When the Bough Breaks - Part 1

Written and Illustrated by: Christi Smith Hayden

Story Concept by: Christi Smith Hayden and Kathy Pogge

 

Previously on Gargoyles...

Angela: "Not in the way you want, Richard, but I will always love you as my friend."

Richard: "Not the old 'you'll always be my friend' speech!" (paces) "Do you know how many girls I've heard that from? And now you!" (stops and looks at Angela) "You know, being the nice guy all the time really sucks!" (glares away angrily at Broadway) "And I suppose that's what I lost out to! This is one for the books!"

~ Turncoat ~

* * * * *

George: "I'm Jayce. Jayce Roberts. Can I buy you a drink?"

Quinn: "Yeah," (grins) "And you can call me Quinn."

 

George: "Well, Ms. O'Connor, at this moment I imagine a certain Ms. Quinn Ramsey is waking up right now in her apartment, wondering where the handsome stranger she met over the weekend has gone. After she wakes up a little more, she'll probably be wondering where her security pass has gone." (tosses security badge and magnetic card pass on the desk) "She's a lovely and talented young lady but quite a security risk."

 

Richard: "That's my brother in there and I'm going to talk some sense into him if it kills me."

 

George: "Look at me! I'm not human any more." His forehead wrinkled and an edge of panic crept into his voice. "And I don't know if they can change me back."

Richard: "What do you mean, not human?"

George: "I don't know exactly! Just a feeling I have. I'm stronger, faster, better in a lot of ways but I keep changing." (worried look) "I'm not sure who I really am anymore."

Richard: "You're my brother, and no matter what happens, that's the one thing I'm always sure of." (hooks his little finger through his brother's.) "I love you, George. Nothing will ever change that. I promise."

 

George: "No, you don't understand. Humans don't heal like this. They don't have pointy ears and they don't see energy beams." (slams his hands down on the table) "What am I?"

Maddox: "I should think that would be obvious. You're no longer merely human. You're better."

George: "I want out of this deal! Change me back! Now!"

Maddox: "Believe me, Mr. Harrison, we have larger plans in sight than the extermination of a few gargoyles. You are just the first of many who will help us fulfill those plans. You are one of us now, and you cannot leave us."

~ Consequences ~

* * * * *

When The Bough Breaks - Part 1

 * * * * *

March 18, 1998 - New Haven, Connecticut

The kitchen was warm with the scent of cinnamon and apples. Richard Harrison sat in the breakfast nook and stared out at the backyard while his mother puttered about. There was nothing Ellie Harrison liked better than when one of her boys was home. Richard knew perfectly well that normally on her nurseís work schedule, his mother cooked as little as possible, living out of the microwave, but the minute he crossed over her doorstep, Ellie turned into the happy homemaker. He always left her house stuffed to the gills and staggering under a pile of baked goods.

The backyard looked smaller than when he was a boy. It was admittedly neater than when he and George had the run of the place. The carefully cultivated flowerbeds and manicured lawns were hidden under the snow but the treehouse was in plain view in the bare branches of the old maple. Richard remembered the summer he and George had built it. Georgeís friends had given him a hard time over it, saying that treehouses were kid stuff, but he ignored them and devoted a solid week to helping Richard build it. Richard leaned forward with his chin in his hand and let the memories drift through his mind.

A cup of hot chocolate appeared at his elbow. "I got a letter from George last week," Ellie said brightly as she sat down at the table. "He got sent to Europe on a sales trip and he sent me some postcards from Germany." She showed one to Richard, a dark gothic-looking castle rising out of a forest with craggy mountains in the background. "Isnít it wonderful how well George is doing after all that fuss with that Castaway person?"

"Yeah, Mom," Richard replied brightly. "Thatís just terrific." His cheerfulness was only skin deep, however. There was no possible way that he or George could ever tell their mother the truth Ė that after the downfall of the Quarrymen, George had chose to undergo a genetic experiment to make him a warrior capable of going one-on-one with a gargoyle. Ultimately, it had cost George the one thing he had prized above all else Ė his humanity. He had been so distraught by that discovery that he had actually sent Richard a gun with the instructions to kill him.

That act still had Richard rattled. It had been over a year since he had last seen his brother and he was dreading their next encounter. He had no doubts that George meant every word.

His mother chattered on. "George had me box up all his Curious George stuff and ship it to him. He found an on-line group of collectors to trade with. Can you imagine?"

"Sounds fun," Richard responded absently. A cardinal landed on one of the smaller branches near the tree house and he watched as the snow plopped to the ground.

"Richard?" Ellie laid her hand on his arm. "Want to talk about it? You and George arenít fighting again, are you?"

"Oh, no, Mom." Richard shook his head. "Nothing like that. Weíve both been so busy lately that we havenít talked in ages."

"Promise me that youíll make time," Ellie said pointedly. "Brothers should never be strangers."

"Okay, Mom. Sure." Richard managed a wan smile and changed the subject.

The remainder of the visit passed in a blur of apple pie and well-meaning mommyisms that Richard good-heartedly endured until he was on the train, waving good-bye to Ellie outside on the platform. The train lurched and the smile dropped from his face. His mother was right about one thing. Heíd been keeping the secret about George to himself for too long; it was starting to affect other aspects of his life too. He really, truly needed to talk to someone about it.

Richard leaned against the window frame and stared at the winter landscape racing by. They passed by a park with an outdoor ice rink where people were skating with varying degrees of expertise. A dark-haired girl slipped and her partner caught her before she had a chance to fall to the hard ice. They smiled at each other and Richard found himself smiling too.

"Why I didnít I think of her before?" he said as he settled back in his seat. "Sheíd understand, I know she would." Richard sighed and shut his eyes, letting the smooth rhythm of the rails drift him into a light afternoon snooze.

* * * * *

Somewhere in Long Island

The rattle of keys in the door lock sent echoes ricocheting off the paneled walls of the hallway. Anton Sevarius shook the snow off and stepped into the townhouse he kept in a quiet and unassuming neighborhood, far from his current employerís sphere of influence in Manhattan.

"Hun-nee! Iím home!" Sevarius called, aping a ludicrous accent heíd heard on a television sitcom. Not expecting a reply, he smirked and tossed his coat haphazardly at a coat tree, unconcerned as to whether it landed or not, and hurried towards his study.

The recent work he had done in London was still fresh in his mind and his fingers itched for his computer keyboard. He didnít dare transfer the information to his hard drive while he was working under Madocís agentís watchful eyes and risk leading them to this private sanctuary. Even his former employers, David Xanatos and Dominique Destine, had not learned of his hidden laboratory out in the suburbs, and that was the way Anton Sevarius liked it.

Attaché case swinging from his hand, Sevarius was whistling cheerfully to himself by the time he entered his study and flipped on the lights. The chair behind his desk swiveled around.

"Hello, Doctor." The dark-clad intruder with the red-gold hair gave him a cold, calculating smile. "I have a business proposition for you."

His mood decidedly soured, Sevarius crossed his arms and drummed his fingers against his sleeve. " Really, Mr. Harrison? And have you run this by the plan administrator for our mutual employer? I somehow donít think what you have in mind is covered by the company health plan."

George Harrison reached into his jacket. "Not a problem." He tossed a bundle of hundred dollar bills on the desk. "This is between you and me."

Sevarius raised an aristocratic eyebrow. "Well, well. I always like it when a client pays cash. It cuts down on the paperwork. What's on your mind, Mr. Harrison?"

George stood up and gestured for Sevarius to take the chair. He circled the room, putting Sevarius in mind of a predatory animal, wary of his surroundings. "Iíve been doing some research on you, Doctor," George said finally, coming to a stop in front of the bookshelves. "You did some work in genetic re-sequencing for Xanatos before coming to coming to work for Maddox Technologies."

"Yes," Sevarius answered as he settled back into his chair. "It was one of the highlights of my resume."

"In your notes on the Metamorphosis project for Xanatos, you mentioned retro-sequencing the procedure as a possible cure. What kind of success did you have that?"

"Theoretically, it should have worked."

George arched an eyebrow. "Theoretically?"

"It wasnít my best work," Sevarius said with a shrug. "I was forced to work under the most primitive of conditions with that brute of a gargoyle breathing down my neck. The mutate that I designed the cure for ultimately chose not to take it and consequently it was never proven."

"But what do you think?"

Sevarius pursed his lips and tapped his fingers against each other. "Considering the circumstances, I believe that it would have worked." He regarded George shrewdly. "Why are you so curious, Mr. Harrison? Tired of your new look?"

"One of my men is having trouble with his transformation," George answered. "Itís slowly killing him and he wants to be human again. Before I risk your retrograde procedure on him, I want you to test it on me." He crossed his arms and stared directly at the scientist, daring him to make something of it with his eyes.

"Really?" A corner of Sevariusí mouth smirked up. "How generous of you. Iím sure your selfless act will impress the other Halflings."

"Think whatever you like, Doctor." George leaned over the desk just slightly. "Just keep one thing in mind."

"And what would that be?"

"While Iím paying you, youíre on my time." A corona of dancing blue flames outlined Georgeís body. "The reason why I want this done is none of your business or anybody elseís."

"Ah, but dear boy, the real issue is will you be able to meet my price?" Sevarius scribbled a figure on a piece of paper and slid it across the desk.

To his credit, George didnít even blink as he scanned the paper and flicked his eyes towards Sevarius. "No problem. Iíd like you to get started." The paper suddenly shimmered before spontaneously combusting in his fingers. "As soon as possible."

The lights in the room flared up with a sudden power surge. As soon as the blue spots had cleared from his eyesight, Sevarius looked around the room to find his new client had disappeared. He clucked to himself as he picked up a bundle of money and rifled it with his thumb, listening to the whisk-whisk of the crisp bills.

"Well, cash is cash," Sevarius concluded. "Far be it from me to turn down easy money."

* * * * *

March 21, 1998 -- Schlatterís Drugstore

"---Then itís set. Iíll meet you there after work." Richard paused and broke out in an irrepressible smile. "Yeah, I canít wait to see you too. Bye, Angela."

Richard hung up the phone in the office and went back out into the store. There was the usual collection of commuter shoppers, in after that last minute purchase on the way home. The part-time girl was ringing up people at the front and Mrs. Schlatter was visiting with a young woman and her baby at the pharmacy counter. Richard chuckled to himself as he went back to restocking the shelf. Babies had a magnetic attraction for his employerís wife and she just couldnít resist them.

"Oh, sheís a precious little lamb, yes, she is!" Mrs. Schlatter cooed, peering into the baby carrier. "Sheís just growing like a weed, the little angel."

Richard glanced over just in time to catch the young motherís slightly glazed expression at Mrs. Schlatterís litany of gushy grammyisms. He grinned and shrugged, as if to say ĎGrandmasÖ.go figure!í She responded with a roll of her brown eyes and quirked a little smile back at him. Richard went back to his work cheerfully. She was a rather attractive brunette and it was fun to flirt with her, married or not.

Several minutes later, he heard his name. "Richard!" Mrs. Schlatter called. "Can you get a cab for this lady? The baby really shouldnít be out in this cold."

"Sure," Richard answered, heading for the door. "Iíd be glad to."

"You really donít have to do this," the young woman said as she followed him out to the curb. She flipped the edge of the blanket over the babyís head to protect it from the light flurry of snow whirling down.

"Not at all," Richard replied pleasantly, flagging down one of the many yellow checkered vehicles passing by. "Itís all part of the service. Diapers, baby formula and taxi cabs." He opened the car door for her and gestured grandly for her to enter. "Your chariot awaits, dear lady!"

She giggled and swung the baby carrier in, followed by herself and her purchases. Richard waved as the cab pulled away and was mildly pleased that she waved back. He sighed and shoved his hands in his pockets. "Some guy is a lucky, lucky man," he said to himself and went back into the drugstore.

* * * * *

Eastside Manhattan

Zed rifled through the neat pile of papers beside the computer on the desk. "So whoís Margot and Brendan?" he asked as he stripped off his leather gloves. "Friends of yours?"

"Hardly," George commented. "Theyíre social climbers and theyíre almost never home." He sat on the end of the sleek white leather sofa nearest the computer. "I borrowed a spare key to the place the last time I was here."

"Sounds like the perfect setup to me," Zed said as he slipped on some surgical gloves. "We do a little discreet hacking off on their computer and if it gets traced, no one knows itís us."

"Exactly," George agreed. He watched as the Halfling hackerís fingers tap-danced across the keyboard. "You understand what I want?"

"No, but like I said, I donít want to know. Safer for us both in the long run."

"Good." George passed a computer disc over to Zed. "This is what I want entered into their personnel records."

"Youíre the boss." Several minutes passed where neither of them spoke while the computer hum filled the room. Zed leaned back in his chair, watching the lines of code scroll by. "You know, Casey could have done this and it would probably be completely untraceable."

George raised an eyebrow. "And he could also fry the entire server doing it."

"Yeah." Zed sighed and swiveled around to face George. "Heís not getting any better."

"I heard he had moved in with you."

"Donít let it get around, but I used to take in stray cats too." Zed laughed but his laughter had a hollow ring to it. "Casey canít live on his own anymore. Heís too screwed up, man."

"Is he still having trouble processing his energy flow?"

"Yeah, you could say that." Zed snorted. "If it wasnít for me throwing a force field around him, I think heíd blow up the apartment. I left Candy with him tonight so I could come do this thing with you." He paused, working his jaw nervously. "The others are beginning to worry if the same thingís going to happen to them."

"If Madoc finds out, heíll just eliminate Casey. Weíre all expendable." George put a hand on Zedís shoulder. "Iíve got a plan to help him. If it works, Casey will be cured and Madoc wonít know a thing."

Zed glanced to the computer and back at George. He raised an eyebrow questioningly.

George nodded.

"I see." Zed turned back to the computer and set his hands on the keyboard. "This hack and slash job just got upgraded."

* * * * *

Central Park

The northwest corner of Central Park was quiet and pristine with newly fallen snow. Richard tramped down the abandon sidewalk, leaving a trail behind him as he made his way to the playground. He had spent the rest of the evening thinking about the conversation he wanted to have with Angela. The thought of it was putting him in a blue mood.

He sat down in a swing to wait, letting his melancholy thoughts drift. Suddenly, the swing on his right soared up, filled with a giggling Ariana squealing, "Wheeeeeee!", and to his left, Graeme took up the other swing, "Ya-aa-aa-HOO!" Nudnik jumped from his masterís arms to land nose-first in the snow.

Richard had to smile at their antics in spite of himself. "Hey, kids. Have you guys been keeping out of trouble?"

Arianaís giggles died off and she looked pensive. Graeme cast a brief worried look in her direction before answering brightly, "Hey, you know us, Richard. Weíre kids. If weíre not in trouble, then we must not be doing something right!"

Richard caught the brief unspoken interaction between the twins. Something serious must have happened to Ariana by the subdued way she was acting. He instantly felt sorry for her and decided to change the subject. "Hey, Ari! The comic book store down the street from where I work got in a new batch of Japanese comics. You still like those Sailor Senshi cartoons?"

Graeme snorted and Ariana flipped some snow at him with her tail. "Oh, yes! Theyíre my favorites! Iíve got all their videos and the computer game and an official Sailor Senshi outfit and-- "

"The Super Cyborg Assault Armadillos can kick those Sailor Senshi girls all over town," Graeme retorted, flinging snow back at his sister. Nudnik yipped and wagged his entire backside in anticipation.

"Can NOT!"

"Can TOO!"

Richard laughed and ducked as the snow started to fly fast and furiously. "Wait a minute, guys!! Let me get out of the line of fire!" He held his arms up to deflect the barrage and was shaking snow out of his parka when shadows passed over him.

"Hello, Richard." Angela landed with Sata, carrying Bronx between them. "I hope you don't mind. The twins wanted to come to the park and we thought it would make a nice outing for them."

"If we will be disturbing you, Richard-san," Sata said, with a small bow, "please let me know and I will take the children and the beasts elsewhere."

"No, it's okay." Richard nodded his head to the snowball fight in progress. "Theyíre having fun. Let Ďem play." He frowned slightly. "Let Ďem be kids while they can."

"Richard?" Angela flipped her wings snugly around her shoulders and put her hand on his arm. "I know we havenít spoken for a while but I can tell somethingís wrong. Whatís troubling you?"

Sighing heavily, Richard said simply, "Itís George."

"Heís come after you?" Angela asked sharply. "We had some trouble with him when he and some others broke into Xanatosí computer system a few months ago."

"No, I havenít seen him in over a year and Iím dreading it." Richard took a deep breath. "George wants me to kill him."

"What?"

"Itís true. He sent me his own gun with the instructions that if ever I loved him, I should kill him." Richard looked away and watched his breath steam in the cold winter air. "Whatever it is thatís happened to him, itís shaken him so much that heís convinced that death is the only way out."

Angela stared at him for a few minutes. "I honestly donít know what to say," she said finally. "True, your brother has done things to me and to my clan that I cannot forgive, but I know that you love him in spite of what heís become and I can respect that." She smiled. "Richard, you are a good human and a better friend. There's nothing George could possibly do to make you want to kill him. It's just not in your nature."

"Itís just, I donít know, eating me up. I just spent a weekend with my mother and she thinks that George is away on business. I can never tell her the truth. Iím not sure sheíd believe me if I did." He kicked at the snow half-heartedly. "The thought of seeing George again and knowing what he expects from me Ė how can I face him?"

"Richard-san?" Sata ventured. "I did not mean to eavesdrop on your conversation but from what you have said, perhaps you should respect your brotherís choice and do as he wishes."

"What?" Richard stared at the jade green gargoyle, his face showing his shock and dismay. "Kill my brother? I canít!"

"I did not mean to upset you, forgive me." Sata bowed her head contritely. "I am of Ishimura, so I have a different perspective. In Japan, dying an honorable death is preferable to living a dishonorable life. I have no great love of your brother or of his allies, but knowing him as you do, would you say that he is in the habit of making snap decisions?"

Richard frowned thoughtfully. "NoÖ," he said finally. "George liked to look at a problem from all sides before he made up his mind about it."

"Then your brother has given you a great honor," Sata concluded. "By sending you his weapon, he has chosen you as his second. If he fails in his attempt to commit seppuku, you must complete the ritual. It is an honor, and perhaps it would help to think of it as such."

Graeme and Ariana had stopped their playing to listen and were staring at Sata with wide eyes. "Mother?" Ariana asked timidly. "Did you ever have to do that?"

"I was honored to serve as a second on several occasions. It was well-known in Ishimura that my sword arm was steady and my aim was sure." Sata reached out and stroked Arianaís brow ridges. "And yes, even I thought of seppuku once myself."

"Really?" Graeme said, stepping closer. "Why?"

"Brooklyn was dying in my arms and until that moment, I had not realized how much I loved your father. The thought of going on without him was so terrible, I did not want to live." She chucked Graeme under the chin and put a arm around both her children. "But as you can see, I did not have to make that choice." She started to lead them away from Angela and Richard. "Come, my beloved ones. I will tell you the story. It begins with fireworks on a warm summerís nightÖ."

Richard watched them go and smiled wryly. "She certainly knows how to go straight to the point, doesnít she?"

"Sata is a lot like her sword, sharp in more ways than one," Angela agreed. "But she is right in a way. Youíre only looking at your problem from one point-of-view. You havenít seen your brother in a long time. Things could have changed for him. He might not be feeling suicidal anymore."

"Thatís true, I suppose." Richard crammed his hands back into his pockets. "So, whatís new in your life, Angela? You and Broadway still an item?"

"You could say that." Angela practically glowed as she reached up and artfully brushed away a stray hair from her face, drawing his attention to a Celtic hair ornament pinned just over her left temple. "We announced our intention to be mates on Valentineís Day."

"Congratulations!"

"Really?"

Richard grinned. "Really. Iím very happy for you. Itís great knowing that even gargoyles can find true love." He sighed dramatically, still smiling. "Now if only I could find somebody."

"You will, Richard," Angela said gently. "I know you will."

They continued talking until Richard couldnít stand the cold any longer. "You know, Angela," he commented, "I canít get over how you guys run around in practically nothing without even shivering. Care to let us poor frozen humans in on it or is it a trade secret?"

Angela gave her musical laugh. "I guess you could say it is gargoyle magic or perhaps just a very thick skin. Take your pick, Richard." She reached out and touched his face. "Youíre chilled to bone, my friend. Time for you to be going home." She smiled, but her brow was twisted -- in concern, in worry Ė he couldnít tell. "And Richard? Be careful. Thereís a lot of strangeness going on."

He laughed. "Hey, this is New York City. Strange is a way of life here."

* * * * *

The Shire Pub, Greenwich Village

Zed stormed down the steps and jerked open the green door of the British-style pub. He stood in the round entryway, tapping the snow off his shoes. The softly-lit paneled room smelled of oiled wood and English beer. There were the usual regulars, enjoying a quiet pint at the bar and a few solitary souls sitting in well-lit nooks reading but it was the occasional cheer from the game room where a crowd had gathered that attracted Zedís attention.

Sam Underhill, the proprietor, nodded at Zed. "Come to join your friends, eh?" He pulled a draught of Zedís favorite and set it on the bar.

"Yeah," Zed replied uncertainly, as he took the drink. "Back room?"

The heavy set man merely nodded and continued to polish the glass in his hands.

With studied casualness, Zed wandered into the back of the pub. A willowy blonde in jeans and a bomber jacket was sitting on a high barstool against the wall, a soft drink can in her hands between her knees. Her eyes were on the pool game in progress but she spoke up.

"Hiya, Zed. Whereís George?"

"He had stuff to do," Zed answered with a shrug. "Whereís Casey?" His eyes hardened.

"Donít cop a Ďtude with me," the blonde shot back. "He was getting stir crazy so I took him for walkies." She nodded towards the pool table. "We ran into some of the others and came here."

Zed sighed and pulled his head rag off, his pointed ears just barely covered by his dark hair. "Candy, heís a walking timebomb."

"Donít be such a worry wart," she replied. "Thereís enough of us here to handle it."

"Sez you, sweet cheeks." Zed narrowed his eyes and traced the radiant energy patterns in the room. He zoomed in on the tainted spiral that he had come to associate with Caseyís aura. The other Halflings in the room glowed with vibrant colors but Caseyís energy signature wavered and surged at unexpected intervals and was edged with dark gray smudges. Two months of living with dysfunctional powers had left his olive skin a sallow, sickly shade of yellow and his dark eyes were marked with deep shadows as Casey watched the pool game.

One of the other Halflings, a recruit named Vince that Zed recognized from Draconís stable of thugs, sidled up to Zed and Candy, shaking his head. "Man, that guy gives me the creeps. Makes me wonder why Harrison keeps him around."

Candy shrugged with sensuous shimmy of her shoulders and tossed her fair blonde hair about. By the sudden attention she was getting from the goon, Zed figured the gesture was intentional. "George probably has a use for him. He was an A-one people manager when he and I were working for Castaway."

"Yeah, well, Castaway was screwy. You had to be nuts to put up with all that nonsense he was spouting." The loud-mouthed Halfling lined up his thumb and forefingers like he was aiming a rifle. "All you really need to take care of gargoyles is a nightscope and a silencer."

Casey gave a barely audible snort at the comment as he walked around the pool table. Zed felt the fine hair on his arms stand on end from the residual static charge and knew the others felt the same as they absently rubbed their arms. Vince narrowed his eyes and glared at the sick Halfling.

"I oughta do us all a favor and put him out of his misery," Vince said menacingly. "That freak makes us all look bad! I bet thatís why we havenít been getting any action lately."

"What did you say?" Casey asked quietly, turning around slowly.

"You heard me." Vince laughed, a harsh, barking sound. "Freak."

Green fire blazed from Caseyís eyes. Zed felt the power surge coming and threw up a quick force field. The impact of Caseyís anger-driven attack on his shields nearly knocked Zed over.

"Candy!! Give me a hand!" Zed said between clenched teeth. He felt her force field joining his, doubling the barrier around Casey. Electric green streamers of energy arced from Caseyís body to the invisible walls containing his out-of-control powers, illuminating the back room like a beacon.

"Heís ó" Candy gasped as she was visibly forced back, her boots squeaking against the floor "ó too strong! Whereís he getting all this power from?"

"Darned if I know!" Zed was starting to sweat. "Casey! Come on, buddy! Focus! Stay in control!"

A wordless moan started from the sick Halfling. The others began to back away, clearly sensing disaster in the making. A man in a dark overcoat and hat pushed his way through the crowd and gestured, muttering something in a monotone mumble lost in the background noise of the room. Abruptly, like switching off a light, the nimbus of electric green energy vanished. Casey collapsed to the floor, steam rising from his body.

"You can release the wards," the dark clad man said calmly. "Iíve cut him off from the ley lines for the time being."

"Areóare you sure?" Zed panted.

"Quite sure." The newcomer took off his wide-rimmed hat and ran his fingers back through his collar-length hair, brushing it aside from his slightly pointed ears. He looked at them expectantly with hazel-green eyes so light that they seemed to glow. "Trust me."

Releasing his hold of the force field made Zedís whole body shake in relief. He had no idea how intensely draining his effort had been until that moment. Candy staggered and bumped into him and Zed put his arms around her to steady them both. She glanced up at him, one eyebrow raised but too busy trying to catch her breath to do anything else.

"No, this is not a pass," Zed rasped out. "This is NOT falling down."

"Good."

Meanwhile the man in black knelt on the floor besides Casey. His hands glowed a soft pale blue as he held them a few inches over the fallen Halfling, passing them the length of his body. Closing his eyes, he seemed to be listening very intently.

Zed took a good hard look at the stranger and his eyes widened. "Hey! Iíve seen you before. Youíre the bossís nephew, Umbrella or something."

He turned his head. "Umbriel, actually. Umbriel Strijken, if you please." He returned his attention to Casey. "I can heal the damage caused by the energy surge but what ails your friend goes much deeper. Heís like a cloth thatís unraveling."

"What do you care?" Zed said defensively. "Once your uncle finds out Ė"

"There are some things Madoc does not need to know about," Umbriel said firmly. "I am helping one of my fellow Halflings and that is a matter between us."

"But youíre notó"

"I may have not been created by science as you were, but I was born to a human mother and human blood flows in my veins. Three hundred years Iíve lived among humans and I feel closer to them than any in the Unseelie Court." Umbriel turned his bright gaze back on Zed. "We stand between worlds, you and I. Youíll soon learn itís a lonely place."

Casey groaned and pushed himself up into a sitting position. "Whatís going on?"

"How do you feel?" Zed asked anxiously.

"Except for the mother of all headaches, I feel fine." Casey blinked and stared into space for a few seconds, accessing his condition. "I feelÖ almost normal." He looked at Umbriel. "How did you do that?"

Umbriel gave a wry smile. "Iíve had a great deal of practice. Itís nothing that you and your friends couldnít do yourselves, given time." He stood up and took his hat in his hat. "Good evening."

Zed watched Umbriel walking away. He had helped them and asked for nothing in return but yet, there was the sense of longing, of wanting to belong. Zed made up his mind. "Hey!" He trotted after Umbriel. "Hey, wait up!"

Umbriel paused in the act of putting on his hat. "Yes?"

Nodding his head at the bar, Zed asked, "Buy you a drink?"

Turning his hat in his hands nervously, Umbriel smiled and stepped up to the bar.

* * * * *

The streets were strangely still and silent after the snowfall. A few people were out and about, as Richard was, but most New Yorkers were inside on this winterís night. Richard caught a flash of lavender high above and smiled. Angela was probably making sure he made it home safe again. He really couldnít blame her. Heíd do the same thing for her if it was possible.

A bright splash of red zipped by and Richard had to stop himself from calling out Arianaís name. It wouldnít do to attract attention to the gargoyles and it was entirely possible that Ari might just join him right there on the street. She and her brother were almost too comfortable with humans compared to the other gargoyles Richard had met. He wondered vaguely where in the world Brooklyn and Sata could have raised their children so that they could have such trust in humanity.

"Hey! Watch where youíre going!"

Richard blinked and stammered, "Sorry!" Heíd been looking up at the skyline and not where his feet were going. He looked down at a short woman trying to maneuver a baby stroller around a large crack in the sidewalk. "Hey, do you need some help?"

"Oh, Ióummph!!" The woman gave a big push and nearly slipped and fell herself. Richard caught her elbow but her hat fell to the ground, revealing short brunette hair. The baby, bundled in a pale pink snowsuit, began to wail like a lost soul.

"Uh, ohÖ," Richard said lightly, "thatís done it." He picked up her hat and brushed away the slush. As he handed it to her, she looked up at him and they both froze. Richard gulped and finally found his voice. "Maybe I should call you another cab."

"No, thatís all right, Ió" she stammered and paused as she recognized him as well. An embarrassed smile crossed her face. "Schlatterís Drugstore, right?"

"Yeah. I donít think weíve ever been introduced but Iím Richard Harrison, clumsy college student and callers of taxis."

"Quinn, Quinn Ramsey." She reached down and unstrapped her baby, taking her into her arms. "And this colicky thing is my daughter, Hope. It sounds weird but the only thing that settles her down to go sleep is a quick stroll around the block before bed."

"No, nothing strange about that. My mother used to set me on the washing machine and let the vibrations lull me to sleep." Richard laughed. "That sort of explains why I fall asleep in laundromats."

Quinn laughed back at him as she bounced Hope on her shoulder. "Iíll have to try that. I get kind of tired of these late night walks."

"Well, I donít think youíll going anywhere with this thing." He tilted it back and showed her the bend front axle. "Itís not too bad. Your husband could probably bend it back, no problem."

"Well, seeing as I donít have a husband, I guess Iíll have to fix it myself."

There was a awkward pause. Richard caught himself staring at her and chided himself. He had hit on a subject that Quinn was clearly uncomfortable with by the sad way she was avoiding looking at him. Richard glanced around and noticed the diner on the corner. "Why donít we go where itís a little warmer?" he asked hopefully. "We could have some hot chocolate and I could try to fix this for you."

Quinn looked at him carefully, making a quick judgment call. "Yes," she said finally. "I think Iíd like that."

Richard picked up the stroller and carried it down the street as he and Quinn talked animatedly to each other in that awkwardly bright fashion of two people in the early stages of getting acquainted.

* * * * *

The Brocken, Germany

Firelight flickered on the cold, stone walls of the throne room, the outline of each cast in stark shadows. Madoc sat in his great bat-winged chair, staring moodily into the flames. Any capable witch or hedge wizard could get visions from a pool of water but Madoc could read the dancing flames like a mortal could read a book. Maeve preferred action to the mental concentration that fire-scrying required but Madoc had devoted centuries to developing the proper discipline.

Images of his Unseelie followers flickered in and out as the logs snapped and crackled. Wisps and their handlers were deviling a jogger in Central Park. Rangda and her army of Onis were causing havoc in Japan. Boarish Troit was uprooting one of the last sacred groves in England and enjoying himself immensely from the look of things. Madoc almost smiled.

Footsteps approached. Madoc allowed a small portion of his consciousness to seek out his visitor. Without removing his eyes from the fire, Madoc intoned, "Good evening, nephew."

"Good evening, uncle." Umbriel joined him at the fire, stopping a respectful distance away. He stripped off his gloves and warmed his hands. "I see you are keeping up with current events in the world."

"You know of fire-scrying?" Madoc was vaguely impressed. He had thought the degree of difficulty beyond his half-human nephewís abilities.

Umbriel nodded. "Back in the 1800s, I found a book that mentioned it. It took a long time to learn but then, I had the time." He unfocused his eyes for a second and then refocused on a point inside the flames. "I see that Englishman is whipping his followers into a frenzy again. Heís not entirely right in the head, that one."

"He serves my purpose," Madoc said with a dismissive gesture, "as all humans should serve us. It is our manifest destiny to rule this world." He caught the barest glimmer of a frown and a brief furtive glance. "Something troubles you?" he inquired in a smooth, purring tone.

"No, I beg your pardon, uncle." Umbriel rubbed his eyes. "I havenít read the flames much since they invented television. My eyes have grown unaccustomed to it." He nodded his head respectfully in a small bow. "If you will excuse me, uncle, itís very late. Good evening."

Madoc watched Umbriel leave the room and his eyes narrowed. He had looked in on Umbriel earlier and watched him playing a dull game of chess with a stout human behind a bar. Madoc had grown bored and moved on to more exciting viewing. He glanced back at the fireplace. The down side of obtaining visions from fire was that one could not view the past, only the present.

"Well, well," Madoc commented to himself. "It would seem that perhaps I should keep a closer eye on Oberonís son. The last thing I need is a repeat of my own sonís disobedience."

* * * * *

March 25, 1998 -- Near Columbia University

The two gargoyles circled the block one more time. "Angela," Broadway asked gently, "Maybe Richardís just out. Thereís probably a perfectly good explanation why heís not answering the phone."

Angela sighed. "Iím sure youíre right, my love, but he was so upset about his brother. We usually talk on Wednesday nights after his evening class and he always leaves a message if heís going to be away. I just want to know that heís all right."

Broadway chuckled. "If I didnít know you loved me, I think Iíd really be jealous."

"Oh, you!" Angela made a face at him and darted in for a quick peck on the cheek. That kiss led to another and another, distracting them from seeing the solitary figure walking down the street and into the apartment building. A few minutes later, the lights went on in Richardís apartment.

"There he is!" Angela exclaimed and pushed away from her mate-to-be.

Broadway grumbled. "Yeah, way to go, Richard. Great timing." He shifted his wings and let the wind take him to the building where Angela was already clinging to the wall and tapping on the window with a talon.

"Hey, hey!" Richard called as he stuck his head out the window. "Look whoís here!"

"Richard!" Angela sighed in relief. "Youíre all right!"

"Huh?" Richard shot a glance at Broadway.

The big blue gargoyle rolled his eyes. "She was expecting you to call and when you didnít, she insisted on coming to check up on you."

"Doh!" Richard smacked himself in the forehead. "Iím sorry, Angela. I forgot! I dropped by Quinnís place on the way home from class. She and I got to talking and I lost all track of time."

"Quinn?" Angela broke out into a big smile. "Youíve met a girl?"

"Yeah," Richard replied with a sheepish grin. "Sheís been coming into Schlatterís Drugstore for over a year and weíve never gotten past ĎHi, how are you?í because I thought she was married."

"Why would you think that?" Broadway asked, puzzled.

"It was an easy mistake," Richard answered. "Quinnís a single mom. Sheís got a beautiful baby girl named Hope. Cute little thing and she likes me." He laughed. "The baby was fussing when I came over tonight and Quinn asked me to hold her while she fixed a bottle. Hope went to sleep right in my arms."

Angela laughed. "What did you do to make her sleepy?"

"I have no idea, but it really scored me major brownie points with Quinn." Richard sighed contentedly. "She agreed to go to the movies with me this weekend while her motherís watching Hope. I donít remember the last time I had a real date!"

"Good for you!" Angela said brightly. "I hope you have a wonderful time!"

"Iím crossing my fingers." Richard extended a hand to Broadway. "Hey, I hear congratulations are in order. Way to go, big guy!"

"Uh, thanks, Richard." Broadway shook the humanís hand very gingerly. "I appreciate that."

"I fully expect to be invited to the wedding, you know." He looked at the blank expressions on the gargoylesí faces. "Well, Angela, you said the other day that you were intending to become mates. Iím assuming you havenít made it official yet."

"A weddingÖ.," Angela said thoughtfully. "Hmmm."

"Gargoyles donít usually go in for a lot of formality," Broadway explained. "We donít do weddings."

"Youíre kidding," Richard said. "You mean you donít do anything special? If I knew Iíd found Miss Right and she said yes, well, Iíd want all my friends and family to be there to help me celebrate."

"A wedding," Angela repeated. She looked at Broadway and smiled. "Yes! I think Iíd like that."

"Angela," Broadway said in a reasonable tone of voice, "Thatís an awful lot of fuss. Itís the custom to swear our love before the clan, have Goliath recognize us as mates, and go off together on the mating flight. Weddings are for humans."

"Princess Katharine used to tell us about the weddings she had seen at court when she was a girl. It would be just like a fairy tale!" There was a dreamy look in Angelaís eyes.

Broadway winced. "This is all YOUR fault," he growled at Richard.

"Glad to be of service," Richard replied, smiling smugly.

* * * * *

March 27, 1998 -- Squad room, 23rd Precinct

"Riddle me this," Matt commented as he stared at his computer screen. "What does a plastics manufacturer, a textiles warehouse, and an industrial food service have in common?"

Elisa smirked and highlighted another section of the computer printout she had on her desk. "An irate customer getting revenge for a wedding disaster?"

"Only if the bride caught on fire and the cake exploded." Matt leaned back in his chair and twirled a silver pen in his fingers. "Businesses around Manhattan are reporting huge losses of capital through apparent embezzlement and thereís no way to trace it."

Morgan came in and slapped some paperwork in a basket on a neighboring desk. Elisa looked up and stretched. "Hey, Morgan. Whatís the word on the streets?"

"Weird is the word, Maza," the uniformed police officer replied. "Just checked out another one of those break-ins. Nothing taken but the computer was left on and the office manager insists that she turned it off last night. Iíve requested Computer Forensics to check it out."

"Got any suspects?"

"No, it was probably kids. You know how theyíre hooked on the Internet these days."

Matt spread a map out on his desk. "Elisa, read me off those robbery sites. Letís see if we can figure this out the old-fashioned way." He took out a red ballpoint pen and held it ready. They were so busy that they barely noticed the visitor walking in.

"Jasper!" Morgan called out jovially. "Howís things at the fourteenth?"

"Oh, the same old grind, Morgan." The delicately featured, dark-haired woman, dressed in a nicely tailored navy suit, came up to Matt and poked him in the shoulder with a finger. "Hey, Bluestone. I had to give a deposition this morning and while I was in the neighborhood, I thought Iíd see if you wanted to do lunch."

Matt looked up from his map-making. "Huh?" He blinked and gave Sara the once-over, a slow grin spreading across his face. "You look nice."

Elisa covered her mouth with her hand and looked away while her shoulders shook with suppressed laughter.

"Hello? Earth to Matt? You wanna go to lunch?" Sara leaned towards him, one hand on the desk, and smiled.

"Sure, Iíd love to." A few snickers were heard and Matt glared around the room. "Elisa, would you like to join us?"

"No, you two go on without me," Elisa replied. "Thereís only a few more places anyway left on this list anyway -- Stonecutters Jewelers at 8th Avenue and 34th, Petropolis Galleries at 77th and Madison, andó"

Sara stopped in her tracks and stared at Elisa. "Hold the phone! Those last two names you read - those were two of Castaway's investments."

"What are you saying?" Elisa asked. She handed Sara the list. "Anybody else you recognize?"

"I donít know where he was getting the money from, but Castaway had his funding really spread out to cover his tracks. It was like he was always prepared to run." Sara took the printout and frowned as she studied it. "Thereís a few names here that I remember Castaway mentioning but I didn't have access to everything in the Quarrymen organization. There were a few others with higher clearance than mine who might know."

"Like who?" Elisa asked.

"Most of them are serving time in Rikerís," Sara answered, "but Castawayís personal assistant, Adam, was never found and that PR guy, George Harrison, dropped off the face of the earth."

Elisa traded a concerned look with her partner. They both knew that George Harrison was no longer the Quarryman Sara remembered. "There was a break-in at the Eyrie Building a few months ago," she told Sara. "Trust me, George is definitely back in town. The security videos caught him in the act."

"Whoa." Sara looked stunned. "I only met George two or three times. I wouldnít have called him a criminal type but heís smart enough to do whatever he sets his mind to do."

A wild look came into Mattís eyes. "What if," he suggested, lifting a finger to make his point, "the break-ins were tied into the computer thefts somehow? Could someone be using the computers there at the break-ins to transfer funds from Castaway's secret stash?"

Elisa snatched the phone off the hook and began dialing. "Computer Forensics? We need to get computer logs from the following businessesÖ."

Sara threw her hands up and sighed. "Well, there goes lunch!"

* * * * *

The offices of Armbruster, Benson and Hurst, stockbrokers

A buzzer sounded and, like a Pavlovian response, all eyes turned to the stock marker ticker displayed on the monitor stretching from wall-to-wall. The pulsing red characters streamed past, causing a variety of reactions in the room. Wide-eyed, some brokers grabbed their phones and hurried began to wheel and deal in an effort to save the dayís trading. Others grinned and congratulated themselves.

"Hey, Mason! Way to go! How did you know that fuel oil was going to raise three points?"

"Common sense, really." The broker in question pushed his glasses up his nose with one finger. "Long, hard winter. Guess the groundhog saw his shadow."

Several people laughed. Peter Mason smiled in return and went back to the business at hand. It had only taken some tinted gel to darken his hair to a dishwater blonde, a pair of glasses and a carefully constructed background dropped into all the right places to turn George Harrison into a junior commodities broker. He had shown up on Monday morning as a transfer from the Chicago office, with all the proper paperwork thanks to Zedís handiwork. The higher ups had assigned Peter Mason a cubicle and he was in.

One of the interesting little side effects of the Changling Factor that George did like was that his ability to comprehend and retain information seemed to be enhanced. It had only taken a weekís intensive study to learn the ins and outs of the commodities market. Heíd been thinking of some way to reverse what had been done to him for months now. The information he had stolen from Xanatos had been illuminating and had taught him two interesting things: Sevarius was brilliant and Sevarius loved money.

Aside from breaking the bank at Atlantic City, the fastest way George knew how to raise the kind of cash he needed was to play the market. Ever since learning of his masterís true nature, George had felt uneasy letting Madoc run his life. He and the other Halflings were well-cared for, living the high life in the shadow of the Unseelie court, but it left a bitter taste in Georgeís mouth. It was just another thing that reminded him that Madoc owned him Ė mind, body and soul. The thought of it made him sick.

George caught a glimpse of his face reflected in his monitor as he sat down. Peter Mason was a dapper intellectual, his hair carefully slicked back and his gold-rimmed glasses perched primly on his nose. He spoke quietly and went about his work efficiently, not arousing the least bit of suspicion or even interest. Peter Mason let George hide in plain sight and let him take control of a small portion of his life. By night, he was borrowing funds left over from Castawayís organization and by day, he was using the stock brokerage to double his catch.

He paused to remove his Curious George watch and lay it across the top of his keyboard. The latest of Sevarius's poking and proddings had left an itchy rash on the inside of his left forearm and it had been irritating George all day long. It was all he could do not to scratch. The mad scientist had taken both blood and tissue samples and done some sort of test with a ferrous solution. Hours had passed and the test patch still burned beneath the silk bandage.

"This had better be worth it," George muttered as he popped up his screens and began transferring his latest acquisitions into his private accounts.

* * * * *

Somewhere in Long Island

Papers of all shapes and sizes, from computer printouts to stained table napkins covered in scribbled equations, littered the top of the elegant desk. Anton set down the tray containing his late evening snack on a relatively uncluttered corner and poured himself some tea into a slim glass held in an ornate metal holder. He topped off his drink with a dollop of honey and a slice of lemon.

"Ah, a taste of the old country," Sevarius commented, sipping his tea. "Delightful."

He leafed idly through a notebook as he finished his tea, the neatly written lines at odds with the chaos on the desk. Setting down his cup, he picked up a microphone and began to speak as he went through his notes.

"March 27, 9:45 p.m. Ė Project Caliban. The initial results from the tests on Mr. Harrison are very intriguing. Since being transformed by the Changling Factor, his genetic structure has undergone a number of curious changes that I did not foresee in my earlier research. He has demonstrated a strange allergic reaction to ferrous-based substances and a lowered tolerance for ultraviolet radiation and caffeine in addition to the enhancements specified in the original design parameters. Iím running further tests on his DNA sequencing but I suspect even that has been altered.

"Iíve been comparing the results of the recent subjects in London and that of the subjects done here in Manhattan. Interesting conclusion: the state of the individualís body chemistry at the time of conversion directly affects the way the Changling Factor enhances the body. Many of the subjects in London were obtained directly from the streets in varying states of malnutrition and anemia. As result, they have an overwhelming hunger that must be satisfied. Several of them even crave hemoglobin, an irrational desire, considering that the iron content would be like a deadly poison to them.

"Likewise, our Mr. Harrison went into his transformation with higher than normal levels of caffeine in his system. As our first test subject, he was the basis for all the others to follow. By comparing his results to the others, I have concluded that the excess caffeine in Mr. Harrisonís system at the time of transformation stimulated his central nervous system and caused it to develop much more quickly than the otherís. In a sense, he isnít so much allergic to caffeine as it is that his body is actually hyper-caffeinated and simply cannot tolerate any more."

Sevarius set down the mike and freshened his tea, chuckling to himself. "Talk about a strange Achillesí heel," he commented, "One good strong espresso could kill him." Sevarius laughed, a rich fruity chuckle. "However, I rather doubt heíd see the humor in it and since Mr. Harrison is footing the bill for this little bit of retro-engineering, Iíd best keep my little joke to myself."

Idly, Sevarius reached over and popped up a file on the computer. He narrowed his eyes and leaned towards the monitor as the latest test results scrolled across the screen. "Hmmm," he said absently, "Thereís certainly nothing here to laugh about." The scientist became engrossed in the new data. The tea in his cup grew cold.

* * * * *

March 28, 1998 -- The Majestic Theater

There was a rare patch of blue in the sky when the afternoon matinee streamed out onto the sidewalk. Richard and Quinn were laughing as they came out, not quite up to holding hands but closing the distance between them as they walked together. Shading his eyes, Richard looked up and pointed. "Hey, look at that! First sign of spring Iíve seen all year."

"Donít jinx it," Quinn joked. "Itís about time for that groundhog to show back up and itíll be just our luck for him to see his shadow again."

"Whoops! Me and my big mouth." Richard slapped a hand over his mouth and was rewarded by a fresh set of giggles. Quinnís whole face became animated when she laughed Ė nose wrinkling, eyes crinkling, cheeks dimpling Ė and Richard had almost lost track of the entire movie by just watching her. He was grinning foolishly when she caught him doing it again.

"What ARE you looking?" she asked. "Have I grown a wart on my nose?"

"No, nothing like that." Richard shrugged. "I just like seeing you smile. Hope smiles the same way." He laughed. "Okay, so her smile is droolier and she has no teethÖ"

"Oh, you!" Quinn rolled her eyes and playfully smacked him on the arm. "I should be jealous. Hope really likes you, I can tell."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah." She smiled a little sadly. "Hope doesnít take to just anyone. I thought Iíd never find a babysitter sheíd like so I could go back to work. Sheís a little on the fussy side."

"Aw, Hopeís a sweet baby." Richard paused, working up the courage to blurt out wistfully, "Just like her mother."

Quinn looked up into his face. Her big brown eyes went wide for a few seconds, then they grew shiny with tears and Quinn quickly turned away from him, covering her face with a hand. Her pace quickened and she was soon ahead of him.

"Quinn?" Richard called, trotting after her. "Quinn, if itís something I said, I apologize. Please donít cry."

"Itís not you," Quinn sniffed, blotting her eyes with the edge of her scarf. "Iím sorry, Richard. Iím not usually this weepy."

Glancing around, Richard found a set of steps out of the wind and led Quinn over to them. "Sometimes it helps to talk about it," he said carefully. "Whatever it is, Iíd be glad to listen. Really."

Quinn took a shaky breath. "Itís just, when you looked at me right then, with that puppy dog look on your face, you looked so much like him."

"Like who?"

"Hopeís father." Quinn sniffed again. "I met him at a club down in the Village and we had a great weekend together. I never saw him again and when I found out I was pregnant, I never could find him to tell him."

"Oh, Quinn." He reached over and laid his hand over hers.

"It was the dumbest thing that could ever happen to me," she continued, "but Iím luckier than most. Iíve got a good job with great bosses, a family that loves me no matter what, and best of all, Iíve got the most beautiful little girl in the world." She sighed. "I just wish that Jayce could know how wonderful Hope is."

"Jayce?" Richard asked incredulously.

"Yes, Jayce Roberts." Quinn blinked and looked at him curiously. "You know, now that I think about it, you do look an awful lot alike. He was about the same height, the same straight nose, and his eyes were blue too, just like yours and Hopeís." She laughed half-heartedly. "Itís probably just wishful thinking. There must be hundreds of guys that could fit that description."

Richard felt like he had been punched in the stomach. In his heart of hearts, he was hoping it wasnít true but he knew all about Jayce Roberts. George had invented him back in a high school drama class as a character in a skit. Whenever the responsibilities of being the man of the Harrison household became too much, George would put on Jayce Roberts like a comfortable pair of shoes and become someone else for a while. Picking up a girl in a nightclub was just the sort of thing free-spirited Jayce would do. Richard found himself clenching his fists when he thought of George using Quinn and just abandoning her.

"Richard?" Quinnís voice quavered and it brought Richard back from his dark suspicions. "Iím sorry. I shouldíve said anything." She sighed and flung her hands down to her lap in frustration. "I havenít been on a date since before Hope was born and now you probably think Iím a terrible person for messing my life up this way."

"No," Richard said, and reached over to turn her face towards him. "No, youíre a wonderful, beautiful person and no matter whatís happened, youíll always be just that to me." He forced back his anger at his brother and smiled as he looked into Quinnís eyes. "If it wasnít for this Jayce guy giving you Hope, well, there wouldnít have been a broken stroller and we would have never met and I would have never had the nerve to talk to you."

Quinn bit her lip. "Do you still want to get to know me after all this?"

"More than ever, Quinn." Richard leaned in and kissed her very softly on the cheek. "I liked you before when all we did was say hi. Now I like you even better."

Leaning forward to rest her forehead on his, Quinn asked with just a hint of a smile, "Youíre one of lifeís Boy Scouts, arenít you?"

"Yeah," Richard replied lightly. "Sometime Iíll have to show you my merit badges."

Quinn collapsed into his arms in a fit of giggles. Richard was satisfied to simply hold her but inwardly he was seething with a million questions that only one person could answer. Unfortunately, it was the last person on earth he wanted to see.

 

Richard forced himself to concentrate on being happy for Quinnís sake and it wasnít hard to pull off the charade for the remainder of the afternoon. It wasnít until he was walking away from Quinnís place, that he felt the terrible weight of the situation fall square on his shoulders. Facing George was the last thing he wanted to do but there was no other choice. He had to know.

The problem was he had no idea where to find his brother. Richard sighed bitterly as he let himself into his apartment and tossed his coat across the back of the couch. The answering machine was flashing and he hit the retrieve button as he passed by.

<BEEP!>

"Richard? Joe Schlatter here. I donít know if youíd be interested but a friend of mine is cleaning out one of his old properties by the college and heíd be willing to pay for a strong young back to help out. Itíd be some extra cash for you and Iíd appreciate it. Give me a call if youíre interested."

<BEEP!>

"Richard? Hi, itís Mom. Just thought Iíd call and let you know Iíll be in the city next week. My club has bought tickets to see a Broadway show and weíre making a three day weekend of it. See you soon!"

<BEEP!>

"Cockroaches have the remote? Silverfish swimming laps in the tub? Andersonís Pest Control has a deal for y---" Richardís finger cut off the rest of the message.

"Yeah, right. Got something that works on phone solicitors?" Richard grumbled. "Wonder what show Momís going to see? Probably some cheesy Rodgers & Hammerstein revival." He sat down at his computer with a soft drink and was waiting for it to boot up when something his mother had said about George on his last visit came back to him.

"George had me box up all his Curious George stuff and ship it to him. He found an on-line group of collectors to trade with. Can you imagine?"

Richard snatched the phone up and dialed his motherís number. The phone kept ringing until he finally hung up. "Rats." He shook his head. "What am I thinking? George probably had her send them to a mailbox someplace and Iíll bet anything he doesnít have that anymore."

He slumped in his chair and stared at the flickering computer screen. On a whim, Richard typed in the name of Georgeís favorite collectible and whistled at the number of entries that came up. He narrowed the search to newsgroups and comment rooms.

"Now," Richard said to himself, "letís see how really curious you are, George."

* * * * *

March 29, 1998 Ė The Shire Pub, Greenwich Village

Umbriel held onto his hat as the wind whistled up the street, an icy cold knife slicing through layers of winter clothing as if making up for the previous dayís balmy weather. Sleet coated the city in sheets of slushy ice, trapping the inhabitants within their homes. The anxiety levels of the humans were almost a palpable presence to Umbrielís senses. Madoc and Maeve would be pleased indeed.

Carefully navigating the slippery steps, Umbriel made his way into the pub. "Good evening, Mr. Underhill," he said to the bartender as he removed his coat and hat to leave them dripping from the coatrack. "Glad to see youíre open."

"On a night like this, Iím glad I keep a cot in the back room. Thereís no way Iíd try to go home in this mess." Sam reached under the bar and came up with a dark amber bottle. "Dommelsch Bokbier? Fresh from the Netherlands."

"An excellent choice," Umbriel said approvingly, "Yes, thank you, Sam."

"Hey, Umb!"

Umbriel looked up at the sound of his name and spotted the Halfings he had met here before Ė the oddly-coifed Zed and his sick friend Casey. They were at a nearby table playing chess or possibly cards, given the deck that Zed was shuffling. Curious, Umbriel took his beverage and made his way to their table.

"Gentlemen," he said, bowing his head politely. "If I may inquire, which game are you playing?"

Zed glanced up, looking like a pirate with a rakish bandanna tied around his head. "We couldnít agree so Iím playing five card stud and Caseyís playing chess."

"That must make for difficult scoring."

Casey snorted. "He took my queen with a full house." He gestured to an empty chair. "Iíd be happy to play regular chess if youíre interested."

Umbriel hesitated, his hand on the back of the chair. "It has been ages since Iíve played," he said wistfully. When neither Halfling objected, Umbriel sat down. He began organizing his chess pieces. "So where are your associates tonight?"

Zed shrugged. "Theyíre off somewhere. George had some random terror and violence to take care of." He shuffled the cards, moving them from hand-to-hand. "Me and Casey, weíre the techies. We do the finesse work." His tone of voice was jovial but sounded forced.

Casey sighed bitterly and focused on the chess board. Umbriel found himself studying Caseyís aura. It was still off-color and tainted but not as agitated as it was before. It was that sudden disruption in the energy field that had drawn Umbriel into this bar in the first place and caused him to intervene. He felt a strange attachment for the Halflings his uncle had created through science. They could easily be considered to be his cousins by their half-human, half-fey natures.

"I wonder," Umbriel said diffidently, "if you mind if we play a slightly different game of chess? You might find it challenging."

"Well, all right." Casey straightened in his seat. "How do you play?"

"Itís like any other game of chess with one exception," Umbriel said as he leaned back and crossed his arms across his chest. "You canít use your hands." He raised an eyebrow at the chessboard and one of his pawns slid smoothly forward.

Casey bit his lip and frowned as he pushed against the chess piece.

Umbriel closed his eyes and followed the sick Halflingís efforts. "Gently now," he said in a quiet voice. "Relax and let the energy flow from you. Donít fight it."

"I canít. If I let go, sometime awful will happen. I know it."

"No, it wonít." Umbriel set up some discreet wards, just in case. "Part of your problem is that you are controlling your powers too severely. For reasons I do not understand, youíve lost the ability to keep yourself from absorbing energy. Youíre like a sponge now, constantly taking in energy but too afraid of what might happen if you release it."

"You mean, itís like Iíve got no safety valves."

"Technically, yes. What you need to do is to learn to release your excess energy safely, so that it doesnít harm you or anyone else around you." Without opening his eyes, Umbriel tapped the chessboard. "See the board in your mind. Visualize the pieces. Reach out with just a whisper of your power andó" He felt the faint surge a second before the delicate scrape of the ivory pawn moving. Opening his eyes, Umbriel watched as the chessman slid jerkily into its new position.

Casey let out the breath heíd been holding. "I did it!"

"Hey, way to go, buddy!" Zed said cheerfully.

"Itís a start," Umbriel said with a small smile. "Letís try again, shall we?" Without so much as a glance at the board, his rook moved forward.

* * * * *

Wyvern Castle, the Eyrie Building

The fire hissed and popped as the heady scent of wood smoke permeated the room. Bronx and Nudnik lay snoozing on the rug while Hudsonís Scottish brogue droned on.

"Aní Arthur bowed his head before thí unicorn wií tears in his eyes. As much as he wanted to, he knew he couldna stay in this magical place. He had many leagues to travel aní many deeds to do before he could rest. But thí unicorn aní its two humble companions had revealed to him what true peace aní harmony were. It was a dream Arthur strived to obtain all oí his life." Hudson raised a brow ridge at Ariana who sitting on the couch besides him listening raptly. "Lass, I know yuir perfectly capable oí reading this for yuirself. I dinnae see why ye asked me to do it."

"But, HudsonÖ" Ariana wheedled, using her most appealing, gamine-like charms on the old warrior, "The stories sound more alive when you read them! Please? Pretty please?"

Behind them at Lexís computer, Graeme made some gagging sounds at his sisterís performance and continued to peck away at the keyboard. Hudson laughed, knowing full well he was being manipulated. "All right, lass, Iíll keep reading. But just because youíve asked so nicely."

"Gah! I hate this weather!" Brooklyn said as he stormed into the room. His long white hair was covered with melting sleet. Puddles formed at his feet as he stood near the fire. Bronx opened one eye and glared at the red gargoyle disapprovingly.

" ĎTis a bad night to be out, is it?" Hudson asked mildly. He slipped a bookmark into the storybook and passed it to Ariana. "Weíll read more oí thí story later, lass. Yeíd best put it away for now."

Sata followed her mate into the room, having stopped along the way to change her icy garments for a warm robe and to wrap her wet hair in a towel. "Brooklyn-san, really. Youíve left a trail of water all the way down the hall."

"We should have been able to stop them!" Brooklyn turned to face the fire and slammed both of his hands down on the mantle. He exhaled and a deep, pulsating growl echoed through the room. There was a moment of silence as the others took in this rare display of temper.

"Mother?" Ariana asked hesitantly.

"It is all right, Ari-chan." The jade green gargoyle spared a small smile for her daughter. "Angela has gone into the kitchens to make something hot for us to eat. Please ask your aunt to help you prepare some tea. Do you remember the way I taught you?"

Ariana beamed. "Yes, Mother! I remember!" She quickly tucked the storybook away on the shelf and dashed out. Graeme had watched the whole exchange quietly but chose to stay at the computer console. Unfortunately, he did not elude his motherís eye.

"Graeme-kun, you may go help your sister."

"But, Mother," Graeme protested and pointed at the screen, "Iím in the middle of a Super Cyborg Assault Armadillos chat! Weíre arguing on whoís better, Speed Bump or Texas Jack."

"Tell your friends good-bye. You have things to do."

"Please, Mom? Just a few minutes more?"

"Now, Graeme." The quiet steel in her voice spoke volumes.

"Yes, Mother," Graeme answered contritely. "Ta ta for now, Lucy. Talk to you later." He punched the enter key and quickly left the room.

Sata waited a few minutes until her sonís footsteps had faded before approaching her mate. His wet hair and clothing was starting to steam in the fireís warmth. "Beloved," she said calmly, "please allow me to remove your armor before the circuitry is damaged. Iím sure this dampness is not good for it."

Her tone of voice was bland and overtly formal without a hint of disapproval but still Brooklyn gave her a stormy look before taking a deep breath and letting it out. "I lost my temper." He closed his eyes as he turned away from her. "I shouldnít have done that in front of the kids. Iím sorry."

With deft fingers, Sata unfastened his armor and set it aside. "It is very frustrating to see this all happening," she said as she began to tousle his hair dry with the towel. "We did the best we could tonight, beloved."

"It wasnít enough." He hung his head. "Nothing we do seems to stop them. Itís like fighting that pink bunny from the battery commercials."

Hudson cleared his throat. "If itís not too much trouble, would someone mind telling me whatís happened? Whereís Goliath and the others?"

"Goliath and Broadway are following Elisa to the police station to make sure she arrives safely in this storm. Lexingtonís wings were very badly coated with ice. I made him take a hot bath." Sata continued to fluff her mateís hair. "He protested almost as much as you used to but his teeth were chattering too much to object."

Brooklyn managed a small smile at her subtle joke before turning towards Hudson. "There was a group of Halfings breaking into Madison Square Garden. We went down to stop them and everything went wrong. The sleet threw off our attack and before we knew it, they were gone." He shook his head. "Thereís things happening that I know we should have been able to head off and now itís too late."

"Lad," Hudson said firmly, "ye might well be sayiní it was too late when thí Magus turned us to stone or it was too late ye touched thí Phoenix Gate and disappeared for forty years. Things happen for a reason. Ye cannae blame yuirself if ye did everything that ye could tonight."

"Listen to your elder, beloved." Sata impulsively embraced Brooklyn, resting her cheek against his shoulder. "Your pain is my pain and I know exactly why this upsets you so. We cannot look back. We cannot look forward. We can only see things as they happen, one night at a time."

Brooklyn took a deep breath and then another. "Youíre both right, of course." He turned and took Sata more fully into his arms, wrapping his steaming wings around her. "I just canít shake the feeling that no matter what we do, it wonít be good enough."

* * * * *

Richard pulled the dangling cord and his closet was filled with the incandescent illumination of a twenty-watt bulb. Back behind the stack of winter sweaters, hidden inside a boot box was the thing heíd been trying to forget ever since it had been delivered to Schlatterís drugstore over a year ago. He sighed bitterly as he took down the battered cardboard box and removed the case inside.

The Beretta pistol was just as he left it, the light gleaming softly off the oiled dark gray metal. Richard shook his head. "What am I thinking?" he said to no one in particular. "I canít use this thing against George. Heís my brother." Unbidden, his thoughts turned to his childhood days, of all the things he and George did together and how much it mean to be more than brothers, but friends.

A more recent image loomed in Richardís memory. Dancing blue flames covering George while he tortured Angela. The eerie otherworldly light in his eyes when he talked of killing gargoyles. Richard thought of those eyes looking at Quinn and Hope. His fingers tightened on the gun case and he put it in his backpack.

* * * * *

The Shire Pub, Greenwich Village

An icy blast swept through the room as the green door in the round entryway swung open. Six snow-covered figures stepped inside that made Sam the bartender blink and call out in alarm, "Hey! Donít track that stuff inó"

There was a sudden hiss as the figures glowed brightly for a heartbeat. Ice and snow evaporated in mere seconds, leaving George, Candy and the other Halflings standing dry and warm, without a puddle in sight.

"---Never mind," finished the bartender, shaking his head. "Whatíll you guys have? Iíve got some hot mulled cider for a chilly night."

"Sounds good," George said absently as he removed his gloves and scanned the room. He stopped at the sight of the chess game in progress. Black chess pieces were orbiting around Caseyís head as he stared fixiatedly at the board in front of him. An ivory bishop moved of its own accord and Casey smiled at his opponent.

"Your turn," he said with a confidence George hadnít heard in weeks. "Good luck beating that."

His opponent pursed his lips and tapped his chin as he studied the board. "Yes, that is a puzzler. Excellent move."

George froze as he recognized the chess player. He was still staring at him when Zed came over to the bar to re-fill their drinks. He grabbed the Halfling hacker by the arm. "Do you know who THAT is?"

Zed looked at George blandly. "Yeah, thatís Umbriel." He pulled free with a shrug. "I know what youíre thinking. Itís the big bad bossí nephew."

"Itís asking for trouble, thatís what it is."

"I donít think so." Zed glanced over his shoulder and lowered his voice. "Umbrielís an all right guy. Itís just a gut feeling I have."

"You canít be sure of that." George growled under his breath. "Heís one of them."

"Look, Umbriel was here the other night when Casey lost control and he was the one that stopped it. Heís teaching Casey how to control his powers and I can already see some improvement. Why would he do that if he wasnít on the up and up?"

"Maybe Umbriel is harmless but not Madoc." George warmed his hands around his mug of hot cider. "I donít trust that inhuman tyrant as far as I could throw him."

Zed cocked an eyebrow. "Then what are you doing here, man?"

"I believe in the cause," George said simply. "A new world order."

"Iíll drink to that," Candy said, sidling up to him and clinking her mug to his and to Zedís. "A new world and us at the top!"

"Iíll drink to that, Candy-girl!" Zed said cheerfully. "Did you guys get those little dudes with the red caps stashed away at the Garden?"

"Yeah, no thanks to those gargoyles." She rolled her eyes. "Lucky for us, this is not good flying weather."

"Gargoyles, smargoyles," Zed retorted. "I hope somebody told those creepy little trogs if they wreck the playoffs for me, Iím going down there and kick their little hineys."

"You and me both, brother!"

As the conversation turned to the mundane subject of sports, others joined in but George did not. He sipped his drink and looked moodily at his reflection in the mirror behind the bar.

Across the room, Umbriel looked at him and frowned.

* * * * *

March 30, 1998 -- Late afternoon back at the 23rd Precinct

"Bluestone and Maza," Captain Chavezís voice crackled over the intercom. "Iíve got some guys from Computer Forensics on the way up with Jasper from the 14th. Meet us in Interrogation Room ĎBí in five minutes."

Matt stood up and straightened his tie. "Itís about time those guys checked in with us," he muttered. "I was wondering if I was going to have to go downtown and unplug them from their hard drives."

Elisa was watching him check the hang of his suit jacket and his reflection in a convenient office door. "So, are you wanting to look good for the computer cops?" she asked, the corner of her mouth quirked up. "Or maybe youíre just glad to see Sara, hmmm?"

"Donít you start playing matchmaker with me," Matt said warningly. "I owe Sara a lunch for the one we missed the other day. Thatís all."

"Oh, of course, it is," Elisa said agreeably. "Silly me."

The two detectives met Captain Chavez with Sara Jasper and the computer experts just outside the interrogation room. "This is Officers Williams," Chavez said as they entered the room, "and Thompson from Computer Forensics. I believe theyíve got some news for you."

Williams and Thompson were almost identical in haircuts, eyeglasses and mannerisms save that Williams was wearing a gray suit and Thompson was wearing a navy one. They were both carrying laptops and a cardboard box full of computer printouts. Williams cleared his throat.

"It took us a few days to go through all the server logs of the businesses you requested," he began in a slightly nasal voice, "but you were right, Detective Bluestone. There does seem to be a connection."

"You see," Thompson continued, "each of these break-in sites had Internet access. From the time of closing to the time the break-ins were discovered, someone used those computers to get on-line."

Matt interrupted. "Then you found something on the computers?"

"Not exactly," Williams answered. "They were smart enough to always clear out the cache on the web browsers."

Thompson raised a finger. "However, not clever enough. The phone company and the individual servers kept a record of when our mystery hacker logged on."

Williams opened the box in front of him and began stacking piles of paper on the table. "Whoever this guy is, he knew how to access the accounting and finance programs of most of these businesses. He knew the ownersí private passwords for bank accounts, stocks, bonds, you name it."

Elisa frowned. "So any clue as to where this perp is at?"

"Or better yet," Sara added. "Whatís he done with all that money? Where did he put it?"

"Now THAT was the thing that held us up a bit," Thompson said apologetically. "We think that the computer embezzlements have been taking place longer than you originally specified. Weíve got someone looking into that."

"You mean," Captain Chavez said thoughtfully. "Someoneís been doing this for months now and people havenít realized theyíve been robbed."

"Well, the biggest hauls this guy has made has been from companies that are currently tied up in litigation."

"Yeah?" Matt peered around Thompsonís shoulder at the laptop screen. "Give us some names."

Thompson and Williams exchanged a look. "The two biggest were Castaway Industries and Maddox Technologies. Castawayís assets are supposed to be frozen but somehow this guy managed to filter away a cool quarter million."

"Ouch!" Elisa said. "Thatís a lot of pocket change."

"So we thought to ourselves, ĎSomebodyís got to be moving this money.í We started looking into investment firms, banks, gambling, and finally brokerage firms." Williamsí eyes lit up. "Things got really interesting then."

"And?" Matt asked impatiently.

"Thereís this brokerage house Ė Armbruster, Benson and Hurst Ė spotless reputation, clean as a whistle. Weird thing Ė thereís a new guy there, only been there a week or so. Heís making a killing on the stock market, moving huge amounts of money. Thatís not that unusual. The thing that is that all his clients only exist on paper."

"What?" Chavez exclaimed.

Thompson nodded and turned the laptop so that they come all see the list of names on the screen. "Every last one of these is a dummy corporation. He puts the money into them and it gets bounced to an undisclosed location. We traced one transaction to a bank account in the Canary Islands. Thereís probably more."

"We did a background check on this guy, a much more thorough background check than the brokerage did. We donít know who Peter Mason is but he did not exist until a week ago. We checked his employment records, his university background, etcÖ the information is there, we think recently planted, but no living, breathing person knows who he is."

"In short," Thompson concluded, "Peter Mason only exists in computers."

"Then this guy masquerading as Peter Mason is not who he says he is," Elisa said narrowing her eyes. "Can you computer cops prove that heís linked to the embezzlements?"

"We can if we can get access to the brokerage firmís server," Williams answered firmly.

"Captain?"

Chavez opened the door. "Iíve already requested the warrants. The sergeant should have them at the front desk."

Matt winked at Sara. "Coming along for the ride?"

"I wouldnít miss it for the world."

* * * * *

The offices of Armbruster, Benson and Hurst, stockbrokers

A busy anthill was standing still in comparison to a room full of stockbrokers just before the closing bell. Every one of them was in frantic activity Ė except for the bespectacled newcomer sitting calmly in his cubicle, typing away at the keyboard. Peter Mason had had a highly profitable day, George reflected with a self-serving smirk, as he reviewed his data. He'd raised enough money to pay Sevarius's blood money and retain a hefty bankroll for a rainy day. Glancing cautiously about, he proceeded to dump his browser cache and erase all traces of his transactions.

It would have been out of character to look unproductive, so George decided to hit the 'net and check a few of his favorite sites before calling it a day and reporting back to Sevarius. His business with Madoc and the other Halflings had kept him offline all weekend and although he kept Peter Masonís studious composure, George was itching for some serious distraction. Staring at numbers all day was not his idea of fun.

George checked his favorite newsgroup and an ad caught his eye:

"For sale: a first-edition printing of Curious George Goes To The Zoo by H. A. & Margret Rey, in vintage condition and signed by the authors. Inquiries to be made in person at my place of business between 6-8 p.m." There was an address near Columbia University. George pursed his lips thoughtfully. One of the few things he'd treasured from childhood was that particular set of children's books.

Richard used to tease him about that, saying that it was only because George liked hearing the sound of his own name. The hair on the back of his neck was standing on end like it did when he was anticipating trouble but George dismissed it as simply his reaction to the thought of actually getting a hold of a rare autographed first edition. The investment would be well worth it.

The closing bell sounded, and while the others sank back in their chairs from nervous exhaustion, George glanced at his watch. He smirked at the little brown monkey clicking off the minutes. "Plenty of time," he murmured and very casually packed up his things in his briefcase to leave.

George took a few moments in the elevator to exchange Peter Masonís gold-rimmed aviators for a pair of glare-cutting sunglasses. He ran his fingers through his gel-stiffened hair to loosen it and fluffed it into a more devil-may-care fashion. By the time he hit the lobby, the stuffy stockbroker was left behind. He barely winced as he stepped out into the dim late afternoon sunshine and headed towards the subway, oblivious to the red late-model car pulling up to the curb.

 

Elisa, Matt and Sara piled out of Elisaís car and flagged over the two black-and-white units following them. Thompson and Williams got out of the first police car, laptop cases flung across their chests like bandoleers. They had been quite insistent about going along and Chavez had agreed.

"All right," Thompson said enthusiastically, "Letís bust some perps!"

Matt swallowed a smirk, Elisa looked away and Sara hid a suspicious-sounding cough behind her hand. Elisa put on her most professional cop face and took the plunge as she addressed the two computer forensics experts. "Look, guys, have either one of you been on an arrest?"

"Well, um, no," Williams admitted. "We went straight into the Forensics department out of the police academy."

"Weíre wearing our standard-issue sidearms though," added Thompson hopefully.

"Oh, dear," Sara murmured to Matt, "weíve got geeks with guns."

"Okay, hereís what I want you to do," Elisa said firmly. "You let us confront the suspect. Nine times out of ten, heíll cooperate. If things get messy, you let us deal with it. You guys get the evidence we need from the computers, okay?"

Williams looked at Thompson. "Sounds reasonable."

"Okay."

Elisa nodded to Matt and Sara. "Okay, guys. Letís do it."

* * * * *

A secondhand book store near the Columbia University campus

George winced as the bent bell above the door gave a tired clang as he went into the bookstore. It wasn't much to look at; from appearances, the place was in the process of packing up with crates and stacks of books scattered here and there on the dusty floor. He wrinkled his nose and walked further in. "Geez, what a mess!" He raised his voice. "Hey, anybody here? Iíve come about the Rey first edition."

"I knew that youíd be curious, George."

George froze in his tracks. The voice was strangely familiar. "Richard?"

"Itís just us, George. The ownerís gone home. I want the truth." At the sound of a metallic double click, George slowly turned. Richard had both hands on the pistol just like George had taught him. There was a cold look on his face George couldn't ever remember seeing there. "Did you ever date Quinn Ramsey?"

"What? I haven't seen you in months and you want to know about a girl? Quinn who?" George frowned. His palms itched with a cold clamminess. If it had been anyone else, he would have blasted them but this was his brother, the one person that George had sworn to protect ever since childhood.

"Quinn Ramsey." Richard took a deep breath and his grip on the gun relaxed slightly. "Cute brunette with dark brown eyes? About five-four? Turned up nose? Laughs with her whole face? You would have met her at a club down in Greenwich Village over a year ago."

A slow burst of recognition crossed George's face.

"Oh. The brunette at the Rockaway. Rich, it wasn't anything personal, just a weekend fling. If you've met her and you want to--"

Richard's left cross caught him by surprise.

"How could you? How COULD you?" Furiously, Richard struck out at him but in his anger, he lowered the gun. It was the opening George had been looking for. Within seconds, he had slammed Richard to the wall, his gun hand pinned.

"Can't you do anything right, little brother?" George said softly. "I told you to kill me the next time we met." He took the gun and pressed the barrel into his chest. "Do it, Rich. Just do it."

Richard stared into George's eyes. "No, I can't. No matter what you've done, you're still my brother."

"I'm a monster, bro. If you don't do it now, there will be no way of stopping me." As easily as taking a toy from a child, George took the gun and tried to shoot himself. His entire body shook as he tried to fire the weapon but it was as if his trigger finger was paralyzed. He gave a heart-rending cry and threw the gun down at Richardís feet. "They did something to me. I canít take my own life. I canít refuse an order. Iím trying to deal with it the best I can, but dying would be better than living this way."

"Donít ask me to do it." Richardís voice was torn, less by rage and more by sorrow. "If I do, Iíd never be able to live with myself. Iíd never be able to look in Hopeís eyes again."

"Hope? I thought you said her name was Quinn." His eyes narrowed. "What are you talking about, Rich?"

"You left Quinn a little something to remember you by, George," Richard bit out as if each word was painful. "She had your baby."

"A babyÖ" George repeated, shocked. "A human baby?"

"No, a baby orangutan. Of course, a human baby," Richard exclaimed, exasperated. "What did you think?"

George blinked dumbly. "I donít know what to think." He walked a few steps away. Looking over his shoulder, he asked, "How did you find out?"

"Quinn told me Jayce Roberts was Hopeís father. It wasnít hard to figure out," Richard answered. He took a deep breath. "I really care about her and her baby, George. I donít want anything to happen to them."

"What do you want, Rich?"

Before either one of them could speak, a car pulled up in front with a flashing light on top. Car doors slammed and footsteps hurried to the door.

"Are you sure this is the place?"

"Itís the last entry in Masonís web browser. Itís a long shot but weíve got to take it." A cunning look came into Georgeís eyes, like a hunted animal discovering that itís been followed.

A violent banging on the door. "Police!! Open up!!"

"Shield your eyes, Rich!!" George hissed and let loose with a diffuse energy blast as bright as a thousand magnesium flares. The door frame smashed open and Matt, Elisa and Sara charged into the room, guns drawn.

Sara dropped to one knee and scanned the room down the barrel of her revolver. "Got anything?"

"No," Matt replied, standing tall and facing the opposite way.

A door slammed and Elisa sprinted towards it. "Police! Freeze!!"

An empty alley was there to greet her.

* * * * *

"Richard?"

The velvety tones of a familiar voice cut through the haze in his head. Richard groaned and put his gloved hand over his eyes. "Whatís going on? Where am I?"

Angela sat back on her haunches. "Youíre on the roof of your apartment building," she answered. "As to how you got there, itís anyoneís guess. I was flying past on patrol with Lex and Ariana and we saw you laying in the snow."

"Funny thing about that," Lex said, hand on his chin thoughtfully. "The only human footprints are the ones right here by your body. Thereís none by the fire escape."

"More flying humans, Uncle?" Ariana asked curiously. "Like the ones that broke into Xanatosí computer?"

The familiar weight of the gun in his pocket bumped against him as Richard stood up. He was still on probation for his involvement with the Quarrymen. It could have been bad to be caught by the police with the pistol in his possession. Richard smiled. George was still looking out for him.

"Thanks, bro. Wherever you are."

* * * * *

Later that evening back at Anton's house

Anton was in a jovial mood when George arrived on his doorstep. "Well, well, well, Mr. Harrison, you gave me a pretty little puzzle, but I think I've got it."

"What's the answer, Doctor?" George growled.

"It's not going to be easy, and it's going to require the assistance of a close relative. You have family, don't you?"

"Doesnít everybody?" George responded with a non-committal shrug.

"Of course anyone would do," Anton continued. A parent, a sibling, the younger the sampling the better."

"A Öchild?"

Sevarius' eyes lit up. "Oh, yes. The computer simulations had the best results with the little nippers. Ideally neonatal chromosomes would be best. They're still developing, you see, and it's so easy to manipulate them."

"Sounds risky."

"Science isnít science without the element of risk, dear boy!" Sevarius crowed. "Iíd hardly take you for the squeamish sort but a simple blood test is all we need to select the ideal donor for the procedure. Pop a few ccís of hemoglobin into the bioreactor -- thatís the mad scientistís version of an Easy Bake Oven for you, Mr. Harrison Ė remove the red blood cells from the culture and examine the white blood cells with all that lovely DNA under the microscope. From there, itís just a matter of dissecting the chromosomes and matching the compatible genetic markers."

While Sevarius went on in techno-babble, George chewed on his lip and looked thoughtfully out the window. Heíd gone into this whole business with Sevarius knowing that it was a longshot but now regaining his lost humanity was so close that he could taste it. This news, combined with his brotherís surprise revelation, had Georgeís thoughts in a turmoil.

"Mr. Harrison?"

"Hmmm?"

"I was wondering when you might be able to obtain some blood samples so we can get started on your cure."

"As soon as possible, Doctor," Georgeís eyes became blue ice. "I know where I can find the perfect donor."

* * * * *

To be continued...