Son of the Morning (Chapter 8)

WEARILY GRACE UNTIED THE APRON FROM HER WAIST AND tossed it into the hamper. This was her sixth day on the job, as part-time dishwasher and general slave inOrel Hectors pizza and pasta restaurant. Sometimes she thought she'd never get the smell of garlic out of her hair, off her skin. The constant exposure to spicy food had, if anything, depressed her appetite even more. The workers were allowed to have anything in the restaurant for lunch, free, but so far she hadn't eaten anything. Just the thought of sitting down to a hearty pasta meal made her stomach clench.

"Youcomin ' back tomorrow?"Orel asked as he took the cash box out of a locked drawer and opened it to pay her. There were three part-time workers in the restaurant, and none of them was on a payroll list. About a third of each day's take went into the cash box instead of being rung up on the cash register. He paid them in cash at the end of each day, and if one of them didn't show up the next day, he'd find someone else. Cut way down on the damn federal paperwork, he said.

"I'll be here," she said. It was exhausting work, but it suited her to be part of the underground economy. Orel handed over three tens, thirty dollars for seven hours of work, but it worked out to a hundred eighty dollars for the six days she'd been working. After paying Harmony seventy dollars a week, she'd have a hundred and ten left over. Her expenses were minimal, just the bus fare to work every day, and a few more clothes. She had bought two more pairs of cheap jeans, a size smaller this time, and a couple of T-shirts. Washing dishes was hot work. The new jeans were loose, too, and growing baggier by the day.

She folded the bills and slid them into her front pocket, then retrieved her computer case from under the cabinet where she'd stored it safely away from spills and drips. She'd toldOrel she was going to school nights, and everyone accepted the explanation. Her coworkers didn't ask many personal questions, content to go their own way and not get involved with anyone. She preferred it that way, too.

She left through the back door, stepping out into a littered alley. The wind wound its way even down this narrow little space, freshening the air. She inhaled deeply, thankful for a breath that didn't bring the scent of garlic with it.

Cautiously she looked both left and right, the computer case clutched tightly in one hand and her other hand on her knife. So far she hadn't had any trouble, but she was prepared.

She walked two blocks to a bus stop, where the next bus was due in about ten minutes. The late-afternoon sky was a clear, dark blue; the day was fresh and sweet, and there was a jauntiness to everyone's step even this late in the day. Spring had definitely arrived, sending the temperature into the high seventies. Grace remembered her joy in the spring as she had walked across theMurchisons ' backyard-how long ago had it been? Two weeks? Three? Closer to three, she thought. It had been the twenty-seventh of April, the last day she had felt joy in life. She could see the clearness of the day, but it

didn't touch her heart. Inside, everything was bleak and barren, colorless.

The bus arrived and she got on, paid her fare. The bus driver nodded to her. This was the sixth day in a row she'd She got off at the Newberry Library, one of the world's foremost historical research libraries. She had waded through text after text of medieval history, in both books and computer files, looking for some mention of Niall of Scotland. So far she had learned a lot about medieval times, but hadn't turned up one iota of information on the warrior Knight. She wasn't discouraged, though, because she had barely scratched the surface of the available material.

She went straight to the appropriate aisle and picked up where she had left off the night before, selecting several books and carrying them to an isolated table. Then she put on her glasses and began skimming, page by page, looking for any mention of anyone named Niall who had been connected to the Templars.

She almost missed it. She had been reading for more than two hours and her mind had gone on automatic. The reference didn't register for a moment, and she continued down the page. Then the similarity between the names caught her attention and she reread the paragraph:

"Chosen as Guardian was a Knightproude andfierse , a Scot of Royalblude ,NielRobertsoune ."

Excitement flared, and her heartbeat kicked into a faster rhythm. It had to be Niall! The names were too similar, and the reference to the Guardian was the clincher.

Had she read anything before about aNiel , and passed over it because she hadn't connected the names? She knew how erratic spelling had been; she should have paid particular attention to any name that began with anN. And at last she had a surname!Robertsoune , or Robertson. Quickly she began rechecking the references for any variation of Niall, such asNiel , Neil, Neal, and also for anything remotely close to Robertson.

There was nothing. There wereRobertses andRobertsons , even a couple ofNeals , but nothing within the time frame she needed. Her hands trembled as she closed the book, and she had to restrain herself from pounding on the table in frustration. The wildness of her disappointment took her aback. She had been thwarted in her studies before, and taken it in stride. This fierce sense of desperation burned through her protective numbness, frightening her with its intensity. She didn't want to feel anything except rage and the unquenchable thirst for revenge, because she was afraid she would shatter if she ever began feeling again. The few times grief had managed to leak past the numbness had almost destroyed her.

But shedid feel, she realized, had felt this intense interest in Niall of Scotland from the first moment she'd received the copies of old parchments and glanced through them. All that had happened to her since hadn't changed that, or even lessened it. If anything, her fascination grew with each day, with every page she read.

She had begun to think Niall of Scotland only a myth, though why his fictional exploits should be included in a history of the Knights Templar was something she couldn't fathom. This one mention of " NielRobertsoune" being chosen as Guardian was the only confirmation of his existence she'd been able to find, but it was enough. He had existed, had been a real man who lived and breathed and ate and slept as all men did. Perhaps, after the Order had been destroyed, he had escaped persecution and had lived a normal life, had found happiness with a wife, had children, died an old man. The real Niall of Scotland had likely been nothing similar to the black-haired warrior who haunted her dreams, but the fantasy was one she needed emotionally, so she couldn't regret it. The dreams were proof that her inner self hadn't completely died; shreds of Grace St. John still existed deep inside her.

And Niall of Scotland had existed. Briskly, with renewed determination, she pushed the heavy reference books aside. She wouldn't find him there. As one of the notorious Knights, his life would have depended on remaining as anonymous as possible. Anything she discovered about him would be in the pages of documents to be deciphered, the exquisite photographed copies.Copies. Her mind stumbled to a halt for a moment, then began racing. Why did Parrish want this copy of the documents, when he could have the real McCoy? Why was he so desperate to get his hands on this copy that he would kill Ford and Bryant, and try to kill her?

Logically, there were only two explanations, both of them requiring a degree of coincidence that strained her credulity. One was that he didn't know where the originals were now, but obviously they had been recorded and photographed, and the copies sent to her. Could someone have stolen the originals, for some unfathomable reason-the same reason Parrish wanted them? If so, what about the negatives? Other copies could be made from them. The other explanation was that the originals had somehow been destroyed; accidents happened. Again, what about the film negatives?

That led her to two other possibilities. One was that the negatives had also been destroyed or stolen, and the other was that Parrish not only wanted this copy, he wanted to erase all knowledge of its contents, which would mean killing anyone who knew about it.

Her reasoning brought her full circle, back to what she had known from the beginning; Parrish meant to kill her. And the why of it was hidden in the mystery of those pages.

She had been wasting her time looking through reference books. From now on, she had to concentrate on translating the crabbed, tightly crowded text of the documents, and that was a task better accomplished in the privacy of her room at Harmony's rather than in a public library.

Quickly she returned the books to the shelves and gathered her things. By habit she carefully looked around for anyone unusual, or anyone watching her, but the people seated at the desks and tables seemed to be lost in their own studies. The Newberry attracted serious scholars more than the average high-schoolerresearching a term paper.

When carrying the computer, she looped the strap of the carrying case around her neck and over her shoulder, and also clutched the handle tightly in her left hand. When she walked, her right hand was always on the knife at her belt. The bus fare was in her right jeans pocket, so she never had to release the computer to fish out money.

It was almost dark when she left the library and hurried to the bus stop. That wasn't unusual; several times she had stayed much later. A cool evening breeze fanned her face as she joined the two people waiting at the comer, a plump young black woman with a round, pleasant face, who clutched the hand of a wide-eyed and energetic two-year old. The little boy repeatedly climbed on and off the bench, not much hampered by his mother's determined grip on him. He crawled over and under and between her legs, and she merely adjusted her hold to whatever part of him she could reach. Grace thought that being a mother must be something akin to wrestling an octopus, but the young woman rode herd on her rambunctious offspring with remarkable calmness.

There was no warning, no sudden footsteps behind her. Someone slammed into her, hard, and Grace stumbled off balance. Her neck wrenched to the left as violent hands jerked at the computer case. The young woman uttered a startled scream, grabbed her child into her arms, and began running. The attacker, frustrated when the case didn't come free, uttered a foul curse on a cloud of equally foul breath. Desperately Grace tightened her grip on the handle and managed to get her feet under her, letting the man's own tugging efforts pull her upright. He cursed again and slashed a knife at her, trying to slice the strap around her neck. She twisted, protecting the strap, and cold fire burned along her forearm. She saw his eyes, narrow and vicious under a grimy fall of hair, as he jabbed the knife at her again.

In sheer reaction Grace swung the heavy case at him. Startled, he jerked back and the case caught him on the arm, jarring the knife free. It sailed through the air and clattered on the sidewalk. "Shit!" he said between clenched teeth, and turned to run.

And then fury arrived, surging through her veins like a flash flood. He hadn't even completed his turn to escape before she was on him, a foot thrust between his ankles to trip him. He yelled as he sprawled on the rough sidewalk, taking Grace down with him in a furious, punching tangle. Her hands were balled into fists and she used them, going for his eyes, his nose, his ears, any part of him that was momentarily unprotected as he tried to shove her away. Remembering the service station attendant, she tried to jab a knee into his groin, but he rolled aside. Growling in frustration, Grace grabbed his greasy hair with both hands and jerked as hard as she could. He howled with pain and struck back, punching her in the belly. Her breath exploded out of her and she gagged, momentarily paralyzed, but somehow she hung on. He hit her again, and one of her hands loosened. His fist jabbed at her face, caught her a glancing blow on the chin. The blow jarred her, made her eyes water, and he took advantage of her momentary weakness to shove free of her and lurch to his feet. Grace scrambled onto her hands and knees but he was already gone, running down the sidewalk, shoving his way past pedestrians who paid him little attention.

Groaning, Grace got to her own feet and stood swaying. The computer case still hung around her neck. The battle fury left as suddenly as it had arrived and almost unbearable fatigue dragged at her. A small crowd of about ten people had gathered, watching, and their faces swam before her like balloons. She took a deep breath, then another, then still another when the first two didn't work.

The mugger's knife still lay on the sidewalk. The handle was black, wrapped in electrician's tape, and the blade was a good six inches long. It looked much more lethal than her kitchen paring knife. She hobbled over to it, abruptly aware of bruises and scrapes she hadn't noticed during the heat of struggle. Bending over with effort, she picked it up and stared with some surprise at the red stain on the blade. Only then did she notice the blood dripping down her arm to splash scarlet dots on the sidewalk, and feel the bum of the two-inch gash that slanted across her forearm. The wound needed stitches, she thought rather dispassionately, examining it as best she could for the welling blood. Tough. She wasn't inclined to spend two or three hundred dollars of her precious cash for emergency room care, in addition to probably being questioned by the cops. So long as she didn't get an infection, she could take care of the cut herself. Shrugging, she slipped the knife into one of the outside pockets of the case.

At least the mugger had been only that, a mugger. Probably he made a good living, or at least supported a drug habit, by snatching laptop computers. If he had been one of Parrish's men he would have sliced her throat first, then made off with the computer. But she had attracted attention, even if none of the bystanders had been inclined to help her, so the first thing she had to do now was get out of sight. The bus she had intended to take turned the comer then and stopped with a wheeze of hydraulics, but Grace didn't board it. The bus driver would be too likely to remember the passenger with the bleeding arm, and the stop where she got off, which would lead any followers that much closer to Harmony's house. Instead Grace quickly crossed the street and walked in the opposite direction.

Her arm began to ache, and blood was dripping on the computer case. Scowling, Grace pressed her right hand over the wound. She had acted with a disgusting lack of presence of mind, she thought as she strode along. She had felt so tough and well prepared because she'd had a kitchen paring knife on her belt, and instead she was so far from being street smart she hadn't even thought of the knife.

Look at me now,she thought furiously. She was walking openly down a busy sidewalk, dripping blood marking her every step. She could walk smack into a cop at any second, and that was only the most immediate danger. Any number of people were taking note of her, and Parrish was capable of putting a small army on the streets to locate her. Surely the search had moved to Chicago by now, it being the most logical place for her to hide, not to mention affording her the resources she needed to work. She had to assume the worst, and that meant she had to get off the street and change her appearance, immediately.

Just ahead of her, a couple entered a busy bar and grill. Grace barely slowed down, darting through the closing' door. She stood close to them, angled so that the man's body hid her bleeding arm from the hostess, who smiled as she asked, "Smoking or non?" and plucked three menus from a stack.

"Non," replied the man. The hostess checked her seating chart, made a notation, then led them through the maze of close-crowded tables and booths. Grace spied the sign indicating the location of the rest rooms down a narrow hall, and she walked swiftly in that direction.

The ladies' room was small, dark, and empty. The didn't invite people to linger. The lighting was dim, and swallowed by the dark glazed tiles of the floor and walls. A pink and purple neon flamingo was poised over the upper right comer of the mirror, casting a decidedly unnatural tint on the face of anyone repairing her makeup or admiring herself. Grace did neither. Instead she pulled several paper towels out of the holder and swiftly washed her hands and arm. Blood welled from the cut as fast as the water rinsed it away.

"Damn, damn, damn," she whispered. Glancing in the mirror, she saw that the blond wig was askew. Hastily, using one hand, she removed the pins that still halfway anchored the wig in place, then snatched it from her head. Her long, matted hair tumbled down her back.

She needed the use of both hands, if only for a minute. Taking one of the folded brown paper towels, she pressed it over the bleeding wound, holding it until the paper adhered to her arm. The red stain immediately began spreading, but for the moment she wasn't dripping. She stuffed the wig into the computer case, wound her hair into a knot on top of her head, and pinned it in place. Pulling out her baseball cap, she jammed it on and pulled the bill down low over her eyes.

Using her arm made it ache even worse. The makeshift pad was soaked with blood already, and coming loose. She peeled it off and tossed it into the trash, then pressed another towel over the wound. Gritting her teeth against the pain, she stared at her pale, sickly reflection in the mirror. Essentially the wound was negligible; she wasn't likely to bleed to death, and she still had the use of her arm. Niall wouldn't even have paused for so paltry a wound, but continued the battle.

And so had she, Grace realized with a spurt of surprise. Granted, her counterattack hadn't been well thought out, but she hadn't even realized she'd been cut until the fight was over. Niall would be proud of her, after he got over his murderous rage that she'd been hurt at all.

"I'm losing it," Grace said aloud, blinking. She must have lost more blood than she had realized, to be thinking of Niall as if he were someone she actually knew, instead of an obscure medieval warrior who had been dead for hundreds of years. She would be better off figuring out how to bandage her arm, and with what.

The answer followed on the heels of the thought. Holding the pad of towels in place with her right hand, she used her left to untie her shoe. Slipping out of it, she removed her sock, then shoved her bare foot back into the shoe. The sock had considerable stretch in the fabric. She laid the sock on the vanity top, then positioned her arm across it. Using her teeth and her free hand, she knotted the sock around her arm, pulling it as tight as possible over the pad of towels and then knotting it again for security.

The makeshift bandage wouldn't last long, but it should do to get her home. The effect was pretty noticeable, so she pulled off her other shoe and sock, and tied the remaining sock around her right arm. At least now it looked as if she'd done it for some reason other than necessity, maybe insanity, or membership in a gang. Socks around the arms weren't exactly in the same class as 'do rags, but there were a lot of crazies inChicago .

An hour later, Grace let herself into the boardinghouse. She intended to slip quietly up the stairs, but as luck would have it she met Harmony herself in the hallway.

"That's some getup," Harmony drawled, taking in the baseball cap, the absence of the blond wig, and the socks tied around Grace's arms.

"Thanks," Grace muttered.

"Arm's bleeding," Harmony observed. "I know." Grace started up the stairs.

"No point in running. Anybody in my house gets in trouble, I want to know what it's about, in case the cops gonna beat my door down in the middle of the night." Her green eyes narrowed, Harmony was right on Grace's heels as they climbed the stairs.

"I was mugged," Grace briefly explained. "Or rather, someone tried to mug me."

"No shit.Whadja do, scare 'imoff with thatwussy little knife you carry?"

"I didn't even think about it," she confessed ruefully, wondering how Harmony knew about the knife.

"Good thing. Any self-respecting mugger would've laughed, then made you eat it." Harmony waited while Grace unlocked the door, then followed ,her inside. After eyeing thespartan neatness of the room, the tall woman turned her attention back to Grace. "Okay, Wynne, let's see the arm."

After two weeks, Grace had accustomed herself to her pseudonym enough that she no longer hesitated at the name. Two weeks was also long enough for her to learn that Harmony Johnson considered her home her castle, over which she had a dictator's authority, and anything that went on in her house was her business.

Silently she untied the bloodstained sock. Beneath it, the pad of paper towel was completely soaked. She removed that, too, and Harmony studied the sullenly oozing cut.

"Needs stitches," she pronounced. "And when was your last tetanus shot?"

"Not quite two years ago," Grace replied after a little thought, and with some relief. She hadn't even considered tetanus. Fortunately she'd updated all her vaccinations before going with Ford on a dig inMexico . "No stitches, though. I can't afford an emergency room."

"Sure you can't," Harmony said shrewdly. "Any street bum can see a doctor for a cut, but you can't? More likely you don't want to answer no questions. Anyway, forget about a hospital. You want, I can sew that up for you, if you don't mind not having nothing for pain."

"You can?" Grace asked, astonished. "Sure. Iuseta do it for the other girls all the time. Wait here while I get my kit."

While Harmony was gone, Grace pondered her landlady's undoubtedly colorful past. She wondered how successful a streetwalker Harmony would have been, with her brusque manner, unusual height, and equally unusual looks. Today she was wearing scarlet leotards and a sleeveless scarlet T-shirt, which revealed remarkably well-muscled legs and arms. Men who frequented prostitutes were looking for sexual gratification rather than sexual attraction, but still, how many would choose a woman who was not only taller than most men, but more masculine? Grace would have thought Harmony a cross-dresser or even a transsexual, if it hadn't been for a throwaway comment she had once made about having a miscarriage when she was fifteen and never getting pregnant again. Modern surgical procedure could outwardly change someone's sex, but it couldn't retain fertility for the patient.

Awkwardly, because her left arm was really aching now and she used only her right hand, she retrieved the tangled wig and bloodstained knife from the computer case. She laid the knife on the tiny round table she used for eating, and gave the frizzy wig a shake before placing it on the bed. Remembering it was supposed to be bad luck to put a hat on a bed, she wondered wryly if a wig qualified for equal status in the superstition.

Harmony returned, carrying a bottle of whiskey, a small black box, and an aerosol can. A clean white towel was draped over her arm. She set the first three items on the table, and eyed the bloody knife before pushing it aside and placing the towel over the clear space. "Yours?" she asked, nodding toward the knife.

"I guess it is now. I knocked it out of his hand." Exhausted, Grace sank into one of the chairs and laid her left arm across the towel.

Harmony's eyebrows rose. "No shit? Hemusta been surprised." Taking the other chair, she opened the bottle of whiskey and shoved it toward Grace. "Take a few good swallows. Won't stop it from hurting as bad, but you won't care as much."

Grace warily eyed the bottle. It was an expensive Scotch whiskey, but she had never drunk whiskey before and had no idea how it would sit. Given her exhaustion, and the fact she hadn't eaten since breakfast, it was likely to knock her on her butt. Shrugging, she seized the bottle and tipped it to her mouth. She could get her arm stitched while on her butt as well as she could sitting in a chair.

The smoky taste of the whiskey lay smooth and rich on her tongue, but when she swallowed, it was like swallowing fire. The liquid flame seared its way down her esophagus and into her stomach, stealing her breath along the way. Her face turned red and she began gasping and wheezing, trying to draw enough oxygen into her lungs to cough. Everything inside her was in revolt. Her eyes watered; her nose ran. She coughed violently, bent over at the waist while spasms wracked her. Finally, when she could breathe half normally again, she tilted the bottle and took another healthy swallow.

When the second bout had ended, she straightened to find Harmony watching and waiting with unruffled patience. "Not much of a drinker, are you?" she observed neutrally.

"No," Grace said, and drank again. Perhaps the nerves in her esophagus had already been burned out, or perhaps they were merely numb. For whatever reason, this time she didn't choke. The fire was spreading through her entire body, making her head swim. She broke out in a sweat. "Should I take another one?"

No smile cracked Harmony's angular face, but the corners of her green eyes crinkled in a subtle expression of amusement. "Depends on whether or not you want to be conscious."

Suspecting that she had only begun to feel the effects of the whiskey, Grace pushed the bottle aside and capped it. "Okay, I'm ready."

"Let's wait another few minutes." Harmony leaned back in the chair and crossed her long legs. "Guess the guy was after that computer you tote around like it was a baby."

Grace nodded, unaware that her head bobbed unsteadily. "Right outside the library. People saw what was happening, but no one did anything."

"Guess not. He'd already proved he meant business with the knife."

"But even after I'd knocked the knife out of his hand, and tripped him, and was punching him in the face, no one tried to help." Grace's voice rose indignantly.

Harmony blinked, and blinked again. She threw her head back and a deep, full-bodied laugh erupted from her throat. Rocking back and forth, she whooped until tears ran down her face and she was gasping for breath, much as if she had been into the whiskey bottle herself. When she could breathe, she hunched first one shoulder and then the other to dry her wet cheeks on her shirt. "Hell, girl!" she said, still giggling a little. "By that time they were probably more scared of you than they were of that stupid son of a bitch!"

Startled, Grace considered that. She was much taken by the possibility. Her face brightened. "I did good, didn't I?"

"You did good to come out of it alive," Harmony scolded, despite the grin on her face. "Girl, if you're gonna get in fights, somebody'sgotta teach youhow to fight. I would, but Iain't got time. Tell you what. I'll fix you up with this guy I know, meanest little greaser son of a bitch on God's green earth. He'll teach you how to fight dirty, and that's what you need. Somebody as little as you don't need to be doing something as dumb as fighting fair."

Maybe it was the whiskey thinking for her, but that sounded like a fine idea to Grace. "No more fighting fair," she agreed. Parrish certainly wouldn't fight fair, and neither did the street scum she would have to deal with. She needed to learn how to stay alive, by whatever means possible.

Harmony tore open another antiseptic pad and carefully washed Grace's arm, examining the cut from every angle. "Not too deep," she finally said. She opened a small brown bottle of antiseptic and poured it directly into the wound. Grace caught her breath, expecting it to bum like the whiskey, but all it did was sting a little. Then Harmony took up the aerosol can and sprayed a cold mist on the wound. "Topical analgesic," she muttered, the medical terminology somehow fitting right in with her street slang. Grace wouldn't have been surprised if her landlady had begun quoting Shakespeare, or conjugating Latin verbs. Whatever Harmony was now or had been in the past, she certainly was not ordinary.

With perfect calm she watched Harmony thread a small, curved suturing needle and bend over her arm. Delicately squeezing with her left hand, Harmony held the edges of the wound together and deftly began stitching with her right. Each puncture stung, but the pain was endurable, thanks to the whiskey and the analgesic spray. Grace's eyelids drooped as she fought the fatigue dragging at her. All she ;: wanted was to lie down and sleep.

"There," Harmony announced, tying off the last stitch. "Keep it dry, and take some aspirin if it hurts." Grace studied the neat row of tiny stitches, counting ten of them. "You should have been a doctor." "Don't have the patience for dealing with nitwits." She began repacking her small first aid kit, then slid a sideways glance at Grace. "You gonna tell me why you don't want nothing to do with the cops? You kill somebody or something?"

"No," Grace said, shaking her head, which was a mistake. She waited a minute for the world to stop spinning. "No, I haven't killed anyone."

"But you're running." It was a statement, not a question. Denying it would be a waste of her breath. Other people might be fooled, but Harmony knew too much about people who were running from something, whether the law or their past or themselves. "I'm running," she finally said, her voice soft. "And if they find me, they'll kill me."

"Who's this 'they'?" Grace hesitated; not even the stout whiskey was enough to loosen her tongue to that extent. "The less you know about it, the saferyou'll be," she finally said. "If anyone asks, you don't know much about me. You never saw a computer, didn't know I was working on anything. Okay?"

Harmony's eyes narrowed, a spark of anger lighting them. Grace sat very still, waiting for this newfound friend to become an ex-friend, and wondering if she would have to find a new place to live. Harmony didn't like being thwarted, and she hated, with reason, being left in the dark about anything concerning herself and the sanctity of her home. She pondered the situation in silence for a very long minute, before finally making a decision and giving one brisk nod of her lemony-white head. "Okay. I don't like it, but okay. You don't trust me, or anyone else, that much. Right?"

"I can't," Grace said softly. "It could mean your life, too, if he even suspected you knew anything about me."

"So you're gonna protect me, huh? Girl, I think you got that backwards, because if I've ever seen a babe in the woods, you're it. The average eight-year-old here is tougher than you are. You look like you lived your whole life in a convent or something. Know it's not your style, but you'd make ahelluva lot of money on the street, with looks like yours."

Grace blinked, startled by the abrupt, and ridiculous, change of subject. Her, a successful prostitute? Plain, quiet, nerdy Grace St. John? She almost laughed in Harmony's face, which would never do.

"Yeah, I know," Harmony said, evidently reading her mind. "You got no sense of style, you don't wear makeup. Stuff like that's easy to change. Wear clothes that fit, instead of hanging on you like a bag. You don't want loose clothes no way, gives people something to grab, understand? And your face looks so damn innocent it probably drives a lot of men crazy, thinking how much they'd like to be the one to teach you all the nasty stuff. Men are simple sons of bitches about stuff like that. A little makeup would throw them off, make 'emthink you're not so innocent after all. Plus you got one of thosepouty mouths all the models pay good money for, having fat or silicone shots in their lips. Damn idiots. And that hair of yours. Men like long hair. I guess I know why you'rewearin ' that tacky wig, though."

Harmony's speech was a fast-moving mix of accents and vocabulary, from Chicago street to Southern drawl, with the occasional flash of higher education. It was impossible to tell her origin, but no one listening to her for more than thirty seconds would have any doubts about her mental acuity. Sprinkled among the comments on Grace's appearance had been a nugget or two of sharp advice.

"Is the wig that noticeable?" she asked.

"Not to most men, I don't guess. But it's blond. Blond and red stand out. Get a brown wig, light brown, in a medium length and a so-so style. And get one that's better quality. It'll last longer and look more natural." Abruptly she got to her feet, first aid kit in hand, and walked to the door. "Get some sleep, girl. You look like you about to falloutta that chair."

As exhausted as she was, and with the effects of the whiskey thrown in, Grace expected sleep was all she would be able to manage. She was wrong. Several hours later, her head finally clear of alcohol but her body still heavy with fatigue, she still hadn't managed to doze. She sat propped against the headboard, her left arm dully throbbing, with the laptop balanced on her blanket-covered legs. She had tried to work, but the intricacies of ancient languages, written in an archaic penmanship style, seemed to be beyond her. Instead she logged on to her personal journal and read her past entries. She couldn't remember some of the entries, and that disturbed her. It was as if she were reading someone else's diary, about someone else's life. Was that life so completely gone? She didn't want it to be, and yet she was afraid that she couldn't survive if she held on to it.

The loving but casual references to Ford and their life together, to Bryant, almost undid her. She felt the rush of pain and hastily scrolled down, closing her mind to the memories. She reached the last entry, made April twenty-sixth, and with relief saw that the entire entry was about the intriguing documents she'd been deciphering and translating. She had typed "NIALL OF SCOTLAND" in capital letters, and followed it with "real or myth?"

She knew the answer to that. He'd been real, a man who strode boldly through history, but behind the scenes, so that few traces remained of his passing. He'd been entrusted with the enormous Treasure of the Templars, but what had he done with it? With the means at his disposal, he could have accomplished anything, toppled kings, but instead he'd vanished.

Her fingers moved over the keys. "What were you, Niall? Where did you go, what did you do? What is so special about these papers that men have died just for knowing they existed? Why can't I stop thinking about you, dreaming about you? What would you do if you were here?"

A strange question, she thought, looking at what she had typed. Why would she even think of him in modem times? Dreaming about him was at least understandable, because immersing herself in her research, trying so hard to find any mention of him, had indelibly imprinted him in her mind. Because of Ford's and Bryant's deaths, there was nothing more important to her now than finding outwhy, so naturally she dreamed about the research.

But she hadn't, she realized. She hadn't dreamed about the Templars, about ancient documents, or even about libraries or computers. She had dreamed only of Niall, her imagination assigning him a face, a form, a voice, a presence. Since the murders she hadn't dreamed much at all, as if her subconscious tried to give her a respite from the terrible reality she faced every day, but when she had dreamed it had been of Niall.

Whatwould he do if he were there? He'd been a highly trained warrior, the medieval equivalent of the modern military's special forces. Would he have run and hidden, or would he have stood his ground and fought?

"Whatever was best to achieve my goal." Her head snapped around, her heart racing. Someone had spoken, someone in the room. Her panicked gaze searched out every comer of the small room, and though her eyes told her she was alone, her instincts didn't believe it. Her body felt electrified, every nerve alert and tingling. She breathed shallowly, her head cocked as she sat very still and listened, straining to hear a faint rustle of fabric, a scrape of a shoe, an indrawn breath. Nothing. The room was silent. She was alone.

But she'dheard it, a deep, slightly raspy voice with a burred inflection. It hadn't been in her head, but something external. She shivered, her skin roughening with chill bumps. Beneath her T-shirt, her nipples were tight and hard.

"Niall?" she whispered into the empty room, but there was only silence, and she felt foolish.

It had been only her imagination, after all, producing yet another manifestation of her obsession with those papers. Still, her fingers tapped on the keys again, the words spilling out of her: "I'll learn how to fight. I can't be passive about this, I can't merely react to what others do. I have to make things happen, have to take the initiative away from Parrish. That's what you would do, Niall. It's what I will do."