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"A ghost?'' Tony propped one leg on the wide arm of the green leather couch and shook his head. "You're kidding, right?''
"Cool. I wonder what he wants. They always want something,'' he added in answer to the question implicit in Henry's lifted red-gold brow. "Everyone knows that.''
"Come on, Henry. Don't tell me in four-hundred-and-fifty-five odd years you've never seen a ghost?''
One hand flat against the cool glass of the window, the other hooked in the pocket of his jeans, Henry Fitzroy, bastard son of Henry VIII, once Duke of Richmond and Somerset, remembered a night in the late 1800s when he'd watched the specter of a terrified young queen run screaming down the hall to beg her king once more for a mercy she'd never receive. Over two hundred years before, Katherine Howard had attended his wedding to her cousin Mary. He hadn't gone to hers--her marriage to his father had occurred four years after his supposed death. Made a queen in July, 1540, she'd been beheaded in February, 1542, nineteen months later.
She'd been young and foolish and very likely guilty of the adultery she'd been charged with, but she hadn't deserved to have her spirit trapped, replaying over and over the soul-destroying moment when she'd realized she was going to die.
"Whatever he wants,'' Henry said without turning, "I doubt that I'll be able to give it to him. I can't change the past.''
Tony shivered. The centuries had gathered about the other man in a nearly visible cloud, wrapping him in a shroud of time and memory. "Henry, you're freaking me out.''
"Am I? Sorry.'' Shaking off his melancholy, the ex-prince turned and managed a wry smile. "You seem somewhat nonchalant about being haunted.''
Glad to have him back, Tony shrugged, a trace of the street kid he'd been lingering in the jerky movement. "He's haunting you, not me. And besides, between living with you for the last two years and dealing with the weirdos at the store, I've learned to take the unexpected in stride.''
"Have you?'' Not at all pleased with being compared to the weirdos at the video store where Tony worked, Henry's smile broadened, showing teeth. When he heard the younger man's heartbeat quicken, he crossed the room and wrapped an ivory hand around a slender shoulder. "So I've lost the ability to surprise you?''
"I didn't say that.'' Tony's breathing grew ragged as a cool thumb traced the line of his jaw.
"Perhaps not exactly that.''
He shook his head. It was enough to know Henry would stop if he wanted him to. More than enough, considering he didn't want him to. "Never mind. Not important.''
A short while later, teeth met through a fold of skin, the sharp points pierced a vein and, for a time, the dead were washed away with the blood of the living.
The warm evening air lapping against her face, Corporal Phyllis Roberts cruised along Commissioner Street humming the latest Celine Dion hit and tapping her fingers against the top of the steering wheel. Although the new Ports Canada Police cars had air-conditioning, she never used it as she disliked the enclosed, spaceship feeling of driving with the windows rolled up.
Three hours into her shift, she was in a good mood. So far, nothing had gone wrong.
Three hours and fifteen minutes into her shift, Corporal Roberts stopped humming.
Turning into Vanterm, as of this moment her least favorite of the harbor's twenty-seven cargo and cruise ship terminals, Corporal Roberts squinted to make out the tiny figures of three men dwarfed by the bulk of a Singapore-registered container ship. The pole lights that turned the long wooden pier into a patchwork of stacked containers and hard-edged shadows washed away features so thoroughly she was almost on top of them before she recognized one of the men.
Leaving her cap in the car, she picked up her long, rubber-handled flashlight, touched her nightstick, more out of habit than any thought she might have to use it, and walked toward them. "You night-loading, Ted?''
Ted Polich, the shortest of the three longshoremen, jerked a balding head upward at the gantry crane that loomed over the dock like a mechanical bird of prey. "Controls have stiffened up and the son of a bitch is jerking left. We're trying to get it fixed tonight, so it doesn't slow loading tomorrow.''
"God forbid,'' the corporal muttered. A huge increase in Pacific Rim trade had the port scrambling to keep up. "Where is it?''
"Up by the bow. It's caught in one of them eddies between the dock and the ship.''
Falling into step beside her, Polich shoved his hands in the pockets of grimy overalls. "We figured they'd send the city police.''
"Sorry. You're stuck with me until we know for sure you saw what you said you did.''
"You think we made it up?'' asked one of the other men indignantly, leaning around his companion to glare at the cop.
Corporal Roberts shook her head and sighed. "I couldn't possibly be that lucky.''
Bobbing up and down in the narrow triangle between the bow and the dock was the body of a naked man, his back a pale, flesh-colored island, the strands of his hair sweeping against it like dark seaweed.
Polich nodded. "That's what I said. You figure he's a jumper?''
"I doubt it.'' While they did occasionally get jumpers off the Lions Gate Bridge, they hadn't had one yet who'd stopped to take his clothes off. Pointing her flashlight beam at the water, she slowly swept the circle of illumination over the corpse. Bruises, large and small, made a mottled pattern of purple against the pale skin. Not very old--and not going to get any older, she told herself grimly--he hadn't been in the water for long.
"Funny what makes some of 'em float and some of 'em sink,'' Polich mused quietly beside her. "This guy's skin and bones, should'a gone right to the... God damn it! Would you look at that!''
The other two longshoremen crowded in to see.
Flung forward, Corporal Roberts tottered on the edge of the pier, saved at the last minute from a potentially dangerous swim by a muscular arm thrust in front of her like a filthy, cloth-covered, safety rail. Breathing heavily, she thanked Polich and snarled a warning at the other two.
As they backed up, too intent on the body in the water to be properly penitent, one of them muttered, "What the hell could've happened to his hands?''
Sunset the next night occurred behind cloud cover so heavy only the fading light gave evidence that the sun had set at all. At 7:23, Tony turned off his watch alarm and muted the inane conversation filling in a rain delay for a Seattle Mariners' home game. Who wanted to hear about a shortage of organ donors when they were waiting to watch baseball? He never dreamed he'd miss Fergie Oliver. Leaning back in his chair, he glanced down the hall, listening for the first sounds of Henry's return and straining to hear the rattle of ghostly chains.
As the sun released its hold and his senses slowly began to function, Henry sifted through and ignored a hundred familiar sensations. An impossible breeze stroked icy fingers across his cheek. He willed his arm to move and switched on the lamp.
The ghost stood where it had the day before--a nondescript young man, needing a haircut and shave, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. Its edges were indistinct and although Henry could see writing on the shirt, he couldn't make it out--whether because the writing hadn't fully materialized or because the items on the dresser behind the ghost's semitranslucent torso distracted him, he wasn't sure. As far as Henry could remember, he'd never seen the young man alive.
He half expected the specter to vanish when he sat up, but it remained at the foot of his bed. It's waiting for something. If a noncorporeal being could be said to have posture, the ghost's stance screamed anticipation.
"All right.'' He sighed and leaned back against the headboard. "What do you want?''
Slowly, the ghost lifted its arms and vanished.
Henry stared a moment longer at the place where it had been and wondered what could have possibly happened to its hands.
"It had no hands at all?'' When Henry nodded, Tony chewed his lower lip in thought. "Were they, like, cut off or ripped off or chewed off or what?'' he asked after a moment.
"They just weren't there.'' Henry took a bottle of water out of the fridge, opened it, and drained it. The growing popularity of bottled water had been a godsend; while blood provided total nourishment, all living things required water, and the purifying chemicals added by most cities made him ill. Bacteria, his system ignored. Chlorine, it rebelled against. Tossing the empty plastic bottle in the recycling bin, he leaned on the counter and stared down at his own hands. "They just weren't there,'' he repeated.
"Then I bet that's what he wants--vengeance. They always want vengeance.''
Raising an eyebrow at Tony's certainty, Henry asked just where he'd acquired his knowledge of what ghosts always wanted.
"You know, movies and stuff. He wants you to help him take revenge against the guy who took his hands.''
"And how am I supposed to do that?''
"Jeez, Henry, I don't know. You worked with Vicki; didn't she teach you nothing?''
Tony rolled his eyes. "Okay, anything.''
Vicki Nelson, private investigator, ex-police detective, ex-lover—Henry had worked with her for one short year before fate had brought them as close together as was possible with his kind and then had driven them apart. She'd returned to Toronto and her mortal lover. He'd made a new life for himself on the West Coast.
Had she taught him anything?
Did any of it have anything to do with handless ghosts?
When he repeated his thoughts aloud for Tony's benefit, he added, "One thing she did teach me is that I'm not a detective. I'm a writer, and, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go write.'' Not entirely certain why memories of Vicki Nelson always made him so defensive, he headed for his computer, waving at the television on his way through the living room. "Your rain delay seems to be over.''
Half an hour later, having realized that the expected staccato clicking of keys hadn't yet begun, Tony pushed open the door to Henry's office. Standing on the threshold, he noted that nothing showed on the monitor but a chapter heading and a lot of blank screen.
"This spook really has you spooked, doesn't it?''
"Why do you say that?'' Henry asked without turning.
"You're just sitting there, staring at your hands.''
"Maybe I was deep in thought.''
"Henry, you write bodice rippers. There's a limit to how much deep thought is allowed.''
Seventeen years a royal duke, over four hundred and fifty years a vampire, it had taken Henry a while to recognize when he was being teased. Once or twice, Tony had come close to not surviving the adjustment. Lifting his gaze from his hands, he sighed.
"All I can think of is, why me.'' He laughed, but the sound held no humor. "Which seems a little self-centered since I'm merely being haunted and was not the one killed and mutilated.'' Pushing his ergonomic chair away from the desk, he spun it around and stood.
"I need to get out. Be distracted.''
"Great.'' Tony grinned. "Bram Stoker's Dracula is playing at midnight at the Caprice.''
"Why not.'' Enjoying Tony's poleaxed expression, Henry turned the young man about and pushed him gently out of the doorway. "I hear Gary Oldman is terrific.''
"You hear?'' Tony sputtered as Henry's inarguable touch moved him down the hall. "You heard it from me! And when I told you, you told me that you never go to vampire movies--that's why not.''
"I changed my mind.'' Unable to resist, he added, "Maybe we can get a bite while we're downtown.''
The elevators in the Pacific Place towers were as fast and as quiet as money could make them. With his fingertips resting lightly on the brushed steel doors, Henry cocked his head and smiled. "It sounds like Lisa's shredding the character of another cabbie.''
Tony winced. "Man, I'm glad she likes us. ''
As the chime announced the arrival of the elevator, the two men stepped away from the doors.
"Hello, boys.'' One gloved hand clutching the arm of her paid companion, Lisa Evans grinned a very expensive and perfect grin as she shuffled into the corridor. The gleaming white teeth between glistening red lips added a ghastly emphasis to the skull-like effect created when age finally triumphed over years of cosmetic surgery. "Heading out for a late night on the town?''
"Just a midnight movie,'' Henry told her as Tony stopped the doors from closing. He scooped up her free hand and raised it to his lips. "And you, I expect, have been out breaking hearts?''
"At my age? Don't be ridiculous.'' She pulled her hand free and smacked him lightly on the cheek, then turned on her companion. "And what are you smiling about, Munro?''
Not the least bit chastised, Mrs. Munro continued to smile down at her elderly employer. "I was just thinking about Mr. Swanson.''
"Swanson's interested in my money, not these old bones.'' But she preened a little and patted the head of the mink stole she wore over a raw silk suit. Once the mistress of a Vancouver lumber baron, she'd made a number of shrewd investments and parlayed a comfortable nest egg into a tidy fortune. "And besides, I'm not interested in him. All the good men are dead.'' Sweeping a twinkling gaze over Henry and Tony, she added, "Or gay.''
"Chill out, Munro. I'm not telling them anything they don't know.'' Companion chastised, she turned her attention back to the two men. "We've just come from one of those tedious fund-raising things they expect you to attend when you have money. Organs, I think it was tonight.''
"Organs?'' Henry repeated with a smile, fully aware that Lisa Evans enjoyed those tedious fund-raising things where her checkbook ensured she'd be stroked and flattered. He also knew that if she was vague, it was deliberate--no one made the kind of money she had without knowing exactly where every dollar ended up. "Musical or medical?''
"Medical.'' Heavily shadowed eyes narrowed into a look that had been known to send a variety of CEOs running for cover. "Have you signed an organ donor card?''
"I'm afraid they wouldn't want my organs.''
The look softened slightly as she leaped to the conclusion he'd intended. "Oh. I'm sorry. Still, while there's life, there's hope, and medical science is doing wonders these days.'' She grinned. "I mean, it's a wonder I'm still alive.'' Pulling her companion down the hall, rather in the manner of a pilot boat guiding a tanker into harbor, she threw a cheery, "Don't do anything I wouldn't do,'' back over her shoulder.
"Well, that leaves us a lot of leeway,'' Henry murmured as the elevator door closed on Mrs. Munro's continuing shocked protests.
Tony sagged against the back wall, hands shoved in his pockets. ' Maybe you should send your ghost over to her.''
"If all the good men are dead . . .''
"Or gay,'' Henry reminded him. "Suppose he turned out to be both? I'd hate to get on Lisa's bad side.''
The thought of Lisa Evans' bad side brought an exaggerated shudder. "Actually, I've been meaning to ask you; how come you're so friendly with everybody in the building? You're always talking to people. I'd have thought it would be safer to be a little more . . .''
"Big word. I was going to say private, but I guess that'll do.''
"People are afraid of what they don't know.'' Exiting into the underground garage, they walked in step to Henry's BMW. "If people think they know me, they aren't afraid of me. If a rumor begins that I am not what I seem, they'll match it against what they think they know and discount it. If they have nothing to match it against, then they're more likely to believe it.''
"So you make friends with people as a kind of camouflage?''
Frowning slightly, Henry watched Tony circle around to the passenger door.
With the car between them, Tony lifted his head and locked his eyes on Henry's face. "And what about me?''
"What am I? Am I camouflage?''
"Tony . . .'' Then he saw the expression in Tony's eyes and realized that it hadn't been a facetious question. "Tony, I trust you with everything I am. There're only two other people in the world I can say that about, and one of them doesn't exactly count because Michael Celluci would never admit to knowing a... romance writer.''
Tony laughed, as he was meant to, but Henry heard the artificial resonance. For the rest of the night, he worked hard at erasing it.
The ghost was wearing a Cult and Jackyl T-shirt, a local band that recorded in North Vancouver. Henry was a little surprised it wasn't a Grateful Dead T√shirt. He'd often suspected the universe had a really macabre, and pretty basic, sense of humor. Its arms still ended just above the wrist. Again, it seemed to be waiting.
Tony believed it wanted vengeance.
I suppose that's as good a theory as any, Henry reflected. He sighed. "Do you want revenge on the person who took your hands?''
Impatience adding a first hint of personality to translucent features, the ghost slowly faded away.
Henry sighed again. "I take it that's a qualified yes.''
The apartment was empty when he emerged from his room. After a moment, he remembered it was Saturday and Tony would be working late.
"Which is probably a good thing,'' he announced to the lights of the city. He wondered if the ghost expected him to begin by finding the hands, and if he should be looking for the remains of flesh and bone or an ethereal pair quite possibly haunting someone else.
When Tony returned home after midnight, he was in his office with the door closed, deep in the complicated court politics of 1813 and more than a little concerned with his heroine's refusal to follow the plot as outlined. Dawn nearly caught him still trying to decide whether Wellington would promote her betrothed to full colonel and he raced for the sanctuary of his bed having forgotten his spectral visitor in the night's work.
"This is becoming irritating; do you at least know who has your hands?''
The ghost threw back its head and screamed. No sound emerged from the gaping black hole of a mouth, but Henry felt the hair lift off the back of his neck and a cold dread wrap around his heart. While the scream endured, he thought he sensed a multitude of spirits within the scream; all shrieking in unison, all lamenting the injustice of their deaths. His lips drew off his teeth in an involuntary snarl.
"Henry? Henry! Are you okay?''
The ghost's face, distended by the continuing scream, faded last.
It took him a moment to realize that the pounding wasn't his heart--it was Tony, banging frantically on the bedroom door. He shook himself free of the lingering uneasiness and padded across the room, the carpet cold and damp against his bare feet. Releasing the bolts, he called, "I'm all right.''
When he opened the door, Tony nearly fell into his arms.
Eyes wide, panting as though he'd just run a race, Tony pulled back far enough to see for himself that Henry was unharmed. "I heard... no, I felt... it was...'' His fingers tightened around Henry's bare shoulders. "What happened? Was it the ghost?''
"I'm only guessing, but I think I asked it a question with a negative answer.''
"Negative?'' Tony's voice rose to an incredulous squeak and he let his arms drop to his side. "I'll say it was negative. It was bottom of the pit, soul-sucking, annihilation!''
"It wasn't that bad...''
"Maybe not for you!''
Concerned, Henry studied Tony's face. "Are you all right?''
"I guess.'' He drew in a deep breath, released it slowly, and nodded. "Yeah. I'm okay. But I'm gonna stay right here and watch you dress.'' Propped up on one shoulder, he sagged against the doorframe, too frightened to be tough, or independent, or even interested in Henry's nakedness. "I don't want to be alone.''
"Do you want to know what happened?'' From Tony's expression, it was clear that he hadn't needed to ask. While he pulled on his clothes, Henry described what had occurred when he'd tried to get more information from the ghost.
"So, you can only ask one question and if the answer's yes, it disappears quietly, and if the answer's no, it lets you know how disappointed it is with you.''
"Not only how disappointed it is,'' Henry told him. "When it screamed, I sensed a multitude of the dead.''
"Yeah? How many dead in a multitude, Henry?''
"This is nothing to joke about.''
"Trust me, I'm not laughin' inside.'' Tony followed Henry into the living room, dropping gracelessly onto one end of the heavy leather sofa. "Man, game shows from beyond the grave. You mind if I turn on some lights? That thing's still got me kind of spooked.'' When Henry indicated he should go ahead, he stretched back, flicked on the track lighting, and centered himself in a circle of illumination. "At least we know two things. It does want revenge, and it doesn't know where its hands are.''
"What of the others?''
"Can we maybe deal with this one ghost at a time? I mean, why borrow trouble.''
Tucked into a pocket of shadow on the other side of the room, Henry sighed. "I'd still like to know, why me?''
"Like attracts like.''
Brows drawn in, Henry leaned forward, bringing his face into the light. "I beg your pardon.''"You're a vampire.'' Tony shrugged and stroked the tiny, nearly healed wound barely visible against the tanned skin of his left wrist. "Even if you're not a supernatural creature, even if all you are is biologically different...''
"All I am?''
Henry graciously indicated he should continue although his lip remained curled.
"Look, there's a whole shitload of myth about you. Okay, not you specifically, but about your kind. It's all around you...'' He spread his arms. ". . . like a kind of metaphysical fog. I bet that's what the ghost is attracted to. I bet that's what pulls him to you.''
"Metaphysical fog,'' Henry repeated. Shaking his head, he leaned back in his chair. "Did you talk like that in Toronto?''
"You needn't get so damned superior!'' His relaxed posture gone, Tony jabbed a finger in Henry's direction. "It's a perfectly valid theory. Or have you got a better one?''
Surprised by the young man's vehemence, Henry admitted he didn't, but before Tony could continue, he cut him off with an uplifted hand. "Something's happening in the hall.''
Tony's scowl deepened. "I don't hear any... shit.'' There was no point in continuing. Henry was already at the door.
He'd heard the ambulance attendants. As he stepped out into the hall, they were rolling the stretcher out of apartment 1404. The tiny figure under the straps lay perfectly still, one thin hand dangling limply off the side. The attendants were performing CPR even as they rushed toward the elevator, but Henry knew Lisa Evans was irretrievably dead.
A few moments later, after bundling the sobbing companion into his car, he was speeding toward St. Paul's Hospital after the ambulance while Tony passed Mrs. Munro tissue after tissue from the box in the glove compartment.
The emergency room doctors took very little time before they agreed with Henry's diagnosis. They, too, had seen death too often to mistake it.
"She was very old,'' Dr. Zvane told them softly.
"There's older!'' Mrs. Munro protested. Tony handed her another tissue.
"True.'' The doctor shrugged, and knuckled weary eyes. "All I can say is that it was her time. We did everything we could, but she'd gone on and had no intention of coming back.''
Gripping Henry's hand hard enough to crack merely mortal joints, Mrs. Munro sniffed. "That's just like her. You could never get her to change her mind once she'd made it up.''
She'd stopped crying by the time she got back into the car. Although Henry had offered to drive her wherever she wanted to go, she'd asked to be taken back to the condo.
"I have to get my things. My daughter will pick me up there.
"We were watching Jeopardy, '' she continued, able to talk about what had happened now that it was officially over. "It was the championship round. Miss Evans had just shouted out, 'Who is Captain Kirk?' when all of a sudden, she sort of whimpered and clapped her hands over her ears. She looked like she'd heard something horrible except I didn't hear anything at all. The next thing I knew, she was... gone.''
Henry met Tony's eyes in the rearview mirror. It was obvious they were thinking the same thing.
"I don't think he's doing it deliberately.''
"I don't care. He is responsible for that old lady's death, and I say he can go handless into hell.''
Back in his circle of light, Tony shivered. Henry's voice had cut through the distance between living room and bedroom like the distance didn't exist, and every word had held an edge. When he appeared a moment later, Tony took in his change of clothes--his face and hair seemed luminescent above all that black--and asked, although he didn't really need to, "Where are you going?''
It was almost impossible not to respond to the ghost's anticipation.
"You can stand there as long as you like,'' Henry growled, "but I am not going to help you.''
The ghost threw back its head and screamed.
An unseen, unheard chorus of the dead screamed with it.
"I thought you weren't going to ask it any more questions!''
"I didn't.'' Henry stared down at the city, listening for the sound of a siren, his fingers splayed against the glass, the muscles rigid across his back. "I told it, it could expect no help.''
"It didn't seem to like that.''
"No. It didn't.''
They stood together in silence, waiting for the sounds of another death.
Finally Tony sighed and threw himself down on the sofa. "Looks like we got lucky; nobody old enough, close enough. Tomorrow night, why don't you say nothing at all.''
It waited. And it waited. When Henry tried to leave the room, it screamed.
They watched the ambulance arrive. They learned that the Franklins' baby died in its sleep.
"Babies. Man...'' Two years ago, Tony had watched an ancient Egyptian wizard devour the life force of a baby. The parents walked on, completely unaware that their child was dead. He still had nightmares about it. "This is blackmail.''
"Yes. And it has made me angry.'' The plastic cracked in his grip as he picked up the phone.
Swallowing nervously--Henry's anger could be as terrifying as silent ghostly screams--Tony managed a partial smile and asked, "Calling the Ghostbusters?''
"Not quite. I've decided this is not a job for a romance writer.''
"Well, I guess not, but...'' He let his next question trail off when Henry activated the external speaker on the phone. After two rings, an answering machine clicked on.
"Victory Nelson, Private Investigations. There's no one here to take your call right now. Please leave a message after the tone....''