Black Roses Christine Morgan (firstname.lastname@example.org) Author's Note: this story contains scenes of sex and violence bound to offend somebody. Mature readers only, please! The characters of Gargoyles are the property of Disney, Nikki is on loan from Leva (with thanks!), and the rest are mine. With all due apologies to Denzel Washington! You've been warned; proceed at your own risk!
Few things were creepier than an underground parking structure at three in the morning. Rows of cars stood with an abandoned air, their colors washed to weird dream hues by the orange glow of the overhead lights. Shadows collected in deep pools. The painted lines on the cracked concrete were a scabrous, peeling yellow. The only sounds were magnified, a steady drip becoming a somber drum beat, the hum and rumble of street noises becoming the drone of a giant hive. The man's footsteps clacked and rasped. The garage smelled as depressing as it looked and sounded. Ghosts of old exhaust, faint but discernable urine odors, rust and corrosion, with a sickly patina of gas and oil overlaying it all. Not another soul in sight. The man was alone as he walked between the ranks of cars. He passed beneath a light that spat and flickered irregularly, and it turned his shadow into a jittering hanged man. Normally, he wouldn't be bothered by the eerie solitude. Normally, he would stride carelessly to his car, toss his briefcase into the passenger seat, pop in a CD, and be on his way. Tonight, he paused. He could see and hear nothing out of the ordinary. But something, some ill-defined sense, told him that he was no longer alone in the night. He scanned the garage, listened intently. He wasn't afraid, not yet, but he was concerned. He was a fit man, priding himself on eating well and going to the gym four times a week. He was confident that he could handle any physical challenge. The problem was that more and more criminals these days, some of them kids no older than twelve, carried guns and used them with impunity. A bullet killed a man just as dead no matter how often he used the Stairmaster. Kids couldn't stay quiet this long. Even one kid, going it alone, would have moved or shifted by now. There was no hint of anyone nearby. Still, that sense of being watched wouldn't go away. Worse, it quickly gave way to a sense of being hunted. That his life was in danger. He had no enemies that he knew of. The skin crept on the back of his neck. His gut and groin tightened apprehensively. He realized he was sweating, a cold fearful sweat. His mouth filled with bitter saliva. He could see his car. Less than twenty steps away. A maroon Acura, only a year old, with all the extras. Safe haven. He tried to take a step toward the car, but his feet did not want to move. The impulse of the prey was too strong. His eyes began to ache from staring unblinking into the shadows, darting from one car to the next, not knowing which concealed the stalker but knowing that someone was there, perhaps even moving closer with uncanny silence. Perhaps even behind him already. So that if he turned, he would find himself face to face with something out of his worst nightmare, nothing so simple as a man with a gun, something inhuman and horrifying. A small whine, almost a whimper, escaped his throat. He heard it and understood that he had passed well beyond fear now, into the realms of keen terror. The sound released him. He sucked in a huge gasp and ran for his car, briefcase slamming against his leg, groping for the keys. Ten steps away. He triggered the remote that would deactivate the alarm and unlock the door. Five steps. He heard a low, malicious chuckle. Two steps, reaching for the door handle. And he was yanked off his feet, one of them flailing to connect with the driver's side mirror hard enough to snap it off. His briefcase flew onto the car's roof and slid off the other side, snapping open and shedding a drift of papers. He was thrust upward, his head slamming into the low ceiling, and then hurled to the ground. A scream died unvoiced when he was struck in the stomach. His right arm was pulled around behind his back, shoulder on fire with agony before it popped enormously and went numb. Thrown again, this time into the side of a Blazer. He dented the door and rebounded. He caught the briefest glimpse of his attacker, a large dark form, before he was picked up by the ankles and swung into one of the concrete support posts. He was able to get his left arm over his face but still his nose exploded and his jaw sprung loose. He landed on a smeary oil stain and a faded number 41. All of his signals were scrambled. He couldn't scream, couldn't get up, couldn't even crawl. Blood was pouring briskly down his chin. "Please," the man said, or tried to, the word garbled by his ruined mouth. A shadow fell over him. * * Elisa woke slowly, unwillingly, to the sound of a running shower and a medly of show tunes. Before she could muster the energy to get out of bed, the shower cut off and her cousin Nikki pranced in, wearing a towel and belting out "Life is a Cabaret" in her best Liza Minelli. Which was, admittedly, pretty good. Nikki had a great voice, loads of talent, and plenty of energy. She also happened to be staying at Elisa's because she couldn't make her rent "between gigs." She'd been "between gigs" for a while now, but Elisa owed her one. Payback for a holiday favor. "Morning, Sleeping Beauty!" Nikki said. "Can I borrow your blue sweater? The royal blue, with the low V-neck?" "Sure," Elisa said, still too groggy to argue. "You look like homemade hell, girl," Nikki observed as she rummaged through Elisa's closet. "Didn't sleep well again?" Elisa peered at her clock. 10:38. "Ugh. Not well at all. I feel like a dump truck backed over me." "I slept great! Though I had the _weirdest_ dream!" "Uh-huh." Elisa contemplated pulling both pillow and covers over her head and not emerging until sunset, but her mouth tasted like sludge and she ached all over. "David Xanatos was in it," Nikki continued blithely. "And you'll never guess what we did!" "I don't think I need to hear this," Elisa groaned. "We were at a fancy party, and I was wearing the most gorgeous dress, all silver sequins, and my hair was up. I looked like Whitney Houston, I was _that_ hot. Anyway, he was there, and we were dancing, and he started whispering dirty-talk in my ear, and then --" "Nikki, come on!" Elisa complained. "Wild monkey sex in the back of his limo!" Elisa groaned again and did yank the covers over her head. She hoped Nikki wouldn't feel inclined to share the details, but no such luck. "I bet I came six times, and all the while the glass was down so his chauffeur could see everything, and he was dribbling champagne on my --" "Nikki!" Elisa yelled, immediately regretting it as her head seemed to expand and contract. The room bulged like a reflection in a funhouse mirror. Nikki broke off, then smiled sympathetically. "That bad, huh?" "Maybe I'm coming down with something." Elisa felt her forehead but couldn't tell if she had a fever. "Well, take some aspirin and hop in the shower and you'll feel lots better." She held the sweater up to her chest and nodded into the mirror. "This is great. I have earrings that will be perfect. Hey, who sent the flowers? They're gorgeous!" "Flowers?" "Sure," her voice trailed back as she returned to the bathroom. "I've never seen roses that color. I saw them when I came in last night, but you were out cold so I didn't want to wake you." "What flowers?" Elisa wondered, more to herself than Nikki, and dragged her aching, protesting body out of bed. She went into the living room, and stopped in her tracks at the sight of the roses. They were purest black, with a velvety sheen. The stems were so dark green that they seemed black as well. Her first thought was that they had to be fake, but their scent was rich and the petals had that feeling of whispery silkiness that only real roses could manage. There were a dozen of them, in a blood-red crystal vase that looked like it cost a fortune. A card was tucked among the flowers. She opened it and read it aloud. "For Elisa -- in the name of love." "So who's the secret admirer?" Nikki asked, now fully dressed and looking better in the sweater than Elisa ever had. "I don't know," Elisa said, secretly sure that it had to be Goliath, although he'd never done anything like this before. "They were here last night?" "Right there on the table. What, don't you remember?" "No. No, I don't." She turned the vase this way and that, troubled. "Weird. Well, see you later." Nikki breezed out, a full day ahead of her. "Three auditions, a rehearsal, lunch with Babs Meyer, I have to return those shoes, and there's a party tonight at The Sunset Club. Want to come? Loads of cute guys hang out there!" "No thanks. I've got to work," she said automatically, still puzzling over the roses. Cagney emerged as Nikki left. The grey cat hopped up onto the table for an inquisitive sniff, and immediately backed off with ears flattened and eyes narrowed into slits. "Cagney?" She held out a hand Cagney dodged, hissed, batted at the vase, and fled to a hiding spot under the couch. "Crazy cat," Elisa murmured. She moved the vase to a higher shelf, supposedly off-limits to felines, and trudged off to the shower. * * "Mommy? Daddy?" Courtney appeared in the doorway, clutching her blankey. "There's a monster outside my window!" Sandra glanced at her husband, but he was half-asleep on the couch with the remote resting on his chest. She set down her book. "What, honey?" "A monster!" Courtney insisted. Her lip began to tremble. "I seen it looking in!" Sweetly, patiently, Sandra began, "Courtney, we've talked about this before. There are no such things as --" Raptor, their German Shepherd, sprang up from his spot in front of the television and let loose a torrent of barks and snarls that jolted Lawrence from his doze. Courtney ran to her mother, bursting into terrified tears. "What the hell --?" Lawrence said. Raptor streaked into the kitchen. The family cat, Mister Grinch, shot past going the other way, puffed to twice his normal size. Even over the barking, they could hear Raptor's claws scratching madly at the door. "The monster, the monster!" Courtney sobbed, pressing her face against Sandra's stomach. Getting scared herself, Sandra looked at her husband. "She says she saw something ..." "I'll check it out. You two stay put." Lawrence tied his robe and headed for the kitchen. "Maybe we should call the police," Sandra suggested. "If that damn dog doesn't shut up, I bet the neighbors will." He made sure Courtney wasn't looking, and reached onto the high shelf to get the gun. Sandra hugged her daughter nervously. "You think it's a ... b-u-r-g-l-a-r?" "Could be," he said grimly. "The Davidsons were robbed two weeks ago. But don't worry. Raptor's probably already scared them off. I'll just make sure." He vanished from her sight and she stayed put, moving only far enough to hitch the phone closer, ready to dial 911. She heard the back door open, and Raptor's volley of barks as the dog plunged into the yard. The barks cut off with shocking finality. "Raptor?" she heard Lawrence call, his voice unsure. Don't go out there, she wanted to say. "Raptor! Hey, boy!" No answering bark. Not so much as a yip or a whine. "The monster got Raptor," Courtney wept, her words muffled. Sandra stroked her hair. "I'm sure Raptor's fine." She heard Lawrence again, farther away, and realized that he had gone outside despite her silent plea. "Who's out there?" And then a cry of alarm, a gunshot, and a series of breaking and crashing noises. Sandra grabbed the phone. Courtney began to shriek for her daddy. Something heavy thumped on the roof, and then all was still. * * "Got you something," Nikki said as Elisa stumbled into the kitchen. "Good morning to you, too." All she wanted was coffee. She was certainly in no mood for one of Nikki's 'surprises.' "Here." Nikki tossed her a pink cardboard box. "My treat. A plus for yes. Simple." That got through the fog in her head. "A pregnancy test? Come on, Nikki! It's impossible!" Nikki shrugged. "All week, you've been waking up sick, gross, and bitchy. So maybe it's morning sickness. Some sleazy affair you haven't told me about." "It is not morning sickness!" "Whatever. It's not the flu, because by now I would've got it, and I've never felt better." She winked. "Must be all those dirty dreams I've been having! Oh, hey, do you work tonight?" "No, why?" "I was hoping to have some people over. I met this guy, he's a director for an off-Broadway show. Their leading lady, well, someone told her to break a leg, you know, for luck, except she really did. Anyway, I've got a pretty good shot at landing this part, so I was going to invite some of the cast over to see if I meshed." "Sure, go for it," Elisa said. "I'll find someplace else to stay for the night." "I don't want to kick you out or anything ..." "Don't worry about it." "Oh, by the way, Mark called. Looks like we found your mystery rose sender!" "Mark?" "Mark Wright. You know, Mister 'Right'?" "I broke up with him years ago!" "Sounds like he wants to give it another shot. Give him a chance. He's not doing too bad for himself, you know. Got a string of upscale shops in Boston, and a house in Back Bay." "No. No way. Absolutely not. If you think he's so great, _you_ go out with him." Nikki laughed. "No chance! I learned my lesson after Larry Conley, remember? I'm having nothing to do with your exes, no matter how long ago you dumped them. You hated me for _months_! Besides, old Mark didn't seem the least bit interested in yours truly. I told him you were sleeping, so he said he'd stop by around six and maybe you could go out for an early dinner." "Damn it, Nikki! You're not my social secretary!" "What, was I just supposed to let it ring?" "I have an answering machine!" "Those things are death for your career. A director calls and gets one of those, he thinks you're not sincerely interested." "I'm not an actress!" Elisa said. Nikki dropped her brows into a fearsome glower and pursed her mouth. In a remarkably apt impression of her grandmother, Elisa's Aunt Agnes, she said, "But you are a single girl, and you'll stay one if you never pick up your phone! In my day, a girl didn't play hard-to-get until she ended up an old maid of twenty-eight!" "Ha, ha, very funny." Reverting to herself, Nikki said, "Look, what will it hurt to meet him? If he's still a jerk, arrest him. If not ..." "I can't arrest someone for being a jerk, and I don't appreciate you messing around in my personal life!" "Lighten up," Nikki laughed. "Here, go pee in the cup and put your mind at ease. I'll see you later. Say hi to Mark for me!" Elisa sat at the table until her cousin was gone, shaking her head in disbelief. Her gaze happened to fall upon the little pink box and she almost found the energy to laugh. A pregnancy test. Yeah, right. Given that she was not only dating a guy of another species but that they also hadn't had any time alone in weeks, not to mention that her monthly "friend" had come and gone recently, it was pretty high on the unlikely list. But, still ... "Might as well check." * * Promptly at six o'clock, the intercom buzzed. Elisa grumbled something unladylike and pressed the button. "Yeah?" "Elisa? It's Mark. Mark Wright." She glanced upward in supplication. "I'll be right down." There was a startled pause, and then he said, "I was thinking I could come up there ..." "I'll be right down," she repeated, more firmly, and shut off the intercom. She pulled on her red jacket and proceeded downstairs. Mark smiled as she came out of the building. Had his teeth bonded, was her first unkind thought, followed closely by a second: dyes his hair, too, he always cared more about his hair than anything else. "Elisa!" he said warmly. He came at her as if nothing had changed, as if nothing bad had ever happened between them. His arms reached as if to hug her. She outmaneuvered him into a handshake instead, and then stepped away and stuffed her hands into her jacket pockets. "Hi, Mark." He grinned charmingly. "You don't seem glad to see me." She was unmoved. Xanatos had a charming grin. So did crime boss Tony Dracon. Hadn't stopped her from busting either of them. "Actually, Mark, I'm not," she said. He had the gall to look hurt. "But I came all the way from Boston to see you! I wanted to see you again. Talk to you. About us." "There is no us," she said sharply. "There hasn't been an us for over five years!" "I can tell you're still upset about that. Hey, let's go get some coffee or something." "Fine." She started walking swiftly down the sidewalk, forcing him to hurry to keep up. "Coffee, and then goodbye." He followed her into the corner cafe and surprised her by ordering herbal tea. "I quit drinking," he admitted. "You showed me that it was ruining my life." Unimpressed, she just looked at him. He smiled hopefully. "I've really missed you, Elisa. After we broke up, I felt lost. I threw myself into my work, never gave myself much time for a personal life. And then one day, it was like I woke up and realized how rotten I'd been. I wanted to make it up to you." "You don't owe me anything," she said tersely. "I'd like a second chance." Sighing, realizing this wasn't going to end gracefully, and thinking she should just walk out now, Elisa shook her head. "Mark, I'm seeing someone." "Is it ... serious?" "We're practically engaged." His face fell, then a sly look came into his eyes. "What's his name? I'd like to meet him, tell him what a lucky guy he is." She groaned inwardly. He thought she was lying, making up someone. To make him jealous. But she was neatly trapped, for while the lucky guy in question certainly was real, she couldn't very well introduce him. "Look, Mark, let's just knock it off. I was perfectly happy with you out of my life, and will be perfectly happy again once you're gone." "I know you're still mad about how we broke up. I'm sorry, Elisa. I was a little out of line, the way I treated you." Her nerves had been worn thin by a week of poor sleep, and now they simply snapped. "Out of line!" She shot to her feet, drawing every eye. Bad form, half these folks knew her by name or at least knew she was a cop, but she couldn't stop herself. "You and your drunk asshole buddies thought it would be funny to try and make me do a stripdance for you, and you think you were a little out of line? I had to hitchhike back from Vermont, and you think you were a little out of line? You bastard!" With that, she picked up his teacup and dashed the contents into his face. It wasn't hot enough to scald, but he reacted as if it had been battery acid. Elisa slammed the cup down on the table. The sound of it breaking brought her to her senses. She looked down at Mark, who had fallen from his chair and was pawing tea from his eyes. The rest of the patrons were utterly silent. She dropped some cash next to the broken cup. "Sorry about the mess," she said to Felix. The counterman, a tiny white-haired fellow who came barely to her shoulders, just nodded. At the door, she turned back. "Oh, Nikki says hi." * * Her apartment was filled with music and people. The 'small, off-Broadway' production Nikki had mentioned evidently had a cast to rival A Chorus Line, and they were all in her living room. She'd spent a couple of hours just wandering, and if she hadn't found a squad car that recognized her, she would have blown major bucks on cab fare home. But good old Morgan had been kind enough to give her a lift. So here she was, staring at a bunch of actors who looked more like tidied-up street people. "Hi, cousin!" Nikki called cheerfully. "How'd the pregnancy test turn out?" Now that bunch of actors was staring at her, with expressions of tabloid curiosity. "Negative," she hollered over the music. "Not that it's any of your business!" Nikki wove through the crowd. "It's going great!" she confided. "I think I've got the part!" "Congrats. Let me get out of your way. I'll be at the Aerie Building if you need anything. Number's by the phone." She headed for her room and threw some things in a bag. "So, how'd it go with Mark?" Nikki asked, having tagged right along like she used to do when they were kids. "Don't ask. For all I care, he can just drop dead." * * "Elisa," Goliath said with genuine pleasure. She dropped her bag and went to him, not stopping until her face was snug against his chest and her arms were holding him tightly. He embraced her, stroking her hair. "What is it? What is the matter?" Before she knew she was going to do it, the whole story came spilling out. Nikki, Mark, everything. She felt his muscles tense under her hands. "You should have introduced me to him," he said in a low and ominous tone. "No, Goliath, no." She took a deep breath, feeling better already. "God! I've been so out of it all week! Can't sleep worth a damn, wake up feeling like a zombie, working extra shifts. This is the first day I've had off all week, and look how it turned out!" "The day is done. Let it pass." He tipped her face up to his and kissed her with great gentleness. "Yeah. Good idea." She didn't resist when he scooped her up and carried her to the spacious room Xanatos had given her as her own. "Sometimes I think I _should_ move in here." Goliath rumbled agreement. "It would be wisest. You are part of our clan, and clan should be together." "But we can't have everyone thinking Xanatos has his own pet cop." "I care not what everyone thinks. You've made many enemies on our behalf, and I would never forgive myself if anything happened to you." He bent to kiss her again, and she yawned, then laughed. "I'm sorry!" He smiled. "You are exhausted. Sleep now, and we will talk more later." She touched his stern, noble face. "Thanks, big guy." "I love you, my Elisa." * * "Aren't you going to take these cuffs off?" Fox breathed, shifting her shoulders and hearing the chain clink softly between her wrists. "Maybe after I've searched you," Matt Bluestone said, leaning close. "Thoroughly." "Don't you touch me," she commanded, but even as she said it she moved her body in ways meant to tantalize. "You have the right to remain silent," he replied, and ripped off her shirt. She was braless beneath. With her hands behind her back, it caused her chest to jut forward dramatically. As she lunged against the cuffs, she was very aware of how her firm, full breasts bounced. Matt filled his hands with them. "You don't seem to be concealing anything here!" "Oh, you son of a bitch!" she moaned, writhing. "Shut up." He went to work on the rest of her clothes, and in minutes she was stark naked, face against a brick wall with her legs braced wide apart. She turned her head to the side, pressing her cheek to the bricks. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the rest of the squad room. Uniformed officers, young and sexy all, stood watching as Matt groped down her long legs. Watching with great appreciation. And waiting. Chained, wickedly humiliated, helpless. Her pulse was racing, her body on fire. Matt moved up again, squeezing her thighs, cupping her buttocks. Then his fingers probed between her thighs, over silky hair and satiny flesh. She gasped and pushed her hips back, rubbing against his hand. Fox cried out in frustration as he released her and stood. She saw his face nearing her own. There was a devilish glint in his eyes, a cruel smile twisting his ordinary good looks. He grabbed her roughly and spun her around, throwing her face-down across a desk littered with citations and arrest reports. She started to get up but was driven back down as his weight came down atop her. The other cops closed in eagerly, many already sporting huge erections, some handling batons in extremely suggestive ways. Matt entered her from behind with one swift thrust. She cried out again, but in frenzied passion this time. He held her down and rocked and thrust until she was overcome by a savage orgasm. * * Fox Xanatos awoke with a start. It took her a few moments to figure out where she was, that she wasn't cuffed, and that she wasn't being deliciously worked over by a roomful of young cops. Her body was tingling in the way it did after the sex was particularly good. She wiped her sweat-damp hair back. "Whew!" "What?" her husband asked, rising onto one elbow and blinking sleepily. "David! Were you seducing me while I slept?" "No," he said, puzzled. "Why?" "I _never_ have dreams like that!" "Dreams like what?" He was more alert now, and intrigued. "Well ... never mind the details," she said quickly, not sure how he'd react to her having erotic dreams about Detective Bluestone. "But since we're both awake ..." * * "Morning, partner!" Matt hailed as Elisa approached their desks. "Got a juicy one this morning! Real messy. Richards was first on the scene, and even he lost his cookies." "Richards?" Elisa echoed. "Old Iron-Guts threw up? That's a first. What was it? Car wreck? Industrial?" "Looks like murder, but I talked to Skippy at the coroner's office, and he says they don't have clue one about what the weapon was. His best guess was power tools." Elisa wrinkled her nose. "Nice." "Yeah. Richards said the scene looked like an explosion at a Pace Picante Sauce factory, on a day they were making a batch of extra thick and chunky." He actually looked at her then, for the first time, and faltered. "Hey, Elisa, are you okay?" "Haven't been sleeping well. I was up at the castle last night, thought that would help, but I still feel like something that got dragged out of the gutter." She sat down and took the pictures Matt handed her way. She tapped one. "What's that?" "That, believe it or not, is the guy's torso. And see this? A single black rose, placed right over where his heart used to be." "A black rose?" she frowned. "I know what you're thinking. It's got trademark serial killer written all over it," Matt said excitedly. "I've got feelers out to other departments to see if they've got anything similar. Maybe we're lucky enough to get the first one, stop him before he really gets going, but I don't have that feeling. I'm betting we're going to turn up a few more." "Have the papers got ahold of it yet?" "No, but that leech Travis Marshall is sniffing around." "Figures. So, who's the stiff?" Matt showed her another picture. "This is his head. As you can see, we're having some trouble getting a positive I.D." Elisa's stomach rolled. "Is that the front or the back?" "Front." "Where was the head?" "Looked like it had been drop-kicked by a starter for the NFL. Some old lady walking her dog found it forty yards away from the rest of him. We've been going over missing persons reports but so far, nothing. We also found a rental-car tag nearby, might have belonged to John Doe here, and I should be getting a call-back on that any minute." "Maza! Bluestone!" "That's the captain." Matt jumped up. "Want me to handle it?" "Yeah," she said distractedly, flipping through the photos. She had the nagging feeling that she was missing something. One picture in particular kept drawing her. The black rose, resting carefully, almost delicately, above a gaping hole lined with jagged broken rib-ends. She was glad the department used high-quality black-and-white film instead of color. Matt came back with a sheaf of papers. "Pay dirt! We've got two other cases, both with the same M.O., both with the black rose, all killed within the week." "Serial killer," Elisa repeated thoughtfully. "A weird one!" Matt's phone rang and he swept it up. "Bluestone. Oh, yeah. You do? Great." He held the phone between shoulder and ear and waved for a pen. Elisa tossed him one and he scribbled a few words. "Yeah. Thank you very much. No, no. When we find the car, we'll be in contact." He hung up. "Rental company?" "Yep. Car was rented to a Mark Wright, from Boston. Now, of course they could've just been lost earlier, but -- Elisa? What's wrong?" "What was that name?" "Wright. Mark Wright." "Oh, my God!" She dug through the photos again. "Matt, I know this guy! I saw him yesterday!" She held one up. "That's his watch, he was wearing it!" "Hey! Calm down, partner, calm down. It might be a mistake." "No! Matt, listen to me! This is Mark!" "Okay. Okay. I believe you. Maybe I better handle this. Why don't you go on home, and --" "No! You're not taking me off this case!" "Chavez will, the minute she learns that you knew the guy. You know the rules on personal involvement in cases." "Screw the rules!" Elisa yelled. Several of her brothers and sisters in blue began clapping as her voice cut across the squadroom. "Okay. Chill. Why don't we start with these other ones? So far, all we've got is males of about the same age. No robbery. No witnesses. First guy, editorial assistant, alone in a parking garage. Security guard nearly ran him over. Second guy, P.E. teacher, wife said he went out back to look for a prowler, wound up on the roof of his house. Family dog was killed too, a big German Shepherd, neck broken." "Any connection?" "None yet. Names are ..." he sifted through papers. "Wayne Allen and Lawrence Conley." "That can't be right!" She dove across the desk and ripped the papers out of his hands. "God. God, no. This is nuts!" "What? You know these guys too?" "Boyfriends. Old boyfriends. I dated all three of them." She sank weakly into her chair. "And someone sent me a bunch of black roses just a few days ago. I had to throw them out; Cagney tore the hell out of them; but I'd bet they were the exact same kind!" Matt cleared his throat, started to say something, changed his mind, and then decided to go for it anyway. "Elisa ... these murders all happened at night. Whoever did it had to be strong. Real strong. Able to tear a man apart like a roast chicken." She slowly raised her head. "You can't think ..." "I don't know what to think," he said hastily. "But we can't ignore the possibility --" "No." "Elisa --" "It's not Goliath!" * * Elisa never thought she'd be sitting at her desk, trying to compose a list of all her ex-boyfriends. But, crazy as it was, that was exactly what she was doing. For the first time in her life, she was no longer envious of Nikki's flocks of adoring admirers. It was, when all was said and done, a relatively short list. "Does Goliath know about all of these guys?" "Drop it, Matt." Matt sighed and drummed his pen on the desk. "Look, Elisa, we've got to consider it. Here we've got three guys, all of them killed at night by an unidentified, super-strong suspect who can get around without being spotted. You know anybody else that could crack a German Shepherd's neck in a single blow?" She glared at him. "Can't you get it through your thick head --" "Hey, I know how he feels about you! He's beyond overprotective! Obsessed with getting back at anybody that hurts you. Now, you told me that all the breakups with these guys were ugly scenes. Maybe he's gone a little off the deep end." "Are you saying Goliath's crazy?" "No," he said hastily. "Maybe he thinks it's justified." She pushed the crime reports in his face. "Wayne Allen lived in Chicago. Larry Conley was in Atlanta, for pete's sake! Goliath hasn't left Manhattan!" "The one last night was within sight of the Aerie Building." "Matt, I was there last night. Goliath was worried about me. He probably spent the entire night sitting at my bedside while I slept!" "Another gargoyle, then? Acting on his orders?" "That's absurd. Goliath would never do something like that. And none of the others knew anything about my boyfriends --" she gasped as she realized there was one name missing from her list. "Jason!" "Canmore?" She was already dialling. "What about Demona, then? She could be hoping we would pin it on Goliath. She'd be sneaky enough to check out your past, too." "Hello, Robin? Hi. It's Elisa. Is Jason all right?" She listened, and went limp with relief. "No, that's okay, don't get him out of the pool. He's got to keep up his physical therapy. But, Robin ... there's something weird going on. I can't tell you much, police business, but someone might be trying to ... uh, get at Jason. I'm going to get him some police protection --" she ignored Matt's half-formed protest "-- and I want you to watch out. Especially at night. No, I can't tell you. Robin, you've got to trust me. No, I don't think it has anything to do with Jon. Yeah. Okay. I will, I promise. Yeah. Goodbye." "Chavez is going to hit the roof if you send police protection around there," Matt said as she hung up. "I'm following sensible procedure. He's a possible target." "She'll want to know why, and then she'll have you off this case faster than you can say personal involvement. And it'll be my butt for letting you stay on this long." "Then we won't tell her anything until we've nailed the creep." Matt threw his hands in the air. "Okay, I give up. What's our next move? I've already had people calling florists all over the city, and nobody's come up with roses like that. In fact, I sent one in an evidence bag around to some of the shops, and none of them have even _seen_ a rose that color. Does Xanatos have a garden at the castle?" "Yeah, why?" "Because a gargoyle couldn't walk into a florist's shop anyway --" "Damn it, Matt!" Her pen snapped between her fingers. "It's not Goliath! Get _off_ it!" He shut up, but only for a while. Only long enough for her to think of a child's Bo-Bo doll, knock it down and it bobs right back up again. "Okay, maybe you're right," he said. "But that's even more of a reason why we've got to come up with something, because there's one thing you haven't considered." "Oh? And what's that?" He looked at her gravely. "There's some psycho stalking you, maybe trying to win your love by getting rid of the competition, sending you roses just like the ones he leaves at the murders so you have to notice the connection. That means, if Goliath's not a suspect, he's a target." The bottom dropped out of her soul. * * "Sir, have you observed anything unusual recently?" Owen asked calmly over dinner. David Xanatos glanced over from where he was trying with limited success to coax Alex into eating his carrots. "What do you mean, Owen?" "I have no concrete proof, but I have the feeling that one of Oberon's Children has been nearby." "Titania, my mother?" Fox perked up alertly, ready to get mad. Aiden Ferguson's eyes widened. "Queen of the Fairies?" "Not Titania," Owen said. "I am confident of that much, at least. Nor Oberon, nor the Weird Sisters. A lesser power, possibly of the darker ones." "What gives you this idea?" Xanatos asked. Owen shook his head, clearly disturbed. "A hunch, nothing more. I must ask, have any of you had peculiar dreams lately?" Clatter-splash! as Aiden dropped a full glass of 7-Up into her spinach salad. They all turned toward her. "Aiden?" Xanatos inquired leadingly. She went as red as the side of a barn and began frantically mopping at the spill with her napkin. "Sorry! Clumsy! Really, I'm sorry!" "It could be important," Owen prompted. "What was it about?" Her gaze darted about, seeking escape and finding none. "Um, well, I ... Professor MacDuff ... I'd really rather not discuss it!" "It was an erotic dream?" Owen asked. The girl flushed darker and stammered, but her body shifted in a sensual un-Aidenish manner that made Xanatos blink. It was the move of a mature, experienced woman. It was a plainer "yes" than any words could have conveyed. "Me, too," Fox admitted. When Aiden goggled horrified at her, she amended, "The same _sort_ of dream, but with a different dramatis personae." "That's what you said earlier," Xanatos remarked. "Who was it?" "Like Aiden, I'd rather not discuss it," she said with a guilty little smile. "I suspected as much." Owen's gaze went far-seeing, deep in thought. "May I be excused please?" Aiden asked in a very small and mortified voice. "We should find out just what we're dealing with here first," Xanatos said. "Owen? Any hints?" "I suspect an incubus." "Incubus. A ... sexual vampire?" Xanatos raised an eyebrow. "Interesting." Aiden shuddered. "A vampire?" "According to folklore, which holds more truth than you know," Owen said, "the visit of an incubus is supposed to leave the victim weak and exhausted. Drained. However, at breakfast, neither of you showed those symptoms." Fox shook her head emphatically. "I woke feeling great!" "So, in all likelihood, neither of you was the primary target. Your dreams were side-effects of its passage. Radiant heat, if you will." "If neither Fox nor Aiden was the target," Xanatos mused, "I wonder how Detective Maza was feeling this morning?" * * Of all the people that could have greeted them upon awakening, few gave the clan such an instinctive feeling of resigned dread than Owen Burnett. His patient presence could only mean bad news. Goliath leapt down from his perch. "Yes?" "There is a slight situation that requires your attention," Owen said. "Oh, and it would be best if Angela absented herself from the castle tonight." "Why?" Brooklyn bristled belligerently and moved a step closer to Angela. "Yes, why?" she said. "We've asked all of the women to do so. Frankly, I'm not sure that Angela would be in danger, but --" "Danger!" Lex yelped. "Where's Aiden?" "Fox drove her back to the Sterling Academy, and will then herself stay the night at a hotel." Puzzled looks passed between the gargoyles. "Perhaps ye should explain yerself, lad," Hudson said for them all. Barely glancing at Goliath, but standing carefully out of arm's reach, Owen replied, "An incubus seems to have fixated on Elisa Maza." This announcement caused a brief uproar, throughout which Owen continued speaking calmly to Goliath. "We can intervene, and it seems as if you would be the best one to handle the matter. Alexander can send you into Elisa's dream to combat the incubus. It is not without risk to you but is the only way to deal with it once and for all. Of course, Elisa must not know of this until afterward." Goliath's fist clenched. Since his hand was resting on a parapet at the time, this resulted in an impressive cracking and crumbling of stone. "I see. Why must this be kept from Elisa? More of your 'living for subterfuge'?" Owen looked faintly wounded. "Not this time. If she is aware of our plan, so too will the incubus. Your chances are better if he is ignorant." "You mean, he knows everything Elisa knows?" Broadway gaped. "He has the potential to know everything she knows, a minor difference. It is likely he is focusing only on certain aspects of her personality or memory, and hopefully has not realized the truth about Alexander or myself. However, he would be alert to any awareness on her part of himself. This would lead him to investigate and we would be undone." "I do not like deceiving her," Goliath rumbled. "In this case, it is easily the lesser evil. And the only way to save not only her life but her very soul." "Can't we just find this incubus and grab him?" Broadway asked. "It is not that simple. Only in the realm of dreams can he be destroyed." "How?" Goliath looked down at his hands. "I have fought Oberon's Children before. They are not easily defeated. Has this creature any weaknesses? Does it bleed?" "It draws its strength from Elisa. In effect, you will be fighting her." "No!" he said instantly, backed up by murmurs from the rest of his clan. "Her life force is what gives the incubus its power. Feeds off her soul. That is why she has been complaining of weariness. Forgive me; I reviewed the tape of your conversation last night. We had to ascertain the incubus' target." "What's going to happen to Elisa?" Angela asked. "If we are successful, she should recover quickly. If we are not ..." "Aye, ye don't need to be telling us further," Hudson cut in. "Let me see if I understand this," Brooklyn said. "This guy lives in Elisa's dreams?" "After a fashion. When she dreams, he is able to use her life force to manifest himself in the mortal world. When she is awake, her conscious mind prevents it. He would be helpless as long as she never dreamt, but sleep must come." "To sleep, perchance to dream," Broadway muttered. "So you go into her dreams? Like that time in Australia?" Angela asked Goliath. "When you and Dingo went into the dreamtime?" "Not exactly," Owen said. "Still, it is good that he has done something like this before. That, in addition to the strong bond between them, give me confidence." Goliath made a sound somewhere between a sigh and a growl. "I do not like this. To enter her mind, her dreams, without her knowledge ..." "Yeah, but what choice do you have?" Brooklyn said. "You've got to help Elisa," Lex added. "She'd agree, if she knew about it." "To protect her, lad. Ye must." Broadway and Angela nodded, and even Bronx chuffed in agreement. "Very well," Goliath said heavily. "I will betray this trust to help Elisa. What would you have me do?" * * "I don't get it!" Elisa said, hanging up the phone. "He's okay, too?" "Yeah. That's the whole list. Any smartass remarks about how that didn't take long, and I'm going to feed you your own tie." Matt grinned. "Wasn't going to say a word. So, what's the deal? It's obvious that Mr. Black Rose isn't working in chronological order --" "Wait." Elisa looked at her list again. She felt her face warm up. "Well, in a way, he is." "Huh?" "Wayne ... Larry ... Mark ... those are the ones I --" "Oh-ho! So these other guys, including Canmore, you never slept --" "Watch it!" "Down to Goliath, then, are we? Boy, makes me glad I never put the moves on you!" "Matt, I'm serious! People are dying, and you're sitting there with a big smirk!" He smothered it quickly. "Sorry, Elisa." Morgan stopped by their desk. "Captain says it's time to go home. You've been at it all day!" Elisa checked the clock. "But ..." "He's right," Matt said. "Come on, partner. I'm starved. Let's rustle up a hoagie or something." "Hey, Bluestone," Morgan called cheerily after them. "Tell Edie that if she ever wants to send more cookies this way, the boys in blue would be mighty grateful!" "Edie?" Elisa asked as they sidestepped to avoid two cops with a struggling armful of spitting and cursing hooker. "Sure," Matt said. "EuryDice. E.D. Edie. Get it? Heck of a lot easier than trying to handle her real name." "How'd it go, meeting your mom?" He blew an exasperated noise. "And I was worried! Mom thinks she's the greatest! Of course, Mom also thinks she's an exchange student, which explains her accent and charmingly eccentric mannerisms." "I'm glad it's working out," Elisa said absently. "Look, Matt, I've got to take a rain check on that sandwich. I need to talk to Goliath." "Yeah, sure. Hey, I'm sorry about suspecting him and all." "Don't worry about it. He probably won't take it _too_ personally." * * It was time. Time to reveal himself to her. Had there ever been such a delectable female? The memories of his kind stretched back to the very dawn of mankind, to the guise of a lowly serpent. In his estimation, this Elisa was beyond compare. Her beauty of face and form might not be so great as Eve or Helen, but her soul was a jewel among pebbles! A jewel among jewels! A banquet! She was worthy of his love and attention. The roses were but symbols of the gifts he had given her. Three gifts of death. Of revenge. He had passed over the lesser ones, the ones that she had not foolishly offered her body to and been used and discarded. The lesser ones might have known the feel of a breast, the caress of a hand, but this he was willing to forgive. Only the final gift remained. To free her from the gargoyle. It would be difficult, for she thought she loved the beast and closed her mind to the hurt he caused. She had not yet come to hate him. Only in the deepest recesses of her mind did she carry her pain. The gargoyle did not deserve her. The gargoyle could never understand the rare and rich bounty of such a woman. She was no savage and base creature. He hovered over her, unseen, unheard. She turned fitfully on the pillow, a hideous claw stroking her hair. Even in her sleep, she tried to get away from the gargoyle's touch, but the brute did not see, did not comprehend. She slept, at least. That was enough for him to come to her, to be drawn to her through the shadowy aether realms just as he had done many nights previously. He would confess to her of his lengthy confinement, which had ended with Oberon's summons home to Avalon. He would tell her how he had glimpsed her image in the memories of many of the other Children, and in the mortals Oberon suffered to live on his island. How it had pierced him like an arrow, and how he had known in that instant that she was meant to be his. Even, he decided, to confess how he had plagued Oberon with jealousies over the fickle Queen and her juicy handmaidens, until the great Lord had commanded him begone. Begone, but Oberon had not said to where, and so he had chosen for himself to return to the world of mortals. The world held more souls now than it had at the time of his binding. Millions more sleeping minds to skim over in hopes of finding that one precious beacon, the call of true love. At last, he had found her. But it had never been the way of his kind to court empty- handed. From the very beginning, a gift was needed. No apple would do this time. He had looked into her soul and found the perfect present, and set to with bridegroom's eagerness. Surely she would appreciate his gift, once she had overcome her all-too-human dismay at the loss of life. They were so fleeting anyhow, a spark in the bonfire of the ages. He had but snuffed those sparks a mere thirty or forty years early, a pittance! A token, really. He couldn't see why she was so upset. The real gift would be her freedom. She slept soundly now, the vulnerable face of a golden goddess in a cloud of ebony hair. He wanted to taste her lips with a kiss, cover her body with his own, fill her with the ghostly seed that would spawn another of his kind. Soon. She must first be free, must first be his and his alone. A psychic door opened to him as she began to dream, and he passed swiftly through. * * "He's here," Puck said, sitting cross-legged on a cushion of air. Alex, bobbing mid-air opposite him, nodded solemnly. It was lesson time, and from before he could talk, the boy knew that lesson time was no time for mischief, unless the lesson was itself mischevious. But never, never, mischief against his teacher. Xanatos and Hudson looked at each other. There was no part for either of them in the coming battle, and neither of them liked it. They were just on hand because they couldn't stand to be anyplace else. This was a foe they couldn't estimate. They'd all heard from Elisa about the murders and the black roses when she'd returned to the castle earlier, and it was to their credit that no one had given anything away by their reactions. Normally, Elisa's keen cop instinct would have picked up on their overdone nonchalance, but she wasn't at her best. "I know him of old," Puck added, frowning. "This might be a bumpier ride than anticipated, kiddo. You up for it?" "Yes," Alex said clearly. "Let's hope Goliath is, then." Brooklyn's beak poked into the room. "He says she's sleeping." "Gwithe ready?" Alex asked. "Yeah." Brooklyn shoved the door wider, so they could all see Goliath sitting beside Elisa's bed, clasping one of her hands. "Cast your spell," Goliath said in a low voice. "I am ready." "It's a little like soul transference," Puck told Alex, ignoring the sour look he got from Brooklyn. "Flesh grow weak and spirit strong, in the dreamworld there belong." Alex repeated the incantation, although only Puck, Lex, and his father understood the words. To the others, it was a garble of baby talk. Garble or not, as he spoke a pearly pinkish glow coalesced around his head, then drifted like a smoke ring to settle over Goliath. It changed color as it did so, darkening until it was the exact lavendar hue as his skin. He exhaled once and went limp. * * "Elisa ..." She opened her eyes, hearing an unfamiliar voice calling to her from a great distance. She was standing on a foggy moor. The moon was high, a fuzzy blur through the fog. She looked down at herself and it seemed to make perfect sense that she was wearing a frosty-white off-the-shoulder dress sparkling with tiny pearls. Almost a wedding dress. But she was veilless, barefoot. She held a large bouquet of black roses. "Elisa ..." It seemed to be coming from ahead, where she could see a squarish bulk and a few faint glimmers of light. She headed that way, stepping from one grassy hillock to the next, not caring that the hem of her gown was dragging through the dew. The squarish bulk grew and defined into a Victorian mansion. A figure stood on the porch, and although it held a candle in an ornately scrolled holder, she couldn't make out any details other than the height and shape of a man. "I knew you would come to me," he said in a shiveringly sexy tenor. "Our guests are waiting." "What guests?" she heard herself ask, pausing at the bottom step. He extended his hand. "They've come to celebrate with us. But first, I have something to show you. This way." Without meaning to, she found that she'd climbed the stairs and was reaching for his hand. She pulled back a heartbeat before their fingers would have touched. Although she was right in front of him now, she still couldn't see his face. A trick of the shadows kept it concealed. All she could tell was that he was dressed as a Victorian gentleman, right down to the cravat. He opened the door for her and ushered her into the house. A staircase, a majestic spiralled thing perfect for posing on in an evening gown, rose to the upper floors. Haunting music came from somewhere upstairs, along with a barely audible mumble of many voices. She automatically headed for the stairs, but the man touched her elbow and she froze. A wave of almost sickening desire flooded her. "Over here," he whispered. She looked at him, wanting, _needing_ to see his face, but he had turned away and all the could tell was that his hair was golden, his body a lithe dancer's build. He led her to a small round room, where three coffins stood in a closed and silent row. "What -- what is this place?" Elisa asked. He plucked three black roses from her bouquet and laid one atop each of the coffins. "My gifts to you. The men you loved, the men that misused and hurt you." She backed away from him, feeling cold all over. "You're the murderer?" "That's such an ugly word. I did it all for you. For you, Elisa. In the name of love." He was still facing away from her, staring down at the roses. "If that makes me a murderer, then it says the same of you. You wanted them dead." "No --" she said, then remembered what she'd told Nikki about Mark. For all I care, he can just drop dead. "No! I've never --" "Don't say you've never killed," he cut in smoothly. "You have. I know, Elisa. I know your secrets." Somehow, he'd gotten around behind her, and she could feel his warm breath on the side of her neck. He touched her bare shoulders, slowly moved his hands over her upper arms. "In the line of duty!" she protested. "Duty. Love. What's the difference?" She sensed him leaning closer, his lips only inches from the sensitive nape of her neck. The length of his lithe body pressed against her. Sweet liquid fire seemed to fill her. Her limbs felt heavy and languid, but at the same time humming with lazy energy. He chuckled softly into her ear. "Lovely Elisa." Her gaze fell upon the three coffins. Mute accusations shouted at her from their polished lids. Three men slaughtered, because of her. She twisted away from the man. "Let go of me!" "You don't like my gifts?" "No!" He shrugged. Still, shadow lay over his face, so that she could see little but the elegant line of his jaw. "These were but tokens. I have another gift, one which will prove to you that I love you. One that will make you mine for all eternity. Soon. I will need to be stronger. I will need your strength." "I don't know what you're talking about!" "You will, when the time comes. For now, let us join our guests. Here is your mask." He raised a white sequined cat's-eye mask to her face and it remained in place without benefit of a string or strap. "So beautiful." "Who are you?" she demanded. "Who do you want me to be?" he countered. "All that you wish, I can become. Your most hidden passions can become real with me. Any man you've ever wanted, I will be, without fear of pain or betrayal. I look into your soul and know what you need without even having to be told. Is that not what women want? To have their desires anticipated? To have their longings made known? Look on me, Elisa, and see if I speak true!" He moved, and light fell on him fully. For the barest instant, he seemed to have no features at all. Elisa felt a crawling, repulsive sensation deep in her mind, and then she saw him clearly. How could she have missed it? Had she thought he was pale and golden-haired? Where _was_ her brain? He was Denzel Washington! As flawlessly handsome as he'd ever been on the big screen. And he was _gorgeous_! "How's this?" he asked. Even the voice was the same. "This isn't real," she said to herself. "It is as real as it seems. Anything you want, I can give you. Anyone you want, I can be. All of your fantasies come true!" He plucked a fourth rose from the bouquet she held forgotten before her and raised the bloom to her face. He brushed its velvety softness across her cheek, over her lips. His eyes told her that she was the only woman he had ever wanted, that she was the center of his universe, that he would live solely to please her. She was tempted, who wouldn't be? Millions of women all over the country would be thrilled to be in her place. The rose traveled down, along the column of her throat, over the upper swells of her breasts, and down her cleavage. It was only a dream, _had_ to be a dream. And in a dream, what would be the harm in going for it? But, unnerved and confused, she backed away again. This time, she bumped into one of the coffins. The brass-railed mahogany reality of it broke through her daze. The figure in front of her wavered, losing definition, a vague man-shape. "Don't fight it, Elisa!" He came toward her. "Stay away from me!" She ran behind the coffin and shoved it at him with all her might. It rolled on oiled casters. Not waiting around to see if it hit or not, she was out the door and crossing the front hall, reaching for the door handles. Locked. She wasted precious seconds hammering on the thick wood, then grabbed a big fancy coatrack and took a swing at the stained-glass insert. It would be a squeeze to get through, but she was sure she could make it. "Elisa, really," he chided, plucking the coatrack from her grip on the backswing. "Can't you see what I am trying to do for you? Let me show you what my world has to offer!" He seized her hand and resistance drained from her. He _was_ Denzel Washington, after all! Numbly, she let herself be led up the grand staircase. Most of the second floor consisted of a huge ballroom. All of the guests wore old-fashioned evening clothes and ornate masks, some held on sticks in front of their faces, some full head-covering creations. They danced to the haunting music she'd heard before. Haunting was the right word, she thought, as she saw, or rather _didn't_ see, the musicians. The instruments played themselves, suspended in mid-air as if held by invisible hands. The melody paused as they entered. Masked figures turned toward them with postures of curiosity and deference. Denzel gestured to the instruments and the music resumed. After a pause, so did the dancing and chatter. Which was, Elisa realized, in no language she could understand. "May I have this dance?" he asked. He had put on a mask. She stared up at the eyeholes, unable to see anything in them but darkness. Unable to speak, even to refuse. Taking her silence for assent, he swept her gracefully into the waltz pattern. He held her indecently close, but she could not find the strength to object. This isn't real, she thought. A dream. Not real. None of it. But some of it was real, had to be, because three men were dead. A dream. Brought on by stress over this case. She would wake soon, and everything would be all right. She would be safe. Someone was watching over her. That thought made her falter. Yes, someone was watching over her, sworn to protect her. Why couldn't she remember? Why were her thoughts so muddled, so easily swayed by her dance partner? Why did she want him, and fear him at the same time? Elisa cried out and pushed him away. He stumbled, surprised, and she fled down a hall. "No! Not that way!" he called after her. She ran on, and saw several doors spaced along the hall. The first one looked just like the door to her own apartment, except the number was wrong. That would be Mrs. Kravitz's place, downstairs. She flung it open anyway, but halted in the doorway, jaw agape at the sight that met her eyes. Dumpy fiftyish Sophie Kravitz, wearing whorish lingerie, was astride the new hunky janitor, Carl, riding him vigorously. "Elisa! Stop!" Slamming that door, she went to the next. This one belonged on a car, shiny black with a tinted window. She levered up the handle and pulled, then recoiled as she saw her cousin Nikki and David Xanatos going at it on plush real leather upholstery, while Owen Burnett watched placidly from beneath the brim of a chauffeur's cap. "They're only souvenirs! They mean nothing to me!" He was gaining on her now. Clouded glass, with black lettering spelling out SQUADROOM. Home free! She plunged through, almost crying with relief at the familiar sights of desks, uniformed cops, and -- ohmygod! She reversed out of there without even turning, knowing she would never be able to scrub _that_ scene from her mind. The last door in the hall was plain wood with a small brass plaque that she didn't have time to read because he was almost upon her. She was through and had it closed and was bracing her back against it by the time she realized that she was in a small book-cluttered office, where Aiden Ferguson in a plaid Catholic schoolgirl's outfit was earnestly telling MacBeth how desperately she needed an A in this course. MacBeth stood, said, "Perhaps an oral exam," reached for his belt, and Elisa was scrambling out into the hallway feeling alternately dirty all over and _dirty_ all over. Right into the arms of Denzel Washington. "They mean nothing to me," he repeated. "You must believe that. Elisa, it is you that I want! These others, they sensed me as I visited you, but I took nothing from them and what I gave was unintentional! I couldn't help it!" He was thoroughly loathesome, but exciting at the same time. Even as she tore herself from his grasp, part of her was wanting to jump him right there on the rug. "Leave me alone!" "It's too late for that, my lovely Elisa. You're mine already. Why do you resist?" He passed his hands over himself and his clothes vanished. "Look on me! See me! I am love incarnate, and all that I am I offer to you!" "No," she said feebly, weak-kneed with irrational lust. "Pledge yourself to me," he urged. The hallway around them dissolved into a cathedral-like cavern. Rock formations, like molten wax in a rainbow of colors, flowed across the floor and dripped from the ceiling. Openings in the walls were filled with slices of agate, so tissue-thin that the reddish light beyond shone through. Veins of gold and precious gems glittered. The place was crowded with the guests from the ballroom, but their faces were exposed now, inhuman, monstrous, insectile/reptilian/arachnid. "No!" Elisa ripped off the mask he'd given her, wincing as it seemed to tear loose from her skin like the unready peeling of a sunburn. It fluttered to the floor. "No more!" "No more," he agreed. "No more games. I will show you my true self, Elisa, and then you will be mine." He lifted off his mask, Denzel no longer. Elisa screamed, hitting a pitch that a horror movie starlet would have envied and sustaining it longer than her lungs seemed capable of. He was expecting her scream and took it in stride. What surprised him was that, as he reached for her, she did not swoon or cower but doubled her fists and brought them down on the side of his head hard enough to knock him sprawling. She was instantly surrounded by a ring of the hideous guests, made almost pleasant by comparison with what she'd just seen. They did not make any threatening moves, just stood implacably, blocking her escape. "I grow weary of this," he said as he rose. His voice was changed too, a harsh and somehow snakelike rasp. "You're not the only one!" she shot back. "I will have you! Pledge yourself to me!" "If you want me, why not just throw me down and do it?" she challenged. He had the nerve to look hurt. "Rape? Never. I love you, Elisa. I would never rape you." "You already have!" she shrieked furiously. "You've been in my mind! In my soul! That's a million times worse! Go to hell!" He threw back his head and laughed. "My lovely one, where do you think you are?" Her throat closed up tight. All she could do was shake her head in silent negation. A black-robed figure moved through the silent ring of guests. He wore a blood-red priest's collar and carried a thick book. "Dearly bedeviled," he intoned, "we have been summoned here this midnight to witness a pledging." His face was human, but lean and drawn and empty of all compassion. In that way, he was even more frightening than the nightmares all around him. "I have the rings. Behold, Elisa." Her host held up a gold ring with a black diamond carved into the shape of a rose. "Give yourself freely to me, and I will repay every wrong you think I've done." Elisa tried to speak but her gaze was captured by the ring, the rose, uncannily beautiful, entrancing her mind. It grew in her sight, the petals unfolding, an endless darkness, an eternal night. "Can any here show cause why this mortal should not pledge herself?" the priest-figure asked the assembled. "I believe that is my cue." A deep voice, rich with barely- contained rage, cut through the cavern. * * "Impossible!" The incubus whirled, dropping the ring. Elisa looked up at him, and the sudden realization of hope and love in her dark eyes made it all worthwhile. Her lips soundlessly formed his name. Brief bedlam reigned as the formally-garbed monstrosities fled in all directions. The man in priestly robes came apart in smoky wisps. Goliath landed, and the instant he touched down, the cavern melted away into a featureless dusky plain. Only the three of them were left. He, Elisa in a tattered white gown, and his grave-pallid, misshapen enemy. "It is over, incubus," he stated. "For you, it is," his foe replied. He seamlessly doubled in size, sprouting wings of his own, great sweeping black raven's wings. "You cannot defeat me here, not when I have her hatred of you to draw upon!" "I love him," Elisa said. "You may think you do, but I have seen the depths of your soul. I know what you hide there. He is the reason you have no normal life, the reason your family is ashamed of you." Elisa flinched at the barbs. "No, I'm over that!" "You will never be! Feel it! Let it --" his sentence was left unfinished as Goliath's huge fist plowed into him and sent him skidding away. "He is using you, Elisa," Goliath said gently, touching her dark hair where it spilled over her shoulder. "He is only as strong as you let him be. I am here to help you be rid of him." "Here uninvited!" the incubus snarled accusingly. He popped out of sight and popped back in, right next to them. His fingers had grown long wicked claws, which he raked across Goliath's chest. "Rraaaargh!" Goliath howled. The claws bit deep, snagging on a rib. Blood gushed from parallel furrows. But, undaunted, he grabbed that arm and brought it down over his uplifted knee. It was the incubus' turn to howl. He writhed away and took to the air, flapping his wings. Goliath leaped, trying to bring him back down, and only got a handful of feathers. His foe could fly, not just glide, and had the advantage. The incubus circled around. "Come on, then!" he roared, standing his ground. They collided with terrible force and rolled, a fierce pummelling kicking tangle of rage. A feathered wing crackled and crunched. Goliath got his feet under his foe and flipped him, but even as the incubus landed he was whole again. Elisa wavered, pale and wan. Goliath understood at once. The incubus was draining her energy, drinking of her soul the way a vampire would drink of her blood. "Elisa! Deny him!" She fell to her knees. "Elisa! We've stood together against worse than this! He has no hold over you! This world is of your creating, your dream!" "Can't ..." she said. The incubus closed in on him and brought him down. He fought valiantly but vainly, overpowered, battered. _He_ could not heal himself, not until the coming of day. With the last of his strength, he reached out to Elisa. "My love ..." "Goliath!" She flung herself toward him, but the incubus was between them. He hauled Elisa to her feet and abruptly changed shape. Goliath recognized the new false face he wore, although he could not immediately put a name to it. Thanks to the eclectic viewing tastes of his clan, he was able to associate the actor with both Shakespeare and a submarine. By human standards, Goliath supposed, he was not unattractive. Goliath tried to rise but his arms gave way and he fell once again, holding back a pained groan. "Be mine, give yourself to me, and I will spare him." The incubus smiled charmingly at Elisa. His dark eyes were warm and kind. She faltered, looking at Goliath. He shook his head as much as his injuries would allow. "Choose quickly," the incubus said. "See, how I am ready for you?" Elisa glanced at the "ready" part he indicated and something in her eyes smoldered into flame. "Yes," the incubus purred, and stepped closer to her. "Don't point that thing at me!" she cried, and delivered a vicious karate-chop at the offending piece of anatomy. Goliath's blows might have been ineffectual, but this was a different story. The incubus uttered a glass-shattering squeal and clutched at himself. He tried to retreat but was too slow to avoid a deft follow-up. Elisa pistoned her foot out rather than bringing it up, and her heel landed in a much softer and more pendulous portion than the previous strike. Enemy or not, Goliath winced in sympathy. But sympathy did not stop him, as the incubus flipped into arm's length, from grabbing him by the neck and squeezing until the tendons in his arms stood out like steel cables. The incubus clawed at Goliath. He had abandoned his false face, and the resulting visage was so unimaginably ugly that Goliath wanted to fling him away. He held on, grimly determined, until flesh split and a thick black gummy substance began to ooze over his fingers. "Haven't ... won yet!" his foe choked out. "Left yourself ... helpless ... in waking world ..." Elisa suddenly dropped like a marionette with cut strings. The incubus vanished. * * "Something's wrong in there," Brooklyn said fretfully. "Don't be a worrywart," Puck said, but his cheeriness was strained. "Nay, the lad's right." Hudson rested his hand on the hilt of his sword. "I be feeling it too." "It's colder in here," Xanatos observed. Brooklyn went to Goliath and peered into his eyes. They remained blank, empty. His face was slack and expressionless. "He's still out. How's Elisa?" "Nae verra well, by the look," Hudson said. It was hardly the time to notice, but Brooklyn realized Hudson's accent always got more pronounced when he was under stress. He lifted Elisa's limp arm to feel for a pulse. "She's gone grey as stone." "It _is_ cold in here." Brooklyn shivered. He started to turn toward Puck and Alex, when something buffeted past him. "Hey!" Goliath was hauled out of his chair by something unseen. By the time Brooklyn regained his footing, Goliath's considerable mass was propelled across the room. Puck had to pop up like a champagne cork to avoid being flattened. Goliath rebounded off the wall, crashed down and rolled bonelessly. "We've got company," Puck reported unnecessarily. They could all sense the insane, evil presence, the invisible whirlwind of force now among them. "How can we fight something we canna see?" Hudson demanded, waving his sword before him in purposeful arcs. He and Xanatos had instinctively gotten back to back, and looked able to handle just about anything. Brooklyn sprang to Goliath, knowing who the incubus was after and in no hurry to regain the mantle of command. Before he got there, Goliath was seized again and his head snapped side to side as if he'd been hit viciously, twice. His lip split against his fangs. And then, the very clear impression of fingers dug into his throat. "Fight me!" Brooklyn challenged, raking his claws down where he imagined a back would be. He punctured something solid, felt it go rigid in pain. An instant later, it was gone except for traces of black slime on the tips of his claws. Goliath fell, still entranced and unmoving. Coached by Puck, Alexander began to chant. "Unseen be to these eyes revealed, show to us what is concealed!" The toddler pinched a sparkling pinkish dust from his cupped palm and blew it at his father and Hudson. The dust settled into their eyes, which began to glow. "There he be!" Hudson cried, lunging to attack. His sword did not meet the expected resistance, cleaved absolutely nothing, and missed the tip of Brooklyn's beak by half an inch. "He be tryin' to get at Goliath!" "Not while I'm in the way!" Brooklyn insisted, spreading his wings to cover as much of his clan leader as he could. Goliath was half again his size and too much was left exposed. "But it's like fighting smoke!" "Seeing him won't do much good if we can't hurt him," Xanatos said. He had produced a gun from somewhere, but had the smarts not to start blasting. Alex and Puck weren't done yet. "Cold iron ever spirit's bane, sword strike true and not in vain!" "Now, Hudson!" Brooklyn yelled, finding himself in a sudden tug-of-war as his adversary got ahold of Goliath's tail. Hudson roared and jumped high. Goliath was yanked out of his grip and suspended in mid-air. His torso got a terrible _compressed_ look. There was a sound that reminded Brooklyn of the time Broadway had tried to break a double handful of spaghetti noodles. Hudson came down sword-first. To Brooklyn, who hadn't benefitted from the pixie dust, it looked sure that the blade was going to go right into Goliath's skull. Instead, it struck empty air with a *chonk!* and halted. A burst of not-light sent Hudson flying bum over teakettle, straight into Xanatos. Brooklyn shielded his face with his wings and grabbed blindly, finding Goliath's arm by pure luck. He pulled with all his strength, sure that it wouldn't be enough. For one awful moment it almost wasn't, and then Goliath came loose from the deadly embrace of the incubus. Surprised, Brooklyn fell backward and in the split second he had, tried to prepare himself for having several hundred pounds of gargoyle crash down on him. The impact wasn't as bad as he'd feared, but he quickly realized he was trapped. Dead weight. A tank, an armored car, resting inert on his chest. He could barely see over Goliath's shoulder. Hudson looked like a finalist in some weird rodeo. Leaving Xanatos stunned and groaning where he'd fallen, the old warrior had jumped back into the fray and was clinging to his sword, which was anchored firmly in nothingness. He was getting flailed and bucked around the room. Hudson gave a mighty tug and freed his blade. He landed on his toes, tail extended for balance, and brought the sword under and up. It pierced the nothingness and Hudson ripped upward. If his foe had been human or gargoyle, the guts would have been unzipped and spilled all over the floor. In this case, there was another, stronger not-light burst. Hudson reeled back but recovered fast and swung at where a man's neck would be. This time the not-light was an explosion. Brooklyn, still pinned under Goliath, was untouched. The others didn't fare so well. Puck was pasted to the far wall and Alex slammed feet-first into his midsection. Xanatos, having only just recovered his footing, was flipped over a table. Hudson's legs hit Elisa's bed and the whole thing went over, spilling her rudely to the floor. And then, stillness. Silence. Until Lex and Broadway came charging in. "What happened?" Lex cried. "Oh, hey, the cavalry's here," Brooklyn panted. "A little late, guys!" * * Sleep was a tar pit, and she was the sluggish brontosaur caught in it. She dragged herself out in gradual, protesting steps, and eventually opened her eyes to Hudson's kindly, careworn face. "Urgh," she said. "Aye, lass," he replied gently. "Ye've had a time of it, nay?" "Why'm I onna floor?" she mumbled. He scratched his beard and looked chagrined. "I sort of knocked ye there, and with yer bed broken, seemed best to just let ye sleep it out where ye lay." She sat up, aching all the way, and looked at the shambles of her room. "What happened? My dream ... it wasn't a dream, was it?" "'Twas a dream and real all in one. A spirit, so the Puck be telling us. One o' Oberon's get. He be gone now, Elisa lass." He patted his sword with grim satisfaction. "We've seen to that." "The murderer? The thing in my dream was really the murderer?" "Aye, it seems so." She struggled into her bathrobe. "I've got to call Matt. Damn, how are we going to handle this? We'll have to make up some sort of a story --" she broke down in a sudden flood of tears. Not since Derrek's transformation had she wept such a storm. She hated to cry, hated it more than just about anything, but she couldn't stop for the world. She sensed more than saw Hudson reaching concernedly for her, and twisted away. "Don't touch me!" she sobbed. "Och, lass --" "Leave me alone!" She fled, nearly colliding with Owen in the hallway and passing him without a glance. She came onto the roof and made herself stop, crying so hard she could barely see where she was going. The wind bit coldly, flapping her robe. A thin crescent moon grinned mockingly in the pale eastern sky. Elisa shrieked, a huge shriek of anguish, outrage, shame, and despair. She brought her fists down against the stones again and again, until her skin was abraded and bleeding. At last, trembling from reaction, she just stood and stared out over the sleeping city. She knew he was there before he spoke, and didn't look around. "I'll never feel clean again!" "Elisa ..." "Don't come any closer, Goliath! I don't think I can stand to be touched. Not now, not ever!" "It's over now, Elisa. We've won." "Over? It'll never be over!" She pulled distractedly at her hair. "God! Down at the station ... all the time ... victims ... they're so shattered! You see them trying to detatch from it, that it was something that happened to their body but they're still the same inside! Maybe it works for them, who knows, I'm not a shrink, but I see them come in and the looks they get, like it was their fault, even when it was a random crime, some psycho. Even the cops, we're supposed to be helping them, and we ask all these nosy questions like even we blame them --" "None of this is your fault!" he said urgently. "Elisa, hear me! I know how you feel --" "Do you?" she cut in bitterly. "How can you know?" He refused to back off. "Remember when I was enspelled by Demona? Controlled, made to act against my clan! Was that my fault? Or when she used the apple upon us! You and I, our love turned to anger, so that we nearly killed each other. Were we to blame?" "Goliath, that ... that _thing_ was in my mind! My soul! It used me!" "I know." "How can I ever --" "You can, because you are strong. You fought him, Elisa. It was you that defeated him." She looked out at the city. Footsteps tapped on stone. "Um ... Goliath?" It was Brooklyn, sounding like he'd rather be doing anything but intruding. "You really should be resting," he said diffidently. Elisa turned and looked at Goliath for the first time, and gasped at the sight of him. His face was battered, blood was crusted on his lip, rows of swollen bruises stood out vividly on his throat, and he held his wings close about himself as if it hurt him to do so. Understanding was as dark and cold as the far side of the moon. "Oh, Goliath!" "A day's sleep will heal me." "This is my fault too!" He stepped closer. "No. Not your fault. On your behalf, yes, because I will protect you with my dying breath." She gestured at his wings. "Let me see." He hesitated. "Damn it, Goliath!" Reluctantly, he showed her, holding his wings gingerly out. From chest to waist, his skin was nearly black. The ribs beneath looked crumpled. The image that stubbornly persisted was one of an aluminum can crunched in the middle. New tears dampened her eyes. "I will heal!" he said again. "But it is not worth it to me unless you do, too." She shook her head. "It's not that easy. I can't just go to sleep and wake up all better." "Promise me, though, that you will not give up. You are strong, Elisa. You have your clan, who will never blame you. Whatever happens, you are one of us." She searched his eyes, looking for condemnation and rejection and seeing none. All she saw was sincerity, love, and a terrible physical pain that he was willing to ignore out of concern for her. She went to him, found an unhurt spot on his upper arm, and rested her forehead against it. He stroked her hair. "Thank you," she said. "For coming in after me." "I did not want to invade the privacy of your dreams, but it was the only way to help you." "I'm glad you did. If you hadn't been there, I don't know what would have happened. You might have been there uninvited, but never unwelcome." She sighed. "Never unwelcome." "It is almost dawn." He glanced to the east, where the moon was fading in the glow of daybreak. "Go now, and rest, and I will see you this evening. Because, remember, Elisa, I need --" "A detective?" she finished, doing something she thought she'd never do again, smiling. "You," he corrected. "I need you too." She went on tiptoe and carefully kissed an unbruised spot on his cheek, then repeated the litany Hudson had once told her was most meaningful to gargoyles. "You and I are one." It was his turn to hold back tears. "Now and forever." Sunrise caught him like that, and also caught Brooklyn with a decidedly sappy expression. "Miss Maza?" "Yeah, Owen?" "I've taken the liberty of moving your belongings to a different room, if you'd care to follow me." "Thanks," she said. She followed him, and she slept. And for the first time in too long, her sleep was restful and her dreams were her own. * * The End
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