Written by: Todd Jensen and Kathy Pogge
Story concept by: Todd Jensen and Kathy Pogge
Illustrations by: Noel Leas
* * * * *
Matthew Bluestone stood on the street corner, shivering. He listened carefully, taking precise notes in a small loose-leaf notebook, as he took the night watchman through his account of the jewelry store robbery again. From time to time he made encouraging noises to keep the old man talking.
Inside, where it was warm, his partner, Elisa, directed the evidence technicians. Matt spared his partner a glance, then pulled his coat closer as the old man got to the good part of his story.
"So there I was, just coming back from Walter's Dunk and Dine," - he indicated the doughnut shop across the street where a steady stream of patrons lined up for crullers and coffee - "I had my usual chocolate raised, see. I look into the store window and this guy, he's standing in the shop behind the counter, where they keep the real hoity-toity rings and such."
"Don't they lock the jewelry in the safe at the end of the day?" Matt asked, curiously.
"Oh sure. But the way the store's set up, there's more than one safe. They have one for each department, so to speak. The one for the rings is right behind the ring case. It makes it easier for the staff to keep things straight and harder on thieves; they can't get to all the merchandise with one twirl of a knob." The watchman mimicked a safecracker at work and Matt nodded.
"Can you describe the man you saw?" Matt held his pen at the ready.
"Well, you know," the watchman said, scratching the bald pate beneath his Anderson Security cap, "that's kind of hard."
"But you saw him," Matt protested, shivering against the March chill.
"I saw him." The security guard's voice rose slightly, offended at the implied dig at his powers of observation. Then his voice lowered. "I just ain't quite sure what I saw. I tell you, the class of criminals just isn't the same as when I was on the force. This guy was wearing makeup and a mask."
"Really." Matt kept his voice neutral.
"Yeah, he must have knocked over a costume store first or something. He had a mask that looked like one of those - " the old man faltered. "I gotta think about this, I saw some on a nature show once. It wasn't a tiger or a lion. What do they call the big cats that run real fast?"
Matt looked past the old man into the store where evidently Elisa had finished putting the technicians through their paces. He felt kind of sick inside. "A cheetah?"
"No, no!" The security guard stopped and thought about it. Then his face broke into a wide grin. "Yeah, that's it. A cheetah. How'd you know that?"
Elisa's face had that determined look on it that meant they were going places real soon. "I watch nature shows too," Matt replied. "So the guy wore a cheetah mask. What else?"
"His clothes were different too. He looked like he came out of an exhibit for the museum."
"How so?" Matt prompted. The wheels in his head were beginning to spin at a furious rate.
"He dressed like he should have been hanging around Cleopaetra or something. He was wearing a skirt-looking thing made out of beige cotton or linen and there were bronze bands around his neck and wrists and ankles. Thick ones."
"Yeah, he must moonlight as a magician's assistant or something when he's not knocking over jewelry stores."
"Why's that?" Elisa asked as she joined them out on the street corner.
"Because when he saw me, he disappeared," the watchman stated. "One minute he was there and the next - POOF!"
"POOF?" Elisa repeated.
"Yeah, just like that. But I surprised him in time, didn't I? He didn't get away with anything." The old watchman was clearly worried that his doughnut run was going to cost him his job.
"No, according to the inventory log, everything that was supposed to be in the safe was still there when the would-be thief disappeared." Elisa favored the security guard with a small grin. "You're in the clear, Charlie."
"Thanks, Detective Maza." He looked up at the shivering Matt. "And you too, Detective Bluestone."
Elisa handed Charlie her card; on the back of it she had written her cell phone number. "Hey," she shrugged. "Us law enforcement types have to stick together. But do me a favor, Charlie. If this guy starts nosing around again, you call me first, okay?"
The watchman, nodded. "For you, anything." He gave her a broad smile and Elisa returned it. The old man sighed. "You know, I remember when you was just a tiny thing in pigtails."
"Really." Matt's interest was sparked.
Elisa started to fidget. "Maybe another time?" she shivered.
"Oh, sure. I keep forgetting it must be colder for you kids." He pulled the zipper on his uniform coveralls slightly and revealed thermal underwear below. "I'm wearing heated long johns. They keep me nice and toasty, especially on a night like tonight."
Matt nodded his head in approval and gestured for one of the uniformed officers. "Patrolman White is going to stand the rest of your watch with you tonight, just in case our suspect decides to come back with friends."
Charlie's back stiffened; then he realized that maybe company wouldn't be such a bad idea. "Okay, son, I'll be along in a minute. Tell your daddy I said 'hello', will you, Detective Maza?" He grinned. "It makes me so darned proud to call you that."
Elisa blushed. "I will, Charlie. You take care, okay? And call me if anything else happens around here."
The two detectives retreated to the warmth of Elisa's Fairlane and headed back to the 23rd precinct.
* * * * *
"So your servant found nothing," said Madoc, frowning disappointedly at Sekhmet.
"We must have been misinformed as to the whereabouts of Andvari's Ring," said Sekhmet, shaking her head. "If it had been there, he would have certainly recovered it."
"Assuming that he would have recognized it, that is," commented Loki, lounging to one side of the great hall.
"Are you implying that my worshippers are fools?" Sekhmet said at once, turning upon the Unseelie trickster, with a low growl at the back of her throat.
"Nothing like that at all," said Loki hurriedly. "I'm just saying that if you want to get your hands on Andvari's Ring, you shouldn't be sending Egyptian werecats to go looking for it. Now if it was an old ankh of Osiris's that you were after, or the helmet of Ramses II, then that would make sense. But how can you expect anybody from the land of the Nile to recognize a ring from the Rhineland? That's my old stomping grounds, not yours."
"And you truly claim to be an expert on that ring?" the lioness-headed fay inquired mildly.
"Hey, who do you think stole it from that wretched gnome in the first place?" asked Loki. "It was one of my greatest feats ever! I could recognize that ring blindfolded!"
"Then perhaps we should dispatch you to Manhattan, that you may locate it, Laufeyson," said Madoc thoughtfully.
"Now, wait a minute," said Loki, staring at the Unseelie Lord straight on. "You want me to search a city for a gold ring that probably belongs to somebody else, steal it from that fellow, and take out anybody who tries to stop me from doing that?"
"That is precisely what I had in mind," Madoc answered.
"I'll do it!" cried the Norse trickster with considerable enthusiasm. "Finally, a little bit of fun! I haven't seen any of that around this place since the Halloween Ride!"
He snapped his fingers, and a gateway of light appeared in the middle of the hall. "Don't wait up for me," he said, as he stood at the gateway's threshold, turning back towards the dais upon which Madoc and Maeve sat enthroned. "This might take a little while. But I'll be back soon enough, you'll see! Ta-ta!" The gate shimmered and Loki disappeared.
"You are entrusting such a mission to that flighty anarchist?" Maeve asked Madoc, after a moment's silence.
"My doubts concerning his reliability are as strong as yours," Madoc replied. "But he did raise a good point. Of all the Unseelie, he alone has seen and handled Andvari's Ring. Only he will be able to recognize it at once. It is Laufeyson, or nobody."
"Are you certain that it is to be found in New York?" Maeve continued.
"All the omens point to that," he answered. "How we failed to locate it so far, I do not know. But we know now that it lies there, and we will need it. Think of it, Maeve. If even half the rumors about it are true, it will assist us greatly. That ring had power enough to destroy the kingdom of the Burgundians in the fifth century. With it in our hands, our victory will be assured."
* * * * *
"Pigtails?" Matt gave Elisa a speculative look as she threaded her way though the narrow New York streets.
"It was a long time ago. Charlie knew my father when he was just a patrolman. They partnered for a while and Charlie used to come by the house. I haven't seen him for ages. I'm glad that he wasn't hurt tonight."
"This wasn't any ordinary attempted jewel heist," Matt stated.
"No, it wasn't." Elisa agreed. "The thief was an Unseelie. I'm sure of it. But whatever our guy was looking for, he didn't find it at Clanahan's Fine Jewelry. I guess that means that he'll try again. But there's not much we can do about it until he moves."
Elisa pulled up in front of the station house and parked behind a squad car. She was out of the car almost before it had come to a stop and halfway up the stairs before Matt had unbuckled his seat belt.
"Elisa! Wait up!" Matt called after his partner. He had to jog up the stairs to continue their conversation.
"What?" she inquired impatiently as he reached her elbow.
"That's it? No 'let's set up a stakeout'? No phone call to the clan to keep an eye out?"
Elisa lowered her voice as she reached their shared desks. She booted up her computer, tapping her fingers against the desk until the machine came to life. She pulled up an incident report and started typing, then realized that Matt was waiting for an answer.
"No, Matt. Not tonight. There isn't enough to go on. It's just more baiting, courtesy of Madoc. I'm not gonna buy into it."
Matt eyed Elisa curiously. "Not enough to go on never stopped you before," he paused and crossed his arms over his chest. "What's really going on?"
Elisa stopped typing. She looked up at her partner then dipped her eyes as she spoke. "I have a date," she said softly.
"Excuse me?" Matt cupped a hand to his ear. "I don't think I heard you correctly. I could have sworn you said 'I have a date'."
Elisa keyed another sequence into the computer and started typing another form. "You heard right."
Matt smiled. All was right with the world. "You mean that you already knew that something like tonight was going to happen and that you and-" He lowered his voice. "Goliath are going hunting Unseelie, right?"
Elisa shook her head impatiently. She spoke slowly, like one might address a child or someone who was mentally deficient. "No, I have a date. A social event involving two people doing something not work related."
Elisa decided the look on Matt's face was worth it so she continued. "I don't know why. I don't really care why. Maybe it's because Broadway and Angela have finally gotten engaged. Maybe it's seeing Coldfire and Coldstone again. Maybe it's all this cold weather causing cabin fever. Goliath told me last night that tonight we were going to have some time to ourselves."
She was serious. Matt's face sunk. "I remember what that was like," he said morosely.
Elisa made a mental review of what she knew of her partner's social life. She realized with a start that he didn't have one. Until... "Wait a minute. You can't still be hung up on Sara Jasper. You two had barely made it to the coffee stage when you found out she was a Quarryman."
"So, it didn't work out quite the way I thought it would," Matt grumped. "She was a nice girl with some really weird ideas about how to fix the world's problems."
Elisa rolled her eyes. "She was your guard when Castaway had you kidnapped."
"Hey! She helped me get loose. If it wasn't for Sara we might never have broken them up. She redeemed herself, Elisa."
"Right. So why didn't you try and see her again?"
Matt didn't have an answer, he just looked sad. He must have asked himself that question a million times. After a few moments he replied. "I guess I had to think things through. By the time I did, I thought maybe I'd waited too long."
The pain etched on her partner's face made Elisa's heart ache. She tore her glance away and stared moodily across the squad room. She shook her head abruptly, not believing her eyes. Then she grinned. Standing in the doorway, attempting to nerve herself up, was a young, brown-haired woman. She seemed to have felt Elisa's gaze and her chin came up. The young woman made her way purposely towards Matt.
Elisa put the finishing touches on her report, hit the PRINT key and snagged her jacket off the back of her chair where she'd hastily discarded it earlier.
Matt, still lost in his thoughts, barely noticed.
Elisa spoke. "Looks like you're going to get that second chance, partner."
Matt looked up, confused.
"So how you been, Jasper?" Elisa didn't wait for a reply as she took long-legged strides out of the Detective's Bullpen.
Matt's head snapped upward and he stared dumbfounded. "Sara?" He cleared his throat and tried to gather his wits. Matt tried again. He rose to his feet. "Detective Jasper. Hi. What brings you here to the 23rd? I thought you were busy making a name for yourself over at the 14th." Matt realized he was babbling, so he shut his mouth abruptly.
Sara's voice was soft. Her eyes were still a deep velvet brown. The background noise faded and the room began to shrink. Matt tried to hang on to his defenses.
"Matt?" Sara repeated. "Are you all right?"
"Fine," he replied briskly. "Elisa and I were just talking about old traumas and in you walked."
Sara lowered her eyes. Her body turned toward the exit involuntarily, but she caught herself and looked Matt in the eyes. "Don't be that way, Matt. I needed to talk to you. I want to thank you for what you've been doing on my behalf, and I wanted to buy you dinner, if you'll let me."
None of what Sara was saying was making any sense. Matt didn't care. He grabbed his overcoat and the stack of reports off the printer that Elisa had completed earlier. "Let me drop these off at the Desk Sergeant's. I'll be with you in two minutes." Matt bolted out of the bullpen.
* * * * *
Lexington tried his best to ignore the comings and goings of the clan around him as he settled in at his computer workstation. He began to review his notes from his latest line of inquiry into the wetware buried in his brain. The textbook on the physiology of the brain had given him a small amount of insight, but he needed more information.
"Lexington," Broadway rumbled. "Angela and me are going to patrol for a while, then head out to a movie. Would you like to join us?"
"Maybe later, Broadway. I've got a lot of work to do here." He waved vaguely at the stacks of papers and textbooks that covered his workstation.
"Okay," the big turquoise gargoyle replied quietly, disturbed by Lexington's single-mindedness to out-research the research scientists Xanatos had hired to solve Lex's dilemma. "We'll be at the Rialto Theater."
Lexington waved a vague acknowledgement and Broadway moved off to collect Angela.
"Quiet at last," Lexington murmured with a weary sigh. He booted his computer and waited impatiently as his e-mail downloaded from the server. "Come on, State University," he muttered as he scanned the message headers. "Darn. No replies from any of the tech support dweebs," the olive green gargoyle moaned. "Why does it take them so long to respond to a simple request for information?" He scrolled through the rest of the messages without much interest, though he paused thoughtfully to read an announcement of a new Sky Destroyer tournament that was looking for competitors.
"Nice that they asked," Lex admitted to himself. He nearly missed the last message as he shifted away from the keyboard to listen to Bronx and Nudnik wrestling.
"Keep it down!" he yelled.
The gargoyle beasts were in a obedient frame of mind and they quieted immediately.
"Wait a second, what's this? Liz!" Lexington's eyes lit up as he read the message titled "Invitation" from "TheEliminator@bogus.net"
I know it's late asking, but I just found out myself. REBELCON is happening tonight and tomorrow and they had a last minute addition to the guest list. You're not gonna believe who's going to be there! The guy that programmed Sky Destroyer, Harrison Hamill! He never goes anywhere! I'm going. I thought you might want to meet me there. I'll be on the roof of the Century Plaza Hotel in Midtown at 8:00.
Lexington's eyes went wide. "Liz wants to get together with me, in public?" He looked down on the tiny indicator clock on his computer screen. It was 7:45. "I can just make it!" He hastily powered down the computer and yelled that he was leaving to whoever cared to listen.
Moments later he dove off the balcony into the crisp night air.
* * * * *
If anybody had been standing in that particular part of Central Park that night, which nobody was, they would have seen Loki appear in a burst of flame between a pair of trees, and look about him satisfied. "Ah, the Big Apple," he said. "I like what they've done with the place. Smog, street crime, heavy traffic jams, and now the worst winter of all time. All that it needs to make things complete is the ultimate trickster. And he just got here."
He sniffed the air. "Yep, that ring's somewhere on this island. Probably sitting in some boring display case in a museum, feeling lonely and miserable. I'll just take it back to the Brocken, where it can be properly appreciated."
He strolled off, sniffing the air again. "Yep, the scent's stronger in this direction. The nose always knows."
* * * * *
Cagney meowed in greeting as Elisa let herself into the apartment. She dropped her keys on the table then rapidly keyed the disarm code into the security system. The small red light blinked off and was replaced by a green one.
Elisa shed her jacket, and hung it on a peg by the door. She glanced at the answering machine. No messages. She unholstered her gun and headed across the spacious living room for the kitchen. Cagney's ears perked up.
"All right, cat. I'll see if there are some kitty treats left from the other night."
Cagney danced around his bowl impatiently as Elisa pulled a small steel box from underneath the sink, unloaded her gun and locked it up safely.
She returned the box to its resting place, then hesitated and pulled the gun case back off the shelf. She unlocked it and stared at the snub nosed 38 that she carried concealed under her clothing when she worked undercover assignments. She started to load the chamber and then stopped abruptly. "What am I doing?" she wondered as she stared at the gun. "This is a date, not a stakeout!" She stuffed the gun back in the box, and shoved the box back in its resting place. Then, going to the refrigerator, she pulled a half-filled can of cat food topped with aluminum foil out for Cagney.
"You're in luck, Cagney. Tuna and giblets." Elisa made a face as she dumped the rest of the can into the cat's bowl. She set the bowl on the floor and Cagney began to lap eagerly at the noxious stuff. "Why can't you like the kinds that don't smell so awful?" Elisa asked her pet.
The cat ignored her and Elisa used the opportunity to escape into her bedroom. She glanced at the living room clock and sighed. She would have to hurry. Goliath was going to pick her up in less then an hour. Elisa showered quickly, thankful that tonight's assignments had not involved sorting garbage or chasing thugs through pungent alleyways.
She paused to survey the new clothes that she had bought for the evening. "I hope he likes this," she muttered as she removed the long black velvet skirt from the department store bag and held it before her. "I guess it's too late to worry about it." She frowned. "Nerves, Maza?" She shook her head dismissing the butterflies that danced in her stomach. "You've got to be kidding!"
She finished dressing quickly. A long-sleeved cream turtleneck and a warmly quilted and embroidered black jacket trimmed with turquoise ribbon completed the outfit. She looked at herself in the mirror and decided that something was missing. Elisa snapped her fingers and searched through her dresser until she found a small carved box. She lifted the lid and inside was a sterling silver and turquoise necklace; the pendant was fashioned in the shape of a coyote head. She fastened the clasp and was adding a pair of silver stud earrings when there was a knock on the balcony door.
Elisa glanced up at the clock. "Right on time." She quickly stepped into a pair of knee high black leather boots and went to meet Goliath.
* * * * *
Goliath stood in the courtyard of Elisa's apartment, impervious to the March chill. He waited quietly, a large silver box tied with red ribbon cradled in one massive arm. His heart skipped a beat as the curtain drew back and Elisa peered out through the French doors. She fumbled with the latch, and a moment later, he was inside the brightly lit apartment.
"Hello, Elisa," he rumbled. He held the box out awkwardly. "I brought you a gift." He crossed his talons mentally and hoped that Fox had been correct about the choice of flowers and other details of the evening.
Elisa smiled back and accepted the box. She tugged at the soft satin ribbon and lifted the lid. Inside were a dozen perfect long stemmed red roses.
"Goliath, they're beautiful." Elisa lifted one of the roses out of the box and admired it, before setting it back amongst the others and returning the box to Goliath. "Hold these just a minute." She stood silent for a moment, thinking. "I remember, now. I'll be right back."
Elisa left Goliath holding the box as she walked out of the living room and disappeared into the hallway. There was the sound of a closet door opening and objects being shifted around.
Goliath shifted his weight impatiently and wondered if he should follow.
Elisa returned, a cardboard box in her hands. "It was a gift from my aunt. But I haven't had a chance to use it yet." She carried the box into the kitchen and indicated that Goliath should follow. Roses in hand, he did and watched as Elisa lifted the lid from the box and removed an intricately cut and very heavy crystal vase.
"It's too fancy for everyday use," she explained as she held the vase to the light. The facets in the crystal caught the lamplight and sent it dancing away. "But this is a special occasion." She filled the vase with water and then searched for a moment for her kitchen shears. Ignoring the siren call of the 38, she relieved Goliath of the roses for a second time, deftly snipping the barest end of each stem before plunging them one by one into the vase. Elisa admired her handy work. "Perfect except for one thing. Hand me that bottle of aspirin, will you?"
Goliath looked alarmed as he reached for the bottle. "Do you have a headache?"
Elisa looked up at the brawny gargoyle startled, then smiled. "No, it's not for me, it's for them. It will make the flowers last longer." She dropped a tablet into the water.
Goliath glanced at the clock and cleared his throat. Elisa looked up from the flowers, lost in her thoughts. "I believe we should be on our way."
"Of course." She looked for Cagney. The cat had retired to his favorite corner of the couch and was busy cleaning his paws. "Stay away from my roses, cat," Elisa warned.
Cagney didn't bother to reply. He continued to lick his paws.
Goliath offered Elisa his arm and he escorted her out into the walled garden. The air was still clear and cold, and Elisa shivered just a little as she allowed Goliath to sweep her into his arms and carry her off into the night.
* * * * *
"Thanks, driver you can let us off here," Sara said.
Matt looked up startled at the sound of her voice. They hadn't exchanged a dozen words since they had entered the taxi.
The driver shrugged and pulled the taxi into a curb full of dirty snow. Neon lights blinked brightly, indicating that they had arrived at Michelangelo's Ristorante. Matt's tried to keep his doubt from reflecting in his face. The restaurant, though neatly kept, had definitely seen better days.
Sara ignored Matt's skeptical look and led the way inside.
"Guiseppi!" she greeted enthusiastically as a large and heavily mustachioed man came to greet them.
"Signorina Sara!" the big man greeted just as enthusiastically. "How have you been?" Guiseppi caught sight of Matt and gave Sara a knowing smile. "You want the nice table in the back, perhaps?"
"That would be fine," Matt said briskly, wanting only to get seated and find out what was going on with Sara. His impatience coupled with the growing awkwardness of the situation was starting to get the better of him.
Sara elbowed him lightly in the ribs. "Actually, Guiseppi, could we have the table by the water fountain?"
"Of course, Signorina Sara, that was always your favorite." Guiseppi picked up a pair of menus from the hostess stand. "This way." He led them back through the cavernous restaurant and seated them next to a faux volcanic rock waterfall, lit with tiny white lights. The water hummed and gurgled merrily as it cascaded from the top of the fall then trickled through an elaborate set of canals around a series of tables and back into the main pool again.
"I'll bet this place is popular with all sorts of people," Matt muttered under his breath as he surveyed the crowd.
Sara scanned the menu before replying. "Don't look so doubtful, Matt. I learned about this place when I was a beat cop. Sure it's a little ... colorful. But Guiseppi's a sweetheart and the food is topnotch. You won't find better. Not even on Mulberry Street."
Matt sniffed the air. Basil and garlic and rich tomato sauce smells wafted from the kitchen. "Well, it smells good anyway." He picked up a breadstick and snapped it experimentally. It broke with a crisp "snick".
He popped a piece into his mouth and chewed. Sara watched him amused. It had taken a fair amount of bravado to nerve herself up enough to go see him at the 23rd. She was feeling faintly ludicrous despite her case of nerves. "It's good to see you again," she said at last, trying to break the barrier that had formed between them.
Matt nearly choked on his breadstick. "Too much rosemary," he lied, as he took a hasty sip of water. He hid behind his menu and thought furiously. Sara mistook the expression on his face.
"I'm not your enemy, Matt."
Matt looked up from his menu, dropping it abruptly. "What?" That had been the furthest thing from his thoughts.
Sara repeated slowly. "I said. I'm not your enemy, Matt. I didn't bring you here to waylay you for some bad guys or wise guys, either," she said with a nod toward a group of well-dressed minor thugs who were whooping it up at a corner table. "I just thought it was time that I thanked you properly for what you did. I wanted to ask you why you've been doing what you've been doing lately. Don't you trust me yet, Matt?"
Sara had Matt completely flummoxed. He was kept from replying when the waiter returned with antipasto. "Are you ready to order?" Guiseppi queried.
Matt took a brief look at the menu. "Bistecca alla Fiorentina and Gnocchi Verde," he paused and looked at Sara.
Sara looked impressed. "You know your way around a menu, Matt. Make it for two, Guiseppi."
"Very good, Signorina Sara." The waiter was humming "Santa Lucia" as he went to put their orders into the kitchen.
Matt watched him go. Sara wrapped a piece of procuitto around an olive and began to eat, but she was watching him steadily, her velvet brown eyes cool and expectant.
Bluestone wondered at what point he had lost control of the evening. "Sara," he began at last. "I know what I did. I didn't arrest you for being a Quarryman and I didn't turn you into Internal Affairs. But that was months ago. I haven't even been near the 14th since you transferred."
"I've noticed that too, Matt. Which makes this all that much more confusing. You won't so much as speak to me, but you send your friends around to keep an eye on me?"
His thoughts in a whirl, Matt looked across the small table, at his companion. "What are you talking about, Sara?"
Sara gave him a hard look. "Come on, Matt. Don't play dumb. I caught you this time. Why have you had me under surveillance?"
The red-haired detective set his fork down. "Sara, I'm not kidding. I don't know what you're talking about."
"I've had the feeling for quite some time that I was being watched. I couldn't ever spot anybody. I put it down to residual nerves after doing the deep cover thing with the Quarrymen," Sara took a sip of water and then continued. "But then one day, night actually, I was investigating a break-in at a stockbroker's office. I had the feeling I was being watched again. Couldn't spot anybody, couldn't shake the feeling either. I caught a break when I was leaving the office building. I saw a guy watching me as I got into my unit. He tailed me back to the precinct." Sara paused again. "I don't forget faces and I've seen this guy before, Matt. Medium height, medium build, kind of average looking with open friendly features. Tends to wear an overcoat and a cap. I only saw him once, Matt, that I'm sure of, he's that good," she admitted.
Matt gulped as Sara described Martin Hacker. "Tell me exactly when you first felt like you were being watched and what you've been working on." The excellent antipasto was forgotten.
* * * * *
Lexington couldn't ignore the persistent itch at the base of his skull. He glanced casually to his left and then to his right. "Nothing," he muttered. Demonstrating a show of high spirits that he didn't really feel, he executed a neat loop-de-loop, then caught an updraft that carried him higher above the city. Even with his enhanced vision he could see no one following him. He dove suddenly, banking sharply to his left and landed on the narrow ledge of a prominent stockbroker's office. He was breathing hard and he took a minute to collect himself. "Still nothing," he growled. "It must be nerves," he told himself. "You're all keyed up over meeting the guy that wrote Star Destroyer." His breathing slowed to normal and he relaxed a little more as he surveyed the peaceful (for Manhattan) cityscape. "I guess all of Goliath's lectures about being vigilant are starting to get to me. I'll be jumping at shadows next." He launched himself off the side of the building.
Loki glanced up briefly at the little web-winged gargoyle above, and scrutinized his shadowy form thoughtfully. He finally shook his head. "Maybe some other time," he said. "When I'm not quite so busy." He continued down the sidewalk, preoccupied with his own errand.
* * * * *
Liz scanned the skies above the Century Plaza Hotel and wondered for the millionth time if she was making a fool of herself. "I wonder if he's going to come," she muttered. "It'd serve you right if he didn't show," she added. "He's probably got a million other things to do than hang out with you."
"Actually only nine hundred thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine," a voice said from above her head. Liz jumped as Lexington dropped to the flagstones. "Hi Liz."
"Lex!" Liz put her hand to her chest and breathed dramatically. "Way to scare me to death!"
"Sorry, I didn't mean to," Lex apologized rapidly.
Liz slugged his shoulder, hard. "Next time clear your throat or something."
"I'll do that." He whirled around suddenly. "Did you hear that?"
Liz looked at him quizzically. "Hear what?"
Lex waved her to silence as he scanned the adjacent rooftops. "Nothing," he muttered. "I mean that's the second time tonight I thought I heard laughing."
Liz gave the gargoyle a long hard look. "I dunno, Lex. It sounds like a mental health issue to me."
Lexington gave her a dirty look then smiled as he realized that she was teasing him. "I only talk back to the voices sometimes," he replied. Then he changed the subject. "So what's supposed to happen here tonight?"
Liz rolled her eyes then remembered that Lexington had never been to a Science Fiction Convention. "All sorts of stuff. There are speakers and panels and reading and art shows and movie sneak peeks," Lexington's eyes were getting bigger as Liz described the convention. "There's a costume masquerade contest. Lots of people will be in all sorts of costumes, aliens, fantasy - you have to wonder about some people's ideas of fantasy," she said interrupting herself.
"But the very best part of the Con is the Dealer's Rooms. Wait until you see what goes on there!"
"What does go on there?" Lexington asked. "Dealer's" to Lexington had a rather different connotation that it did for Liz.
The teen saw Lexington's doubtful expression. "Don't worry, you'll love it."
"And no one will know what I am?" he asked wondering how much trouble he was going to get in when Goliath found out he'd been hanging out among humans.
"Doubtful." Liz remarked. "Trust me Lex, you won't stand out in this crowd." She tossed something hard and flat at Lexington and he caught it automatically.
"Put that on."
Lexington looked down at the object. It was a REBELCON badge in the name of Lex Thomas. On one end was a small metal clip. He looked at for a second and tried to hang it from his belt. The leather was too heavy and the little clip gave way. He looked helplessly at Liz. "Any suggestions?"
She clearly hadn't taken the problem into consideration. She looked at the badge and Lexington blankly for a second. Her own outfit didn't offer any great solutions, clad as she was in blue jeans and a long-sleeved Pinkzilla tee-shirt. She bent down to consider the matter further and tie her shoelace. "Wait a minute." Instead of tying the lace into a neat, neon blue bow as she intended, Liz stripped the lace from her shoe and held her hand out for the badge. Lexington surrendered it and watched as Liz clipped the tab onto the much more cooperative shoelace. "Turn around."
Lex did as he was instructed. A moment later the cold metal plastic card fell against his chest and Liz was tying the shoelace securely around his neck. "There. That should hold you." She walked back around and admired her handiwork. "Good enough for government work," Liz pronounced. "Now let's get inside. It's freezing out here!"
Lexington wasn't cold, but he was excited about the convention, so he nodded and together the pair entered REBELCON.
* * * * *
Loki looked with satisfaction at the museum. It had been closed for the night, but the banner hung over the doors still proclaimed in large red angular letters, clearly designed to imitate the style of ancient Norse runes, "SPECIAL DISPLAY: ANCIENT GERMAN ANTIQUITIES. ON LOAN FROM THE MUSEUM OF PRE-AND EARLY HISTORY IN BERLIN".
"Kind of amazing, when you stop to think about it, that Lady Sekhmet's meow-meows never even thought of looking here," he said to himself. "I mean, where else would you expect that ring to turn up? I suppose those were-kitties have brains better suited for chasing antelopes."
He strolled up casually to the doors, and tapped them lightly with one finger. There followed a few clicking sounds from inside, and then the doors swung open. Loki nodded with satisfaction. "When are those humans going to learn that it takes more than a locked door and a few burglar alarms to keep the Master Trickster out?" he asked, then strolled in with a very confident swagger.
* * * * *
"What do you see, Brooklyn?" asked Sata. Her mate was staring down at the museum, a perturbed frown on his face.
"It looks as if somebody's broken in," the red gargoyle replied, a tone of mild vexation in his voice. "Again. What is with these burglars and museums, anyway? Why can't they start robbing something else, for a little variety?"
"So, do we radio the others, dad?" asked Graeme. He and Ariana had jointed their parents on the rooftop facing opposite the museum.
Brooklyn thought it over a bit, then shook his head. "It's just one thief, and four of us," he said. "I think that we can handle it. Besides, I've got the feeling that Goliath doesn't want to be interrupted tonight. Now come on, let's go!"
The four gargoyles spread their wings and glided down towards the museum entrance, after the shadowy figure who had already entered it.
* * * * *
They landed on a rooftop. Elisa was perplexed. The rooftop belonged to a high-rise in a very high rent part of town. It appeared to be deserted. Goliath set her gently on her feet and offered her his arm.
Elisa looked up at him. Unanswered questions danced in her eyes but she remained silent as she allowed him to lead the way to a large glass atrium.
A moment later they were inside.
Elisa drew a deep breath. The air was spicy with tropical flowers and the smell of lush vegetation. "Goliath, this is magnificent!"
"I am glad that you like it."
"Who-" she cut herself off. "Never mind, I don't want to know."
"This way, please." Goliath took her hand and led her away from the doors deeper inside the building. The sound of water rushing mingled with the occasional cry of a nightbird. They walked quietly for a few moments, threading their way among potted palms and citrus trees. Orchids and spider plants hung from huge baskets and Elisa had to duck away from a particularly persistent pothos. She gasped again as they reached their destination. A candlelit table set for two waited next to a waterfall.
Elisa smiled up at Goliath as she allowed him to pull the chair away from the table and seat her. His own chair, flexed slightly under his bulk as he seated himself, then lifted the silver cover off of a tray adjacent to the table.
A sumptuous spread of alder smoked salmon, accompanied by assorted cheeses and fruits waited underneath. A basket containing thinly sliced breads was revealed when Elisa lifted a snowy linen napkin from its resting place next to a carafe of icy cold cider.
"This is perfect," Elisa said as she accepted a crystal goblet and sipped at the juice. A bird cried somewhere in the greenhouse, high and piercing. Elisa started, sloshing the contents of the goblet. "What was that?" her eyes began to search despite the dim light.
"It was a bird." Goliath joined Elisa in the search. A large red Macaw perched in a date palm. "There," he pointed. "Are you all right, my Elisa?"
"Fine," she said hastily. "Everything is fine. I guess I'm still working in cop-mode tonight," she admitted.
"I understand. In times such as these it is difficult not to be ever vigilant."
"Right." Elisa began to fumble with the bread basket as she sternly told herself to settle down. "Everything is perfect, Goliath."
The brawny gargoyle observed his love closely, trying to determine for himself the cause of her odd behavior. He could find nothing. "I'm glad you approve," he said at last as he began to serve.
* * * * *
Loki made his way through the darkened halls of the museum, a fiery glow perched upon the palm of his hand before him to light the way. "Germanic Antiquities," he said aloud, following the signposts. "Yeah, it's getting closer. I'd say that this is definitely the place."
He turned a corner, and strode confidently into the special exhibit hall. He passed a few display cases, glancing briefly at their contents. A battered chieftain's helmet, with a moustached face-guard just like the one from the Sutton Hoo burial. A golden collar, with a pair of wolves engraved upon it. A small silver statuette of an old one-eyed man, mounted upon an eight-legged horse. Loki stared at this last, and scowled at it for a moment, before proceeding on his way.
At last he halted before a single case in the center of the hall. Beneath the glass, a gold finger-ring lay, shaped like a serpent biting its own tail, upon a crimson velvet cushion. Loki peered down at the caption, and read it aloud.
"Golden ring recovered from the bottom of the Rhine near Worms, in
1994. Believed to be a representation of Jormungand, the fabled
Midgard Serpent, and has been dated to the early 5th century A.D."
He chuckled, and shook his head. "I might have known that they'd get it wrong," he said aloud. "Early 5th century, indeed! Why, old Andvari was wearing that thing on his finger while Atlantis was still in its heyday! And as for the 'Jormungand' bit - if it is supposed to be of him, it's not a very flattering likeness. If the humans get their facts this muddled, they deserve to lose this ring!"
He stepped back, then, humming a few bars of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries", pointed his finger directly at the glass cover over the ring. At his gesture, cracks began to form in the glass, and then, the entire cover shattered into a myriad of fragments. Loki snapped his fingers with glee. "Yes!" he cried. "The ultimate thief strikes again! This is easy!" He then sighed ruefully, and walked up to the case itself. "Too easy," he added. "I dunno - maybe some of the challenge has gone out of it. That's the trouble with mortals. Now, when it was stealing from the rest of the Aesir, there was some real sport to it. It took a real professional to lift Freya's necklace off her, or to give Sif a haircut that she'd never forget. It just doesn't seem to be the same nowadays."
"All right, what do you think you're doing?" asked a voice behind him.
Loki spun around at once, fingers just inches away from Andvari's Ring. "Well, well, well," he said, looking at the four gargoyles standing in the entrance to the hall, and in particular at the glowing-eyed Brooklyn. "Looks as though I'll have a bit more fun after all. And for a moment, I thought that I'd have to match wits with a few security guards instead. Mind you, if you're the people I've got to have a battle of wits with, then I've got to respect you. Takes a lot of courage to choose unarmed combat."
"Oh, perfect," said Brooklyn, recognizing his opponent. "Wasn't Halloween enough for you?"
"Hardly," said Loki. "That's the trouble with Halloween; it only comes once a year. But then, I suppose you lot would know that better than I do. It's the only time that you freaks can go around the city and be seen without people promptly calling the police. Or the Daily Tattler."
"Who do you think you're calling a freak?" Brooklyn asked, his eyes glowing again.
"Hey, talk's cheap," said Loki, scooping up the ring as he spoke, and slipping it on his finger. "You want to take me on, Beak Freak? Go ahead, then! I'm ready for you!"
* * * * *
Matt absently stuffed a piece of fresh mozzarella wrapped in a basil leaf into his mouth as the waiter returned with a large bowl of spinach dumplings topped with grated Parmesan cheese. Noting the intensity of the conversation as he approached the table, he dispensed with his usual jovial chatter and cleared the empty plates away with a minimum of fuss.
Matt and Sara barely noticed him.
* * * * *
"I tell you Luigi, I never seen two people who have it so bad for each other, and don't know it," Guiseppi commented to the cook as he dropped the dishes into the sink.
"You always say that, Guiseppi," Luigi replied. "You are the world's biggest romantic."
"I only say it because it's true," he protested. "Now give me that platter of Osco Busco before the gentlemen at table seventeen start to get unhappy."
Luigi obligingly handed over the ox tails and went back to chopping vegetables.
* * * * *
"That's quite a story, Sara," Matt began carefully as he accepted a steaming bowl of dumplings. "But I have to be honest with you. I don't have anything to do with what's going on."
Sara opened her mouth to protest and Matt raised his right palm. "I'll admit that after the business with the Quarrymen I was nervous about letting you walk. Yes, you did make up for what you had done before by getting inside and letting us know what was happening, but still-"
"You didn't trust me," Sara stated bluntly.
"No," Matt admitted. "I didn't. But don't take it personally, I don't trust anybody entirely. I did ask a buddy at the 14th to keep an eye on you for a while. I just wanted to make sure that you settled in all right. It was nothing more than that. I figured if you kept your nose clean, then fine. If you didn't the department would deal with it."
"I see." Sara said. Her voice held no malice, only resignation.
"I was surprised when you showed up at the 23rd," Matt admitted.
"Your spy didn't tell you I was coming?" Sara's voice was cool.
"Sara, please believe me. I think I know who's been keeping an eye on you. I might even know why. Or not," he amended quickly. "I'll try and see what I can find out. All I can advise is that you be careful."
"Is this person dangerous?"
"Not necessarily," Matt replied, guardedly. "Sara, whatever happens. You have to promise me. If you see him again, don't confront him."
"Just trust me on this one. Please?" Matt pleaded. He reached out and touched Sara's hand. "Don't confront this guy, whatever happens."
"Sure, Matt. If you insist." Sara carved a slice from her steak and popped it into her mouth. "You really should try some of this. It's really good."
He fumbled with his own knife and fork and followed her example. "You're right. It is good," he admitted after a moment. "Sara," he said after he had a chance to swallow. "I'm glad you came by the Precinct tonight."
Sara Jasper smiled.
* * * * *
Outside in the parking lot, Martin Hacker turned up the collar of his coat and frowned. He had shut off the engine of the rusting '64 Pontiac to keep it from interfering with the delicate surveillance equipment and it was cold inside the car. It wasn't a difficult decision to keep an eye on Sara Jasper. She had been a Quarryman. She had become involved with Matt Bluestone. Despite her transfer to another precinct, Bluestone had kept an eye on her. What interested Matthew Bluestone interested Martin Hacker. So from time to time he ran a little off the clock surveillance. He kind of hated the idea of using her to put the squeeze on Matt, she was, it seemed, a collateral player in the detective's life, but the Illuminati had plans for his former partner and they all had to play their parts.
Planting the bug on Sara Jasper had been easy. An accidental encounter with a pedestrian who bumped into the girl as she left the precinct had left a microscopic transmitter securely on her sweater. The reception had been perfect until abruptly the sound of running water had cut over the conversation. Hacker frowned as the transmitter crackled and died completely. He sighed. It seemed he wasn't going to get anything else useful tonight. "No matter," he consoled himself as he cranked the engine to life and switched the heater on full blast, "They're not going anywhere we can't follow...if we want to." Hacker pulled out of the parking lot and drove slowly away from the restaurant.
* * * * *
Brooklyn charged at Loki, who merely snapped his fingers with a shrug, and vanished. The red gargoyle managed to slow down in time to avoid colliding with the now-empty display case, and regained his balance.
"You!" he cried, turning around and facing the Norse trickster, who was now hovering several feet in the air. ""Why don't you come down and fight fair?" Brooklyn yelled even as he tried to calm down. Losing his temper wasn't going to get him anywhere and he knew it.
"Fighting fairly is much too boring," said Loki, shaking his head. "Fighting unfairly, on the other hand - I've no objections to that. So long as I'm the one who's fighting unfairly, that is."
Sata, Graeme, and Ariana joined Brooklyn in the middle of the hall.
"So how do we get him down, dad?" Ariana asked.
"You don't, kid," interrupted Loki, before Brooklyn could come up with an answer. "I like it up here. But, you lot could use a little company. And it's worth trying out this thing, anyway. Last time I had it, that buttinsky Odin wouldn't give me the chance to use it. But this time around - "
He pointed the finger on which the Ring now sat at various display cases around the hall, which began to glow with an ominous red light. Then, the glass shattered, and their contents arose, floating upwards, and changing as they did.
The helmet that Loki had noted upon entering the hall sprouted a mail-clad body, arms, and legs, with a flaming sword clenched in its right hand, and balls of dim red light shining in its eye-sockets. It alighted next to Sata, and struck at her. The female Japanese gargoyle parried its attack with her katana deftly but barely in time.
Two gold-colored wolves sprang off the chieftain's collar, and lunged at Graeme and Ariana, they dodged out of the way. They spared a glance at Brooklyn, and the twins' eyes widened. Their father was being confronted by a grim one-eyed spearman mounted on a silvery eight-legged horse. They gasped, their own foe momentary forgotten, as the rider charged toward the red gargoyle.
"You know, it almost makes it worth it, all those quips I had to put up with back in Asgard about who your horse's mother was, Odin!" Loki called, still hovering high above the floor. "You and it make the perfect team against that blasted TimeDancer! Oh, this is going to be great!"
"Tell me about it," grumbled Brooklyn, ducking as the silver statue thrust at him with his spear.
* * * * *
"I'm telling you, Lex, that the best is yet to come," Liz announced as they stood on the threshold of the Dealer's Room.
Lexington looked at her doubtfully. "How could it get any better? I've seen so much neat stuff tonight. That sneak peak of that new show from Imagiworks was so cool!" He smiled as he pulled Liz out of the way of two gamers caught up in the moment. They sped down the hotel hallway and disappeared into an elevator.
"Room party on the 4th floor!" a girl dressed as a unicorn shouted before diving in the elevator car after the pair of gamers. Several people automatically started toward the elevator.
"See," Liz said. "You never can tell what's going to happen next at one of these things." She gestured toward the door. "We can crash their party later. Right now the dealers await!" She grabbed Lexington's hand and tugged impatiently for him to follow.
Lexington didn't need any further encouragement. "Look at all the stuff!" he breathed.
"Impressive isn't it? This is one of the biggest dealer showcases in all the conventions in the Northeast. Everybody comes here. And some of them, if you talk real nice, give away freebies!" Liz gave Lex a conspiratorial look. "I'll tell you what. Let me show you how it's done. Then, we'll split up. Whoever gets the most toys wins."
Lexington sized up the room then turned his gaze to Liz. "Competitive, aren't you?"
"You make it sound like that's a bad thing," Liz replied as she began to plan her strategy.
Lexington accepted her challenge. "You're on. Just you watch me work." He darted off towards a row of video game manufacturers.
"Amateur," Liz called after him good-naturedly as she began to prowl the opposite side of the hall.
* * * * *
"Tiramisu?" Guiseppi inquired as he cleared way the remains of Matt and Sara's dinner.
"I will," Sara replied promptly. "Matt?"
"None for me," Matt replied. "I'll just watch you eat."
Sara looked at him unconvinced. "Better bring two spoons, Guiseppi."
"Of course, Signorina Sara," the waiter replied jovially.
"Why do I get the feeling that guy knows something I don't?" Matt growled as the waiter stopped and took an order at a table just barely out of earshot.
Sara followed Matt's gaze and smiled fondly at the waiter. "Guiseppi's harmless, Matt." She frowned at her dinner companion. "You really do need to work on this paranoia issue you've got going."
Matt's scowled softened slightly as he returned his attention to Sara. "I'm not paranoid, Sara. Nothing is what it seems, no matter how innocent. The trick is figuring out the relative level of danger behind each mask."
"I see," Sara replied. Her voice turned cool.
Matt realized he had stuck his foot in it again.
"How dangerous am I, Matt?"
The question hung in the air as Guiseppi returned with Sara's dessert.
* * * * *
Back in the museum, the desperate struggle was still in progress. Graeme took another step backward and nearly tripped over Ariana. The slavering wolves were advancing steadily. "Graeme," Ariana whispered. "Don't let them corner us!"
Graeme snuck a look over his shoulder. Ariana was right. If the wolves continued to press forward, they would literally find themselves wedged between two walls.
"Break and roll!" Ariana cried.
Without thinking Graeme leapt in the air and rolled to the side. The wolves were momentarily stunned as Ariana leapt from the opposite direction, her bo-stick flying. The wolves howled their dismay. Oblivious to their pain, they whirled and began to chase the children again.
Sata struck out with all her might at the spectral warrior with her katana, crying aloud in ancient Japanese. The helmeted figure stepped back two paces, then steadied itself, and raised its sword countering her attack.
Brooklyn, leapt onto the back of the silver horse. He grappled with the rider. "Come on you! Get off the horse!"
The rider ignored his pleas and Brooklyn found himself locked in a deadly embrace as the silent horseman turned and began to squeeze the brawny gargoyle. The room began to dance Brooklyn struggled to breathe.
"Well, I can guess how it's gonna end," said Loki. "Maybe I'd better just scoot off and head back for the Brocken. Himself'll be wondering what I've been up to. And I know that he doesn't care much for delays."
The twins had managed to climb up the side of the wall, still holding the wolves at bay, when Ariana spotted Loki making his way towards one of the skylights. "He's getting away, dad!" she shouted. "You've got to do something!"
Brooklyn broke the grip of the silent horseman and drew a ragged breath. "Um, could you pick somebody who doesn't have his hands full, Ariana?" Brooklyn gasped. The living Odin-statuette took advantage of his momentary distraction and pinned the gargoyle's arms tightly to his sides. "In case you haven't noticed, I'm kind of busy."
"Looks like it's up to us, then," said Ariana. Looking sharply at Loki, she took a moment to judge the distance and angle between them, then hurled her bo-stick at him. It struck the trickster neatly in the back. Loki cried out in pain and astonishment, and then plummeted downwards, his concentration clearly broken by the blow. He landed with a crash on the helmeted warrior, toppling it as he did so. Sata nimbly jumped out of the way just in time.
Loki picked himself up and turned to glare at the children. "Well, of all the dirty, low-down, sneaky little...." he began, then broke off. "And look who's calling somebody else those names," he added. "I've got more than half a mind to turn you both into weasels for this."
He raised one hand, but Sata was instantly on him, her katana hovering inches away from his throat. "Harm either of my children, trickster," she said, in a low, clear voice, her eyes glowing red, "and it will be the last thing that you ever do."
"Hey, lighten up, sister," said Loki hurriedly, stepping backwards. "I didn't actually say that I was going to, just that - " But before he could say anything more, the wolves and the horseman turned and made their way hurriedly towards him, the Odinic figure discarding Brooklyn casually along the way. The wolves sprang at him, and knocked him flat on his back, both growling.
"Hey, knock it off, you two!" Loki shouted at the animals. "You're supposed to be going after the kids, not me! What's gotten into you, anyway?"
The helmeted warrior arose from his confused heap, and stood over Loki, raising his sword to strike. The Norse trickster stared up at him, and swallowed hard. "Now, listen," he began, "we don't have to do this, you know. We're both reasonable people - well, using the term 'people' for you is a bit of a stretch, I know, but let's not get into that just now - and surely we can work something out."
Brooklyn and his family hurriedly assembled around the trickster and his suddenly rebellious minions. "What's happened to them, dad?" asked Graeme. "Why're they suddenly going after Loki and not us?"
"Your guess is as good as mine," said Brooklyn. "Personally, I'm not inclined to get too worked up about it."
"Sorry if this sounds like a cliched villain's outburst," Loki continued to his new opponents, struggling to get away from them, "but I created you! Well, I was drawing on the power of Andvari's Ring to do it, but I still created you! You can't do this to me! You can't - ". He suddenly broke off, as an alarmed expression appeared on his face. "The Ring," he groaned. "I should have known. And I thought that its curse only worked on mortals. Andvari must have put a lot more venom in his words than I thought. All it took was one little distraction, and I lose control over any magic that I used the Ring for. Hoisted by my own petard!"
He frantically slipped the ring off his finger, and threw it at the gargoyles. "Take it, you lot!" he shouted at them. "Then you can be the ones who have to put up with it! As for me, I'm getting out of here!"
Even as he tore the ring off, his assailants changed and dwindled. Before the astonished eyes of the four gargoyles, they transformed back into the ancient Germanic artifacts that they had originally been, and lay still upon the floor. Loki hurriedly took advantage of the momentary distraction to float up towards the skylight again. "Later!" he shouted, opening the window and scooting out into the night air.
"You three take this thing back to the castle," said Brooklyn, turning to Sata and the twins and indicating the ring lying on the floor. "Owen will probably know what to do with it. As for me, I'm going after Loki. We've got a little score to settle."
As Sata cautiously picked up the ring, Brooklyn climbed up the sides of the walls to the roof, and clambered up through the now-open skylight to pursue the departed trickster.
* * * * *
Elisa dipped her spoon into her crème brulee and scooped up the last of the delicate custard. "This was wonderful, Goliath. I don't know how you managed to arrange all of this, but I'm glad you did."
The brawny gargoyle looked pleased. "The evening is just beginning, Elisa. If you are finished with your desert, I have someplace else to escort you."
Elisa rose from the table. "You never fail to amaze me, Goliath. Lead the way."
Moments later Elisa found herself snuggled once again against Goliath's massive chest. Normally she looked forward to this particular mode of transportation, but even as she reclined against Goliath her eyes scanned the darkened skies, searching for whatever was sending her cop sense thrumming in the pit of her stomach. She realized that despite what she had told Matt earlier she felt guilty for not investigating deeper into the attempted Unseelie jewel theft. "Just drop it," she told herself sternly. She glanced up, but Goliath had missed her self-lecture.
Still, he felt the tension in her body and looked down at her with a worried gaze. "Are you all right, Elisa?" The concern in his voice was clear. "It's not too cold for you to be gliding, is it?"
Elisa shook her head and then responded, raising her voice against the wind. "I'm fine, Goliath. I just thought I saw something," she improvised.
Goliath tensed and scanned the area beneath them. "I see nothing unusual."
Elisa placed a hand against his cheek. "My mistake." She looked out into the night and tried to appreciate the fact that it wasn't snowing for a change. "It's a perfect night for a glide. I wouldn't travel any other way."
* * * * *
"No need to tell their High and Mightinesses the whole story," Loki was saying, as he scooted through the sky over Manhattan. "What they don't know won't hurt 'em - or me, either. I'll just say that I found out that the curse on the Ring was a lot more powerful than we'd thought, and that it wouldn't do us any good. They don't have to know about the gargoyles, or about the hired help's revolt. Yes, it's that simple, really."
"Going somewhere, Loki?" Brooklyn asked, landing on the rooftop in front of him, his eyes glowing white.
"Well, well, well," said Loki, halting with a sudden screech in thin air (if thin air could make a screech). "Look what the grasshopper dragged in! You really do seem to pop up in the most unexpected places, TimeDancer! Though I suppose that you're used to it, by now."
"You're not leaving this city," said Brooklyn. "You've done enough damage, Loki. It ends now."
"Sorry, Brook," Loki replied, conjuring up a portal in the air. "Not in the mood tonight. Maybe some other time, but right now, I'm overdue back home, and they'll be wondering what's held me up." He stepped into the portal, and as he did so, a wine glass appeared in his hand. "Here's mud in your eye!" he cried, raising it. The next moment, a torrent of mud shot out of nowhere, pelting an astonished Brooklyn thoroughly. By the time that he had recovered, Loki was gone.
He sighed. "Looks like tonight's gonna be a bath night after all," he said, and glided back towards the castle.
* * * * *
Goliath began to spiral downward over the theater district. And a few moments later Elisa found herself on another rooftop. This one had a large locking door that evidently led to a maintenance area above the stage.
"A play?" she asked surprised.
"I thought you might enjoy this one," Goliath explained. "It's a play about a police investigation."
"Yes. It is the story of a detective and how he goes about investigating a crime," Goliath explained as he produced a key from his belt pouch and unlocked the maintenance door. He opened it, switched on the lights and led the way down a narrow flight of steps.
"Maybe I can pick up a few tips," Elisa remarked. There was an odd, frustrated tone in her voice.
"Is anything the matter, Elisa?"
She realized despite her strict instructions to herself to forget the strange events of the jewelry story robbery, she was wool gathering about the case. "Sorry, no. I'm just a little frustrated with criminals these days. We'd better hurry."
They emerged in the back of the theater, high above the rest of the audience. A steamer trunk was covered with a heavy blanket and a pair of opera glasses rested on top of a small speaker system. Goliath flipped a switch and the sound of the orchestra tuning up flowed about them effortlessly.
"I don't want to know how you set this up either do I?" Elisa asked as she settled herself on the trunk, unbuttoning her jacket. She realized abruptly that she wasn't wearing her shoulder holster and it bothered her.
"If you prefer not to know, I shall keep the details to myself," Goliath agreed. "Are you comfortable?"
Elisa nodded her head, ignoring her still thrumming cop sense as the curtain rose and the house lights dimmed. "I'm just fine," she said as she struggled to relax. She smiled up at Goliath.
Goliath returned her smile, but the smile turned into a frown of worry, as soon as Elisa fixed her attention on the stage.
* * * * *
Matt thought furiously as he contemplated his way out of the verbal minefield. "I did think you were dangerous for a while," he admitted.
"I'm not so sure." Matt gulped. "I've missed you too, Sara. I kicked myself more then once for not trying to mend fences with you earlier."
"Friends?" Sara asked tentatively.
Matt nodded. "Sure. We all need friends. Even a paranoid like me." They raised their water glasses and toasted.
Guiseppi, who was watching from the kitchen smiled paternally. "See. Luigi, I told you. All they needed was the right atmosphere."
The chef didn't reply.
"What you say, Guiseppi?" the cook came out of the small store room that doubled as the office.
"Where did you go? Ah nevermind. I said all love needs is the right atmosphere, and a little of my tiramisu."
The chef just shook his head and sighed. The cell phone he had dropped hastily in his apron pocket rattled against a vegetable peeler. "I tell you, Guiseppi, you are an incurable romantic."
* * * * *
Lexington sighed contentedly as he hefted his canvas goody bag. He watched in awe as Liz caged a hardcover copy of what was sure to be the next bestseller away from a publisher's representative who's job it was to give out bumper stickers and buttons and nothing more. He had to admit, she was good.
He bowed in mock defeat as she approached. "I am humbled before your greatness," Lexington began. "I tried to get a book out of that guy and all I got was this." He held up a garishly colored button with the book's slogan "Run while you still can" and a bumper sticker out of his bag.
"Don't feel too bad, Lex," Liz consoled. "It takes years of practice. I'll let you borrow the book when I'm done with it."
"So are you glad you came?" Liz asked shyly.
"Are you kidding?" Lex asked incredulously. "I've had a great time. Where else would I get to see a never produced pilot by the producer of my favorite TV show and get to meet the hottest video game programmer anywhere in the same night?"
Liz looked at her watch. "Too bad I have a curfew. There's supposed to be an awesome party on the 20th floor."
Lexington's face sunk. "That's too bad, but you're right, I should be getting back too. My clan, they worry. " He looked up suddenly. "Did you say the 20th floor? I heard something about that earlier. It's supposed to be haunted."
"Yeah, cool, huh." Liz picked up her own overflowing tote and shrugged. "There's always next year."
"You mean this is an annual event?" Lex asked. "They'll do this again?"
Liz laughed and held the door open to the fire stairs they climbed slowly to the rooftop. "Sure. Honestly, Lex you need to get out more, see the city."
"I've seen the city," the gargoyle protested.
"Yeah, but somehow you managed to miss most of the good stuff." Liz looked at the gargoyle thoughtfully. "You need a guide. And you know I think I know just the person for the job."
"Really?" Lex said wondering what he was letting himself in for. "And who might that be?"
Liz looked at her gargoyle friend with mock sympathy. "Why me. Who else? Oh the places I've been and the things that I've seen. Trust me, Lexington. You're gonna have the time of your life!" She looked down at her watch again and paled slightly. "Uh, that is if I'm not grounded from now to eternity." Liz turned and began to bolt down the stairs. "See you on the 'net, Lex."
A moment later the girl was gone and Lex was alone. He opened the service door onto the roof and gazed up at the moonless sky. He moved to the edge of the building and perched watching the traffic flow in a steady stream passed the hotel. As he zoomed in on the entranceway, a young blonde girl in the company of her parents got into a taxi and drove off into the night.
"Thanks, Liz. I had a great time." Lexington dove off the building and headed for home.
* * * * *
They had made it as far as the second act of the play. Goliath was worried. Elisa had feigned interest in the mystery unfolding before them, but he could tell that her thoughts were elsewhere. "Perhaps we should go," he suggested.
"No!" Elisa protested, too loudly. Then she drug herself away from wherever inside her head she had been all evening and responded, "Well if you don't mind, Goliath. It's not that it's not a good play, I'm just-" She didn't complete the thought, just allowed herself to be escorted up the stairs and out into the chill of the evening and into Goliath's arms.
They glided in silence. Elisa's body was taut. "Maybe we should swing by the precinct," she suggested.
Goliath looked down at her startled. "Why, Elisa?"
"Forget I said that!" Elisa shook her head and pressed a hand to her temple. "Just- just take me home."
"As you wish, Elisa."
They glided the short distance in silence. Elisa scanned the skies and Goliath without realizing it began to do the same. In the distance he saw Sata leading her children back towards the castle. He pointed them out to Elisa. "You see? The clan is patrolling normally. Everything is all right."
"I know," she replied, too softly for Goliath to hear. "That's the problem."
* * * * *
A little while later, Brooklyn returned to the castle. Once he was sure that his family had sustained no serious injury, he sought out Owen. The major-domo had dropped the book he was reading with aclarity and joined the gargoyles in their private quarters. He studied the ring for some moments before speaking to the Brooklyns.
"I'd say that this is Andvari's Ring," he said, in his usual matter-of-fact tone. "Better known as the Ring of the Nibelung, though Wagner's opera cycle never struck me as being all that accurate. It's a magical artifact on the same scale as the Grimorum Arcanorum and the Eye of Odin, at least."
"Loki almost creamed us with it," said Brooklyn. "But then the things that he made with it turned on him. I still don't understand why."
"I do," said Owen. "Andvari, the gnome who created it, placed a curse upon it when Loki stole it from him, several thousand years ago. The Ring would bring disaster and defeat to whoever wore or used it, and that was what it did. Every one of its owners came to a bad end, until it was lost in the Rhine fifteen centuries ago. Apparently even the fay are not immune to such an effect, considering that the Ring appears to have backfired upon Loki."
"So what do we do with it?" asked Sata.
"Destroy it," said Owen. "If we keep it, the Ring would eventually fulfill Andvari's curse upon us, just as surely as it did upon everyone else. And if we throw it into the river, as its last owner did, somebody will probably recover it. No, destroying it is the only way to end its trouble."
"Well, that shouldn't be too difficult," said Brooklyn. He took the Ring back from Owen, threw it up in the air, and shot at it with his laser rifle. The particle beam struck the Ring dead on, almost immediately immolating it. "And that's that," said the crimson gargoyle, with an audible sigh of relief.
"Maybe," said Owen dubiously. "But the Unseelie are growing bolder. This attempted theft is proof enough of this. Before long, they may do worse things, and I do not know if we will be able to counter them as effectively as we have done here."
* * * * *
Elisa wrestled out of Goliath's arms and fumbled with the lock of the sliding glass door as soon as they touched ground. She hurriedly ushered Goliath inside and latched the door. Breathing a deep sigh of relief, she pressed herself against the cool glass and closed her eyes.
Goliath couldn't stand it any longer. He raced to her side. "Elisa, you must tell me! What is the matter!"
Elisa opened her eyes and blinked. She looked at Goliath as if she was just noticing his presence. "If I tell you, you have to promise me that you won't laugh at me."
"Elisa!" Goliath said fervently. "I swear it. Please, please tell me now. What is wrong?"
Elisa took Goliath by the hand and led him to the sofa in front of the fireplace. She thumbed the auto-light switch on the remote control. A moment later the gas jets sprung to life and the illusion of a merry wood fire began to burn brightly. She pulled Goliath close and only then did she begin to speak. "Earlier tonight, Matt and I investigated a break-in at a jewelry store. The perp was an Unseelie, probably a were-cheetah in one of the intermediate stages. The guard at the store said it stood on two legs but had the head and coloration of a cheetah. I knew there wasn't anything we could do about it. I told Matt as much, but it bugged me all the same."
"Our inability to trace the Unseelie has been most frustrating," Goliath agreed.
"Don't I know it. Anyway, we had our date planned for tonight." Elisa looked up at Goliath and placed deliberate emphasis on each word. "Goliath, have we ever had a really special evening to ourselves that didn't end up with us either chasing or being chased through the city? Either it's thugs with guns or some sort of monster. Either way, sometimes it seems like we're cursed."
"You assumed on some level that tonight would be no different," Goliath surmised.
Elisa nodded, "I guess on some level I did. All evening long I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I couldn't believe we made it all the way through dinner and managed to glide across town without something happening. We were in a theater full of people. What happened the last time we tried to see a play?"
"Macbeth and Gruoch," Goliath rumbled.
"Exactly. Magic and ghosts. Given what had happened this evening, I figured the monsters weren't too far behind. Can you ever forgive me?"
Goliath smiled, but relief mingled with misgiving on his craggy features. "The waiting game the Unseelie are playing taxes us all. Given our past history I understand how you might draw such a conclusion, though I cannot admit to sharing your pessimism. I believe it is possible for us to spend a social evening without mishap."
"How?" Elisa asked sincerely. She snuggled closer in Goliath's arms, the tension ebbing away at last.
"I will make a solemn vow to you."
Elisa's eyes widened. "A vow?"
"Elisa, I promise when next I take you out we shall have one small calamity-" Elisa began to smile. "early in the evening, so that the rest of the night will be ours."
Elisa laughed, unable to contain her mirth at Goliath's heartfelt, but outlandish suggestion. "It's a deal," she said between chuckles.
Goliath joined her laughter, his booming voice mingling with her more dulcet tones.
After a moment the tension had evaporated at last and Elisa smiled. "You know," she said as she ran her fingers through Goliath's ebony hair, "it's still early. We have plenty of evening left."
Goliath shifted slightly and wrapped his arms around his love's more delicate form. "True, and it would seem that we have had our crisis."
"So tell me, big guy. How do you propose we spend the rest of our evening? Monopoly? Old movies?"
Goliath silenced Elisa's suggestions with one of his own. He kissed her.
"That works too," she whispered, content at last.
* * * * *