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Puzzle Pieces

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Introductory Note: The Police Inspector in this story is a character from the HL:TS episode "Prodigal Son"; I'm giving her the actress's first name. The police are, of course, speaking (and thinking in) French. Imagine my text as a rough English equivalent.

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Part 1:

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Paris, December 24, 1999.

Joe Dawson had his hand on the receiver when the phone rang.

He flinched and pulled the hand back. Let it ring. He'll think I've already left.

But what if he tries again and gets a busy signal?

He grabbed the phone on the third ring. "Dawson."

"Hi, Joe, it's me again." Duncan MacLeod's good cheer seemed forced. "Thought I'd offer once more."

"Thanks, Mac, but no. Like I said, Brent's flight to Rome is about the same time as mine to New York, so he's gonna pick me up."

MacLeod persisted. "If I took you both, he wouldn't have to leave his car at the airport. And I could at least hold an umbrella while you guys wrestle with luggage."

"I appreciate your wanting to help, Mac," Joe said regretfully, "but it wouldn't work. We won't be on the same flight, so we'll have to discuss Watcher business in the car. With you there, Brent wouldn't open his mouth."

"Don't they accept that you and I are friends now? Anything I'd hear, you'd probably tell me anyway. They have to know I'm not a headhunter."

Joe sighed. "They know that, yeah, but they're still in awe of you. Believe me, seeing you in person would strike most Watchers speechless."

"Okay then, I won't keep you. But I think it's lousy they're sending you on a trip right at Christmas. This Brent guy, too."

Joe grunted. "That's what we get for not being married. Singles always get the shaft. But I probably won't be gone more than two or three days."

"That's good. Merry Christmas, Joe."

"Merry Christmas, Mac."

"Oh, and tell Brent to drive carefully, even if the mess is only rain. Visibility's bad. I hope your flights won't be delayed..."

"I'm sure they won't be held up long. See you soon, Mac. Merry Christmas."

Joe hung up, and stood with his hand on the phone for five minutes.

Forgive me, Mac.

Then he called for a cab to take him to the airport. Where he'd catch a flight going not to New York, but to London.

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Paris Police Inspector Valerie Bardot cursed under her breath as she slogged through a sea of mud. Cold rain pelted down on her - more of it than necessary, because the rookie assigned to hold her umbrella couldn't keep up.

Christmas Eve, she thought bitterly. Christmas Frigging Eve. Why the hell did I ever want to be a cop?

She'd had her reasons, and they'd made sense at the time. It was hard for a woman to be taken seriously when she was stuck with a surname made famous - or infamous - by a cinema sexpot. When she herself was a natural blonde, more beautiful than the actress on her best day, it was well-nigh impossible.

Wearing a uniform, carrying a nightstick and later a gun, had helped.

Proving her ability had helped even more. But when she drew crappy assignments like this, she still wondered whether she was a victim of discrimination - because of her sex, her looks, or the speed with which she'd risen through the ranks.

There'd damn well better be something here that warrants having a Homicide Inspector give up her plans for Christmas Eve.

Her boyfriend was working that night. She sometimes told him, only half in jest, that his vocation was as necessary to Parisians' well-being as her own. So the "plans" had involved nothing more than curling up in front of her fireplace with her cat, drinking mulled cider and admiring her holiday decorations. But that sure beat trekking out to this godforsaken slum to investigate a hole in the ground.

A possible hole in the ground.

Then the rookie caught up with her and said breathlessly, "Can you imagine people living in that dump? Gives me the creeps."

For the first time, Bardot braved the rain in her face and looked up at the half-ruined structure looming over them. The grandstand of the abandoned racetrack.

She'd forgotten it was a homeless man, one of dozens sheltering in the old building, who'd found the grave. Or something that looked like a grave. A grisly enough find, whatever it turned out to be, to justify calling the police.

People living in there. At Christmas.

She thought of her fireplace, her decorations, her cat.

"My God," she muttered.

But then she pulled herself together and grabbed the umbrella, which hadn't been protecting either of them. "Come on," she said brusquely. "Let's get this over with and get out of here."

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Joe huddled miserably in his seat on the plane, watching rain beat down on the tarmac. He knew takeoff wouldn't be delayed long by non-frozen precipitation, heavy though it was. But his mood would have been black in any case, and the foul weather had plunged him even deeper into depression.

I lied to Mac.

After the Horton screw-up, I vowed I'd never lie to him again.

Horton, Joe's brother-in-law, had been the leader of the renegade Watchers who murdered Darius. Joe had let MacLeod believe he was dead, before he actually was. And the consequences could have been disastrous.

I never did lie to him again...

Not until now.

He'd told MacLeod the Watchers were sending him on an assignment over Christmas. In fact, he'd chosen that time for his trip because he knew they wouldn't disturb him then, wouldn't even realize he'd left Paris.

And he'd lied about his destination so Mac wouldn't guess - now or later - whom he was going to see.

I'm leaving him alone at Christmas, when I know he needs a friend.

On top of that, I lied to him. If I succeed in this mission he'll be hurt, badly. Like a sneak, I'll tell him I'm sorry, and he'll never know I was to blame.

Of course, MacLeod might only be hurt temporarily.

This is the one way I can do something that has to be done.

Was that true? Was there really no other way?

Did it have to be done, or was he deluding himself...because of the effect his plan might have on Mac?

He peered out the window; rain and gloom prevented his seeing even the aircraft's wing.

For the first time in his life, his own motives were no clearer to him than that murky view.

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A dozen cops stared down into the newly opened grave.

Bardot spoke for all of them. "Shit."

Officer Bertrand - who earned half what she did, and had been called away from a wife and kids - said, "I'd like to bury the tipster who got us out here." He cast a baleful look in the direction of the grandstand - though he couldn't actually see it, due to the canopy that had been erected over the putative crime scene.

"Forensics needs to take a closer look at this," the Inspector pronounced. "There's no need for the rest of us to hang around."

But as she was turning to go, something prompted her to look down again.

Almost at her feet, she saw something small, light in color, that had been uncovered by one of their shovels.

Something that was about to blow away.

It should have been picked up by a tech wearing latex gloves, but there was no time for formalities. Bardot snagged it herself, just beating a gust of wind.

She wasn't sure why she'd bothered with the damp, dirty thing.

"Evidence," she said sourly. "Evidence of what, God only knows."

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Part 2:

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London, December 25.

Nick Wolfe woke to the sensation of something tickling his nose. He responded with a giggle - which seemed appropriate, even though he couldn't quite remember where he was.

He opened one eye experimentally, and identified the nose-tickler as a sprig of mistletoe, wielded by a luscious blonde who was lying half on top of him. With a rich chuckle, Janet Ross repositioned the mistletoe atop her head. "Merry Christmas, Nick," she purred.

He managed to say, "I must've been a good boy this year," before her tongue pushed into his mouth. Then they forgot words and began diligently "unwrapping" each other.

He recalled now that he was visiting Janet in London. And they'd shared a spectacularly lusty Christmas Eve, uncomplicated by expectations of deathless love on either side. Just what he wanted at this point in his life...

Just what he didn't want, as he was about to claim his willing "Christmas present," was a barrage of pounding on the door.

Janet rolled away from him and sat up, muttering an oath. "Damn building's supposed to have intercom entry. But people just let go of the front door, and the lock doesn't catch. Then anyone can wander in."

"You're sure it's not one of your neighbors?" Nick wanted desperately to believe the caller would drop off a fruitcake and be on his or her way. Preferably her way.

"Making that amount of noise, at - what, 7:00 a.m.?" Janet shook her curly head. "Some drunk, more likely." She looked both irritated and scared.

Nick's very real annoyance, on the other hand, was tempered by relief that the trouble-maker wasn't Immortal.

He decided that even though the apartment was his lover's, he should assume the responsibility of dealing with the intruder. Unless... He cupped her face between his hands and asked gently, "You aren't uncomfortable about people seeing me here, are you?"

"Not in the slightest!"

"Then I'll take care of it." He scrambled out of bed, pulled on his robe, and headed for the door. "Coming," he growled. "Keep it down, will you?"

The knocking stopped at once.

That didn't suggest a drunk; for the first time, it occurred to him that the caller might want to warn them of some emergency. Ye gods, could the building be on fire?

With that thought in mind, he opened the door more politely than he'd intended, keeping his expression neutral.

Until he saw the bleary-eyed, bedraggled man in the corridor.

"Joe Dawson? What the hell -" Then his anger gave way to fear. "My God. Has something happened to Mac?"

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Joe's eyes widened. "No, Nick! Nothing like that. Sorry I scared you." Shifting uneasily, he said in a low voice, "I sneaked in here while it was still dark, so your Watcher wouldn't spot me. And I'd like to get inside the apartment, for the same reason."

"You're hiding from him?" Nick shook his head in bewilderment as he motioned the older man inside. "This I gotta hear."

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Janet come into the living room; she too had donned a robe. She'd probably heard just enough to realize Nick was acquainted with their caller.

So he fought down his curiosity and made polite introductions. "Janet, this is a friend of mine from Paris - a fellow American, Joe Dawson. He runs a great blues bar, plays a mean guitar himself. Joe, Janet Ross. She's the sister of the private eye who was murdered by that crook Evan Peyton last spring, remember?" He knew Joe could be trusted to act on the assumption - correct, in this case - that his girlfriend knew nothing about Immortals.

Janet mumbled something about any friend of Nick's being welcome, but he knew her heart wasn't in it.

"I'm really sorry to disturb you, Ms. Ross," Joe said earnestly. "But I need to discuss something important with Nick, in person, and today's my only chance. Commitments in Paris, y'know?" His eyes and voice made it clear the discussion had to be private.

To Nick's relief, Janet handled the situation with good grace. She told them she'd be adjourning to the kitchen for coffee, and both men were welcome to join her for breakfast when they were ready. Then she left them alone, carefully closing the kitchen door behind her.

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"So what's this about?" Nick asked, when he and Joe were settled in comfortable chairs. He looked pointedly at Janet's Christmas tree. "Hell, why did you leave Mac alone now?"

Joe winced. "I'm sorry about the timing. I wanted to talk with you face to face. And this was the only way I could manage it without his knowing. Or the Watchers."

"C'mon then, I'm dying of suspense."

"All right." Joe leaned forward and said seriously, "I want to hire you, Nick. To do something very sensitive."

Nick had begun shaking his head before the other man stopped speaking. "Sorry, Joe. I'm not for hire - have too much on my plate, studying for my law degree. I'm only here till after New Year's, then getting right back to Harvard. But you couldn't do better than Bert Myers -"

"Uh-uh. Myers won't do, not for this job." Joe took a deep breath, then said, "I'll make it worth your while. Very worth your while."

"I don't think you understand," Nick said evenly. "Money can't tempt me. Mac's willing to lend me all I need while I finish my studies. And I'd be letting him down if I slacked off."

"I'm not talking about money." Joe locked eyes with the young Immortal. "I'm prepared to give you what I think you want most in the world. Freedom from the Watchers, forever."

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Nick heard himself gasp.

When he'd recovered from the shock, he asked carefully, "Just how would you do that?"

He didn't doubt it could be done. He'd toyed briefly with the idea of finding a way to blackmail Joe into pledging that very thing. And he'd worked out exactly how the Watchers could be called off.

Could Joe Dawson possibly be Machiavellian enough to have come up with the same plan?

Joe said, slowly and distinctly, "I'd tell them it was all a mistake. You're not an Immortal."

Nick smiled. Will wonders never cease?

"How could you make them believe that, Joe? Two Watchers saw Amanda shoot me, and saw me come back to life."

The older man's gaze never wavered. "Wrong. They saw her shoot someone, and saw someone come back to life.

"By the very nature of the job, Watchers do their spying from a distance. And the light wasn't good in that warehouse - or on the street at night, when Peyton threw that poison-gas canister at you.

"I'll tell them I've discovered you were actually out of town at the time. The man Peyton poisoned was a night bartender from Sanctuary, who fit your general description - and happened to be a pre-Immortal. Naturally, Amanda kept him with her after that, so they'd be together if she got her hands on the antidote...or if she decided the best solution was to make him Immortal. Her Watcher thought the man with her was you because he was seeing what he expected to see."

Nick was still smiling. Didn't think you had it in you. "And what became of the bartender?"

"Amanda sent him away, to a male teacher. Hey, I've even invented a name for this new Immortal! Completely fictitious, of course. The Watchers trust me - they won't be able to find him, but they'll never question his existence."

Nick decided to play Devil's advocate. "My Watcher knows I've taken up swordfighting."

"So what? It's no secret you're a friend of Amanda's. Or were," Joe amended hastily, in response to some change in Nick's expression.

Hell. Am I that easy to read?

"They're aware you met Duncan MacLeod through her," Joe continued, "and know all about Immortals. It's understandable you'd develop an interest in the sword. All that matters is that no one's seen you fight an Immortal. Let alone receive a Quickening."

Nick sank back in his chair. His smile had given way to a frown as he absorbed the full import of what he was hearing.

It was one thing for him to come up with a scheme like that, quite another for Dawson. Joe was violating an oath, betraying an organization that had been the center of his life for thirty years.

Based on what Nick had seen of the Watchers, he was risking his life.

And there was no doubt he was in deadly earnest.

I can't deny I'm tempted. Maybe it wouldn't take long...

But what must he expect me to do, for a reward like that? Sell my soul?

"I'm not promising anything," he said cautiously, "but I do want to hear the whole proposition. What's the job? I won't consider killing anyone."

"Nothing like that. I want you to look for...uh, a missing person. A missing Immortal, actually, that two Watchers thought they sighted recently -"

"What?" Nick was on his feet again. "You'll give me my freedom if I'll rat on another Immortal who's trying to dodge you? You can go straight to hell!"

He was surprised by his own vehemence. Even now, most of the Immortals he'd met were criminals. He guessed that even most non-criminals would jump at a chance to take his head in their stupid Game.

And yet, incredibly, he thought of them as "his people."

On another level, he realized, he was actually miffed that Joe thought it more important to keep track of this "missing" Immortal than to keep track of him.

"Hear me out, will you?" Joe's voice was surprisingly mild.

"Sending one Immortal to look for another wouldn't work, anyway. He'd sense me -"

"Listen!"

Nick subsided, but he was still grumbling as he perched on the edge of his chair.

"This isn't a normal situation of an Immortal trying to avoid the Watchers," Joe said quietly. "I don't know what it is. But...two of our guys think they saw Richie Ryan."

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Nick was glad he was sitting.

He needed a full minute to collect his thoughts. At last he whispered, "Richie...Ryan? But Mac's sure he killed him. You saw the body. Saw the head, d-didn't you?"

"Yes. I even -" Joe's voice broke suddenly, and he looked down at his clasped hands. His eyes were moist when they met Nick's again. "I laid that head in the coffin."

Nick choked. "Then you certainly know he's dead."

"Do I? Can any of us know anything, when we're dealing with Ahriman? The millennium isn't over, won't be for more than a year."

Nick had no answer for that. He shared the older man's conviction that the new millennium would be rung in with the year 2001, not 2000.

"One Watcher thought he spotted Richie in Mozambique, the other in South Africa. They may simply have been wrong. The man they saw had long hair and a beard, so they couldn't be sure. But they both saw a resemblance. And the two sightings were close enough together to suggest it was the same man - if it was a man at all."

"If...?" Nick shuddered.

"Like I said, with Ahriman, we can't be sure of anything. It is possible he tricked Mac into thinking he'd killed Richie. The body I had buried was solid enough, but even so, it may have been an illusion. Who knows, it may have disappeared after the burial - I obviously can't have the grave opened to find out.

"What I can't understand, though, is why a living Richie would be hiding from us. From Mac."

Nick nodded soberly. "So...it may be an honest mistake. Two honest mistakes. It may be Richie, on the lam for some unknown reason. Or it may be Ahriman, playing a cruel game with us."

"Yeah, that about covers it."

After a long silence, Nick said, "I suppose you told the two Watchers they were mistaken?"

"Right. I couldn't get them involved with something this dangerous. You already knew about Ahriman. And frankly, with your police background, you're a damn sight better at tracking and surveillance than the average Watcher."

Yes, I know about Ahriman, Nick thought. And just as important, Mac isn't aware I know. This is what I get for hacking into secret files.

Aloud, he mused, "If I risk letting this mystery man sense me, I'll also have a chance to sense him. Did Mac ever tell you whether Ahriman-posing-as-Richie had the same sense-signature as a normal Immortal?"

"Yes. He did. And also when he took the form of Kronos."

"So if I can sense him, it won't prove whether he's Richie or a demon. But if I can't, it will mean he's mortal, and it's just a coincidental resemblance. A Watcher couldn't even be sure of that."

"You sound as if you're going to do it," Joe said softly.

Nick moaned. "How can I not do it? I'd give anything to find that kid alive, for Mac's sake.

"But we obviously can't tell Mac anything about this. And the places I'll have to go - Mozambique, South Africa!" He rumpled his hair in frustration. "His respect means a lot to me. My God, he thinks so highly of me that he's followed my example, sworn off killing Immortals! And he'll be so disillusioned if I quit law school now, with no explanation..."

Joe cleared his throat uncomfortably. "You're the one person I can turn to. I trust Methos - you know who he is, right? - but Richie's his grandson, so this situation is almost as painful for him as for Mac. I don't want to get his hopes up."

Nick sighed deeply. "No, of course not. Looks like I'm your man." He got to his feet and glanced at the kitchen door. "Janet will be getting antsy. Let's have breakfast with her, and then you can fill me in on the details."

Joe also rose, looking more troubled than relieved. "I'm sorry about ruining your Christmas, Nick. Sorry about putting you in danger, about...everything."

"Hey, if Richie is alive, you've given me the best Christmas present I've ever had." Nick paused. "One thing I want to get straight, Joe. I'll be doing this for Mac. No pay, no inducements. I'd just like a little expense money, because I mean to return every dollar of his."

Since accepting Mac's generosity (more than he'd hoped for, when he'd requested the loan), he'd received an unexpected inheritance from another source; but he'd donated every dollar of that to worthwhile charities.

Joe swallowed hard. "You've got it. But I don't want a Watcher trying to follow you. So I am going to convince them you're not Immortal."

Nick planted himself in front of the other man and forced him to meet his eyes. "That's fine," he said solemnly. "Just so you know I'm not demanding it as my price."

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Paris, December 27.

"I don't think that number will ever be a hit, Joe."

Joe looked up from his guitar-strumming, and managed a weak grin for Le Blues Bar's late-night bartender. Jean-Louis had been enduring the discord - a reflection of his employer's mood - for the last two hours.

"Well, you gotta admit it cleared the place out at closing time." The few patrons had practically fled.

Jean-Louis grunted and continued his sweeping.

"You should've headed for home an hour ago," Joe reminded him. "Go on, I'll close up."

The young Frenchman looked dubious, and Joe realized he was worried about him. He'd be even more concerned if he knew I'd flown in from London, dropped my bags off at home, and come straight here.

"I'm okay," he said kindly. "Fit to drive, when I decide to leave. I've been nursing one drink for an hour."

"All right then." There was still a hint of reluctance in Jean-Louis's voice. "Soon as I finish sweeping."

Joe resumed plucking the guitar strings.

He didn't want to go home. To face the necessity of checking his phone and e-mail messages, and learning whether one had already been left by a sorrowful Duncan MacLeod. The Highlander wouldn't connect Joe with Nick Wolfe's sudden change of plans, but his first impulse would be to confide in a friend.

A friend who felt like Judas Iscariot.

God, what have I done? I know how attached Mac has become to Nick...a surrogate for Richie, though he'd never admit it even to himself.

At best, I've sent the man on a wild-goose chase that may claim a year or more of his life. End his career hopes. Wreck their friendship.

At worst, I may have signed his death warrant.

Nick's refusal to accept payment intensified the pangs of guilt. He hadn't anticipated that degree of devotion to MacLeod.

I'm not sure of my motives, even now. Not sure there's a need to check out those reports. After all, why would Richie be "on the lam"?

How can I live with this?

How can I face Mac?

He would, of course.

He was, after all, a Watcher. Schooled in deceit, he reminded himself, with a fierce final riff on his guitar.

As he laid it aside, he saw Jean-Louis wince.

But the younger man had finished his chores, and couldn't invent another excuse for staying. He shed his apron and began gathering up his belongings. "Want to read the paper, Joe? Uh, by now it's yesterday morning's news. But there is an interesting article. Remember my telling you I've been dating a cop? She got a really weird case Christmas Eve."

Joe considered it. He hadn't been in town when that news was fresh, and he had no problem with reading French. But in the end he said, "Nah," and went behind the bar to pour himself another Scotch.

Jean-Louis tossed the paper in the recycling bin as he left.

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So Joe never saw the odd little story titled "Strange Find Near Old Racetrack":

Police are at a loss to explain the apparent "grave" a homeless man discovered near the abandoned racetrack on Christmas Eve. The area of topsoil that had an unusual appearance conformed in size and shape to a grave, and was marked by an inlaid cross formed of small stones. When it was opened, experts verified that there had indeed been a crudely dug excavation - shallow, but adequate for the burial of a six-foot adult. The digging probably took place two to five years ago.

The real mystery: the "grave" contained no body, no clothing fragments, nothing to indicate there had ever been an actual burial. All it did contain was a scrap of note-paper, with a few scrawled lines written in pencil, in English. A French translation follows.

Joe undoubtedly would have been less interested in that French translation than in the accompanying photograph. It was a closeup of the dirty, wrinkled note - in a hand he would have known anywhere, scrawl notwithstanding. It read:

In loving memory of my friend, my teacher, the only father I ever knew.

May he, and God, forgive me.

I can never forgive myself.

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The End