“Laura, this is an ordinary shop. Why drug and paralyse a woman, dress her as a bride, then leave her to stand as a mannequin in the shop?”
“Get away from her!”
“Laura, this is a morgue. We’re in a morgue. That means we’re dead. That we’re walking around right now means we’re contravening the laws of nature.”
“I am Duncan Macleod of the Clan Macleod.”
“What do you mean, we can’t die?”
“All it takes is one stroke of the sword...then your head is mine.”
“When we reach our hundredth birthdays....will you leave? What about our two hundredth? When are you going to grow tired of me?”
“There can be only one!”
Pierce Brosnan "Steele Blades" special guest stars
Alexandra Vandernoot written by
“How about this one?”
Steele blinked tiredly. “I don’t think so.”
With a sigh, Laura put the dress back on the rack. “Well then, Mr. Steele, which one would you prefer?”
He smiled at her with a slight hint of devilment breaking through the fatigue. “I don’t think any of them will suit me, Miss Holt, do you?”
“That’s not what I was referring to and you know it,” she sighed, moving onto the next rack of dresses. Steele adjusted his tie, gritted his teeth, and followed her with an expression of resigned agony.
“You know, I’ve done all sorts of things before,” he said wearily, “but I’ve never done anything quite as mentally draining as shopping.”
“Mmm,” Laura said absently, rummaging amongst the clothing on display.
“I mean, it’s tortuously slow, painful, and - “
“Hold this up a second, will you?” she requested, not listening. Steele grasped the dress thrust into his hands and held it up, doing his best to ignore the snickers from theother shoppers.
“No, I don’t like it,” Laura frowned. “You can put it back, thanks.”
Hastily, Steele shoved it back into the racks. “And it damages human dignity,” he muttered, finishing his previous sentence.
“Absolutely,” Laura agreed unhesitatingly, not paying the remotest bit of attention. She selected another dress and examined it critically, then shook her head and put it back on the rack. Catching sight of Steele’s reflection in the mirror, she studied him thoughtfully. “You could do with a different blazer.”
Steele’s hands fled to his blazer in self-defence. “What’s wrong with it?”
“Doesn’t go with the tie. Change the tie or change the blazer.”
Moving past her, Steele studied himself in the mirror, adjusting his tie a little closer to his shirt collar. “Nothing wrong with this,” he said defensively, pushing his hair back from his forehead.
“You were the one who said we should look our best for
this party,” Laura retorted, picking out a black velvet dress and wondering whether she had the figure to wear it. She decided she probably did but it wasn’t worth taking the risk, and put the dress back.
“It’s not a party, it’s a gathering,” Steele said, still looking at himself in the mirror wondering if Laura was right about the tie. “A formal business meeting of a few associates and friends that Remington Steele is pleased to attend. I got the invitation through the post.”
Laura appeared in the reflection by his shoulder. “Don’t flatter yourself,” she said caustically. “It was my Remington Steele they invited, not your interpretation of the part.”
Steele chuckled. “Ah, but that’s where you’re mistaken, Miss Holt. They said I’d been recommended to them after my skilful handling of the diamond smuggling route from Acapulco to the United States.”
Laura’s eyes widened in anguish. “Again!”
“Again?” Steele queried.
“Again! Again you take all the credit!” She shoved a golden dress into his hands and made him hold it up for her perusal, as if in punishment. “I do all the hard work and you get all the rewards.”
“Laura, think of me!” Steele protested. “I have to attend all these parties, mingle with the glitterati of the city....my life is one giant public relations exercise. It never stops! All those women crawling around me, men wanting my autograph...” His mouth curved into a smile. “All those women...”
“How terrible for you,” she growled, turning and stalking away. “Anyway, who was it recommended you to these people after Acapulco?”
Steele frowned. “The invitation didn’t say. It was just insistent that we should act like normal guests and not admit our true identities.”
Laura nodded, accepting it without question. Several of their cases to date had involved rich clients anxious not to be seen using an agency like Remington Steele Investigations, so they had been forced to appear as ordinary people when discussing with their client. This looked like another similar case.
“Oh well,” she said resignedly, and picked up the black velvet dress again. “I’ve got a day to lose a couple of pounds, then I should manage this.”
“Done?” Steele asked hopefully.
“Almost.” His smile faded. “I need a pair of shoes now. This way.”
The scream startled both of them almost out of their wits, and Laura dropped the velvet dress on the floor of the store. As one, she and Steele rushed out of the women’s clothing department to where an elderly outfitter was standing with an expression of the utmost horror, staring up at a female mannequin in a bridal dress.
“What is it?” Laura demanded as she came to a stop.
The old woman extended a trembling finger towards the mannequin. “That thing...its eyes moved! It’s alive!”
“Alive?” Steele queried. “I know they make them realistic these days, but they don’t make them that realistic.”
“Mr. Steele,” Laura said quietly, stepping past him and examining the mannequin. She prodded the mannequin in one thigh; the thigh gave under her touch. Laura looked back at Steele. “This is a real woman.”
Steele blinked and surprise rushed across his face. He moved forward and looked up at the mannequin’s face. The eyes were closed now but the woman was beautiful even so, ash-blonde hair framing a face carefully hidden by a chiffony white veil. Her hands clutched a flowery bouquet and the wedding dress itself was one of the more modern ones, reaching to her knees and revealing nicely-formed legs culminating in small feet, daintily shoed.
“Why isn’t she moving?” Steele wondered aloud.
“She could be drugged.” Laura stepped up onto the stand and lifted the veil from around the woman’s face. She got the shock of her life when the eyes flicked open and stared at her. With a yelp of surprise, Laura flinched backwards and fell off the stand, caught and set back on her feet by Steele.
“Thank you, Mr. Steele,” she said, regaining her composure.
“My pleasure.” Steele looked around the shop; people were beginning to gather around them, attracted by the fuss going on around the woman. “Laura, this is an ordinary shop. Why drug and paralyse a woman, dress her as a bride, then leave her to stand as a mannequin in the shop?”
“Store, Mr. Steele,” Laura corrected absently, looking up at the woman. Her eyes were still open, darting from side to side in silent pleading. “Come on, help me. We’d better get her down.”
They climbed up on the stand and each took one side of the paralysed woman, lifting her off the stand with an effort and carefully lowering her to the floor of the shop. The elderly woman who had alerted them with her scream shivered as she saw the darting eyes and retreated back into the gathering crowd as Steele and Laura laid the woman on the floor.
“Someone call 911,” Laura directed, crouching over the woman and examining her pupils carefully. She raised her voice. “Blink if you can hear and understand me.”
The woman blinked once.
“So she’s conscious,” Steele observed. “Just paralysed.”
“Yes,” Laura nodded. She turned back to the woman. “Just lie still and try to relax. We’re taking you to hospital.”
The rough harsh voice cut through the subdued atmosphere in the store like a knife. A young woman let out a muffled scream and ran towards the back of the store as the light from outside was cut off, the men looming large in Steele and Laura’s
“Get away from her!” one of the men ordered.
“She’s paralysed!” Laura snapped. “She’s ill, she can’t - “
The snik-click of a safety catch being snapped off sounded loud in the confined area of the store. Laura and Steele stared at the barrels of several submachineguns.
“If I were you, Miss Holt, I’d step back a little,” Steele murmured, smiling beatifically at the men and raising his hands as he retreated from the paralysed bride. Laura did the same thing, watching powerlessly as two of the gun-wielders shouldered their weapons and picked up the woman, one by the shoulders and the other by the feet.
“Just stay still and nobody’ll get hurt,” the leader said. Like his companions, he wore a black sweater, black jeans, and a black balaclava over his head to obscure his identity. It had the disadvantage of making him look ridiculous, but then people like him were often more concerned with secrecy than style. He swung the submachinegun carefully round, covering the population of the store, as two of his men took the woman out into the main part of the big shopping mall. Beside him, two others were doing the same thing.
“Well done, folks,” he said chirpily as soon as the men carrying the woman were gone. “Catch you later.”
Gesturing to his attendants, he turned and ran from the store. There was a long moment of stunned silence.
“Well, we’ve got twenty-four hours until that party,” Laura said to Steele.
His face held a resigned expression. “Somehow, Miss Holt, I thought you might say that.”
“Don’t look so bothered.” She nudged him. “We needed something to do. Besides, think of all the new women who’ll ask for your autograph.”
Steele cleared his throat, adjusted his tie. “Well, I was always interested in doing my bit for truth, justice, and the American way.”
Laura grinned and sprinted out of the shop.
They tore out of the shop and chased after the kidnappers. Easily visible, since they were dressed all in black amidst a crowd of colourful shoppers, they were also easily followed by the screams as the shoppers saw the submachineguns the kidnappers were carrying. Laura and Steele ran along the wake left by the rushing kidnappers and swiftly began to gain ground; the kidnappers were restricted by being unable to move quickly with the paralysed woman. They saw Laura and Steele chasing them and picked up speed, but gradually the gap began to narrow.
The kidnappers reached the stairs and began to descend, one of them remaining at the top and cocking the submachinegun. Laura saw it first and dived behind a fruit stand, Steele following seconds later as the gunman let loose a hail of bullets on the store. Apples, bananas, oranges, pineapples, all exploded in a shower of fruit juice and fragments and chips of wood flew from the stand in all directions as the rattle of the gun echoed through the store. Screams from the surrounding shoppers grew louder and everyone threw themselves flat on the floor, mimicking Laura and Steele’s action.
The submachinegun clicked empty.
Lying behind the fruit stand, covered in wood chips and fragments of fruit, her hair sticky with fruit juice, Laura looked at Steele. “Let’s get him,” she said.
“Good idea,” Steele nodded.
They leapt to their feet and charged the gunman. He saw them coming and attempted to run but they were already on him. Laura jumped on him from behind and he fell to his knees, the gun skittering across the floor. Steele punched him on the chin and the man dropped.
Laura looked at Steele in astonishment. “Aren’t you going to complain that hurt?”
“Not at all, Miss Holt. I have a fist of steel, if you’ll excuse the pun.”
She blinked. “Fine. Let’s get those others.”
Laura ran off down the stairs. Steele winced and held his injured hand for a moment, then gritted his teeth and followed.
They reached the bottom of the stairs just in time to see the last of the gunmen step into a lift, the doors closing as Laura and Steele raced across to the stairs. Without stopping for a second they charged down them three at a time, down six flights of stairs only marginally slower than the lift.
Emerging into the mall’s underground car park, Laura and Steele found they were seconds ahead of the lift. Laura stood in front of the lift doors and waited. “Got them now,” she said in satisfaction.
Steele frowned. “Erm, Miss Holt, I don’t wish to rain on your parade, but has it occurred to you these desperados are armed with submachineguns?” He brushed a piece of pineapple out of Laura’s hair to prove his point.
“Good point, Mr. Steele,” Laura said calmly, and she ducked behind a convenient Cadillac. Steele did the same just in time as the lift doors opened and the ugly snouts of two submachineguns poked out into the carpark warily. A moment later the first two men emerged carrying the bride, and then the other two behind them looking around warily.
“If you see those two come down those stairs, shoot ’em,” the leader of the men said to his companion, who nodded and stopped at the bottom of the stairs. The remaining three crossed to a large white van, parked close to the lift, and opened the rear doors, preparing to push the woman through.
A man in a dark blue suit stepped around from the corner of the van, looking down at the woman thoughtfully. He smiled. “Perfect,” he said in an English accent, looking down with a smile. “Did everything go smoothly?”
“We lost Transom,” the leader said.
The man in the suit shrugged. “I’ll take care of him later.”
A gloved hand caressed the paralysed woman’s cheek.
“The important thing is that I have Sarah here back once more.” He took a deep breath. “All right, load her in the van. We’ll work out an antidote to the paralyzing agent later.” He looked across to the gunman guarding the stairs. “By the way, they’re behind that Cadillac over there. I saw them come down in the van’s rear-view mirror.”
Laura looked at Steele.
Steele looked at Laura.
“Get up!” the gunman snarled, submachinegun levelled. Hands in the air, Laura and Steele stood up.
“What d’you want done with them?” the leader of the kidnappers asked the man in the suit. He was staring at Laura and Steele thoughtfully, intrigued by them in some way.
“I wonder....” the man murmured. Then he changed his mind. “No, I can’t be bothered. Just shoot them. I’ll deal with them later.”
The gunman turned back and lifted the submachinegun.
“Laura,” Steele said. “I - “
“Open fire!” the leader ordered harshly.
The submachinegun roared and bullets spat out of the barrel with deadly force. Laura and Steele were hurled back against the wall of the carpark, sliding down to the floor and leaving a trail of gory red blood behind them.
Seated at her desk, Mildred didn’t look up from the papers spread across her desk. “What can I do for you?” she muttered, sorting through the agency’s tax accounts and using all her IRS-taught abilities to try and produce some kind of result that wouldn’t get them arrested for fraud. If only the boss worked at his tax returns better....
“I’m Inspector Michael Cooper.”
Mildred’s first thought was to run. Her second thought was to realise she hadn’t actually done anything wrong yet. Her third thought was “why is he here?”
“Why are you here, Inspector?” she asked, raising her head to look at the man. He was in his early thirties, wearing the traditional trenchcoat and hat, a neat if inexpensive suit beneath it. He wore a grave expression on his face.
“You are Mildred Krebs?”
She frowned. “Ye-es....”
Cooper looked sympathetic. “I’m sorry, Miss Krebs. It’s my sad duty to tell you that your employer Remington Steele and his associate Laura Holt were gunned down in a shopping centre earlier today. They were killed outright.”
Cold. She was cold.
She was very cold.
Laura opened her eyes.
She was staring up at an antiseptically clean white ceiling, and she could smell the pungent detergent someone had used to wash it with. The room was cold and silent, and she realised suddenly that she was lying on a metal slab - that was why she was starting to shiver. She was also naked under the thin sheet which was covering her up to the neck.
Laura sat up, clutching the sheet to her chest, and looked around her. There were a number of similar slabs all around, each one with a motionless sheet-covered form. The room was lit, but the doors were closed and probably locked as well.
She was in a morgue.
Laura’s eyes widened in alarm. Carefully, she got down from the slab and looked around for her everyday clothing. Something dirty grey caught her eye and she realised it was a scientist’s lab coat, slung carelessly across a benchtop with the neck dangling in a sink. Laura padded over and dropped the sheet on the floor, pulling on the lab coat instead.
A hand touched her shoulder and she spun round in alarm.
“This is not good,” Steele said thoughtfully, ignoring her startlement.
Laura sighed and relaxed just a fraction. “Don’t creep up on me like that,” she admonished him, pulling the lab coat a little tighter. Steele was still wrapped in his mortuary sheet, though around his waist only, his chest bare.
“Let’s find you some clothes,” she said, starting to look around the morgue. Steele grabbed her and pulled her back; she looked up at him quizzically. “What is it?”
He was looking very puzzled indeed. “Laura, this is a morgue. We’re in a morgue. That means we’re dead. That we’re walking around right now means we’re contravening the laws of nature.”
She shrugged. “They probably just made a mistake.”
“What’s the last thing you remember?” he queried.
Laura frowned. “Erm....we were in the car park and then....” Her voice tailed off slowly, her expression amazed.
Steele nodded. “Exactly. There aren’t many people I know of who’ve survived submachinegun blasts at point-blank range.” He looked at her in sudden alarm. “Laura, perhaps we’re ghosts!”
“Now you’re being silly,” she said scornfully, spotting another lab coat and stalking across the morgue to get it for him. “Ghosts are just figments of the imagination. They’re not real and we’re not dead.”
Steele brushed a hand across his chest. “Laura, I felt those bullets.”
“Surgery,” she suggested. “They can do wonderful things with scalpels these days.”
“Then why are we in the morgue? What did they do, decide to put us on ice while they went for a tea-break?”
Laura sighed. “Come on. First priority is to get some proper clothes. Then we get out of here, all right?”
“Sooner the better,” he murmured, but he followed her quietly enough as they walked towards the morgue exit. The doors had glass windows set into them and Laura peered through one of these. The corridor beyond was dark, silent, and happily empty.
“Come on,” she beckoned, pushing open one of the doors, which turned out to be unlocked after all, and stepping into the corridor. Steele followed and they padded barefoot along the cold linoleum of the corridor until Laura stopped suddenly, Steele almost banging into her. She turned and pointed to a door saying “EQUIPMENT STORE #223”.
“Worth a try,” she said.
Steele was just about to answer when they heard a whine and hum of lift machinery. Turning, Laura saw the doors of the lift at the far end of the corridor begin to open; she and Steele hastily dived into the storeroom and pulled the door almost shut behind them. A moment later they were peering through the tiny crack, waiting to see who it was arriving.
Two men came into view, moving slowly and carefully towards the morgue, wary as if they expected attack. The first was bulky and slightly overweight, but his heavy brooding face contained plenty of menace, the effect heightened by the thin pale scar on his left cheek. The second man was smaller and thinner than his companion, but his vulpine features lent a demonic air which made him seem just as menacing. It wasn’t their descriptions that gave Laura and Steele the clue, though. They carried black submachineguns.
“Two of our friends from the carpark,” Steele murmured in Laura’s ear. She nodded silently as the two men drew nearer.
“There it is, up ahead,” the fat one noted.
“Let’s get them,” Laura breathed.
She felt Steele nod in the darkness behind her, then threw open the door and dived on the thinner man. A moment later the sound of fisticuffs echoed in her ears as Steele charged the other one. Laura’s victim was knocked back against the wall, dropping the gun, by the force of her charge; she kneed him in the stomach and chopped him on the back of the neck with equal speed. Making small choking sounds and scrabbling at his neck, he dropped to his knees. Laura grabbed him by the neck and choked him into unconsciousness.
Steele ducked as a punch from the fat man whistled over his head and hit the hospital wall with a dull thud. Stepping inside the arm, he jabbed two fingers into the man’s eyes; he stumbled back with a howl of pain and Steele, abandoning all pretence at a fair fight, kicked him where it’d do the most good. The fat man whimpered and sank to the ground.
Standing over the two unconscious men, Laura and Steele regarded each other.
“Clothes,” they said simultaneously.
Twenty minutes later, the lift doors up from the morgue parted to reveal two sorry-looking people. The thin man’s clothes were too tight for Laura, giving her minor agonies every time she moved, while Steele was almost dwarfed by the fatter man’s clothing; he had rolled up the sleeves of the sweater but it still did him little good, because they kept falling down. The submachineguns they had left, empty, in the morgue beside the two unconscious men.
Stepping out of the lift, Laura led the way to the exit from the hospital. “The first thing we have to do is find Mildred and tell her we’re all right,” she noted over her shoulder, “and then - “
She stopped moving and speaking at the same time, and Steele bumped into her. He was about to complain when he felt it too; a buzzing, harsh-edged and somehow travelling through the air, surrounded him, giving him pins-and-needles and making his hair feel funny. Almost against his will, he turned in the same direction in which Laura was already staring.
The man in the ponytail regarded them carefully, standing at the entrance to the hospital with a very attractive blonde woman beside him. Steele and Laura stared silently at him, intrigued and worried by the effect he was having on them. For a long moment, the four people stared at one another and said nothing; then the man turned to the woman.
“Wait over there, Tessa,” he instructed. She nodded and moved away, glancing back at him a little worriedly all the same. The man moved across to Steele and Laura; he was about Steele’s height, his long hair black and his clothing fashionable without being expensive. His eyes searched their faces.
“I am Duncan Macleod,” he said, “of the Clan Macleod.”
Steele and Laura stared at him.
“Congratulations,” Laura nodded eventually.
Duncan didn’t smile. “What are your names?”
“Laura Holt. This is my boss, Remington Steele.”
“Remington Steele Investigations,” Steele added.
Duncan looked at them carefully. “I don’t want any trouble. Not here, not outside. I don’t want to fight. I’m out of the Game at the moment.”
“The Game?” Laura looked up at Steele, who shrugged, then back to Duncan. “Who even said we wanted to fight you, Mister - ah - Macleod?”
“Duncan.” He looked them over again. “Wait. I’ve heard of the two of you. You were the ones who protected the Royal Lavulite jewels.”
Steele shrugged deprecatingly. “Well, I can’t take all the credit. Some of it was due to Miss Holt here....though I did mastermind the operation.” He winced suddenly as Laura carefully and with great malice stepped on his toe.
“You’re new,” Duncan noted.
“New to what?” Laura demanded, getting annoyed.
Duncan glanced back at Tessa, still waiting with an expression of concern on her face. Then he turned back to Steele and Laura. “Not here, not now. Where do you live, Mr. Steele?” Steele told him. “Go there and wait for me. I’ll be about half an hour. Don’t let anyone else in, especially if you sense them like you did me.”
“But why - “ Laura started to ask.
“Don’t,” Duncan interrupted her. “I know you don’t know me, but this is important. Please. I’ll be half an hour.”
Steele put a hand on Laura’s shoulder, stopping her from speaking. “We’ll be there.”
Duncan nodded, turned, and walked away. Laura waited until he was out of earshot before she turned to Steele, looking up at him angrily. “Why did you do that? We could have got some answers out of him?”
“Could we?” Steele responded. “How do you
interrogate someone in the middle of a hospital, Laura?
Besides, he’s said he’ll be at the flat in half an hour. This is the first real guarantee we have of getting some answers.” He turned towards the exit. “Come on.”
They left the hospital and started down the steps towards the small group of taxis parked nearby, Laura following Steele with the occasional grimace of pain from the too-tight clothing. As they reached the bottom of the steps, they stopped again and stared around. The shiver was back, buzzing in their minds.
“Over there,” Laura said quietly, nodding to where a limousine was parked a short distance from the hospital entrance. Steele squinted, trying to see through the limousine’s open window who was inside.
The car door opened and the man in the blue suit from the underground carpark stepped out. He smiled at them from across the carpark.
“Nice to see you again,” he said, “Mr. Steele....Miss Holt.”
The sword in his hand glinted evilly.
“But why?” Tessa demanded, frustrated. “I don’t understand why you have to go and see those two people, Duncan. Is it just because they’re the same? The same as you, immortal?”
“Something like that,” Duncan nodded.
“Can’t it wait?” Tessa cast a glance in the direction of the hospital ward. “Jacques is dying. You promised to come with me.”
“I know, sweetheart, I know.” Duncan shrugged helplessly. “There’s nothing I can do. Rules are rules - I have to meet them, tell them the rules.”
“They could work it out for themselves,” Tessa muttered rebelliously.
“They don’t have to,” Duncan responded. “Not while there’s someone to help them. And they’ll need help.”
“Run!” Laura cried. She looked round and saw Steele already vanishing into the darkness. A glance back over her shoulder showed the man in the blue suit advancing, sword at the ready; Laura sprinted after Steele as fast as possible, through the grounds of the hospital.
During the day, the hospital grounds would have been pleasantly laid out, with nicely-mowed lawns and well-kept paths for weary patients to take a stroll and forget their fatigue. To Laura and Steele, it was a dark and shadowy place, filled with menace and threats in every corner. They skidded round the rear of the hospital and ran, as one, towards a group of trees that offered the only cover in this part of the gardens. Overhead, a raven watched them with evil eyes.
“D’you think we’ve lost him?” Laura demanded, leaning against a tree to get her breath back. Steele was watching the entrance to the copse warily, his eyes searching through the darkness.
“Unlikely, I’m afraid,” he responded absently.
“I was hoping you’d reassure me, Mr. Steele,” Laura retorted, pushing herself away from the tree and standing beside him. “What have we gotten ourselves into this time? A paralysed woman dressed as a bride and placed as a mannequin in a shopping mall, a madman with a sword, a mad Scotsman who thinks he knows what’s going on, and now a chase.” She sighed and clicked her heels. “There’s no place like home,” she said hopefully.
“I’m sorry to rain on your party, Dorothy,” Steele said, “but I don’t think that’s going to happen. Look.”
The entrance to the copse, faintly illuminated by the light from the windows of the hospital, darkened suddenly. The man in the blue suit smiled at them. “So here you are,” he said, his accent faintly Teutonic. “Which one first?”
“First for what?” Steele demanded.
“First to lose your head, of course,” the man said. “But then, I wouldn’t expect you to understand - you’re new, after all. So I’ll just take your heads now.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” said a new voice from behind Laura and Steele. They spun round to see a figure move out of the shadows, eyes hard.
Duncan stared at the other immortal. “These two are under my protection. You have to go through me first.”
The man considered him. “And who might you be?”
“I am Duncan Macleod, of the Clan Macleod. You?”
“Lentz, Christopher Lentz. You wouldn’t be any relation to Connor Macleod?”
“My kinsman,” Duncan nodded.
“I thought so. There aren’t many Highlanders in the Game.” Lentz hefted his sword thoughtfully. “How old are you, Duncan Macleod?”
“Old enough for it to be too much of a risk,” Lentz smiled. “I’ll come for Mr. Steele and Miss Holt some other time, then. Bye.”
“I don’t think so.” Steele and Laura’s eyes widened in surprise as Duncan unlimbered the dragon-head katana he had been carrying inside his trenchcoat and stepped forward. “Let’s find out now.”
Lentz smiled. “No, no. I never fight the experienced, Macleod; only the weak and the unready. I’ll see you sometime.”
He turned and ran, footsteps fading into the night. Duncan took a couple of steps after him, then apparently changed his mind. He turned and looked at Steele and Laura, who had stood by as silent witnesses.
“Are either of you any good with a sword?” he asked.
“What do you mean, we can’t die?” Laura repeated incredulously.
“Which part of it didn’t you understand - can’t, or die?” Duncan asked with just a hint of a grin. “I mean you’re immortal. That’s how you survived all those gunshots when Lentz had his men fire on you.”
“Then why intervene when Lentz attacked?” Steele asked. “If we’re immortal, it wouldn’t matter.”
They were sitting in the back of Duncan’s car, a 1950s Thunderbird; Tessa, his partner, had agreed to take a taxi back after she had finished visiting her friend, a Frenchman who was dying of cancer. Duncan was driving them back to Steele’s apartment, answering questions along the way.
“That’s the only way you can die,” Duncan said, answering Steele’s question. “If someone takes your head, it’s all over.”
“And how old are you, Mr. Macleod?” Laura asked.
“Duncan. I’m three hundred and ninety-three.”
“Must be hard on the birthday candles,” Steele said flippantly.
“And what’s this Game you and Lentz mentioned?” Laura pressed, ignoring Steele’s comment. “Do all of you try and chop each other’s heads off for a laugh, or is there something else?”
Duncan swung the Thunderbird around a corner. “Yes, there’s something else. Each time you take someone’s head, you receive the dead immortal’s strength and knowledge - it’s called the Quickening. When there are no more immortals left, the last of us will have the power to rule the world - or destroy it.”
“Oh marvellous,” Steele said, staring at the back of Duncan’s head. “So if there’s a sword-wielding maniac chasing me, at least I know he has a good reason.”
“Please, Mr. Steele,” Laura said tetchily. “Duncan, what else?”
“That’s the basics. I’ll tell you the rest when we get to Mr. Steele’s apartment.”
“Did you get them, sir?” the chauffeur inquired, leaping out of the driver’s seat to open the rear door of the limousine. Handing him the sword, Christopher Lentz climbed into the back.
“No, I did not,” he answered shortly. “Another of us intervened. A Duncan Macleod, kinsman to Connor. Another Highlander.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, sir.” The chauffeur seated himself at the wheel and pulled the door shut. “Where to, sir?”
“Home,” Lentz ordered, thinking hard. He picked up the cellular phone which was resting beside him and dialled a number. After a moment, the connection was made, and a slow smile appeared on Lentz’s face. “Yevgeny? I want you to dig into the files. Everything you have on a Duncan Macleod, and then Remington Steele Investigations as well.”
“Is this some kind of a joke?” Mildred demanded. Beside her, Cooper’s face reddened into near-apoplexy.
“What the hell is going on?” he demanded in turn. “Who stole Steele and Miss Holt’s bodies?”
The mortuary attendant went white. “Er, sir, I don’t - “ he began to stutter. “Sir, sir, n-n-nobody could have - “
“Could have what?” Cooper bellowed. “Are you telling me that they got up and left by themselves?!”
“Inspector,” Mildred interrupted sharply. “Inspector, it’s late and I’m tired and I haven’t done the washing yet. Unless you’ve actually got some bodies for me to identify, I refuse to believe they’re dead. Can I go now?”
Cooper opened and closed his mouth without saying anything, like a goldfish that needs feeding. Eventually, his shoulders slumped. “Yes, Miss Krebs,” he said. “Thanks for your time.”
Mildred harrumphed in irritation, turned, and left the morgue with the faintest of shivers at having had to go into that dreadful place in the first instance. Cooper turned to the mortuary attendant, an evil look on his face. “I want to know everything about this place’s security procedures,” he said. “And I mean everything.”
The attendant went even more white.
“So what do you know about Christopher Lentz?” Laura demanded.
Duncan shrugged. “Nothing.”
“Nothing?” Steele prompted.
“Nothing. I’ve never met him before.” Duncan considered the cup of coffee he was holding. “He said he only killed the weak and the unready. Probably preys on people who have just turned immortal and haven’t had the time to get a sword and learn the Rules. I know others who do that.”
“People like us,” Laura said grimly.
“So we have to learn to fight with swords?” Steele said skeptically.
Duncan shrugged. “No. You could just sit there with a big notice saying Take My Head if you wanted.” He put the coffee-cup down. “I have to go now, or Tessa will strangle me. Don’t leave the apartment unless you have to; if you sense another immortal, make sure it’s me before you open the door. Understand?”
“All right,” Laura nodded. Steele did the same thing, noticeably more reluctantly. Duncan rose and headed for the apartment door. As he put his hand on the handle, he turned. “By the way.”
Laura and Steele turned. “What?”
Duncan grinned. “Don’t lose your heads.”
He pulled the door open and left the apartment. As the door closed behind him, Laura and Steele looked at each other.
“Drink?” Steele asked. She nodded wordlessly. “Drink,” he confirmed, and crossed to where a bottle of wine was sitting unopened. A couple of wine glasses were swiftly filled and he passed one to Laura.
“Cheers,” he said.
“Yes,” she said absently, drinking the wine almost in one gulp and holding out her glass for more. Steele silently refilled it and Laura drank half of that as well before relaxing a little.
“Well,” Steele said, sitting down beside her, “this is turning out to be an unusual day.”
“Unusual?” Laura gave a short laugh. “I think you mean unique, Mr. Steele, don’t you? I’ve been shot, I’ve woken up in a mortuary, I’ve been chased by a man with a sword, and then told by another man with a sword that I can’t die. That’s pretty unique. Ouch!” she said sharply, putting her finger to her mouth.
“I’ve cut my finger.” She showed him the small drop of blood welling up from the cut.
Then it happened.
A tiny grey spark of energy danced on Laura’s finger for a moment. Steele and Laura stared at the smooth skin with no trace of the wound.
“Good grief,” Steele said slowly.
Laura raised haunted eyes to him. “Mr. Steele....I think it’s true. We are immortal.”
The doorbell cut through the silence like a knife, and they both jumped in shock and surprise. Steele leapt up and stood beside the sofa indecisively. He looked down at Laura. “It could be....”
Laura shook her head. “We’d have sensed him.”
“Yes, but - well, but - “
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, stop worrying,” she said in annoyance, and got up from the sofa. Nudging Steele aside, she crossed to the door and stared through the peephole in the centre. She turned back with worry on her face.
“Who is it?” Steele asked.
“Another immortal,” Laura said.
She grinned suddenly. “Someone who’s always around.”
She pulled open the door.
“Hiya, boss,” said Mildred.
The building was at least six storeys high, the first five taken up with a big department store right in the centre of the city. The sixth floor was closed to all but the most exalted people, because Christopher Lentz had no intention of allowing any immortal up to his private penthouse. As he had told Duncan in the copse outside the hospital, Lentz fought only the new immortals; let the older ones kill each other, he would stand on the sidelines and, when the time came, be one of the last ones.
He entered the penthouse in a bad mood, annoyed that Duncan Macleod had intervened in his killing of Steele and Miss Holt. Passing a uniformed servant without a glance, Lentz opened the big double doors into the penthouse’s main room and looked around imperiously. “Sarah?” he demanded.
The bedroom door opened. “Yes, dear.”
Her ash blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, the woman who had been paralysed in the shopping mall entered the room with her eyes suitably downcast in respect. She came as beckoned to Lentz, and he kissed her perfunctorily on the cheek before throwing himself down on the sofa.
“Did it go well, my lord?” Sarah asked.
“No, it did not,” Lentz said bad-temperedly. He looked at her with a sudden snarl on his face. “And don’t pry into my affairs!” His hand blurred and slapped her round the face; Sarah flinched with the blow but did not cry out.
“Yes, my lord,” she murmured submissively.
“Good,” Lentz said. “Are you pleased I rescued you?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Good.” Lentz said again, examining his fingernails. “It was a clever ploy, hiding you the way they did; unfortunately, they forgot to account for the fact that one of them would talk when put...well, under pressure.” He noticed his ex-wife’s slight shiver and his smile widened. “Robert talked in the end.”
“Mr. Lentz?” a nervous voice asked with a Russian accent.
Lentz looked up lazily. “Yes, Yevgeny?”
The Russian was thin and looked underfed, his clothes slightly too big for him and poorly tailored. “Mr. Lentz, I did as you asked. This is the information we have on Duncan Macleod.” He held up a sheet of paper. “And this is the information on Remington Steele Investigations...there’s something odd there.”
Lentz frowned. “What?”
“Remington Steele....we have no information for him. None.” Yevgeny blinked nervously. “I have no idea why not. Our best information-gatherers were unable to get anything.”
Lentz took the two sheets of paper, pushing Sarah aside, and examined the one on Steele and Laura. “So they were,” he mused aloud. “Intriguing.”
He crumpled the sheets and threw them back to Yevgeny. “Have the chauffeur bring the car round at six pm tomorrow,” he ordered. “I will be practicing up here all day tomorrow. I’m not to be disturbed unless it’s absolutely vital - is that understood?”
Yevgeny nodded. “Yes, Mr. Lentz.”
He hurried from the room as Lentz looked round. Sarah was still kneeling on the floor where he had pushed her. The immortal smiled. “Sarah, stand up.”
She did so, still looking down. Lentz took her chin in one hand and raised it. “Don’t look so sad,” he admonished. “We still have the rest of the night in which to play.”
Sarah smiled; but as Lentz pulled her toward the bedroom the smile faded and did not return.
Warmth on her face woke Laura up. She blinked in the morning sunshine, streaming in through the windows of Steele’s bedroom, and yawned languidly. For a moment she forgot her cares and worries, wrapped up in the warmth of the sheets, the world outside brightly-lit with the sky a clear blue.
Reality returned and she remembered.
“Rats,” Laura said aloud.
She rolled off the bed and picked up her clothes from where she had carelessly thrown them across the chair. Quickly she dressed and went into the front room, where Steele was sprawled half on and half off the couch. Laura’s eyes widened as she saw the thin metal blade resting on the coffee table. Very quietly, she picked it up and examined it; the metal, though looking smooth at a distance, was pockmarked and scratched when she looked at it closely. Although by no means a swords expert, Laura guessed that the weapon was at least two centuries old.
“Don’t play with swords, Miss Holt,” Steele said without opening his eyes.
Laura nearly dropped the sword, shocked. “Don’t do that!”
“Sorry.” Steele opened his eyes and sat up, taking the sword from her. “An eighteenth century duellist’s sword. I found it in a shoe-box on top of the wardrobe last night.”
“Sort of a shoe-box,” he amended. “Actually, it was buried beneath four pairs of shoes, a woolen scarf my great-aunt once knitted for me, a pocket-watch, six love
letters, and a mouldy packet of wine gums.”
Laura’s eyebrows rose. “Love letters?”
Steele looked embarrassed. “Well, I’d better not say her name, she’s a princess these days.”
“Oh. So why the sword?”
“Because Lentz was using one, and Macleod had one as well.” Rising, Steele took the sword from her and weighed it in his hand. “From what was said, it looks like this little beauty will be our only hope.”
“Our?” Laura queried. “I think I’ll get one for myself, thanks. I don’t fancy my chances much if I’m supposed to rely on you being around.”
“Oh?” Steele looked at her, slightly bemused. Laura saw the momentary hurt on his face. “What’s that mean, then?”
She backtracked hastily. “We’re not always together, Mr. Steele. We’re not joined at the hip or anything.”
Steele wasn’t persuaded. “That wasn’t what you meant. You were worried about me disappearing on you, weren’t you?”
Laura hesitated. “No, of course not,” she said, but her voice lacked conviction, even to her own ears.
Steele shrugged dismissively. “Well, whatever,” he said, clearly being colder than he felt. He turned away, picked up a soft downy cloth of some kind, and ran it up and down the blade, cleaning any dust which might have fallen on it whilst he was asleep. The blade glinted in the sunshine. “Still as sharp as it was when I picked it up in Russia.”
“Russia. Friend of mine, Arkady Petrovich Ivanko. Good man. We used to practice in the forest with swords sometimes, early morning or late evening.” Steele’s eyes had that curiously distant look he often had when reminiscing. “He used to call me Inostranyets.”
“Why? That’s not your real name, by any chance?” Laura said hopefully.
Steele chuckled. “Inostranyets is Russian for foreigner.”
She sighed. “It would be.”
The blade swished a little as Steele moved it through the air, the soft whistling sound somehow slightly menacing. “It’s a duelling sword,” he repeated, “used by noblemen in centuries gone by.”
“Only for duelling?” Laura queried.
“Oh, there’s no only about duelling,” Steele informed her. “Sometimes duels could be fatal.”
“Really.” Laura moved suddenly, grabbing the sword from him and holding it to his neck. “Ha! Surrender, or you will fall before me!” she declared in mock-heroic style.
Steele flinched. “Laura - “
Putting a hand on his chest, Laura shoved him so he fell back onto the sofa. The tip of the sword hovered inches from his throat. “I said yield,” she insisted mockingly.
The cold shiver struck them both instantly. A second later the thick blade of a katana hit the blade of the duelling sword with a clang, knocking it out of Laura’s hands.
Duncan looked at them unsmilingly. “Two rules. Never play with swords, and never let your guard down. This is a battle.”
“Yes, very good - “ Steele started to say, getting up. Duncan seemed to blur and suddenly the katana was at Steele’s throat.
“One stroke of the sword and your head is mine!” he hissed in Steele’s ear. “Remember how easy it is to take someone’s head, Mr. Steele. Never let it be yours...apart from anything else, death’s very unpleasant.”
“And you’d know, presumably?” Laura said, retrieving the duelling sword as Duncan released Steele. “You said you were nearly four hundred.”
“Yes,” Duncan nodded. “So you both have to listen when I tell you the Rules. In the Game, mistakes can be fatal.” He paused to think about that. “No. In the Game, mistakes are fatal.”
Christopher Lentz hesitated. Then, “Enter!”
Her eyes downcast, Sarah entered the practicing room, a large empty space with wooden floorboards. Lentz, dressed in tight clothing for freedom of movement, was sparring with a wooden figure. “My lord,” she said, “Yevgeni wants to speak to you. He says it’s urgent.”
“Urgent, is it?” Lentz growled. Reluctantly, he left his sword on a stand and crossed to Sarah. “Tell him I’ll meet him in the main room.”
She curtsied. “Yes, my lord.”
Lentz watched her leave with a sense of satisfaction. It had been a stroke of luck, finding Sarah. She was the exact image of his last love, and the exact personality as well. Lentz believed passionately in reincarnation, and Sarah was the fifth reincarnation of his lover, the mortal Annette. For a moment, the image of sixteenth-century Paris filled his mind; then he blinked the sights and sounds away. His home time was gone; now he had to look to the future.
Striding into the main room, removing his practice gloves, Lentz looked at the malnourished Russian. “Well, Yevgeni? I told you I was not to be disturbed unless it was urgent.”
“Yes, my lord, I know,” Yevgeni apologised hastily, “but this is urgent. We’ve tracked down someone who may help you with Steele and Miss Holt.”
Yevgeni consulted a notepad he had in one hand. “Yes, my lord. She works as secretary at the detective agency which they run.”
Lentz nodded slowly. “Sounds reasonable. Her name?”
Laura opened the door. “See? I told you.”
“You can’t take chances, Miss Holt,” Steele murmured from behind her, the duelling sword gripped firmly in one hand. He followed her out into the corridor, locking his room behind him.
“Don’t you think you could put the sword away for just a minute?” Laura asked, looking down the corridor. “People are going to talk, you know.”
“Well...” Steele said doubtfully.
“Look, give it here,” Laura said impatiently, taking it from him and stashing it inside her long coat, which reached to her ankles. The tip of the blade was just about concealed inside the coat. “There, happier?”
“It’ll be difficult to extract,” Steele observed.
“I’ll manage,” Laura sighed. “Come on, let’s go. Immortal or not, we have to earn a living down at the agency. It won’t be for long, Duncan said he’d turn up at the agency later.”
She marched off down the corridor, Steele following doubtfully, until they reached the lift. Once inside, Steele relaxed a little and he smiled down at her. “You know, there’s one advantage about this.”
“Oh?” Laura asked suspiciously.
“I get to be in your company for a lot longer than I thought, Miss Holt.”
To his surprise, Laura didn’t smile. Instead, she shivered a little and, as the lift doors opened, marched straight out without looking at him. Steele, frowning, followed her out and across the grey concrete floor of the carpark.
“Hey, you two!”
They turned round sharply as a youth in jeans and leather jacket sauntered across to them, grinning insolently. “Hey,” he said again, “how’s it going?”
“Just fine, thanks,” Steele said, turning to go.
“Hey, don’t do that, man,” the youth said instantly. A gun seemed to leap into his hand out of nowhere. Laura tapped Steele on the shoulder and he turned round slowly. The youth grinned at them. “Now that’s better. Why don’t we just - “
He was looking at Steele as he spoke, and Laura took her chance. Her hand flashed inside the coat and drew the duelling sword. It made a high-pitched whistling sound as it flashed through the air, and the young man yelled out as it scraped the skin on his hand, drawing blood. The gun clattered noisily to the ground.
“What the - “
“Now, now, let’s not talk to ladies like that,” Steele interrupted, scooping up the gun. “Just run along.”
“Wait a minute,” Laura said, “maybe we should - “
“Let’s not go to all the trouble,” Steele interrupted her in turn. “Just go on,” he ordered the youth. Taking his chance, he ran off.
“Why did you do that?” Laura demanded.
“Because neither you nor I want questions about swords being asked, especially by the police,” Steele replied quietly in her ear, “do we, Miss Holt?”
Laura looked down at the duelling sword. “No,” she agreed.
“Let’s go on to the agency,” Steele said.
Mildred arrived at the office early.
As she was fond of telling her errant offspring, what could be done today should never be put off until tomorrow. As a result, as she rode the elevator up the skyscraper to the agency office, Mildred was already beginning to plan her day in some detail, right down to the exact times of her lunch break. Always assuming that nothing untoward happened, of course.
She ran over the events of yesterday in one part of her mind whilst working out the final solution to Steele’s tax returns. The boss and Laura had explained to her that it was all a covert undercover operation to make their targets think they were dead, and Mildred had been given instructions to behave as if everything was normal and she didn’t know.
The lift doors opened and Mildred stepped out onto the floor, deep in thought, walking with her eyes looking at the carpet as she was pondering over these various subjects. She didn’t see the man until she walked into him.
“Sorry,” she apologised absently, and started to walk past him. The man took her arm and Mildred looked up, frowning.
“Mildred Krebs?” the man inquired. He was middle-sized, quite burly, and developing a beer gut. His eyes were grey, and they stared at her with a peculiar curiosity she found disquieting.
“That’s me,” she answered. “Office hours don’t start until nine-thirty - “
“I don’t want the office,” the man said. He looked over Mildred’s shoulder. “This is her, Yevgeni.”
“Who?” Mildred started to turn when something pricked the side of her neck. Drowsiness overwhelmed her and her knees buckled.
Yevgeni caught the older woman as she started to fall to the carpet. He handed her to his associate. “Take her down the emergency stairs,” he instructed, “and put her in the van. I’ll set up the agency office for when Steele and Miss Holt arrive.”
The associate nodded, lifted Mildred with some difficulty, and started off down the back stairs. When he was out of sight, Yevgeni turned back to the agency doors, REMINGTON STEELE INVESTIGATIONS emblazoned across the clear glass in smooth white letters. He picked the lock almost without pausing, switched off the burglar alarm, and went inside.
Laura and Steele arrived at the skyscraper ten minutes later, travelling together in Steele’s car rather than separately. Laura thought how ironic it was that they were staying closer together right now than they had been before their first deaths.
Steele swung the car into a parking space and switched off the engine. He looked sideways at Laura. “Shall we go upstairs?”
“I suppose,” Laura said absently, picking up the duelling sword and exiting the vehicle. She froze in surprise. “Mr. Steele!”
Steele leapt out of the car just in time to see Mildred being bundled into the back of a bulky white transit van. Laura looked at him, and then started across the carpark without a word. Steele followed just as the van’s engine coughed and roared into life. Laura was within six inches of the rear doors as the vehicle started to move, pulling out of its space and speeding away towards the exit.
“Mildred!” Laura called futilely as the van ascended the ramp and disappeared into the traffic.
“It’s no good,” Steele said. “She’s gone.”
From the side of the carpark, Yevgeni watched and smiled.
The lift doors opened and Laura and Steele stepped out onto the carpeted floor, looking both sides warily. Steele had taken the duelling sword back from Laura and it was now stashed under his coat as they walked towards the agency offices.
“This is ridiculous, you know,” Laura said. “We’d feel it if there was another immortal around, wouldn’t we?”
“Maybe,” Steele said. “I don’t know about you, Miss Holt, but I’m feeling decidedly insecure right at the moment.”
They reached the agency doors and went inside. All was silent, unsurprisingly; the absence of Mildred was noticeable in the way the office seemed to be quietly disused. Laura looked at Mildred’s desk sadly, missing the comfortable gossiping presence of the older woman.
“What now?” she asked.
Steele put the sword down on Mildred’s desk. “A good question, Miss Holt. A cup of tea wouldn’t go amiss right now.”
“I meant about Mildred, Mr. Steele,” Laura said reprovingly. “It’s got to be that other immortal, Lentz, who kidnapped her. We need to know more about him. Where he lives, what he does.”
Steele nodded absently as he started making the tea. “Good plan,” he agreed.
Laura sat down at Mildred’s desk and switched the computer on. “So let’s see if this machine here can help us any,” she declared, her fingers dancing rapidly over the keyboard.
“Absolutely. One sugar or two?”
Laura chuckled. “Are you listening?”
“Of course, Miss Holt,” Steele said courteously, bringing a cup of tea across and placing it in front of her. “There you are.”
“Thanks.” She took a drink and looked at him seriously. “You know, there’s one advantage of this immortality thing.”
Steele raised his eyebrows. “Oh?”
“Sure there is,” Laura nodded. “We can put some money in a bank, collect compound interest in two hundred years....money guaranteed.”
It was Steele’s turn to laugh. “Always presuming there’ll be money around, Laura.”
She shrugged. “There’ll be something. But will there be jobs for two immortal private eyes in the year 2184?”
“There’ll always be something to do,” Steele said confidently. He went across to the tea-making things and began to make himself a cup. “Besides, there’ll always be each other, won’t there?”
Laura looked at him warily. “Will there?”
He turned, looking hurt. “Laura, is this another interrogation?”
“No, of course not,” she responded. “But...when we reach our hundredth birthdays together....will you leave? What about our two hundredth? When are you going to grow tired of me?”
Steele picked up the sugar bowl and toyed with it absently. Then he looked at her sincerely. “Laura, the day I grow tired of you is the day I’ll kneel down and let you take my head.”
She smiled tiredly. “I wish I could believe that.”
“Believe it,” Steele said simply.
Laura looked at him. “Mr. Steele, you know - “
The computer screen erupted in flames with a roar, smoke curling towards the ceiling, the blast catching Laura right in the face. She was thrown back out of the chair to crash onto the floor unmoving. Steele dropped the sugar bowl and rushed over to her, feeling for a pulse. Her eyes were closed and he felt nothing; her clothes were shredded, and her skin blackened from the blast.
“Oh, Laura,” Steele said sadly. Lifting her in his arms, he took her over to the couch and laid her carefully down. Looking down at the still motionless body, Steele experienced a moment of frightening terror that the immortality thing had been a clever trick.
Then he felt something stirring inside Laura, something that echoed within his own frame. He touched her skin and withdrew hastily as a spark danced between her arm and his finger. Laura’s chest heaved suddenly and she started to breathe again, irregularly and shallowly but definitely breathing. Steele’s shoulders slumped with relief.
He looked back to where the smoking computer was beginning to die down and saw the black package resting at the base of the desk. It was on the opposite side of the desk from the agency entrance, so both he and Laura had missed it when they first entered. Crossing the office floor, Steele picked it up and opened it cautiously; he had no desire to experience the same thing as Laura.
The package contained a small guidebook for a department store, Hastings, in the centre of the city. Steele flicked through it absently, frowning; he could see no reason for it to be there. Then the last sentence on the last page caught his eye : ...and even today the owner of Hastings, Mr. Christopher Lentz, lives on the very top floor in his penthouse suite...
Steele looked at this sentence thoughtfully. Then he picked up the duelling sword and left the agency office.
“Here she is, my lord,” Yevgeni announced as he entered the main room of the penthouse. Lentz turned and a satisfied smile spread across his thin face as Mildred was brought into the room, a dazed smile on her face. She had clearly been drugged, for Yevgeni’s associate was having difficulty steering her properly.
“Excellent work, Yevgeni,” Lentz noted. Dressed in a silk kimono, he was sitting on the sofa with one arm around Sarah, who was quietly reading a magazine without looking up. “Put her in the back room, we’ll use her as a hostage.”
“Yes, my lord,” Yevgeni acknowledged, nodding to his associate.
Lentz rose. “I’m going to prepare. Steele and Miss Holt will undoubtedly be arriving shortly, in order to rescue their esteemed secretary. Have you found out anything more about Duncan Macleod?”
Yevgeni nodded. “His girlfriend’s friend died of cancer today. They’re preparing to go back home as we speak. Macleod spoke to Steele and Miss Holt earlier
and presumably told them all the Rules. He hasn’t had
time to train them, though.”
Lentz nodded. “Excellent. All right, I’m going to prepare. If Steele and Miss Holt turn up, show them in.”
“Yes, my lord,” Yevgeni nodded.
Lentz turned and walked through one of the pairs of double doors in the circular room. As the lock clicked, Yevgeni crossed to the sofa and seated himself beside Sarah. She looked at him without interest.
“Listen to me,” Yevgeni said urgently, his Russian accent gone. “I’ve been working for the Agency. We need your help again.”
Sarah’s eyes widened. “The Agency? You people are the ones who - “
Yevgeni held up a hand to stop her. “I know, I know. We needed a way to distract Lentz, he was holding up our operation. It was unorthodox, but while he was searching for you we managed to shut down his gunrunning business. That bit’s complete now, but we want to get you out permanently.”
Sarah looked sad. “That’s not possible.”
“It is if you help,” Yevgeni said persuasively. “Listen to me, Sarah. You used to be a damn good agent until Lentz got to you. We can set you free, make sure he never finds you again.”
“Why should I want to leave?” she said listlessly. “I have everything I need here.”
“You don’t,” Yevgeni scoffed. “You don’t have your freedom. And you don’t have your spirit anymore.”
Sarah looked at him, and the Russian saw a flash of anger in her eyes. “Christopher provides everything for me now, Yevgeni.”
“There. Anger. You’re not entirely crushed. Sarah, come back. It’s still not too late. We need you back with us, working for us. There are a lot of bad things happening in the world out there.”
Sarah shook her head sadly. “No, Yevgeni. You go your way without me. I’m out of the business now.”
She ached all over.
That was Laura’s first thought as she opened her eyes. She was staring at the ceiling of the agency offices, lying on the couch at the side of the office, feeling oddly sticky as if someone had covered her in glue or something. She raised a hand and touched her cheek; her fingers came away slightly blackened. Rising, Laura looked at herself in a convenient mirror and gasped. Her hair had been singed, her skin blackened, and the front of her blouse ripped to shreds.
She remembered the computer exploding.
“Must have died again,” she muttered to herself. She turned round, anger building. “Mr. Steele, where are you?”
Silence replied to her.
A splash of colour caught her eye suddenly; Laura crossed the office and picked up the guidebook for Hastings. She flicked through it absently, wondering where Steele had gone. Suddenly, she realised the duelling sword was also absent from the desk.
Before she could do anything, sensations shivered through her. Laura found it suddenly difficult to breath without concentrating; almost against her will, she turned to the entrance of the agency.
“Good morning,” said Duncan Macleod.
Laura relaxed in relief. “Come in, Mr. Macleod.”
Duncan entered. He looked at her askance. “What happened to you?”
Laura shrugged. “I died,” she said simply, indicating the exploded computer terminal.
“My sympathies.” Duncan looked around. “Where’s Steele?”
“Gone off somewhere,” Laura frowned. “Don’t ask me where, because I don’t know.”
Duncan opened his trenchcoat. “I brought some presents.”
He took two swords out from inside the coat, one older and one brand-new, both glinting sharply in the light from the office windows. Laura took the older one and looked at it, impressed; the blade was scratched and nicked as if through constant use, the grip worn by centuries of use.
“A Highlander’s sword,” Duncan said. “It belonged to a friend of mine a long time ago.”
Laura hefted it. “It’s heavy. Is it a claymore?”
“Not quite. It comes close.” Duncan put the other sword, the new one, down on the desk. “And that’s a fighting sabre. Rare.”
“Thanks,” Laura said sincerely.
“Has Lentz been around yet?” Duncan asked. “I asked a friend. He confirmed it. Lentz chooses the young, the inexperienced, those he thinks haven’t learned to fight properly yet.”
“People like me and Mr. Steele,” Laura nodded.
She looked round the office and sighed. “I wish I knew where he was,” she complained. “Our secretary’s been kidnapped, our computer destroyed, and all that’s left is this guide for some kind of department store.”
Duncan’s face hardened. “What store?”
“Hastings,” Laura shrugged. She stared at him. “Is it important?”
Duncan nodded grimly. “Oh yes, it’s important. Lentz owns and runs Hastings. Steele’s gone to find him.”
Laura’s eyes widened. She picked up the highland sword and started for the exit. Duncan put a hand on her arm. “Wait. I should - “
“No!” Laura said, too sharply. Her expression softened. “No. Thank you, Mr. Macleod, but we all have to learn sometime. Mr. Steele and I have to fight our own battles.” She looked around the agency. “Make yourself at home.”
Without looking round, she left the offices. Duncan watched her go, then sighed and left as well. He had to pick up Tessa and go to the airport. One day, he mused, he would find out if they had survived.
He fervently hoped they would.
Steele looked cautiously at the thin curly-haired man with a foreign accent of some kind. “That’s right,” he nodded. “I’m here to see Mr. Christopher Lentz.”
Yevgeni nodded. “Mr. Lentz is waiting to see you, sir. If you’d come this way, please.”
Steele followed him into the elevator and they started upwards. As they rose, Steele surreptitiously
checked the duelling sword inside his coat. He
wondered if he was going to see the sun rise the next day.
The lift stopped moving and, with a ping sound, the doors opened. Yevgeni stepped out first and courteously indicated for Steele to follow him. He did so, and they walked down a carpeted corridor until they came to a big pair of double doors, wood-panelled and expensive. The mortal pushed them open and invited Steele inside.
The room beyond was circular, as expensively-furnished as the corridor from which Steele had just come. Sitting on a chair on the opposite side of the room, Christopher Lentz smiled at him. “Welcome, Mr. Steele. What do you think of my domicile?”
“A little rococo for my taste,” Steele said lightly, “but nobody’s perfect.”
“No indeed.” Lentz rose languidly, plucking his sword from the stand beside him. “I trust you’ve at least brought a weapon of some kind? I don’t supply my opponents with their own swords.”
Steele opened his coat and took out the duelling sword. Lentz smiled at it, obviously impressed. “A good sword. I was probably there when it was made, you know. I’ve lived for over five centuries.”
“Soon to be middle-aged,” Steele responded, stepping forward as he shed his coat. Lentz took a couple of steps closer, raising the sword.
“Let’s begin,” Lentz said, darting forward. Steele parried instantly, stepping to one side, and bringing his sword round to the side. Lentz’s was already there and the blades clashed with a clang of metal and shower of sparks which dropped to the floor and vanished. Steele took a step back and Lentz advanced confidently, pressing him to respond with each cut and thrust. The room rang to the sounds of blades clashing.
Steele felt the wall behind his back as he retreated. Suddenly he ducked sideways and brought his blade round in a backhanded sweep, slashing Lentz across the shoulder. The German immortal made a growling noise and swiped absently at the blood which started to stain his shirt, then pressed home his attack. Steele was forced to stay on the defensive, parrying and dodging from Lentz’s rapid strikes. The other’s superior experience, after 500 years of fighting, was beginning to tell.
Ducking round the side of the chair, Steele turned and leapt up onto a table that was standing nearby. Lentz swiped at his legs and Steele jumped upwards, coming down with his feet on Lentz’s shoulders. The German fell and Steele ran to the opposite side of the room, breathing heavily and taking the chance to rest. Lentz got to his feet, his eyes heavy with menace.
“You’re good, for a novice,” Lentz said.
Steele nodded. “Why, thank you.”
“But that’s no match for experience,” Lentz growled, rushing forwards again. Their blades met but the momentum of Lentz’s charge carried him crashing into Steele, who fell over. He rolled quickly to his feet, just in time to avoid a sweeping slash that would have cut him in two. A quick lunge was effortlessly parried by Lentz, who returned to the attack. Steele fell back, step by step, only able to defend and not get past Lentz’s guard enough to attack. They reached the chair Lentz had been sitting on once again, and Steele retreated behind it to use it as protection.
“You can’t hide forever, Mr. Steele,” Lentz said, kicking the chair aside and slashing at him viciously.
“Who wants to live forever?” Steele responded lightly, parrying with some effort.
“You can’t joke about it. You’re weakening,” Lentz snarled, proving his point with a thrust Steele only just managed to avoid.
“You’re cheating...” Steele breathed. “You’ve had...five hundred years to practice.” He ducked as Lentz’s blade whistled past his neck, brought the duelling sword up to parry the return attack.
“So I am,” Lentz agreed impassively, and his blade smashed into Steele with such force that it was torn out of Steele’s hand. Lentz’s sword bit deep into Steele’s ribs, and pain rushed through him. Gasping, he dropped to his knees.
“Well, there we are,” Lentz said. He pulled the sword out, eliciting a groan of pain from Steele. “You fought well.”
The doors crashed open.
“Yevgeni, I said we were not to be disturbed!”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to be,” said a female voice, calm and steady but filled with strong emotion. Lentz and Steele turned towards the doors as Laura entered, wearing a clean blouse and jeans underneath a black bomber jacket. In one hand she carried the highland sword, the old but strong blade glinting steadily. Laura smiled at Lentz. “I know the rules, I won’t intervene. But if you take Mr. Steele’s head I’ll come for you straight after.”
Lentz looked down at Steele thoughtfully. “I see.”
“So you’ll have to fight me one way or the other,” Laura said steadily.
Lentz shrugged. “Very well.”
He turned away from Steele, who relaxed with a groan, and walked across the room to Laura. She looked up at him with quiet confidence and raised the sword so its blade touched his. Lentz smiled at her. “Are you ready to die, Miss Holt?”
“Not just yet,” Laura said. “But then, I’m not planning to.”
She lunged viciously and Lentz parried just in time. The air once again rang to the clash of sword blades, dancing almost faster than the eye could follow. Lentz was bigger and stronger, but Laura’s sword was superior and she had the advantage of speed and agility over him. Steadily, step by step, she drove him back towards the table in the centre of the room.
“I’m impressed, Miss Holt,” Lentz admitted, ducking round the table so it was between them, giving them both a breathing space. Hefting the highland sword warily, Laura watched him.
“I learn fast,” she smiled. “Actually, I’ve done some sword-fighting before. Here and there, you know.”
“Did Macleod help you?”
“No.” Laura advanced again. “All my own work.”
Lentz retreated from the table, and Laura leapt over it easily, returning to the attack. He parried her first thrust and lunged for her stomach, but she twisted aside and the blade bit at empty air only. Sweeping his sword aside, Laura slashed at his right arm, cutting across the nerves of the elbow. Lentz’s fingers relaxed uselessly and the sword dropped to the ground as blood poured from the wound.
“Well, well,” Laura said.
Staring at her, Lentz suddenly started for the doors. Laura turned with his movement, lifting and swinging the sword and shearing through his neck with one clean movement. The body stumbled and fell to the ground.
“Duncan did tell me one thing,” she said to the motionless form. She raised her voice until the chamber echoed. “There can be only one!”
A glow suffused the decapitated Lentz’s body and it began to crackle with grey sparks. Wind rushed through the chamber and energy began to flood out of Lentz intoLaura. She staggered with each fresh onslaught, her hair streaming in the gale, her face bathed in white light, but remained upright as the Quickening tore into her, changing her, relining her neural paths, the essence of the dead immortal racing through her nerve centres. Fire overwhelmed her senses and she was floating, floating...
The glow vanished. Laura dropped to her knees, the sword skittering noisily across the floor. Exhaustedly, Steele pulled himself to his feet and retrieved both his and her blades, crossing over to her and crouching beside her. She looked up at him shakily.
“That felt....” she started, then stopped. “It felt....”
“It’s all right,” Steele said. “It’s all right.”
Mildred looked at the exploded computer screen in horror. “How did it happen?”
“A bomb,” Laura said. She folded her arms and looked at Steele. “It was a miracle neither of us were killed, wasn’t it?
“A miracle, Miss Holt,” Steele agreed solemnly.
“Well, I don’t know,” Mildred sighed. “It’ll cost money to replace all this.”
“Money?” Steele repeated, wincing. “Oh.”
“Oh, be brave, Mr. Steele,” Laura admonished. “It’s not that bad. At least we got out of it alive.”
Steele sighed. “I suppose so. It’s just that I set up this Agency to save money and now it’s all going down the drain at once.” He winced, looked down, and then up again. “Miss Holt, you’re standing on my foot.”
Laura looked down. “Oh yes, so I am, Mr. Steele.” She smiled at him beatifically. “Sorry.”
Steele sighed again. “That’s all right. Do you think you could stop it as well?”
“Oh yes.” Laura removed her foot.
Mildred looked back at the computer again. “Well, it’s a shame though, boss. This system was unique.”
“We’ll get you two systems,” Laura promised. “I’m sure Mr. Steele will authorise the expense.”
“No - one is all right,” Mildred assured her. She waved her hand at the desk. “Look at the desk, anyway, Miss Holt. No space. There can be only one.”
Laura and Steele looked at each other and collapsed in laughter.
Light through a window.
Slim, straight sliver descending.
Reflection of death.
– Donna Kirking