Behind Time

The best laid plans of mice and men gang oft awry...

I really hadn’t held out much hope for OUT OF TIME, considering the bad karma and worse mood I carried into the project. I was surprised, then, to find that the staff at ACE was quite enthused about the manuscript I’d turned in and was eagerly anticipating the second volume.

All the pressure I hadn’t felt while writing OUT OF TIME showed up for BEHIND TIME; and I had serious second thoughts about the wisdom of writing a viewpoint character who dwelt so close to my own heart.

To get through the writing, I dumped Emma into situations that were as frustrating and murky as the one I’d created for myself. Fortunately, both of us have a fine appreciation for irony and the cosmic jest.

(A moment for truth in fiction and/or advertising.... While there may be considerable similarity between Emma and me, the rest of her family (and especially her mother) are cut from whole cloth. They exist largely to give Emma a hard time...but then, what other reason do supporting characters ever have for their existence?)


Chapter One

 Sleeping Beauty had nothing on Eleanor Merrigan.

 The hi-tech monitors that had surrounded her during the first days of her hospitalization were gone now and the many invasions of her flesh were hidden beneath a crisp, white sheet. With her dark hair flared across the pillow and her cheeks flushed with a sunrise glow, Eleanor was the very image of a dormant princess kiss, albeit in the flourescently sterile confines of a private hospital room rather than a forest or castle.

 Emma Merrigan sat beside Eleanor’s bed in an almost-comfortable, way-too-familiar chair. One yank on the lever jutting from the right side-panel and the chair reclined into less-than-comfortable bed. Em had spent her fair share of the last twenty nights in the chair–more than her fair share, considering that, as far as the hospital knew, Eleanor was an unsuspected cousin with a passion for Internet genealogy who’d dropped into Emma’s life without warning and promptly–mysteriously–suffered the collapse from which she had yet to awaken.

 It was a plausible tale–almost any tale could be made plausible by inserting the magical word “Internet” into the first sentence–but it wasn’t the truth. The truth defied belief: Eleanor Merrigan, with her princess-perfect complexion, was seventy years old–at least seventy–and Emma, who fought the indignities of the modern Middle Ages with regular exercise and semi-permanent hair-coloring, was Eleanor’s daughter.

 Eleanor was a stranger; that much of Em’s story was truthful. Emma had lived her life knowing only one parent, her father, who’d died ten months ago in this same hospital, on this same head-trauma unit. Three weeks ago, when Emma had arrived home to find a stranger camped out on her front porch, Mother had been the furthest thought from her mind. Confronted with a woman who hadn’t changed a whit or wrinkle since the day she posed for her wedding portrait–a woman who hadn’t been there when her daughter had truly needed her–Em had reacted with anger rather than joy or even doubt. They’d had a few hours together, not nearly enough time to transform hostility into affection, before Eleanor was unconscious on the floor and Emma was on the phone with 911.

 Em couldn’t think of that call without wincing and she couldn’t wince without aching. No chair was comfortable after you’d spent too much time sitting in it. With her eyes closed, Em braced herself against the upholstery, determined to relax.

 Fear. That was the emotion Em couldn’t quite purge. It was the cold, hard lump beneath her ribs that kept her heart pounding as if she’d just run up several flights of stairs or awakened suddenly in the middle of the night. Emma knew all about waking up in the dark. Night terrors had been part of her life since early childhood. She’d conquered her fears of darkness and dreams without locking, or even finding, the door that let them in.

 Since she’d met her mother, fear hijacked Emma’s imagination whenever she tried to relax. The least sound–an elevator door opening, a rubber-soled footstep in the corridor, a whisper too soft for words wafting up from the nurses’ station–and Em’s nerves snapped to a single question:

 Who’s there?

 Her mother came with enemies: powerful enemies, uncanny enemies, enemies that walked through time. Rogues, they were called and they looked no different than Emma herself or her mother–unless you knew that Eleanor Merrigan should have looked much different–and a rogue was a curse in human form. Until Eleanor reappeared in her life, when Emma thought of a curse she thought of the words she was careful not to say too loudly when her office computer crashed; and a rogue was an edg y, attractive man, usually no more than half her age. Curses were still words, but they were also predatory pillars of fire roaming a desolate plain and a rogue could be anyone who’d caught a curse: a man, a woman, or the nurse hurrying down the corridor with a steel tray in her hands.

 Emma stared out the door long after the nurse had vanished, too tired to close her eyes again. Em needed sleep; she needed to escape from the hospital. There was nothing she–or anyone else–could accomplish beside the bed of a woman who didn’t know whether she was awake or asleep, alive or dead. Eleanor’s doctors had said as much when they’d disconnected the monitors. One of them–a woman Em knew from a stint on the University’s charity-oversight committee–had handed her a pre-written prescription for “something minor, something to get you through.”

 Dutifully, Emma had collected an amber-plastic vial from the pharmacy. It sat untouched in her bathroom.

 Tonight–Em thought, glancing past Eleanor and listening to the chatter of sleet against the night-dark window. Tonight I’ll take a pill. Tomorrow I’ll go straight to work and straight home. I won’t come here. There’s no reason . . . no need . . .

 Whenever Emma beat her fear into submission, guilt in all its nameless variations arose in its place. She couldn’t abandon Eleanor as Eleanor had abandoned her. Two wrongs didn’t make a right. Her father–the parent who’d stuck around to raise her–had taught her that.

 Twice a day Emma visited her mother: briefly in the morning on her way to work at the university’s library, endlessly in the evening. And when she wasn’t sitting beside Eleanor’s bed, Em wasn’t worth the powder to blow her to hell–


 For a person who, except for weddings, funerals, and the occasional holiday concert, hadn’t set foot in a church for over thirty years, Emma’s thoughts had turned decidedly religious, as they hadn’t turned religious while her father lay dying. Then again, Em and her father hadn’t been in hell arguing with each other moments before he died.

 Emma’s eyelids sank of their own weight. She remembered those last moments with Eleanor as if they were still happening.

 Em hadn’t wanted to believe in curses or the out-of-place, out-of-time wasteland they haunted. She’d resisted the coincidences assaulting her like a centipede dropping ninety-nine other shoes. Night-terrors weren’t new to her life. And befriending a student or two was an occupational hazard when you worked deep in the heart of a university’s library. But with the night-terrors and the students had come a box, a plain, cardboard box Eleanor Merrigan had packed, sealed, and labeled before she marched out of her infant daughter’s life. In the box Emma had found a letter informing her that she’d inherited a wyrd–Eleanor’s word for an extraordinary talent to walk through time and the obligation to hunt curses wherever, whenever, she found them.

 Eleanor had graciously provided a guidebook beneath her letter–a hand-written, bible-like book with onionskin pages and a flexible, black-leather binding. It raised more questions than it answered. Emma clung to her scepticism because denial remained her best defense against ignorance, but the tide of evidence flowed in favor of Eleanor’s wyrd, of a parched wasteland where hungry fire could gulp down a woman’s spirit and leave her living body behind on a hospital bed.

 Emma hadn’t actually seen the curses swallow her mother; she’d been stretched out on that hard, dry, wasteland dirt trying to breathe. The curses and Eleanor were gone before she stood up again. What she knew about Eleanor’s disappearance came from Blaise Raponde who might be a man, a ghost, a figment of Emma’s overworked imagination, or–as Eleanor had insisted–a rogue.

 Raponde said he wasn’t a rogue while conceding that there was no reason for either Emma or Eleanor to believe him. He also said that none of the ambushing curses was powerful enough to displace Eleanor’s spirit from her body. They’d need to contest among themselves–consuming each other until the one of them had the strength to become a rogue in Eleanor’s body–and that would give him time enough to rescue her.

 Em hadn’t argued. The alternative–the alternative Raponde rejected as he proposed it–was smothering Eleanor’s real-world body: no living body, no living rogue. And Emma, who didn’t want to believe in curses or rogues, didn’t believe in murder either. She’d put her faith in modern medicine. After three weeks, the doctors were no closer to solving Eleanor’s mystery than they’d been when Eleanor arrived in the emergency room.

 In her reclining chair, Emma remembered Eleanor’s screams as the flames enveloped her. For an instant Em felt hot wind swirling over her, then her memories were replaced by the rustle of cotton sheets. Eleanor had thrust through her right hand through the bed’s steel restraint-bars. Velcro ribbons trailed from a padded cuff fastened around her wrist.

 Em could call it co-incidence and tell herself that there was no connection between her discarded memories and Eleanor’s sudden movement, but co-incidence had taken a beating lately, so call it something else–or nothing at all–but never doubt for a moment that there was a connection. And whether a curse was a pillar of fire or whether fire was dream-code for something else, its effects were real.

 Emma surged out of the chair. She grasped her mother’s hand loosely and whispered. “Don’t surrender. I’m looking. Blaise Raponde is looking. We’ll wake you up before it’s too late.”

 The official word for Eleanor’s condition was “coma”. A month ago all Emma had known was that the word meant “sleep” in Greek–and she’d gleaned that knowledge from a crossword puzzle. Em had never seen anyone in a coma–not even Dad after his stroke. She’d blithely equated comas with serenely unconscious princesses. Most people looked serene as they slept.

 Most people weren’t in a coma.

 Eleanor imitated Sleeping Beauty because of a sedation cocktail. When the drugs began to wear off–and the hospital wanted them to wear off–Eleanor was anything but Sleeping Beauty. She thrashed violently enough to have dislocated her own shoulder and broken the nose of an over-confident nurse’s aide who’d thought he could handle her without using velcro restraints.

 That, the doctors said, was Eleanor’s coma. The word might mean sleep in Greece, but in an American hospital, coma meant a medical black hole, consciousness completely hidden behind an event horizon, but there nonetheless.

 Emma had no doubt that her mother was profoundly there and not enjoying the visit.  Without sedation, Eleanor’s eyes were wide open but blind to the here-and-now. She didn’t respond when doctors pricked her skin with needles, but contorted her arms and legs into grotesque pretzels and howled for no apparent reason.

 Your cousin is aware, Dr. Saha would say whenever he and Emma met.

 Saha had emerged as the head of Eleanor’s medical team. A world-class brain-man, he spent more time in consultation than surgery and he didn’t consult, even at his home-base hospital, until a half-dozen of his peers had declared defeat. By then, a patient’s coma–Eleanor Merrigan’s coma– was personal.

 She’s in another place, a strange and frightening place. If there’s a way to that place–a road, a path, or a tunnel, I don’t care which–we’ll find it and we’ll guide her back. Inch by inch, if we have to. Don’t give up on her, Emma. I haven’t; I won’t.

 Eleanor beat her arm between the steel rails. Emma tightened her grasp, trying to prevent either of them from getting hurt. In seconds, Eleanor’s hand flushed with blood and heat. Usually Eleanor’s hands were pale and cold. The change was far from reassuring.

 “I’m here, Eleanor,” Em whispered. “I haven’t given up.”

 Eleanor went rigid. Her eyes popped open. She stared at her daughter without seeing her.

 “No–” Em pleaded futilely as the scream began.

 At first Eleanor’s scream was a weak, high-pitched, warble. Then she took a breath and bared her teeth. Paresis and atrophy–weakness and withering–were the companions of most comas, but not Eleanor Merrigan’s, at least not yet. Her grip was painfully strong and so was her voice. Emma didn’t need to reach for the call button. The whole floor knew it when Sleeping Beauty had a nightmare.

 The first nurse through the door was a stout, hard-faced woman with thin, frowning lips, severely narrowed eyes, and a fierce dedication to her profession.

 “Ellie,” Jill crooned as she ran her hands down Eleanor’s forearm and expertly, but gently, loosened those white-knuckled fingers from Emma’s wrist. “Calm down, Ellie. Talk to me, Ellie.”

 Jill didn’t believe in sedation cocktails. She took justifiable pride in her ability to calm her patients without recourse to phenobarbital and its stronger relations, but she had no better luck calming Eleanor than Emma had. After five endless, screaming minutes, Jill conceded defeat.

 Another nurse brought the sedation kit and helped Jill velcro Eleanor’s wrists and ankles to the bed. Emma clenched her teeth and stared out the sleet-streaked window. She didn’t turn around until the second nurse left and Jill undid the velcro ribbons.

 “Ellie will come out of it, Ms Merrigan,” Jill said. “You think it’s been forever, but it’s not even close. You wouldn’t believe the miracles I’ve seen. Three weeks–that’s no time at all. Most of the doctors here will wait three months before discharging with a P-V-S diagnosis. Dr. Saha’s kept a few on the floor for a year. I’m on his side. A year’s not too long, not for Ellie.”

 PVS, that was med-speak for “persistent vegetative state”: the end of the line for coma patients. PVS meant shipment to the upper reaches of a skilled nursing facility, a gastric tube for nourishment, and a radio for company until something killed the body the mind had abandoned.

 Emma stiffened then faced Jill and the bed. She tried not to imagine what her youthful mother would say about her probable fate. When you were seventy–at least seventy–but looked twenty-five, you probably didn’t waste much time worrying about skilled nursing facilities.

 “Ellie’s not nearly P-V-S.” Jill patted Eleanor’s hand twice before carefully tucking it under the sheet. “There’s plenty going on inside her head. She’ll wake up one of these first mornings and tell us where she’s been.”

 Em nodded without conviction. She knew where her mother was: trapped in hell while a horde of curses fought for the privilege of turning her into a rogue.

 “She could be hearing every word we say,” Jill continued. “I’ve known that to happen. They wake up and say they weren’t sleeping at all, just trapped inside. They remember everything. They know who kept faith and who didn’t.” She tidied Eleanor’s hair. “Your cousin hasn’t lost faith, Ellie. You remember that, you hear? She’s here every day . . . twice a day. Your own mother couldn’t do more for you.”

 Em suppressed a grimace. She hoped she’d suppressed it.

 Jill studied the paperwork hanging from the foot of Eleanor’s bed. “It’s been a few days since Ellie’s last episode.”

 “Monday, while I was at work. It was mild, like this. They stopped it with an injection and didn’t have to start an I-V.” Em paused. “Does she need an I-V?”

 “No,” Jill rehung the paperwork. “Not if I can help it. We’ve got to wean Ellie off these drugs. She can’t wake up with them in her system. She’s got another scan scheduled for Friday. They’ll cancel it if I start an I-V. You don’t want that to happen. Ellie’s different from all the others I’ve seen, and I’ve seen more of them than I should. No history. No damage. No accident. No history of drug abuse. No drugs in her system. She gets on a plane, flies from New York to Michigan, and twelve hours later she’s here. That doesn’t fit any pattern. There has to be a pattern, Ms Merrigan. There always has to be an underlying reason, the real reason. When we find it, we’ll find the way to bring her back at the same time.”

 There is no “real” reason, an internal voice advised Emma. None that twenty-first century technology can find. There’s no “we” either. There’s just you, Emma Merrigan, and you’re not getting the job done.

 Emma couldn’t remember a time when that voice hadn’t haunted the back of her mind. It wasn’t her conscience, guilty or otherwise. It wasn’t hers at all; she’d never claimed it. Until Eleanor burst into her life, Em had called it the mother-voice but Eleanor’s voice had been as rich as her hair and utterly unlike the scold in Em’s head.

 Go home. Get out the books and the candles. Take a walk through the wasteland. Tonight could be the night you get lucky yourself.

 Em wondered if she w ere going insane or if she’d been insane all her life. The way Jill stared at her, the question was moot.

 “I’m sorry,” she confessed. “Some times it all seems like a dream . . . a nightmare. My–my cousin found me through the Internet–a genealogy search. I’d just met her. We didn’t know each other. I don’t know if we have anything in common except a handful of dead relatives. I didn’t think I had any living relatives. The Merrigans are a small family–my dad and me. I thought I was the last. We’re all each other has, but she’s still a stranger.” That much, at least, was simple truth, and Em had rehearsed it so many times that even the false parts felt true.

 Jill shook her head. “You’re not strangers, not after all this. The idea–”

 Emma never learned Jill’s idea. The beeper she wore at her waist came to life.

 “You get some rest yourself, Emma. You’re looking peaked,” Jill advised on her way out the door. “Waiting’s the easy part.”

 “Right,” Emma agreed, too softly to be heard.

 She glanced out the window, then down at her watch: 7:15. She’d planned to stay until nine, the end of the hospital’s unofficial visiting hours, the same as last night, the night before, and the night before that. It was easier to wrestle with guilt and anger in the mauve chair than at home, but if there were a night to cut her vigil short, this was it.

 Eleanor hadn’t moved since Jill removed the velcro restraints and the odds were good that Sleeping Beauty would lie beneath her sheets like a corpse until sometime tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, the ice chatter had grown louder against the window. If Em left now, she’d be home before the streets got dangerous and before the en-route grocery store closed. She could cook herself a real-food dinner–her first since Thanksgiving–spend some quality time with her cats, hurl herself into the unknown, and still have time for eight hours of sleep.

 Em looked at her coat hanging by the door, but didn’t move toward it. Another half hour, she told herself. If she left the hospital at quarter to eight, she could still get to the store. Another half hour and her conscience wouldn’t keep her awake.

 Emma settled back in the mauve chair. She listened to the hushed but abundant noises of the hospital, from the elevators at the center of the X-shaped annex to the nurses gathered in front of it. No excitement tonight. She let her eyes close for a moment, just a moment–


 Emma started.  There was a gap in her sense of time and a man–Harry Graves, her mother’s husband, her very own stepfather–standing in the doorway. Not being a vampire, Harry entered the room without an invitation.

 Frantically colle cting her wits, Em sputtered, “You’ve come back?” She sat up straight, fussed with her clothes, and wished she could see a mirror. Ordinarily, Emma wasn’t the sort who worried about her appearance but Harry had had “your lipstick’s smeared and your bra strap’s showing” effect on her at their first two meetings and he was having it again.

 Though he wasn’t a particularly tall man, Harry Graves contrived to look down on everything and everyone. The nurses had commented on it, particularly Jill, whom he’d criticized for procedural and personal slovenliness, using those exact words, both to her face and to her supervisor. Jill must not have seen Harry walk off the elevator. She wouldn’t have forgotten him and she wouldn’t have let him walk her halls without an escort.

 “For the night. I’ll fly home again tomorrow, unless your delightful weather keeps me here longer. Contrary to what you seem to think, Eleanor is my wife. I have an obligation to care for her. It’s an obligation I would prefer to discharge nearer to our home, but neither distance and weather, nor an inconvenient cousin will stand in my way.”

 Emma caught the emphasis on cousin and ignored it. Harry knew who and what she was. In all likelihood, Harry knew more about the “what” part than Em knew herself.

 If Eleanor was unnaturally youthful, then Harry Graves was unnaturally ageless. He had a rich man’s face–smooth, suntanned, and about as expressive as a kidskin glove. He could have passed for thirty-five, or fifty-five, or a hundred-and-fifty-five. His hair was fashionably short; Em couldn’t decide whether it was blonde or silver, natural or bleached. The rest of him was lean in the way of celebrities–especially rock musicians–who’d managed to survive their youthful excesses with minds and bank accounts intact.

 Especially their bank accounts.

 Harry Graves exuded wealth. Emma lived comfortably enough to recognize the difference between wool and cashmere, and Harry’s coat was definitely cashmere. Scorning the empty hook beside the synthetic-down coat Emma favored when Michigan’s weather got nasty, Harry produced a collapsible hanger from an interior pocket and hung his coat in the room’s open, empty closet. Beneath the coat, Harry wore garments that could be called casual, provided the modifiers expensive, elegant, and European were included in the description.

 There was another chair in Eleanor’s room, an armless, hard-upholstered model toward which Harry didn’t move. Instead, he stood on the opposite side of Eleanor’s bed, eyeing the hooks from which three untapped plastic IV sacks were hung.

 Emma left the mauve chair to stand opposite him. The call button was within reach on her side of the bed.

 “It’s how you care about her that keeps me in your way, Harry.”

 Sh e could meet her stepfather’s pale hazel eyes without difficulty though she couldn’t learn anything from them. Harry Graves wasn’t a man who gave anything away. Given a choice, she’d never play poker against him, but she hadn’t been given a choice.

 “I didn’t come here to argue with you, Emma.”

 “Then why did you come?”

 “I am persuaded that you care deeply for your cousin. There’s no reason we can’t cooperate.”

 “I can think of a few.”

 “And I respect your wishes . . . Eleanor’s wishes. I’ve withdrawn my challenges to your power of attorney. You are in charge, but you are not alone.”

 The first time they’d met Eleanor had been in the hospital for less than a day. Harry had taken the place by storm, giving orders to doctors and nurses alike. Emma hadn’t known how to stop him. When push had come to shove in front of the nurses’ station, Em had balked, unsure whether she should thwart Harry Graves’ intentions, assuming she could thwart them.

 Before her collapse, Eleanor hadn’t said much about her husband–she hadn’t said much about anything; there hadn’t been time. Eleanor described Harry as a tolerable partner and the marriage as pre-arranged. She’d said even less about the pre-arrangers, only that “ we used to be tribes, like gypsies; now we’re a global corporation”. Em imagined an unholy cross among the mafia, Microsoft, and the NFL.

 If only Eleanor had been a bit more honest . . . If she’d said I haven’t suddenly reappeared in your life just because you started hunting curses last Thursday; I’m here because my husband and I and our super-secret associates think that handsome stranger who hauled your chestnuts out of the fire while you were hunting might be a rogue. We need to work together to get to the truth, then maybe Eleanor wouldn’t be stretched out in a hospital bed. After two dud marriages, Em knew she had lousy taste in men and, despite Raponde’s saving her life more than once,  she also knew better than to trust any man who said he’d been born in seven teenth-century Paris.

 Em would have cooperated with her mother. She was almost positive she would have. Once she accepted the inexplicable: that curses were real, then it was a short, easy, downhill step to believing that rogues were curse-hunters who’d been possessed by their prey. Emma could even see that rogues might be so dangerous that prudent curse-hunters would cut their losses by smothering the real-world husk of a friend–or wife–rather than risk anything further in a rescue attempt.

 Harry Graves had the eyes of a man who could cut any loss.

 Don’t get in my way, he’d warned when they were alone for the first time in the hospital elevator, or I’ll have to take care of you now instead of later.

 Harry intimidated Em the way lions intimidated cheetahs on the plains of Africa, but the hospital had its own lions who resented Harry’s implication that the U’s resources were substandard. They’d fought the first round of Emma’s fight for her: Saha himself had come straight from surgery to tell Harry that Eleanor Merrigan wasn’t going anywhere until he decreed her condition stable.

 When you were up against a man who might be immortal, it helped to have a man who thought he was God on your side.

 Round one had ended with Harry promising lawyers. Emma had gone home and popped the locks on her mother’s suitcase, hoping for a miracle. She got one.

 Eleanor Merrigan had come to Bower prepared. She’d crammed her hefty suitcase with enough clothing for a month in the wilderness and still found room for three sealed envelopes. In one envelope Emma found her mother’s passport and current financial statements, none of which mentioned Harry Graves. In the second, she found a copy of Eleanor’s will and a durable power-of-attorney, specifically valid in Michigan and made out for the names of Archibald Merrigan, Em’s father who’d died last winter, and Merle Acalia Merrigan, which was the name on Emma’s birth certificate. The third envelope held a two-page autobiography that wasn’t remotely truthful but dove-tailed so precisely with the story Emma had already told the hospital that she wondered if prescience weren’t another of Eleanor’s occult talents.

 According to the autobiography, Eleanor had been born twenty-seven years earlier in one of the more tumultuous African countries where her parents ran a rural medical clinic. Those mythic parents thought their work would protect them when a civil war flared up around them. Needless to say, it hadn’t. Equally needless to say, Eleanor’s supposed birth certificate had burned with the clinic.

 Harry Graves showed up on page two as the patron whose wealth had endowed the clinic and whose generosity brought an orphan home. Eleanor wrote that she lived in Harry’s house and, after graduating from an unnamed college, she’d worked at his company, but–contrary to what she’d told Emma–she didn’t write that Harry was her husband.

 Armed with what she’d found in Eleanor’s suitcase, Emma was ready for round two in a hospital conference room. Harry had tried to trump the autobiography with a Romanian marriage certificate. He almost won: he was used to getting his way and she was a university librarian who played by the rules. But Harry’s arrogance had alienated everyone and Emma was a lifelong member of the University’s family.

 After studying Harry’s certificate for a few moments, one of the University lawyers calmly noted that Eleanor had been significantly underage when she’d signed Harry’s proof of their marriage and Bower–an unapologetic bastion of liberal-leftist politics–was more than willing to prosecute child-abuse wherever or whenever it had occurred. If Harry Graves didn’t want a very public airing of his dirty linen, he’d be smart to fold his tent and go home.

 The last thing Harry Graves wanted was a very public anything.

 He’d handed her one of his business cards after the lawyers were gone. Call me when you realize how big a mistake you’ve made. Emma had insisted that she hadn’t made a mistake and that even if she had, she wouldn’t be turning to him for help. She’d tossed the card into the garbage on her way to the car.

 “Nothing’s changed, Harry,” Em reminded the man on the other side of Eleanor’s bed. “Nothing at all. I’m still in charge and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

 “Emma,” Harry purred. “For a few days, even a week, we could all cling to our hopes, but she’s been like this for three weeks.”

 “That’s nothing for a coma–”

 “Eleanor’s not in a coma–” Harry stopped himself.

 They both looked at the open door. The corridor was empty and quiet, but they each knew the risks of an overheard conversation.

 “We shouldn’t be arguing . . . especially here,” Harry said. “I’m staying at the Executive Suites out by the Interstate. It’s strictly professional–”

 Emma cut him off with a quick, “No.” Rational or not, her paranoia was raging and she wasn’t going anywhere with Harry Graves.

 “A restaurant, then. Someplace quiet and discreet. The check’s mine”–Emma shook her head–“Don’t be foolish.”

 “Don’t talk to me as if I was a child,” Em retorted, though that was exactly how she felt. She had a child’s knowledge of rogues, curses, and the wasteland they roamed. If Emma could have trusted Harry Graves, she had questions galore. If she’d trusted him. “Eleanor trusted me to do the right thing.”

 That was the crux. A woman Emma didn’t like–the mother who’d walked out all those years ago–had signed her life into Emma’s safekeeping and Emma wouldn’t surrender it, not to Harry Graves or the shadowy “global corporation” he represented.

 “Pity,” Harry said, conveying the exact opposite.

 H arry leaned over the bed. There was a half-inch scar over his right eyebrow; she hadn’t noticed it before. Whatever he and Eleanor were, they weren’t invulnerable. They could bleed and scar like everyone else. They could die, too. Blaise Raponde had been dead for a few centuries–his body had, anyway. The rest of him–his spirit, soul, or maybe his ghost–persisted in the wasteland: not dead, not alive, not a rogue . . . if Emma trusted him.

 “Listen to me, Emma Merrigan,” Harry whispered. “Your mother would rather die than become a rogue . . . ”

 Em held her ground with a firm grip on the bed rail. “She’s not a rogue yet–you’ve admitted it yourself. I’m not giving up on her.”

 “Why, Emma? What has Eleanor Merrigan done for you that you’ll risk your own life for hers? And you are risking it. When she wakes up a rogue, you’ll be its first target. You’ll know its secret. You’ll be in its way. You’re not ready for that. Alone, none of us is–”

 Emma seized an opportunity: “She came here alone. You sent her here by herself.”

 “Not me. I spoke against sending Eleanor. None of us knew what we might find out here, her least of all. I questioned whether she could act decisively. As it happened, I was right–for the wrong reason.”

 “And that was?”

 “Obviously, you are not a rogue.”

 “Obviously,” Emma agreed, though she wished she knew why it was obvious.

 Harry’s eyes narrowed as he smiled. “You’re not out of danger yet, Emma Merrigan. You’ve got the talent, and the instincts, but you’re untrained. You’ve got the wisdom but you’ve got the habits of a lifetime–your lifetime. You’ll make mistakes. You’ve seen what happens when mistakes are made in the Netherlands.”

 Without warning, he raised Eleanor’s left hand to his lips and held it there in what could have been a tender, romantic gesture but was, to Emma’s eyes, cold, possessive, and predatory. She fought a shudder of revulsion and said nothing until Harry had released her mother’s hand.

 “Eleanor trusted you. She called you on the phone to get your advice–the call showed up on my long-distance bill. She was depending on you to watch her back; that was her mistake. I won’t be repeating it.”

 “But there are so many mistakes that can be made, Emma. Commit even one of them and you’re lost.”

 “Should I be watching my back then? Today, tomorrow, or should I look for you yesterday?”

 Something that might have been genuine surprise or concern made Harry Graves blink.  “Stay away from your own path, Emma; never cross it.”

 “Why, Harry?” Em demanded before she could censor herself. “Why not go back and fix things? Why not be there when Eleanor needed you?”

 “Time doesn’t work that way, Emma. We don’t change history; we remove curses.”

 “By changing history!”

 Harry reached for her. Emma dropped her arms quickly to her sides and eluded him.

 “No one blames you for your ignorance, Emma. No one blames Eleanor, for that matter. Things were hard enough for her when she came back. She admitted that she’d had a child while she was gone, but your father was mundane. There was doubt whether you’d inherit. She asked that you be left along, and we granted her request. When the years passed and nothing happened, the matter appeared settled–and her indiscretions were forgiven. Then you left the door open. You can imagine our reaction to that.”

 Emma couldn’t and didn’t much care. She bristled, though, at the slight to her father. She swallowed her indignation, but not the plural pronoun. “We who?” she demanded. “Who, exactly, are we? What are we? A bunch of witches?”

 “Witches? Is that what you think, Emma? Magic and mumbo-jumbo? Sorry to disappoint. We’re  stewards . . . caretakers . . . janitors. We patch up the holes that blind, ignorant fools leave behind–”

 An alarm chimed in another room and they both stepped silently away from the bed as soft-footed nurses hurried through the corridor. When Harry continued, it was in a whisper.

 “Don’t become one of them, Emma. You’ve spent your life at university. Your father taught here–engineering, Eleanor said. Did he teach you to be open-minded? Eleanor wasn’t. Once Eleanor made up her mind, nothing could change it. Don’t let that be a family trait.” Harry headed for the closet. “My parents endowed me with a more patient, forgiving nature.” He extracted another business card and held it out. “Believe me, Emma, we’re on the same side. We want the same things. I deeply regret that I threatened you when we first met–”

 Emma didn’t make a move for the card. With a visible sigh, Harry laid it on the shelf where Em had stashed her purse. He shrugged into his coat.

 “We respect your wishes, Emma. If you want nothing to do with us after this is over, so be it, but until then–for Eleanor’s sake–please reconsider your intransigence.  Eleanor is a special woman. We value her dearly, despite her recklessness. I value her dearly because of it.” Harry paused in the doorway. “I want her back, Emma.”

 Then he was gone.

 Emma stared long and hard at the white rectangle beside her purse, half-expecting it to become something else. But it was only paper and in the aftermath of Harry’s visit, Em was too weary to throw it away. She shoved the card into her coat pocket and, as Harry had done, paused in the doorway before leaving.

 Sleeping Beauty hadn’t moved.

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