a man his size (no, a thing, any man would be dead from the beating he had just taken); it was mellow, resonant, with an undertone of seeming culture. “This just changed from business to pleasure.”

Then metal coils snapped out to wrap around his fists, and she flung the post away and snatched off her gloves, and the two of them flew at each other like creatures from myth.

*                *               *

She had the advantage of him in speed and skill, and white-hot sparks showered from him every time she struck him with her naked hands; but his strength was well beyond human, his vitality inexhaustible, and he was enjoying himself. They fought through a growing field of wreckage, for whatever he hit with the metal-sheathed fists, broke, and it required all her quickness and frantic resourcefulness to see to it that she wasn’t among the things shattered. Even his near-misses were brutally punishing, however, and — most telling — she was beginning to tire, while he showed no sign of flagging.

At last she overbalanced as she twisted to evade a probing jab and follow-up hook from those terrible fists; her feet caught in a smashed chair as she lurched to recover, and she went down. He moved unhurriedly to loom over her, allowing her time to stand but not the precious scant seconds that would have let her catch her breath, and she wasn’t going to be able to dodge this one and Doyle suddenly appeared behind the craggy giant, swinging a two-quart saucepan with both hands. It rebounded from the massive head with a comically musical bong!, and the creature stopped and looked back at his assailant with scarred eyebrows raised. “Was that supposed to be a joke?” he asked amiably.

Doyle set his jaw and hit the thing again, and then a third time before the other shook his head and bludgeoned him to the floor with a short overhand clubbing motion. The entire interchange had taken less than ten seconds, but she was on her adversary before he could turn back to her. Thus far she hadn’t been able to risk more than glancing contact with the hulking creature; now, she clapped her hands against his ears, and the instant release of power hurled them apart with a sound of cracking thunder.

The impact of hitting the floor was one more item on a long list of abuses, but the power-blast itself was so familiar as to be hardly worth her notice. She pulled herself back to her feet … and the blue-gray giant was rising, too, slowly but with the inevitability of a gathering wave, and there was nothing she could do except attack again.

She would have repeated the ear-clap, but his hands came up just as she reached him; so she seized them instead, interlacing her fingers with his and screaming as she let it all go, opened all the gates she had so carefully maintained, poured everything she had into the body of the thing before her. Light fixtures were exploding around them, or maybe that was her brain overloading, but she wasn’t about to back away, she braced and pushed and finally he was going down, blue lightning crackling around them both, and the floor shook as he fell.

She didn’t feel herself lose consciousness. She didn’t know until it returned to her, and he was standing over her once again, and she stared up at him, spent and helpless, with only defiance left to her. His hair was singed, and there were black patches on the huge hands, but he regarded her with the same indefatigable good humor as ever, and there was no unsteadiness in his voice when he spoke.

“You’re good,” he said. “Not quite in my league …” He smiled at her. “… but good enough that I think I should renegotiate my price for this job.” He reached down and touched her cheek lightly. “Until next time, my sweet.”

Then he was gone, and she could let the darkness claim her.

*                *               *

Afterward, she could easily see that she should have (literally) taken the gloves off from the very beginning. She hated to reveal her true nature, however, except to competitors or prospective clients; and, even apart from her distaste at being seen for what she was, it would have been enormously inconvenient for her to have to explain — or avoid questions about — exactly how she had done what she had.

Fortunately, that wasn’t an issue. The patrons and staff of the restaurant had prudently gotten the hell out while she and the man-thing were trading their first overtures, so there were no witnesses when she pulled out all the stops. She had come back to herself before the police arrived (she had just needed a few minutes to recharge her batteries, so to speak), sought out the owners to reassure them that she was okay and to request that her name be kept out of the impending official reports, and left a check with four zeroes to show her gratitude at their consideration.

She could afford it, and her privacy was worth a lot more to her than that.

Doyle’s, on the other hand, meant nothing to her.

*                *               *

He opened the door at her first knock, and pleased her by looking surprised. “Wasn’t expectin’ ya so soon,” he said. “I figured ya’d maybe use up a day tryin’ ta convince yourself I slipped ya somethin’ ta cause hallucinations.”

“I’m not one to waste time doubting myself.” She stepped inside without invitation, curled her lip at the low-rent bachelor squalor that greeted her entrance. “I do sometimes have a problem with my temper, though. You’re not going to give me any reason to lose my temper, are you?”

“Don’t wantcha doin’ that, no.” He tilted his head to one side. “You found me quick enough. Skimmed through my wallet ’fore ya took off, then?”

She had no interest in badinage. “That business at the restaurant, was that the kind of thing one of your champions is supposed to handle? Because if it was, I can see why you have a problem finding volunteers; anybody with a working brain would run screaming in the opposite direction.”

“Not you, though,” he said. “Ya stood solid, squared off against a demon without a second thought.”

She had already known it must be something like that, but felt compelled to challenge it. “Demon?”

“ ’Less ya know any other big gray guys that sprout their own brass knuckles.” He shook his head. “Eyah, it’s that kinda thing. Usually not so bad; worse, sometimes.”

“Sensational.” She looked around. “I mentioned that your recruiting pitch sucks, right?”

“Well, you’re a tougher customer than the one I was s’posed to be persuadin’.”

She picked the least objectionable chair within her field of view, swept the heap of rumpled clothes and empty Chinese takeout cartons to the floor, and sat. “You mentioned that,” she said. “Different newscasts running in your head at the same time, wasn’t it?”

“Somethin’ like that,” Doyle said. “Lemme tell ya, it’s no romp bein’ a pipeline for the underlyin’ forces o’ the universe, when the universe can’t make up its own mind.”

She thought on that for a moment. “Is there an English translation of what you just said?”

“I think they’d have ta invent a whole new language for this,” he told her. “It’s like, a ship’s steamin’ full at ya, right? an’ you’re gettin’ radio reports from it the whole time. Well, alla sudden it veers off at an angle, an’ there’s a different ship headin’ for ya; an’ that’s the one you’re s’posed ta be trackin’ now, only all your charts are drawn for the first ship, plus the first one is still transmittin’, not as strong now as the new one, but still enough ta throw ya an’ make ya seasick —”

She cut him off. “Ahoy, Gilligan, weigh anchor on the nautical analogies. Mostly what I’m hearing, it sounds like you can’t trust these visions of yours.”

“Nah, they’re straight true,” he insisted. “They show me the future, right enough … only, the future changed, an’ it’s takin’ me a bit ta sort it all out.” He sighed. “There was a man I was ta be workin’ with, s’posed ta be the champion, only he’s come up dead. An’ there was a woman, too, I think — real stiffener, she was — only she’s just gone now, brushed clear outta the fabric o’ reality. An’ on top of it, there’s startin’ to be fuzzy warnin’s o’ trouble from somethin’ called — get this — the Mighty Catherine an’ the Herald o’ Chaos, an’ I can’t suss out the vaguest o’ what that’s s’posed ta mean …”

“I just want a yes or no,” she interrupted. “Are your visions reliable or not? And if they are, what else can you tell me about the woman at the restaurant?”

Doyle’s expression took on a wary, almost furtive look. “What about her? She was in danger, you saved her, that’s done.”

“I saved her that time.” She pushed herself up out of the chair. “This wasn’t a random deal, with her a victim of opportunity; that thing was there specifically for her, he even mentioned demanding a better price for the job.” She looked to him grimly. “I told you already, and I meant it, you can forget about me filling in as your champion, I walk away as soon as this is over. It just isn’t over yet. She was a target, that was a contract hit, so we have to find out who’s the customer.” She glanced down at her hands (once again safely gloved), and rubbed her fingers together meaningfully. “I’m thinking the fiancé, you said her family had money —”

The unease on Doyle’s face had upscaled to active alarm. “That don’t make sense. I mean, if he was after her family’s loot, why have her whacked before a weddin’?”

“Maybe there’s a prettier sister we don’t know about,” she said. “Or maybe it’s someone else, I don’t really care. I just want to find out who … so I can make the problem vanish.”

Doyle relaxed slightly, and his smile was a shade too self-satisfied to suit her. “Sounds like the tough-as-nails professional heist artist might actually be carin’ about somebody else.”

She fixed him with hard eyes. “Don’t think it means anything,” she told him. “Once I settle this, I’m gone.”

“Then you got no worries,” Doyle said. “Boone? The big gray guy? I’m the one hired him.”

This was so far from anything she could have imagined, all she could do was gape at him, and Doyle went on matter-of-factly. “Had ta hock ever’thin’ I owned ta meet his price — not this junk here, you’d hafta pay ta have it carted off — an’ even then he only accepted for the challenge of it. If he told ya he was gonna ask for more, you can rest easy, ’cause I’m tapped.”

“You hired him?” she repeated, hearing the blankness in her voice. “Why? I don’t understand.”

He faced her with a sudden, unexpected intensity. “ ’Cause I had ta make you see,” he said. “What you were lookin’ at, there in the restaurant? that’s how it is every time. Somethin’ bad’s about ta happen ta someone who don’t deserve it, an’ you know about it, so you hafta stop it. It ain’t just power makes a champion, you also gotta have a conscience, one that won’t let ya walk away.”

She could feel the snares gathering in the air around her, like silken threads spun by some ghost spider. “I’m not a champion,” she insisted again, though even to her it sounded feeble.

He shrugged. “Sorry. Evidence says otherwise.”

She could feel herself falling, but surrender wasn’t in her, and she clutched with relief at the last open avenue of escape. “There’s no way fate wants me to work with someone like you.” He frowned at her, clearly not understanding, and she forged on. “You hired a demon to kill that poor girl, just to make a point to me. I ought to fry you on general principles; there’s no way I’d ever trust a man capable of that kind of behavior.”

He looked shocked. “I should hope not! That’d be a terrible thing ta do.” He smiled at her. “Sorry, princess, but the contract with Boone? It was on you.”

And that was it. The final piece had fallen into place, completing the fence around her, and there was no use in trying to break out of it because it was made from the components of her own soul. She looked at the man who had tracked her down and taken her captive, a disheveled street weasel with eyes of bright, piercing blue, and said, “ ‘Princess?’ ”

He gave her a grin as sheepish as it was triumphant. “Sorry. Seemed like the thing ta say. You got off easy, I coulda made some crack about ‘Electra-Woman an’ Demon-Guy’.”

Clearly that had some kind of meaning to him, but she wasn’t in the mood to ask. “Look,” she warned, “if you’re thinking this means I’ll give up crime …”

“Never crossed my mind for a moment,” he assured her cheerfully. “Lady’s gotta make a livin’ somehow. But, say, I been wonderin’: that penthouse o’ yours, does it maybe have a bar —?”

She didn’t care for mysteries. She disliked surprises. Above all, she hated change. But change had come to her, despite all her resistance … and in her deepest heart, she couldn’t find the will to be sorry.