The Shadowlands

 

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Cover Art by Paul Young

Chapter One


I like subways. The more crowded the better, as far as I'm concerned. Having all those people around mutes my awareness of them, makes it less acute, until all their psyches, their truths and untruths, their fears and worries and lies, just become so much white noise in the background of my mind. Like the sound of a freeway on the other side of a hill. It's always there, but after a while, you don't notice it any more.

Today there weren't many people in the car with me, but fortunately any city large enough to have a subway, even Toronto, is populated enough to make me feel comfortable. That is, until the couple that got on at Broadview decided to sit down on the bench seat that was at ninety degrees to mine. She felt safer sitting close to another woman. They were avoiding the two teenagers who were doing their best to look hard as nails as they hovered around the door in their oversized clothing, their studs and plugs, and their tattoos. I'd brushed against them myself when I got on at Woodbine. [The taller one was worried that someone his father? had been acting strangely lately, quiet, distant and apathetic, not at all like his usual raving drunken self; the shorter one was having an imaginary conversation with his girlfriend in which he was getting the upper hand. For once.]

I shifted in my seat, but just enough that the woman's knee stopped touching mine. I'd had to learn not to overreact to casual physical contact. We were crossing under the Bloor Viaduct and almost everyone in the car automatically looked out the window at the Don Valley, as if even the few minutes we'd spent in the tunnels had starved our eyes for greenery.

I hadn't moved far enough. The woman's knee kept bump, bump, bumping against mine as the car swayed along the track, slowing as it entered Castlefrank Station. I shifted again, and focused my eyes on the headline I could see across the aisle. I could have sworn it said "High Park Vampires Claim More Victims", but that couldn't be right. The National Post wouldn't print something like that. Besides, there aren't any vampires. Other things, maybe, but not vampires.

Not even that distraction was doing much good. With direct contact any distance I had was gone and, white noise or no white noise, I learned more about the woman than I wanted to and about her boyfriend too, since they were touching. Really strong emotion blanks out what I read, but the woman had been living with her worry long enough to get some distance on it, so I was getting good clear images, continuous, almost like watching a movie. She believed her boyfriend was having an affair, and she was honestly grieving. That's rare. Most people would have been angry, and trying to figure out how they could turn their belief to their best advantage. You know. Revenge. Pay back. A new living room suite.

I could set their minds at rest, I thought, and the idea made me smile. I glanced at the subway map over the nearby set of doors. I probably shouldn't. Oh, but I wanted to. Indecision made me grit my teeth. Sherbourne, and then the big station at Yonge and Bloor where the east/west line connected with the original north/south one. I was going past it, to the junction at St. George, to go south on the University line. The announcement came, that neutral female voice, "Arriving at Sherbourne. Sherbourne Station". I stood up and took a good grip on the nearby pole.

"He's not cheating on you," I said. I hitched the strap of my bag more firmly onto my shoulder as I stepped away. "He's lost the money for your engagement ring and he's working a part time job to save it up." I turned to the guy, as opened-mouthed as the girl. "The money's in the " [running shoes?] I shook my head. "In a box, a blue box. Hall closet."

I moved quickly past the teenagers. I felt the whoosh of the doors as they slid shut behind me, but barely heard the noise of the train as it started moving again. That's how loudly my heart was beating. I could feel my lips stretched out in a grin so big my teeth were drying, and I was closing down my face fast before I remembered that I didn't have to worry about that kind of thing any more. I didn't have to control the expression on my face if I didn't want to. I was buzzing with adrenaline, exhilarated and guilty at the same time, shifting my feet in what were almost dance steps. I'd done it. No one was going to be mad at me, and no one was going to punish me for reading someone I wasn't asked to read.

Hey, maybe I should have told the tall kid his father wasn't ever going to be a problem for him again.

I took a few steps further away from the edge of the platform, but though I turned to face the train, my couple were already out of view. We'd been sitting in the front car, and the last car was just passing me as I turned. A man was standing at the door at the end of the car, a dark silhouette against the lights behind him. Suddenly all my half-guilty giggles were quenched and I was left shivering, icy cold. I caught a whiff of rotten meat, far stronger than the usual garbage bin smell you sometimes got from a subway tunnel. The man was leaning forward, pressing his face against the glass so hard his features distorted into a twisted rubber mask. He was still standing like that when the train disappeared into the tunnel.

Suddenly my fear melted away as a rush of hot anger swept through me. I was done being frightened been there, and not going back. Not for some squirrely guy on the subway, not for anybody. I actually took a step forward, my hands forming fists, even though the train was gone.

He'd been trying to catch my scent. As stupid as that sounds, that's exactly what he was doing. I realized that no one else around me had felt the cold, smelled the old meat. I squared my shoulders, but decided not to wait for the next train after all. I headed for the stairs, and the sunlight and taxis I would find on the street. Always have cab fare, that was something Alejandro had taught me in Madrid.

As soon as I was up out of the tunnels I pulled my mobile from the outer pocket on my shoulder bag and hit the speed dial. "Soy yo," I said when Alejandro answered, as if he wouldn't know. "I just saw something odd on the subway." I described the man I'd seen as well as I could. "He seemed to be trying to pick up my scent." The was silence on the other end of the phone.

"Stay where you are, I will come."

I smiled and rolled my eyes at the same time. He was bored and I should have known he'd want to come to the rescue again. Still I hesitated, looking around me for the taxi rank.

"We talked about this," I reminded him. "I need to start doing stuff on my own. If it's someone who works for the Collector," I said, using my private term for the man who had taken me from my parents, "he might just have been trying to figure out what I am, without knowing it's me." I cleared my throat. "I got the feeling he was curious, not that he was tracking me."

"But if he sees me with you, and he does come from our friend, then he will know for certain who you are." I knew Alejandro would understand. "Still, I do not like it. If he were entirely human you would not have read so much from him."

"I'm getting into a cab now," I said, as one pulled up in front of me. I tried to sound confident and secure, but maybe there was a little pleading in my voice. I needed to do this job alone, and he knew it.

"Good luck querida," he said. "Call immediately if you should need me."

I used the taxi ride to push the subway man and his strange behaviour to the back of my mind. I had to focus on the job I was heading for. By the time I got out in front of the glass-walled Christie Institute on University Avenue I was calm again. I'd been able to check my hair and make-up in the cab, and changed out of the flats that were sensible subway wear into the Stuart Weitzman pumps that went better with my Nuovi Sarti suit. The flats went into a little felt pouch and joined two impressive looking folders in my shoulder bag.

There was a security desk masquerading as an information kiosk across the spacious terrazzo floor of the lobby. I already had the room number I needed, but the uniformed guard "helped" me find the office by phoning up and making sure I was expected. The place was air-conditioned, but only just. Or maybe it wasn't warm enough outside yet to make you really feel it. I'd been under the impression that this was a medical facility, but I was fast figuring out that it wasn't the kind where patients had appointments.

I was met at the elevator by an older blond woman in a taupe slacks suit with a matching cami-top and red, mid-heel, open-toed shoes, who showed me into an empty office and took my order for a glass of iced water with a slice of lemon.

After waiting twenty minutes past the time of my appointment, an olive-skinned man with a nose almost as big as Alejandro's came in. He stopped short in the doorway, seemed about to frown, and the came forward with his hand outstretched to take mine. His hair was black real black, and still showed some curl even though it was cropped short enough to show off his beautifully shaped head. His shirt looked like silk, and his suit cost at least twice what mine did.

Alejandro had taught me a firm, short, handshake for business purposes, to minimize actual contact, but this time the images I got from the man were more fragmented than usual, and I held on for a second longer, concentrating to get everything I could. [a long life; the suit was made for him; someone named Harry was dying, but not of the disease the Institute researched; he knew about a lot of dying people] At least here in North America I wasn't expected to kiss people on both cheeks.

"Good morning, Dr. Martin," he said. "I'm Nikos Polihronidis, counsel for the Institute." I'd expected something Mediterranean, but his accent was pure second generation Greek Canadian. This wasn't the Human Resources person who'd contacted me, and I wondered if I should be worried. He looked at me pretty narrowly, even though his dark eyes now twinkled a bit, as he took the chair behind the desk and glanced at the cleared surface with faint surprise. I wondered if I had better get another work outfit, especially if I had to come back here. This guy would know my suit if he saw it again.

And he was worried, now that he was seeing me, about whether I could do the job.

"I was expecting someone older." He leaned back in his chair, right leg crossed over left, elbows propped comfortably on the arm rests. "Though of course you come with impeccable recommendations."

I should have, considering all Alejandro's work, and all the people he knew in high and useful places. I smiled as though I thought I'd been complimented. Alejandro had made me up to look older, literally painting an older woman's face on top of mine. Even close up, all anyone could really tell was that I was wearing make-up. I lifted my left eyebrow, but kept the rest of my face neutral. "This isn't your office," I said. "You'd never have that print in here if it was. Your office is . . . something more traditional, but not conventional, if I had to guess." As if I was guessing. "And I'd put money on a corner office. Your firm acts for the Institute, but you donate your time pro bono."

His smile made the temperature in the room drop, the twinkle completely disappeared from his eyes. I was relieved to find my hands steady, and my heart rate calm. Apparently I didn't find him intimidating. Unlike the last person I worked for, Nikos Polihronidis couldn't starve me, or lock me in a closet. Or take away my teddy bear.

"I suppose that was a demonstration."

I tilted my head to the side. I certainly wasn't going to explain. They'd wanted a psychological profiler, and according to my curriculum vitae, that's exactly what they got.

"Please don't profile me again." He looked at me in silence for several minutes, eyes narrowing once more. I imagined this was how he looked at clients when he was deciding whether to take them on.

"How much were you told about this case?" he said finally.

"You have a candidate for a senior research position," I said. "He looks very promising on paper, but several of the current employees have gotten a 'bad vibe' from him."

He inclined his head a couple of centimetres and brought it back up.

"Also, the HR person who contacted me has heard some disturbing rumours."

"And were you . . . "

"No. I specifically asked not to be told. Psychologists can be just as susceptible to finding what they're looking for as the next person." Again the shallow nod. It looked as though that was all I was going to get. Finally I asked what stage of the application the candidate had reached.

For a minute I thought I was going to get the freezing smile again.

"All of the senior people have given their opinions, some in writing." He raised his eyebrows at me.

I held up my hand. "No, I didn't read them and, again, I'd prefer not to be told."

Again with the cold smile, as he glanced at his watch. I'm sure Alejandro would have been able to tell exactly what kind of very expensive watch it was.

I stood up when he did, and followed him down the carpeted hall and into a wide conference room with a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall view of downtown Toronto, complete with CN Tower, and the blue expanse of Lake Ontario. Even from here you could tell the water was cold. Even in June.

There were three people standing in the room when Nikos Polihronidis and I came in, helping themselves to coffee and pastries from an elegant wheeled tea table off to one side. It didn't go with the room, and I wondered where it came from, though I wasn't curious enough to touch it. I was introduced as a consultant, and there were handshakes all around.

I sat where the lawyer indicated, diagonally across the table from the applicant, back straight, knees together, ankles crossed, my eyes looking at the notes I was taking with Alejandro's Montblanc fountain pen. The notes were because, as Alejandro put it, "verisimilitude is the watermark of reality". In other words, if I wanted to be mistaken for a psychologist, I should do the things people expected psychologists to do.

Oh, and I should probably avoid real psychologists.

On my left was the CEO, a compact British woman in her mid-fifties [once an Olympic class swimmer]. Mr. Polihronidis sat a little further along the same side of the table as the applicant, and made himself as unobtrusive as such a striking-looking person could. Immediately on the CEO's left was the assistant head of the HR department, a young man with an MBA [thought he'd be head of HR, if he told what he knew]. He was the one who'd actually contacted me.

I settled in, listening and taking notes, waiting my turn to speak. I found it interesting, since I'm not sure I could have told he was lying without my special talent to rely on.

Most people don't realize it, but you have to learn how to lie. And, again for most people, this learning process happens when you're a child. You get taught at first to keep a certain kind of blunt opinion or observation to yourself, and not to repeat private information even when it's true, and someone has asked you to tell. Eventually you learn not only these lies of omission, but lies of commission as well. You not only don't tell your best friend's mum that her mashed potatoes taste like wallpaper paste, you tell her they're the best mashed potatoes you ever had.

Like everyone else, I'd also had to learn how to lie. Unlike everyone else, I didn't pick up these lessons slowly as I grew up though I do vaguely remember my mother coaching me in keeping things to myself. At least I think I do. The man who took me from my parents had a more forceful method of training me to stay quiet until he told me to speak, whereupon only the precise truth would do. But how to actually lie to people? That's something I've only learned in the last couple of years. Luckily it hadn't taken Alejandro long to teach me what he called the lie circumstantial, and the lie direct.

About forty-five minutes into the session, after a break to refresh our coffee, it was my turn. I'd known everything I needed to know from the handshake, but again, verisimilitude.

I asked him the questions Alejandro and I had worked out ahead of time, in the measured, calm voice I'd been practicing.

"Dr. Weaver, can you tell me about your team at present? How many people work with you, for example, and what is your team structure?"

"Can you tell me about your process for delegating work?"

"I'm assuming you have ongoing research, what will be done to complete that?"

"It is a little unusual for a person of your seniority to be relocating. Why are you leaving your current position?"

"Dr. Weaver, what will you do if you don't get this position?"

I did my best to act like I was listening to the answers took notes and everything but of course I already knew the reason for the "bad vibes" I'd been told about. The only thing I found unexpected was that the images had come to me with an overlay of cold, and a smell of old meat. Something about Dr. Weaver was reminding me of the man on the subway.

Oh. I almost smiled when the images finally fell into place. I was associating the smell with predators. That actually made me feel a bit better, since it was now even less likely that the man on the subway had anything to do with the man who took me.

I really would have preferred not to shake hands again at the end of the interview, but there was no way for me to get out of it without being obvious about it.

I fidgeted, helping myself to another pastry, until the Institute people came back to the conference room. The CEO resumed her chair, glancing at her legal counsel.

"Well?" Mr. Polihronidis said to me.

I shrugged. "I think you'll find that it's come to light he's had multiple affairs with both his research assistants, and his graduate students." I pretended to check my notes. "It might be interesting if it could be determined how much of his work is actually his own, and how much he's just taking credit for." The looks on their faces when I said this was a revelation. "In any case, the questionable sexual behaviour will be the real reason he's looking for a new position."

"His present employers have given him excellent references, both written and verbal." There was no hint of protest in the CEO's voice, she was merely stating a fact. "They're a bit cool, perhaps, but then, he's always been known as an arrogant, unpleasant man."

"Given the current political climate with respect to sexual harassment in the workplace," I said. "I would suggest that there is some sort of agreement in place, that if he takes himself elsewhere they won't prosecute him." Nikos Polihronidis' eyes hardened.

"And they obviously can't stand in the way of his taking himself elsewhere," the HR guy said. "Hence the good references." He looked toward the CEO. "Do you think there was any threat of legal action?"

I didn't really listen to the answer. I found myself thinking about the kinds of things Alejandro had had to do over the years to keep his own secrets. The relocations, the disguises, the false papers, and now, the whole network of fake Internet information. Suddenly I realized they were talking to me again.

"You are certain, aren't you?" the CEO was saying. Not like she doubted me, but as though she was summing it up in her head.

I nodded. "I'll put my detailed reasons into the report, body language, micro-expressions and so on. Right now I can tell you that the changes in his demeanour when he spoke about his subordinates were very significant. If he were an employee you couldn't fire him on the basis of my findings, but you could certainly use them to investigate further." I stood up. I wondered how far I could go. My talent had given me more details than I could have reasonably received from the answers to my questions no matter how well trained I was pretending to be. "You might think about interviewing current and past clerical staff as well. Often no one pays them much mind and, like servants in a big house, they see more than their employers are aware of, and keep silent because they have more to lose by speaking up."

"You mean he's been boffing the secretaries as well?" The HR guy really needed to toughen up. This was nothing compared to some of the stuff I'd seen.

"I don't think so," I said [no]. "But they'll likely be able to name names. I wouldn't ask his own assistant directly, but the administrative assistant likely works for the university, not for him. She'll be less loyal, and just as likely to know something."

It wasn't quite as simple as that of course, but as Nikos Polihronidis himself escorted me to the elevators I knew that they were going to do exactly as I'd suggested, and that things would turn out exactly as I'd predicted. And that there would be referrals in my future.

We reached the elevators, but my escort didn't push the button right away. He was looking at me in that narrow-eyed evaluating way he'd used earlier, but now the twinkle was back.

"I have to say, I was skeptical about hiring you," he said. "All you did was ask him the questions any HR suit would have asked, but you saw something in his answers none of us had seen."

"You'd seen them," I assured him, making a mental note to come up with cleverer questions the next time. "That's why you called me in the first place, right? 'Bad vibes'? And it wasn't just what he answered, it was also how he answered. You're a lawyer. You know better than most that people will always give themselves away if you give them an opportunity to talk, and if you've been trained in what to watch for." I shrugged, hoping he wouldn't question me too closely about what I'd just said. "You still have to check that my interpretation is valid."

"I think we both know it will be. Please send your report directly to me, by the way." He handed me a business card, pushed the elevator button and shook my hand again. This time he was the one who held it a little longer than necessary [more fragments, like a jigsaw puzzle still in the box; the signet ring was his father's. The father had been murdered by a neighbour when Nikos was thirteen. Everyone including Nikos himself thought it had been a accident].

Just as the elevator doors were closing he said, "Your eyes are the colour of caramel."

I went down in the elevator thinking of dark curly hair, warm hands and sandalwood aftershave.

I'd planned to have the security guard in the lobby call me a cab, but now that it was over I felt high as a kite, like I could float all the way home. Or at least to the nearest subway stop. I was so buzzed I didn't even think about phoning Alejandro I wanted to see his face when I told him. The strange guy on the subway wasn't even a blip on my radar.

I'd done it. The first time I'd ever done a reading for money, the first time by myself anyway. All the rehearsing, the small practice jobs I'd done with Alejandro in the last few months, had paid off. I could do this. I could make a living for myself, not just for others. Part of me had wanted him to come with me today, but all along I knew it wasn't a good idea. We wouldn't have looked like two colleagues, we'd have looked like a performer and her handler.

I didn't want the kind of clients who were looking for a psychic. All my papers, my degrees, my letterhead, my website all said 'psychologist', and that's how I needed people to see me. That other label was just too risky as I'd already learned the hard way.

The irony is, I really am psychic. It's the papers and the degrees that are fake. Mind you, I'm not a telepath. I don't read minds, though I realize it might look that way. What I do is read truths about people, sometimes truths they don't know, or aren't consciously aware of themselves, usually about whatever it is that's on their minds right now. Like I said, strong emotion can distort what I read, that's why objects are easier (people's rings and watches are a godsend) or relatively calm people like the couple on the subway. Worried, but not hysterical. When the read's good, I see whole pictures right away.

Otherwise what I get is fragments, images, sights, smells, sounds, and usually experience fills them in for me, gives me a coherent picture. But sometimes, without a context, there's no telling what I'm reading. When I was with the Collector I was always given the context for the people he loaned me out to usually business men, occasionally politicians, once a Cardinal of the Church. With the couple on the subway, the context was the fact they were a couple. Given that much, everything else fell into place.

This talent didn't give me as much trouble when I was a child as you might think. Somehow my parents weren't freaked out when they noticed that some of the things I talked about I couldn't possibly have known. They didn't shush me and pretend that there wasn't anything weird about me. I realized later, when I was more grown up, that they must have known what I had. I don't think they were psychics themselves, but maybe they'd had some other gifts.

I remember my mother, before I was taken, teaching me how to hide mine at least I think I do as if she knew that what I had could bring the wrong kind of attention. But she never got a chance to finish teaching me.

The Collector took me when I was four, or maybe five. I'd had a real blind spot when it came to him, at least at first no context, you see? He'd told me he was only looking after me while my parents were gone, that they were coming soon. I don't know, maybe part of me had known all along what was going on, that my parents weren't coming to get me [not dead though], that this hard, cold man was the only one who was keeping me safe. Like all kids I fantasized about a rescue, about getting away from him, living my own life, maybe finding my parents, but mostly I knew that if I wanted to go on being safe, and looked after, I should meet the people he wanted me to meet, and answer the questions I was asked afterward.

I even got to where I was happy to help out. Sort of.

But of course I got older, and better at what I did, and more knowledgeable and experienced about the world and how things worked. I got good enough, finally, that I could read him as well as I could anyone. His own specific talent couldn't block me out anymore. I thought I had him fooled for a while into thinking I hadn't caught on to him, but then I realized he was going to get rid of me anyway when I reached the right (or the wrong) age, just in case. And I mean get rid of me, not give me a handshake and a farewell dinner. Considering how much I knew about him and his business, to say nothing of everyone who had ever used me, it kind of made sense.

That's when I really started looking for a way out, and found Alejandro.

These memories took me quite a way down University Avenue, and I was starting to think I should have asked the guard at the Institute about the subway after all. I didn't turn back, though. I was still feeling the heady buzz of success I found myself smiling more than once and besides, I'd been kept indoors for almost fifteen years; I had a lot of outside world to catch up on.

I had some things to learn about walking around outside, though, such as there was a reason I had a pair of flat shoes in my shoulder bag. There didn't seem to be any benches I could use to sit and change my shoes, however, and I felt a little shy of just propping myself against a lamppost or something and going ahead. I caught sight of the elevated sign that meant a subway entrance, but debated, as I walked toward it, what I wanted to do. Part of me wanted to get home as quickly as possible and start celebrating with Alejandro. Part of me was reluctant to go back underground, as if the strange [smelling] man [predator] might be down there waiting for me. I managed to convince myself that it was a nice sunny June day, not too warm for my suit, and I was enjoying feeling like a regular person, and maybe even catching a few admiring glances from my fellow pedestrians.

But to go on walking, I'd have to change my shoes. Luckily my problem was solved by the appearance on my left of a wrought iron fence. The palings were well over eight feet high, with a design detail that gave every seventh upright a wider, leaf-shaped base just large enough for me to sit down on.

I was maneuvering my shoes back into my shoulder bag the space they'd formerly occupied having somehow vanished when a dog's head suddenly appeared, thrust through the foliage that grew along the inside of the railings. Again, my life hasn't exposed me to many household pets, but I knew what I thought I should do, and I was already extending my hand, palm out, when I caught a whiff of old meat, and felt that now familiar chill.

The world seemed to slow down. A disembodied voice yelled "Don't!" and my brain sent the signal "pull back" but it was a long time getting to my hand. The dog's head, with its liver-coloured markings [what big teeth, what big eyes] stretched out as if it knew I was going to back away, and its teeth seemed to grow larger as they reached for me. A hand came out of nowhere, clamped down on my still outstretched arm, yanked me to my feet, and then we were running down the sidewalk.

The images I got from him made me run even faster. I didn't look behind us to see if the dog was still a dog. I just ran.

I knew who my rescuer was long before he had us sitting in one of the booths of the Second Cup at York and Front Streets I'd known the minute he'd touched me. What I still couldn't be sure of (strong emotion combined with that odd fragmentation I'd picked up earlier) was how Nikos Polihronidis had managed to be where he was, when he was.

Other than by following me.

I'd managed to get a couple of other things from him along the way [much older than he looked; bitten/touched by a Hound once] but what had made me run as fast as I could was the image of bottomless, ravenous hunger in his psyche, and the echoing emptiness that hunger left behind.

And I knew what that hunger was, though I'd never encountered it myself. The Hunt.

"You were being followed," he said now. He wanted something from me, and that's why he's been on the spot to save me. The calm exterior hid hard images of anger, fear.

"By something besides you, Mr. Polihronidis?" I thought that would provoke him, and I was right.

His face tightened even as he waved his hand in a pretty good imitation of a casual gesture. "Better make it Nik." He picked up his espresso and put it down again. "You could have knocked me over when I saw you come into the office," he said. "You're the girl with the Rider, aren't you?"

I blinked. I hadn't seen that when he was touching me.

"We've seen you together." He jerked his head toward the bulk of Union Station, just visible at the end of the street. Where the Crossroads was. And the Portal. "I can see his dra'aj, and yours for that matter, so don't try to say you don't know what I'm talking about."

I straightened up so fast my spine cracked. Reading people's dra'aj, seeing what their talents were, that's how the Collector found people like me. But I wasn't in any danger from Nik. "Wouldn't dream of it," I said.

"That was a Hound following you," he said, clearly expecting me to know what he meant. I nodded. Once.

That was why we'd run several blocks down University, past a fire truck which was trying to close a hydrant that people Nik knew had managed to open. Moving water, apparently, would throw the Hound off the scent. My scent. I'd picked that much up in jolts and fits and starts, as we were running.

Just the idea of the Hunt was enough to set anybody running, but something was making no sense.

"What's the big deal," I said. "The Hunt doesn't prey on humans." Okay, so he'd been bitten, but he was still alive.

His smile gave me a hitch in the back of my throat, as if I was about to cry. "Maybe they didn't, maybe that's the way it was, once. But doesn't isn't can't, and once isn't now." He reached across the table, but I moved my hands to my lap before he could touch me. He'd read so oddly that I wasn't sure I wanted to read any more. I was still seeing jigsaw puzzles and rag rugs as though the fragmentation wasn't in my images, but in him.

"They can prey on humans all right," he said, drawing his hand back. "They're doing it all the time now." He licked his lips. "More every day."

"They're killing people?" Why hadn't I heard something about this? Had it been on the news?

Nik shook his head, but he wasn't saying no. "It's not that simple. People are dying, yes, but if it was only a few . . . " he shook his head again. "We need to talk to a Rider, about the Hounds. Can you set that up for us?"

"Why?"

A flicker of anger hardened his face. "Because you're human, like us."

"No, I meant, why do you want to talk to a Rider?"

"Because they did this. They brought the Hunt here. It's their responsibility. We can't," he swallowed. "We can't fight them off ourselves." His voice shook a little, the assured lawyer of the Christie Institute almost gone.

"If people aren't actually dying . . ." My voice dried up and Nik squeezed his eyes shut.

"The Hunt takes our dra'aj," he said. "It's worse than dying. It makes us empty. We don't live, we can't even want to die."

I got it then. I got what it meant. Nik had been bitten. That's why he felt all fragmented.

"But you're okay," I said.

He shook his head, impatience getting in the way of what he was trying to tell me. "There's a fix, but it has to be renewed, and now, with so many new ones, we can't keep up with the demand."

New ones? "Those people in High Park," I said. "Wandering around without a clue why they were there? Half starved?"

He nodded.

"Not vampires." I knew it. "Not some kind of flu. The Hunt."

He winced, looked as though he was going to say something, and then shrugged before nodding again.

Part of me wanted to take him home right then and there, even though I wasn't sure what Alejandro could do to help him.

But another part of me wasn't thrilled by the idea that here was yet another person thinking of me as someone he could make use of. Even his saving me had more to do with getting me to help him than it had with me personally or impersonally for that matter.

And speaking of personal, I admit I was disappointed that all that stuff about my caramel eyes hadn't meant anything after all.

Most of my life I hadn't been allowed to make my own decisions. Since my rescue, I'd been learning how but this wasn't about me. It was about Alejandro. I couldn't make decisions for him.

I stood up. "Okay, I'll ask my friend, but I can't promise anything. I've got your card."

"I'll go with you at least let me walk you to the subway," he added when I shook my head. Before I could say no again his mobile rang and I paused when he answered it, holding up one finger. Somehow I couldn't just walk away.

I watched the colour drain out of his face. "It has to be me," he said. "I'll have to take her." He glanced up at me. "Wait until I get there." He snapped the mobile shut and stuck it back in the breast pocket of his jacket.

"Would you come with me?" he said. His voice trembled, as if he was keeping a tight rein on himself. "You need to " he broke off and took a deep breath. "I need you to show you someone, for a profile. Please?"

"What, now?"

It was fear I was reading from him. Fear and anger and grief. "Please."

I think it was the please that did it. Not very many people had ever bothered to say "please" to me.

Next thing I knew we were in a cab, and heading to an address on Spadina north of Bloor. Nik spent the ride on the phone, but traffic was with us, and in practically no time we were running up the steps of an old double-fronted Victorian house, and in through the heavy glass-inlaid doors, past ground floor offices, all the way up to the second floor. Two women were waiting at the spacious landing at the top of the stairs. One was wearing slacks and a short, military style jacket, the other had a flowery print dress. Both were clearly secretaries.

"Is she in her office?" Nik asked the one in slacks. "How long since you first noticed it?"

"She seemed a bit odd yesterday morning "

"And you waited until now to call me?" As if he realized that losing his temper wasn't going to get him anywhere, Nik took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Sorry," he said. "Just tell me what happened."

"She kept saying she was okay," Print Dress said. "Maybe just a bit rundown. But then yesterday she had no dictation, and today she cancelled all her appointments."

"You have to speak to her a couple of times to get her to respond," Slacks added. "Then, instead of jumping as though she was startled, she just turns and looks at you, as if she knew all along you were there, but just didn't care. We thought " she broke off and looked at the other woman, who nodded at her. "We thought it sounded like the High Park flu."

"You know," Print Dress chimed in. "What the people caught down in High Park. Those people the police found there after dark. And when you didn't call in after your meeting at the Christie –"

Because he'd been following me. I began to feel a little sick. Not vampires in the park, no. But maybe the Hunt.

By this point both of the ladies were staring at me a little wildly, and only relaxed when Nik finally said, "This is Dr. Martin." Neither of them raised an eyebrow when I followed Nik into another office.

"Elaine?" I hadn't known his voice could get so soft.

The woman was smiling, but it was just lip movement.

"Hey, where'd you get this bruise?" There was a purple-blue mark like a stain on her lower arm.

She pulled her hand away, but you could see it was just a reflex. "I don't know. On the weekend, maybe. I went out with Sue and Vicki."

That would fit the colouring, I thought. The bruise had only just begun to fade. Nik looked round at me and I found myself stepping closer.

"Dr. Martin, this is my friend and law partner, Elaine Serber."

Elaine was doing an excellent job of pretending to be well. But there were signs that would have told any good observer that there was something wrong. The left sleeve of her blouse wasn't ironed; her face had been completely made up except for blush and mascara; her hair was not artfully tousled, it actually had not been brushed that morning.

She stood up and put out her hand to shake mine, but she was just going through the motions. It was like shaking an empty glove. [tables with glasses; beer; a dark-haired man with long pointed nose and sharp teeth(?); jigsaw, the pieces loose, shifting and shuffling like cards; there were pieces missing, important pieces; she was related to Nik, very distantly].

Oh. The images suddenly clarified. Elaine was like Nik, fragmented, but also not like him. Where Nik was a puzzle in a frame, glued together and whole, Elaine was like a puzzle that had been pored out of the box onto to floor, pieces flung and tossed everywhere, some face down, others piled two or three deep, and like I said, some pieces missing entirely.

And I knew how it had happened. I saw her with her girlfriends in the bar, the look of the man who had taken her by the forearm as she'd passed him on the way to the bathroom. And I knew that he wasn't a man, but a Hound.

"What do you see?"

For a second I was so startled by Nik's voice that I almost thought he knew that I was reading Elaine. Then I realized that he just meant could I, the psychological profiler, see what the problem was.

"She's almost completely affectless," I said, dredging up what jargon I could remember. "There are no micro-expressions in her face. None at all. As though she's been wiped clean. You sometimes see this in the severely depressed. Sometimes rape victims. Look." I nodded toward her. "She's not even reacting to what I'm saying."

"That's what the Hunt does to us. This is what they're calling the High Park flu."

"You said you could help her?" I still had her by the hand. I was afraid that if I let go, she might fade away completely. [pieces; rage; cold; static; a couple of hitches like catching breath, a re-focusing of attention; Nik would help her]. I didn't know whose hand was trembling, hers or mine. "I think you'd better hurry."

He squeezed his eyes shut, his upper lip in his teeth. I couldn't think what the hold up was. Finally he nodded. "Come on, I asked the taxi to wait."

It was easy to get Elaine downstairs and into the taxi, she held my hand and didn't resist or protest in any way. Nik gave the driver another address and I was a little surprised when we pulled up in front of what was obviously a hospital. We took a side entrance, an elevator up two floors, and exited into a sunny lounge. There were three people sitting in comfortable padded arm chairs. A man holding the hand of a woman who had fallen asleep nodded at us as we passed, and smiled. Another man, still wearing a straw fedora, was sitting forward in his chair, staring at his clasped hands.

The nurses station turned out to be a young woman in paisley scrubs with a laptop on the low table in front of her.

"Eva," Nik called softly as they approached her.

"Hey Nikki, whatcha got?"

"Couple of visitors for Harry."

"Oh that's great." A frown ghosted over her face. "They do realize . . . ?"

"Oh yeah, they're not family, legal stuff."

"Okay." She went back to her computer.

Nik led us down the hall into a double room, where only one bed was occupied by what I greatly feared was a corpse.

"Harry?"

My breath caught in my throat as the man's eyes opened. They were the only thing about him that showed any life at all more life, I realized with a jolt, than Elaine's did. Harry's lips moved and, concentrating, I could just make out what he was saying, more by reading his lips than because there was any real sound.

Is it time? Was what he'd said.

"Only if you're ready," Nik said. "If you're sure. Here she is." He moved Elaine closer to the bed. "Her name's Elaine."

Not you? And the lips moved as if they would smile, but the muscles had forgotten how. Prettier.

"She sure is."

Ready.

"Two blinks if you're sure." The papery eyelids fell, and rose, fell and rose again. "Elaine, take Harry's hand. Go on. Hold Harry's hand." Nik put his own left hand on the old man's shoulder.

"Hold on," Elaine said. Her voice was the thinnest thread.

"That's right, babe, hold on."

Thank you.

Still holding Nik's forearm, Elaine took hold of the old man's hand with her free hand. At first I thought nothing was happening. The papery eyelids had fallen shut, and the man's shallow breathing slowed, and slowed until finally the chest fell and did not rise again.

"Oh." The sob was so alive, so vibrant, that I didn't realize it had come from Elaine's mouth until she fell to her knees. She rested her cheek on the old man's hand, and looked up with eyes that focused.

"Oh Nikki," she said. "Oh my god, Nikki." And she burst into tears. Nik lifted her into the bedside chair, and handed her the box of tissues on the bed stand before joining me where I stood at the end of the bed.

"I know Elaine, I can help her," he said. "But what about everyone else?" His abrupt gesture took in the whole of the city outside the windows. "There's too many out there that I – that we can't help. We need the Riders. They've got to help us. They've got to, it's not going to stop here."

I didn't say anything. I just nodded.

#

Later, Nik Polihronidis eased Elaine's bedroom door shut. She needed sleep right now, and he needed to let the rage he'd held off all day surface if he didn't let go of it, it would suffocate him. In a bar on the Danforth, for God's sake. No one was safe. He stopped himself just in time from pounding on the wall. That wouldn't help anyone. He knew it wasn't his fault. Just because he'd been away for a few days; just because he'd gone to his meeting without checking in at the office first. It wasn't his fault.

But he'd promised his sister to keep her children safe. And Elaine was the last, the very last one. He squeezed his eyes tight. And now there wouldn't be any more.

Nik took a deep breath and went over to where Elaine's IPad sat on a small table next to the couch. He'd have to find her another infusion of dra'aj soon, within a week or so newbies had so little control, it could dribble away pretty fast. It would take some juggling, but he could manage it.

So long as they could count on some help against the Hunt.

He pushed his hands through his hair, forgetting that it was cropped short. That was another thing. He'd almost blown it today. He'd almost scared Valory Martin off. He glanced at Elaine's bedroom door. More than anything else, more than anything he'd told her, it was what happened to Elaine that had convinced Valory. Nik's hands formed into fists and he forced them open. If Valory managed to persuade her Rider friend, what had happened to Elaine might the saving of all of them.

That didn't make him feel any better.