Once a Thief

A Highlander: The Raven Fanfic in Two Parts by
Raine Wynd

Disclaimer and Notes: Michelle Webster is from the HL:TS episode "Rite of Passage." Jack Kryszka, Dave Watkins, and Nancy are mine, though I haven't the faintest idea why you'd want them. This takes place shortly after "Passion Play"; general spoilers for all HL:TR episodes through "Passion Play."

Kudos to my betas: Carin Lamontagne — thanks for rescuing me when I got stuck, Cynthia Copeland — thanks for paying attention to the details, and Daniel Archer — thanks for challenging me. It was a pleasure working with y'all for the first time; hope to do so again. To my other partners in madness — Dana, thanks for laughing in the right places. You're forgiven for disappearing again in the middle of beta-ing a story for me, and I'm really glad that you're alive and well. Amand-r, thanks for believing I could pull this off, despite the fact that it's taking me months to get there, and I had to kick Methos out of the story. I promise someday I'll write that Amanda and Methos tale.

This is a bit different than what I've written before; I hope y'all like it. As for the city name — well, I'm casting my vote. 

Part One: Seeing Things...

Chapter One
August 1998

The penthouse was quiet in the late morning sun when the woman with platinum hair wandered tiredly through the door and sighed as she eased onto the couch. She was glad that Lucy had decided to go to her sister's after all, get away from town for a while. Amanda knew that as much as she loved the woman like a sister, Lucy was sometimes far too perceptive for Amanda's own taste.

Brooding wasn't something Amanda indulged in very often. She much preferred to leave that particular trait to others, say, a certain Scot, and even then, she didn't tolerate it for long.

If she was in need of a little diversion or money, she acquired previously owned merchandise without the hassle of a sales transaction, or she found herself a handsome benefactor. She most definitely did not spend hours examining her morality, preferring to spend her time on her favorite pursuits: stealing, shopping, and sex.

Lately, though, her perspective on the world had been shifting. Duncan had been trying to get her to see that her actions had consequences. The fiasco with Kalas had scared her, but everything had turned out all right in the end. Then the mortal girl who wanted to be just like her had nearly died, and it had been Amanda's fault for encouraging her.

Even worse, she had placed Duncan in danger countless times just to escape blame for her latest misadventure, and he was someone she loved deeply. He could have been beheaded for some of the burglaries she had committed. She had always been so sure that he could escape, but what if he hadn't been able to? Where would she be now? Moreover, if that was how she had always treated the people she cared about, was it any wonder that she had been so affected by Claudia Hoffman's thoughtless heroism?

For eleven centuries, Amanda had lived with only a passing thought to a guilty conscience. It wasn't a pleasant feeling to realize she could suffer from one. With a half-laugh, she wondered if Methos would know what to do in this situation. She almost picked up the phone to call the old man, but stopped herself. She had no idea where Methos was. Come to think of it, she realized she didn't know where Mac was, either.

Silently, she shrugged. She'd always managed to meet up with Mac over the years, and she suspected that wherever the Highlander would be, the world's oldest Immortal wouldn't be far behind. A small smile played over her lips as she considered the magnetism of one Duncan MacLeod... and then faded as she realized she was distracting herself.

Indirectly, she'd killed Lucy's husband, Marco. Killing Wilson Geary had made things right in one respect, but if Amanda hadn't walked into the theater and said hello to Marco, Lucy might not have gotten jealous... and Wilson would've never been a problem. Or had Wilson just been playing the Game his way, by hunting Marco through his greatest weakness — his mortal lover? Would Marco have still died if Lucy had never walked to the bar, feeling down about Amanda, and let Wilson comfort her?

Amanda exhaled heavily, remembering why she much preferred ignoring deep philosophical discussions: there were never any easy answers. With that thought in mind, she decided to see what Nick was doing for lunch. She'd heard an interesting commercial on the radio on the way home from dropping Lucy at the airport, and she thought that maybe, just maybe, Nick would be interested in joining her....

Across town, Nick was finishing up some body work to the motorcycle he was restoring. Though he missed being a cop, the work he sometimes did for his old friend Bert Myers not only filled a part of the need Nick had for justice, but usually paid well enough to keep the bill collectors happy. The free time Nick now had could be spent doing whatever he chose — a luxury Nick hadn't had in years. The motorcycle was just one of the things that, as a cop, he had always regretted he hadn't enough time for, but now did. Privately, Nick admitted that he wouldn't mind spending more time with a certain blonde named Amanda... even if she drove him crazy.

There were moments when he completely forgot just how old Amanda really was, forgot that she was anything other than a beautiful, charming, deceitful, larcenous, and thoroughly annoying woman, and simply... appreciated his attraction to her. Even as the thought came to mind, Nick closed his green eyes, knowing that his attraction to Amanda came at a cost.

Because of her, his life had forever been altered. His partner was dead, killed by a bullet meant for Amanda. Then, the police department's willingness to sweep the truth of the incident under the rug had gone against Nick's sense of justice. He had chosen to quit rather than to accept a cover-up, but his decision hadn't stopped the truth from getting muddied anyway. The fact that his former comrades on the force seemed to believe that he had quit because he was romantically involved with Amanda only added to the scar on his honor.

As if that wasn't enough, Nick now knew about Immortality, and he wasn't so sure that was a good thing. So far, all the Immortals he'd met had been either psychotic or criminally minded. He was beginning to wonder if there was such a thing as a good Immortal. Amanda had said that there were, but in typical Amanda fashion, hadn't offered any proof.

He wondered if everyone who had known her had found her as maddening, and as attractive, as he already had.

Just then, the phone rang. Nick wiped his greasy hands on a rag and reached for the cordless phone he'd set on the floor of the garage. "Nick Wolfe," he answered.

"Oh, good, you're home," a familiar voice trilled.

"Amanda." Ruthlessly, Nick shoved aside the delight he felt at hearing her voice, after thinking about her for the better part of the last hour. "What now?"

"I'm hurt, Nick. Here I am, calling to ask you to join me for lunch, and you think I'm up to something."

Nick chuckled. "Amanda, you're always up to something. The question is what."

"You owe me lunch, Nick, since you stood me up the other day, remember?"

He sighed, knowing she was right. "Oh, all right," he capitulated. "Giovanna's, in twenty minutes. I promise you, I won't be late this time," he told her, remembering their failed lunch meeting of a few weeks previously.

"You're kidding." Disbelief was clearly etched onto Nick's lean features. He sat back in the booth of the Italian restaurant. "You want to go to a guns, coins, and gems show and you're not going to steal anything? Oh, I get it. You're just scouting it out so you can steal something later."

Amanda rolled her eyes. "Give me a break, Nick. I doubt if anything is left overnight other than the booths themselves. I'm just curious, and I thought you might be interested." She paused and took a bite of her pasta salad. "Besides," she added loftily, "what can happen in a place like that?"

"With you?" Nick scoffed. "Everything."

"Oh, come on, Nick," Amanda wheedled, "it'll be fun."

Nick merely glared at her, not believing her one iota.

Mentally, she sighed. Life would be so much simpler if Nick believed her more, she decided. She never lied... well, okay, so she maybe didn't remember to tell all of the truth all of the time, but certainly other people did that, didn't they? Her eyes narrowed as she considered what buttons to push to get what she wanted from Nick.

Oh, yes. She smiled, and began her attack.

"One of these days," Nick swore nearly two hours later, "I'm going to learn not to listen when you ask me if I want to go somewhere."

She smiled as she cut a leisurely, but quick, path through the milling crowd. Patting Nick's arm, she told him, "Darling, relax. Just because I sensed someone else doesn't mean we have to fight."

"And running is the answer?" he hissed through clenched teeth.

"Would you rather that I lost my head?" she countered in an undertone as, abruptly, their path was blocked by a group of enraptured spectators watching a lecture on coin collecting.

"No," Nick growled, frustrated at his inability to fully understand the code Amanda lived by, and his lack of control over the current situation.

Not for the first time, he thought the Game was a senseless affair. He knew the rules allowed for escape if Amanda wasn't directly challenged, but he thought knowing that who the other Immortal was before she ran away might be useful information. How that would help, he wasn't sure, but he didn't think that just blindly retreating was necessarily a good strategic move.

However, he rapidly realized that Amanda had lived for centuries by doing a lot of running away in much the same manner as she was doing now... and that if he cared anything at all for her, he would help her in that direction whenever possible.

His eyes scanned the crowd, and at last he saw an opening. Tugging on Amanda's hand, he pulled her through the gap, earning him an annoyed, mildly wounded look. He was about ready to reply to that when she stopped short.

"Damn it, what is she doing here?" he heard Amanda mutter before greeting a young, full-figured woman with long hair the color of dark chocolate and pale ivory skin. Nick saw that the woman had a China-doll look to her face and wore a navy blue suit. He guessed her age at eighteen, suspecting that this was the Immortal Amanda had sensed.

"Michelle!" Amanda said gaily. "What are you doing here, darling? I thought you were in Geneva! Don't tell me you already graduated from school!"

Michelle smiled, embracing Amanda warmly. "Yes, I did," she confirmed with a laugh, "but now I'm a store manager for De Marci Jewelers. I was working at a store south of here and they liked my skills enough to promote me." She grinned. "Been a long time, teach. Where's Mac?" She raked an appreciative gaze over Nick. "And who's this?"

"I have no idea where Mac is," Amanda replied even as Nick wondered who the heck "Mac" was and if it was anyone that could pose a problem later on for either him or Amanda.

Before he could ask for clarification, however, Amanda was making the introductions. Nick resolved to ask Amanda later.

"Nick, I'd like you to meet Michelle Webster, my former student. Michelle, this is my friend Nick Wolfe."

Nick smiled and shook hands with the young woman. "Nice to meet an old friend of Amanda's." Were all female Immortals blessed with beauty? he wondered. Then Michelle's relationship to Amanda sunk in.

"He knows about us?" Michelle asked significantly. At Amanda's nod, Michelle's smile grew wider. "Not as old as you think," she reassured Nick. Her gaze raked his form in clear appreciation. Boldly she asked Amanda, "Yours?"

Nick was so busy trying to process the information that Amanda had mentored someone, he nearly missed the hopeful look Michelle sent Amanda. He reconsidered his initial impression of Michelle of 'young and attractive' to 'young, attractive, and on the prowl.'

Amanda narrowed her gaze at Michelle. "Down, girl," she ordered.

Michelle pouted. "Why do you end up with all the really delicious ones?"

Amanda laughed and feigned innocence. "They see me first?"

Her former student shook her head resignedly, but chose not to comment.

Smiling, Amanda took a moment to study the younger woman. "Are you in town long?"

Michelle nodded. "We're using this show to promote the grand opening of our store here in town." She glanced at her watch, noting the time. "Listen, why don't we meet for drinks after the show?"

"Sure," Amanda agreed readily. She took the pen and paper Michelle proffered and wrote down a phone number. "Give me a call."

Too readily, Nick realized. He had just enough time to digest the information before Amanda dragged him off in the direction from whence they'd came. She was apparently taking advantage of the fact that Michelle had been approached by a conventioneer, and thus didn't see their exit.

"Amanda!" Nick protested, wrestling his arm from her surprisingly strong grip. They'd traveled the length of the convention floor and were now near the front entrance. "What the hell is going on?"

She smiled widely. "Isn't it obvious? We're leaving."

"No, you're running, and dragging me with you."

She glared at him, unhappy that he'd called her bluff. She sighed. "Please, Nick? Can we just leave? I promise I'll explain later."

He stared at her, then relented. "I'm going to hold you to that."

She rolled her eyes, knowing he'd do exactly that.

Chapter Two
Amanda's Penthouse

"I knew it," Nick stormed, pacing angrily some twenty minutes later.

Amanda ignored him, curled up on the sofa as her hands played with a set of golden, glittery strands.

"You're a kleptomaniac when it comes to jewelry, you know that?" A part of him couldn't believe she'd had the nerve to pull it off, while the other part admired the skill she'd used.

"Not all jewelry," Amanda corrected mildly, dropping the necklaces into a velvet pouch she'd taken from the coffee table. "Just the pretty ones." She lifted her shoulders in an eloquent expression of carelessness. "Besides, the place was candy for the taking."

"You used Michelle as an excuse to leave," Nick accused, irritation etched clearly into his diamond-shaped face. "You made it seem like she was a threat."

Amanda snorted. "Michelle? Hardly." She thought of something, smiled wickedly, then focused her gaze on Nick. "Though for you, she might be."

As she'd expected, that arrested Nick's movement. He dropped to the couch beside her. "What do you mean?" he asked warily.

She smiled devilishly. "I gave her your number."

Nick looked stunned, then furious, then resigned. Amanda smirked at the myriad of emotions that crossed his features.

"Don't worry about it, darling," she cooed. "You'll enjoy yourself."

He sighed, deciding to deal with that issue when Michelle called him. He was now thoroughly convinced that his life had become hopelessly complicated the moment his path crossed Amanda's. As peaceful as he suspected his life would be without Amanda around, he wanted to have her close by, where he could keep an eye on her. He told himself it was just so that he could control the amount of damage she would do, and not because he wasn't sure of the emotional toll on his heart. Not liking that train of thought, he decided to pose a question that had occurred to him earlier.

"So how in the world did you end up with a student anyway? Somehow, I can't imagine an advertisement in the Yellow Pages: Newly Immortal? Teachers Available, call 555-SWRD."

Amanda laughed. "No, it's usually whoever finds you first. In Michelle's case, it was a mutual friend of ours." She smiled, thinking of Duncan MacLeod.

Nick noted the unconscious softening of Amanda's features as she thought of this friend. Jealousy stabbed at his heart with a sudden, sharp pain, and he fought it. Amanda was no innocent, and Immortals lived centuries... more than enough time to accumulate a lot of lovers.

His mind flashed back to the comment Michelle had made at the show. "This friend wouldn't happen to be named 'Mac'?"

Amanda started and looked puzzled as she tried to figure out if she had mentioned a name.

"I heard Michelle ask you about someone with that name. I just figured it had to be someone important to both of you." Nick shrugged.

Amanda smiled, thinking of the Immortal she loved. "He is," she told Nick simply.

Nick studied her, realizing Amanda's expression had softened into an unmistakable look of love. He wondered just what kind of man — no, Immortal, Nick corrected himself silently — could capture Amanda's thieving heart. Had Mac ever try to change her, make her see right from wrong? Moreover, was Mac the only one — Immortal or mortal — Amanda loved with all of her heart? Was Nick's attraction to Amanda doomed to fail, even if Amanda acted as though she found him just as tempting? Was this Mac person just one more reason to not act upon his desire?

Well, whoever Mac was, he wasn't here now. That put him in the not-an-immediate-threat category. The only threats right now were the prospect of facing Amanda's student, and of Amanda getting caught with the merchandise she'd lifted from the gems, coins, and guns show.

He sighed. Somehow, he didn't think the latter was any real threat. Amanda knew how to cover her tracks well — hell, hadn't he helped her do so on a couple occasions? Ruefully, he decided it was time for him to go, and made his excuses.

Twenty minutes later, he arrived home and checked his messages. Michelle's perky voice flowed through the speaker. "Okay, so I totally get the idea, Amanda. You want to be left alone for now. But Nick, if you're sick of her driving you crazy, call me. 555-9395. Oh, and in case you're wondering who the heck this is, this is Michelle."

Nick hesitated. Courtesy demanded that he at least return the call. If Michelle was anything like Amanda... but his curiosity was intrigued. What if she wasn't? Not giving himself a chance to change his mind, he picked up the phone and began to dial.

The following evening

Michelle leaned over the wrought iron rail of the upper deck of the two-story restaurant, a half-full wineglass left over from dinner in one hand, her gray eyes on the sun set over the river. The light river breeze gently tossed her hair and billowed the see-through sleeves of her low-cut ivory georgette blouse. Watching her in profile as he leaned against the railing next to her, Nick wondered how she'd managed to conceal the sword he knew she had to be carrying. The slim-fitting plum-hued slacks she wore revealed every curve, and that wasn't even considering the sheerness of her blouse. It was a warm night, not yet cold enough to warrant a jacket.

Then again, when Amanda's in that leather outfit of hers, I can't tell she has a sword either, until she starts swinging it. Must be some trick that Immortals learn.

"You know," she said idly, breaking the companionable silence, "this is a really nice city."

Nick ignored the river scene below them, preferring to study Michelle instead. Dinner had been a surprisingly pleasant affair, though Nick had to admit he hadn't been sure what to expect. He found Michelle to be a refreshing change of pace from Amanda: she was candid, outspoken, and easy to trust.

"It's home," Nick said simply.

"Of all the places in the world I thought I'd run into Amanda," Michelle mused, taking a sip of her wine, "I never thought I'd run into her here. Seacouver, Geneva, Paris, maybe somewhere in the Caribbean, but not here. I never thought she'd leave Mac for long, either." She shrugged, and turned to face Nick. "Guess after a couple hundred years, you'd get tired of the same places, the same people."

"I wouldn't know," Nick replied. "I don't think I've seen everything just yet." He chuckled wryly. "Though you guys come pretty close to the top of the list, with your swords and nearly endless lives."

She laughed softly at that. She considered her companion a moment before commenting, "Amanda's not in the habit of telling mortals about us, especially not a cop."

"So I've gathered," Nick noted dryly. He could see that Michelle was waiting for an explanation, so he went on, "She died in front of me. Or so I thought. She told me I was seeing things, but later she changed her mind about telling me."

He took a deep breath, battling the ever-present grief and frustration over his partner's selfless, but tragically ironic, act. His companion waited patiently, her expression clearly curious but respectful. He debated momentarily over how much to tell Michelle, and settled for a condensation of the truth.

"It wasn't until I ran into another one of you that I found out. She wanted to let me know the truth, so I didn't get myself killed. I didn't believe her story about Immortals, so she deliberately shot herself to prove her point." He snorted, shaking his head. "I thought she was a crazy, suicidal bitch. Dropped her like a hot potato when she came back to life."

Michelle giggled at the image. "Oh, I would've loved to have seen that."

"Never seen anyone do that, and it made me angry," he told her.

Michelle chuckled. "Well, that's one reaction. The moment I found out I wasn't dead, I freaked out. I didn't know what to think. I knew I wasn't an extra in a horror flick, so it was pretty terrifying at first." The remembered fear reflected in her eyes as she paused for breath.

"Later, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world, that it meant total freedom from everything. I didn't want to hear about swords and people coming after my head." She shook her head at her own naïveté. "I was pretty hostile when I was told different."

She was silent a moment, her eyes now on the river.

"How'd it happen, I mean, how did you — ?" Thinking the question was probably rude, Nick let his voice trail off.

"Die, the first time?" Michelle finished gently, understanding his reticence. "Sounds awkward, doesn't it? It's okay, I don't mind you asking. God knows I thought I knew all the answers when I found out I could live forever." Smiling, she continued, "Anyway, I was angry with my father for something stupid, so I hopped into my car and promptly crashed it. Next thing I know, Mac's sneaking me out of the morgue."

She looked at Nick with lightly amused eyes, but beneath the veneer, he could detect a wistfulness she hadn't yet learned how to quite hide. "It was weird watching my own funeral. You dream about it, and you think you'll be floating up in heaven somewhere, but— " She shook her head, the rich chocolate brown mane swaying past her shoulders as the wind blew loose tendrils into her face. "Nothing prepares you for the reality of it, the starkness of the ceremony. It's been four years, and I still dream of it sometimes."

"Did you know you were going to be Immortal, before — ?"

"No," she answered. "Though, looking back, I should've realized something was wrong when my favorite family friend, Mac, never got any older. Guess I just took it for granted that he had good genes or something." She chuckled wryly at the last thought.

"You had no idea then what he was, what you became."

"What I've always been," she corrected gently. "Immortality's like some delayed kind of growing up, or maybe some disease that doesn't kick in until you die the first time." She leaned against the railing and didn't look at Nick.

"No wonder Amanda said she didn't get to choose," Nick mused, as a comment that Amanda had made to him some weeks earlier finally made sense.

Michelle looked at Nick then, and her eyes were sad, resigned. "No one does, and no one knows why it happens to some people and not others." She drew a deep breath. "I only know that I'm stuck with it, whether I like it or not."

Nick was silent as he absorbed the new information, comparing it to what he already knew. Finally, he asked, "And Mac? Where does he fit into this?"

Some of the sadness left Michelle's eyes as she clearly recalled the other Immortal. "Mac wanted to be my first teacher, but I didn't take him seriously enough. I was eighteen, you know, and Immortality was going to be about fun — my fun. Not a bunch of rules dictated to me by some four-hundred year old Highlander who didn't know 'hip' meant something other than a part of your body." Her voice was light, glossing over memories Nick suspected were a lot more painful than she was letting on.

"So how did you meet Amanda if Mac was your teacher?" Nick inquired, trying to put the puzzle pieces together in his mind. "And what's Mac to Amanda?"

Michelle smiled. "Mac and Amanda have been lovers," she explained gently, answering his last question first. "I don't know how long, but from what I understand, whatever time they spend together usually ends when Amanda sets Mac up to take the fall for something she did."

Nick shook his head, feeling a wave of sympathy for the other man. Glad to know that I'm not the only one she drives crazy. His earlier insecurity about the other man faded as he realized Mac probably had put up with far worse than Nick would ever know. He didn't envy Mac in the slightest, not anymore.

"Anyway, I screwed up royally, and since Mac couldn't trust me to listen to him, he asked Amanda to be my teacher. Next thing I know, I'm in Geneva in a Catholic boarding school for girls." She shuddered slightly. "I was so totally out of my element."

"Holy Ground?"

"Safest place in the world for someone like me." Michelle lifted her shoulders in a casual gesture of acceptance, then took another sip of wine. She swallowed, and chuckled dryly, remembering. "There were times when I was really glad that we were on Holy Ground, especially when I pissed Amanda off."

Nick smiled at that image. "I take it you did that quite frequently."

She lifted her almost-empty glass in salute. "In spades." She finished her drink. "I wouldn't listen to anything she tried to teach me, whined a lot, and generally made a nuisance out myself."

"Somehow, I can't imagine Amanda having the patience to teach anyone."

"Oh, she killed me a couple of times before I started paying attention," Michelle said with a laugh. She left the railing temporarily to set her now-empty glass on a nearby table.

"I didn't take her seriously for a long time." She gestured expansively before continuing, "She'd talk about how fun breaking in and stealing some duke's signet ring was, or how great a lover some dude was, or a thousand other things that were more interesting than learning to fight with a sword, or how to survive the more — creative — opponents." She paused to gauge Nick's reaction.

Seeing that he was listening with genuine interest, Michelle picked up her story. "Or I'd look at her, and I'd think she was just a couple of years older than me, and I'd forget that she knew what she was talking about when she tried to teach me different stuff. It still freaks me out to think that she's lived as long as she has." She shook her head ruefully. "Did you know she survived the Plague, only to be killed for stealing a loaf of bread? That was her First Death."

"No," Nick said with some surprise. "I know she's over a thousand years old, but she didn't say how she'd died."

"Typical Amanda," Michelle commented knowingly. "Only tells you half of the truth and leaves the rest up to your imagination — or your interpretation." She shrugged. "Then again, when the truth can get you into as much trouble as a lie, why bother?"

For a moment, Michelle sounded exactly like Amanda, making Nick wonder if Michelle was quoting her former teacher. "Don't you ever get tired of the lies you have to tell, the things you have to do?"

"You might ask yourself that question sometime." She smiled gently. "You haven't told anybody about us, have you?"

He inclined his head in a slight salute. "Touché. No, I haven't. Who'd believe me anyway?"

Michelle hid a smile. She wondered if the man beside her knew how much he'd fallen in love with her old mentor. Briefly, she considered wooing him away, but knew she was no match against Amanda in that department. She was vain enough to regret the missed opportunity, even if she'd had no choice in the matter long before she'd come to town. Silently, she wished him good luck.

"Thanks for meeting me for dinner, Nick," she said easily, extending a hand. He took it, shaking it firmly. "Next time, bring Amanda and hang on to your credit cards, if you can."

With a smile, she held up Nick's wallet. Eyes flashing, he repossessed it and did a quick check to make sure the contents were intact.

"Oh, don't look so mad, Nick," Michelle chided. "You knew who taught me."

With that, she walked away, leaving Nick to shake his head ruefully and tuck his wallet back in his pocket. He hadn't had his pocket so expertly picked since his last bar fight in Marseilles nearly eight years previously.

Chapter Three
Two days later
De Marci Jewelers

Amanda strolled into the jewelry store, admiring, as she always had, the sheer beauty of a few precious metals and gemstones set into a thousand different pieces and encased in glass showcases. A four-tiered chandelier hung from the ceiling, and the carpet was a plush, Oriental-inspired design. The store spoke of quiet wealth and elegance, the kind of atmosphere that would intimidate a working-class couple into shopping somewhere else. Amanda smiled appreciatively and began scanning for the telltale signs of the security devices.

Oh, this was too easy, she thought. A simple trip laser, the usual assortments of alarms... she stepped forward and felt the floor give slightly. She smiled again, delighted. Pressure plates in the floor... now things were getting interesting. Half the fun of her acquisitions was the thrill of getting past so-called security, even if modern technology meant increased planning and tedious practice for her heists. With a sigh of nostalgia for the days when a mere smile and a courtesan's art could gain her access to a king's ransom, she concentrated on analyzing the store's security.

She didn't have to look around to know that Michelle wasn't here. Briefly, she wondered where the other Immortal was, and sent a quick prayer to the patron saint of thieves that Michelle wasn't going to show up while Amanda was in the store. Michelle wouldn't be happy to see her eyeing the store as a potential target.

A petite brunette in a tailored cream-colored suit and a smile that was as feral as it was fake approached Amanda. Her swift gaze calculated the net worth of Amanda's simply styled rose cream sheath, ruby Y-necklace, and matching kidskin leather heels. "May I help you?" she asked.

Amanda shrugged off the faint, never-quite-banished glimmer of unworthiness that the saleswoman's look induced and shook her head. What she was most after wouldn't be on display, but locked up in the safe. "Just browsing, thank you," she told the saleswoman.

Suddenly, she felt the surge of sensation that always signaled Presence. So much for prayers, she thought with a pout. I was so hoping to get something tonight.

Michelle walked into the store, her gaze clearly searching for the source of the warning that was sounding in her own brain. Amanda smiled as Michelle's search ended, admiring how the other woman looked in a sharply styled black business suit and matching accessories.

"Amanda!" Michelle exclaimed, stepping forward to hug the older woman. "Tsk, tsk, you were scoping out my store without me around? How rude of you."

Amanda lifted her chin in the air and posed ingenuously. "Why, darling, I wouldn't dream of it," she drawled. "I just arrived, and you weren't here yet."

Michelle wasn't so easily fooled. "Let's go to the back. I'm sure you'd love to tell me what's wrong with the security," she sighed resignedly.

"Well, darling, now that you mention it... " Amanda began as Michelle gently, but firmly, escorted her away from potential customers and into the backroom/office.

They spoke of security, jewelry, fashion, other Immortals, and basically caught each other up on their lives since their last meeting nearly two years previously.

"So tell me, Amanda," Michelle said finally, "what's the story with you and Nick?"

"Nick's a friend," Amanda allowed.

"Oh, come on, I know you," Michelle encouraged. "What's he like in bed?"

Amanda was saved from having to answer that question by the timely interruption of the saleswoman who'd approached her earlier.

"I'm sorry to disturb you and your friend, Ms. Webster," the saleswoman said apologetically as she leaned into the room, "but I need your help. There's a gentleman on the floor who's looking for a specific piece, and I don't know what to tell him since we don't have what he's looking for."

"Thanks, Nancy. I'll take care of it. " Michelle drew herself to her feet. "Amanda? If you'll excuse me?"

Amanda rose as well. "I really ought to be going, so I'll just follow you out." She hugged the younger woman. "It's good to see you, darling."

Michelle returned the embrace. "Lunch tomorrow?"

"We'll see." Amanda smiled, and preceded the other woman out of the back room.

Michelle saw Amanda leave, then followed Nancy's lead to the gentleman she'd spoken of. Nancy hovered nearby, watching Michelle's actions for her own future reference.

As she approached, Michelle saw that the tall man was attired in a green short-sleeved golf shirt that stretched over a squarely built chest, khaki pants, and new-looking white walking shoes. A tan snap-brimmed hat covered neatly shorn gray hair. He had a round, weathered face highlighted by a small nose and a mustache. He had the look of an executive who'd kept fit all his life and was now enjoying his retirement.

Michelle smiled and extended her hand in greeting. "I'm Ms. Webster. How can I help you today, sir?"

He shook her hand. "Jack Kryszka," he returned. "I'm hoping you can find a piece for my daughter. She's really into dragons, and it's her birthday coming up."

Michelle nodded her understanding. "How old will she be?" she asked with professional interest as she moved to the counter nearest the discreetly hidden register to retrieve the special order form she needed.

"It's her eighteenth birthday," Jack told her as he followed her across the short distance from their previous location near the store's entrance.

A flash of memory sliced across Michelle as she remembered her own eighteenth birthday, and she thanked the long practice she had at maintaining her professional facade.

"As a matter of fact, you look a lot like her," Jack added. "Maybe you're that twin of hers everyone always talks about having."

"Well," Michelle said lightly as she drew out a pen from a pocket in her blazer, "you never know. Now, tell me about this dragon of hers."

"I'd like to be in silver, with sapphire eyes, looking a bit shy, not ferocious at all. It has to be a pendant on a necklace, and oh! Could you make the tail all diamonds?"

"Certainly," Michelle agreed, writing up the order. She then quoted the various standard policies on special orders and received his deposit on the order.

"Sounds good to me," Jack agreed. "Thanks for your help, Ms. Webster."

"We'll give you a call in two weeks when it's ready," Michelle promised.

Jack turned to leave, then paused. Michelle was busy filing the paperwork and glanced up as his shadow fell across the glass. "Yes?" she asked inquiringly.

"I can't get over how much you look like her," Jack murmured. "It's uncanny. You even work at the same De Marci's she used to work at."

Michelle was starting to feel unnerved by his stare. "That can't be," she corrected, focusing in on his last words. "This is a new store."

He blinked at that, seeming to come in from whatever parallel universe he'd been traveling in, and gathered his composure together with an effort. "Yes, yes, of course it is," he said with an embarrassed laugh. "Jennifer worked at a De Marci's in New River," he clarified, naming a neighboring city.

"Oh really?" Michelle asked with polite interest.

"Yes, well, I'd better be going." Abruptly, Jack hurried away.

Weird old man, Michelle decided, mentally shrugging her shoulders and dismissing him in favor of attending to store business.

Ten days later
11 PM
Nick's house

Amanda tossed popcorn at the TV screen as the end credits rolled and Nick got up to change the tape in the VCR.

"Will you stop that?" Nick said, faintly annoyed, as a kernel hit him squarely in the back.

"Well, if you hadn't rented such a bad movie, I wouldn't have cause." Amanda sulked and threw another handful at Nick. Most of the kernels fell short of their intended target, and she shrugged philosophically. She hadn't really been aiming this time anyway. She was more interested in admiring the view in front of her, and smiled to herself. The accidental meeting in the video store had given her the opportunity to spend time with Nick. She blithely ignored the fact that she had calculated the encounter in an effort to avoid someone else.

"Hey, whose fault is that?" Nick asked pointedly as he dropped the just-viewed tape into the nearby reindeer and stuck another movie in the VCR. "You were right there with me, arguing passionately about the merits of one particular actor. Hmm, what was his name? Brad something or other, rhymes with mitt?"

Amanda rolled her eyes and set the glass bowl of popcorn on the coffee table. "Oh, and I suppose you're immune, Mr. Almost-Rented-A-"

"Don't say it, Amanda," Nick growled warningly as he sat down.

"— buxom bimbo-in-distress movie," Amanda finished mischievously. Nick groaned.

She snuggled back into the couch and grinned. "Never dare me to not do something, Nick. You'll be disappointed."

He sighed resignedly, half-wishing Michelle had been able to make their impromptu movie marathon. At least then, he might have had a chance of having an ally against the repeated popcorn attacks and Amanda's sharp wit. Shaking his head, he hit the play button on the VCR as the doorbell rang.

He glanced over at Amanda, unconsciously checking to see if she'd sensed another Immortal. Her eyes met his in a look of mild curiosity, not the frozen look of alarm that he'd come to associate with Immortal danger, and he instinctively relaxed an inch.

The doorbell resounded again, more insistently this time.

"Ten to one, it's the cops," Amanda wagered mildly. She waited a beat, watching as Nick ignored her and went to answer the door.

Not getting a bet, she sighed with regret and leaned forward to grab a handful of popcorn. She began munching delicately at the popped kernels as the beginning credits of the rental movie rolled across the TV screen. She silently congratulated herself on her accurate prediction when she heard a familiar male voice at the door.

"We're looking for your girlfriend," Captain Magnus, a tall, thin, balding man, greeted without preamble. "She's in trouble again."

Nick rolled his eyes and bit back the sigh. He knew he wasn't going to change the assumption of nearly everyone on the force that he and Amanda were involved; it had proven handy once already.

To his former captain, Nick said, "What now?"

"Know where Amanda is?" Captain Magnus countered.

"She's right here." Nick drew open the door to let in the captain and his partner.

"How come they're nice and polite when they visit you, but when they come to see me, my front door always gets busted open?" Amanda complained to Nick as the officers stepped inside.

Whatever Nick would've said to that was lost Captain Magnus walked in and began questioning Amanda.

"You've been here all evening?"

"Since we left the video store. When was that, darling," Amanda looked at Nick, who'd taken up an unconsciously protective stance near her, "about three hours ago?"

"About then," Nick agreed. "Reel Videos on the corner of Pine and Maplecrest," he clarified for the dark-haired, male, rookie officer who'd accompanied Captain Magnus and was taking notes. "What's this about?"

"De Marci Jewelers was hit shortly after closing tonight."

"Really?" Amanda asked with interest. She traded glances with Nick. "Was anyone hurt?"

"Really." The captain's voice was flat. "And I think you'd know if anyone was hurt." He moved to lean into her face, blatantly trying to intimidate her, and his shoe crunched popcorn. The sound melded in with the gunfire from the TV screen, and both cops froze.

Amanda couldn't help the smile that spread across her face. Even Nick had a hard time fighting amusement at his longtime mentor's expression.

"It's popcorn, sir," the rookie said unnecessarily.

"I know what it is," Captain Magnus snapped. His swift glance assessed the haphazard layer of popcorn on the floor. Instantly, he made a decision. "Let's go," he told the rookie. His tone held contempt. "They've been here a while."

After the police had left, Nick shut the door. "You know, they don't believe either of us."

Amanda shrugged and dug the remote out from underneath her, where she'd hid it from Nick. She'd been using the hidden remote as an excuse to watch him move. "Their problem," she said dismissively. "Do you want me to rewind? I think we missed the good part."

"Aren't you the least bit worried about Michelle?" Nick asked as he moved back to the couch, avoiding as much of the strewn popcorn as was possible.

"Why?" Amanda asked blankly, her finger on the rewind button. She was just glad the visit hadn't been from the person she was trying to avoid. "When we had lunch earlier, she told me she was only working until six o'clock."

"She'd get called in because it was her store," Nick pointed out.

"And she'll handle it perfectly fine without either of us in the way," Amanda said logically. "What do you think they're going to do to her, Nick? If they shoot her, she'll just get back up. Come on, I want to see that explosion again. Wish I'd had a camera — your old captain's face was priceless."

Silently, Nick promised himself he'd check on Michelle the next day, and gave in to Amanda's cajoling.

Chapter Four
De Marci Jewelers
The following day

"Don't look now, Michelle," the manager-in-training, Dave Watkins, a short, pudgy, black haired man in his mid-forties with a taste for Looney Tunes ties, announced in a stage whisper. He leaned over the glass showcase where she was arranging a sapphire-themed ensemble and grinned, his chipmunk-like face lighting up. "But the most delicious man just walked in and he's headed this way."

Michelle rolled her eyes and continued to kneel behind the showcase. "You call everyone you haven't hit upon yet 'delicious', Dave." She straightened an emerald and diamond tennis bracelet before adding a new, heavier-carat-weight one right next to it.

Glancing up at Dave, she chided, "You're such a pretender, anyway. You're about as gay as this ring — " she held up a sapphire and ruby signet ring for Dave's inspection "— is fake."

Dave's grin widened. "You're such a gullible woman, Michelle," he teased her. "When are you going to wise up and learn you can't trust everything someone tells you?"

Michelle snorted, not buying Dave's act a second. She'd known him three weeks, and had watched him go through this routine several times with people of both genders. She suspected he delighted in keeping people off balance, and tried not to rise to his baiting. "Go do your job and leave me alone. I've got to finish putting out this shipment."

Dave chuckled unrepentantly and moved to greet the new customer.

Not for the first time that morning, Michelle wondered what the robber had been thinking. In a store filled with thousands of dollars more in precious stones, the robber had only taken the cash in the till and frightened Nancy, the saleswoman who'd closed the store the previous night. Guess there's no accounting for taste, Michelle shrugged.

The store had been busy for the first few hours after opening, no doubt lured by the publicity. The robbery had made the ten o'clock news, after all. While her staff had handled the stream of curiosity seekers, she'd been occupied with the inevitable corporate red tape associated with such an incident.

Now, in the mid-afternoon lull, Michelle was finishing up the task of putting out a new shipment of jewelry. This was a part of her job she loved, and she didn't mind that she could've easily assigned one of her employees to do it. She loved seeing the new pieces, fascinated by the variety and glitter. She had just arranged the last piece, a princess-cut diamond ring accented by trillion cut diamonds, platinum and solid gold, when suddenly, a shadow fell over where she was working. A male voice asked in low tones, "Got an opening in security for an ex-cop?"

Michelle looked up and beamed, recognizing her visitor. "Nick!" She started to stand, then, as the medium-sized box that had contained the new shipment started to slide down her teal silk skirt, changed her mind. Quickly, she locked the open showcase and grabbed the box before standing.

"Sorry, but I think all the security positions have been taken," she informed him, nodding to the two uniformed police officers standing guard by the entrance. "Though to hear Amanda tell it, you'd have the identity of the robber figured out by now."

Nick looked faintly uncomfortable at the secondhand praise, but went along with it nonetheless. "Haven't you heard?" he teased. "It's all her fault."

Michelle answered soberly, "Of course. The infamous Amanda strikes again." Then she gave into her laughter. "Like anyone with half a brain would know that Amanda wouldn't pass up a candy store like this for the cash on hand." She paused. "Give me a second to toss this box and I'll be right out."

Nick shook his head. "Don't bother. I just came by to see how you were doing."

Touched by the gesture, Michelle asked, "You always this gracious to Amanda's friends?"

Nick stuck his hands in his pockets, slightly embarrassed. "Not usually, no," he admitted. "But you seem pretty straightforward to me, and you're not after her head."

Michelle laughed again. "Oh, that would be a riot, now wouldn't it?"

Not understanding her humor, Nick looked confused. "Why?"

Still chuckling, the young Immortal confessed, "I hate the sight of blood. Makes me want to puke. Hell of thing for someone like me, isn't it?" Seeing Nick's acknowledgment, she sobered slightly. "I'm fine, Nick," she reassured him, finally answering the silent question his presence posed. "The store's fine."

"I can see that," Nick replied. "But I wanted to check anyway."

Just then, Michelle saw a potential customer walk into the store. Quickly, she hid the empty box she held behind the showcase.

"Would you excuse me a moment, Nick? I have to attend to that lady, but don't go just yet. Now that you're here, I just thought of something to ask you."

Intrigued, Nick made himself comfortable. Abruptly, he realized that he hadn't been in a jewelry store for anything other than business since his failed marriage. He wondered why that somehow seemed to matter, and shook off the thought.

Michelle returned some twenty minutes later, her expression flushed with the sale she'd made. "Well, I think I can go home now," she said giddily. "I love it when a customer knows what she wants."

"Hustler," Nick accused softly, having watched the transaction. "She had every intention of buying just the necklace. Somehow, I don't think she was planning on buying the bracelet and the earrings as well."

Michelle shrugged. For a minute, Nick could see Amanda making the same gesture and he flinched. Just how much of Michelle was Amanda? he wondered.

"Everyone's good at something," Michelle pointed out, smiling. Her next words eased Nick's fears even further. "I might make a great pickpocket, but I make a lousy thief."

Nick looked at her askance. "Your teacher was Amanda and you're a lousy thief?"

"Amazing, isn't it?" The young woman grinned, but didn't bother to explain, choosing to change the subject instead.

"I have this formal party to go to tonight, some charity thing my boss wants me to attend, and I need a date. Think Amanda will let me borrow you?"

Nick's eyes flashed at the implication in Michelle's tone. "Amanda doesn't have a say in what I do with my time."

"Really?" Michelle drawled with a smile. "Could've fooled me."

"What do you mean by that?" he demanded as she pulled out a pen and a slim gold business card case from a skirt pocket. Writing with quick, expansive strokes, she scrawled an address on the back of one of her business cards.

Michelle tucked the card into Nick's hand. "Oh, I'm probably just being a hopeless romantic," she said airily, unconvincingly. "Pick me up at seven, would you?"

"Amanda and I are not involved with each other," Nick denied for what felt like the umpteenth time.

Michelle just shrugged and walked away to greet an elderly gentleman. Nick watched her a moment longer before departing. As he passed by, he heard her tell the customer that she was sorry, his special order hadn't come in yet, and her protest that she wasn't his daughter's twin.

What an odd thing to say to someone, he thought. Then he shrugged, remembering the excuse Amanda had used on the Navajo computer whiz. Probably just a case of Michelle trying to cover up the fact that she's Immortal.

Satisfied with his logic, he put the incident out of his mind, and went to see if he could rent a tuxedo on short notice.

Twenty minutes later

"She looks just like her," Jack murmured with a sigh to his lunch companion.

"I know," the other man replied. "You have no idea how many times I've almost called her Jennifer."

"Is she like my Jennifer? Does she like the same things? Does she hum along with the songs in the store like Jennifer did?" The words tumbled out in a rush.

"Jack, Jennifer's dead. Someone robbed the store and shot her, remember?" No gentleness was evident in the man's tone, and his chubby features, normally animated by a smile, were cold.

Jack blinked and hurriedly tried to cover his slip. "Of course she is. You discovered her the next morning when you came into work." He paused, and reached out a comforting hand across the table. "What a horrible, horrible thing, Dave."

Dave nodded, his eyes downcast as he remembered. He swallowed past his memories and proceeded to take a drink of water. "I know who did it, Jack. I know you've been working with the police for a year now, and they haven't figured it out, but I've a friend on the force." Conspiratorially, he added, "He said they know who it is, but they can't arrest her without any proof."

Jack's eyes grew wide. "Who?"

Dave leaned forward, careful to grab his Tasmanian Devil tie and keep it out of the potential harm of the marinara sauce on his plate. "There's a thief named Amanda Montrose. She's the one you want, and I know just how to trap her."

Chapter Five
Nick's apartment
7 a.m.

Klaxon bells were resounding incessantly. What the hell? Nick wondered groggily, instinctively reaching out to slap the snooze button on the bedside clock. Who set the damned alarm?

He felt soft skin brush his chest, followed by the distinctive give of the mattress caused by someone getting out of bed.

"It's okay," he heard a feminine voice whisper. "I'll take care of it."

Amanda must've slept here last night, he decided hazily, rolling over and sprawling into the warm, recently vacated space.

Mmm, Amanda, in my bed. Nick slipped into a half-conscious fantasy on that thought. Amanda, completely naked, her body wrapped against his, her eyes dark with passion.... He smiled to himself and slid into a deeper plane of sleep.

However, he didn't stay in that state for long. His common sense decided at that moment to wake up. Amanda? What's Amanda doing here? he thought blearily, the first vestiges of a vicious hangover beginning to make itself known.

Amanda... in my bed. Can't be. I must be dreaming. Satisfied with that answer, he pulled the sheets more tightly around himself, willing the pounding in his head to cease.

A feminine hand, lightly callused by swordwork, brushed his cheek. He murmured something unintelligible and shifted position on the bed. From the depths of sleep, he heard her light voice call his name.

"Nick, wake up," she urged.

"Amanda, go away," he lisped.

A chuckle followed his words. "Sorry to disappoint you, Nick, but it's Michelle, not Amanda. The cops are here."

Michelle... not Amanda, his sleep-and-alcohol-fogged brain processed with the speed of a bale of turtles stampeding through peanut butter. Michelle?!?!

Nick sat bolt upright as the realization hit and immediately regretted the action. His head felt like a coconut being opened with a hammer. He cursed the rush of pain even as his bleary eyes registered Michelle's sympathetic face and the glass of water she held.

"Here," she said, handing him a pair of ibuprofen tablets. Gratefully, he took the medicine.

"What's going on?" he asked, setting the glass down on the nightstand.

"The cops are in your living room," Michelle explained. "Hope you didn't mind I let them in; they were pretty insistent. One of them wanted to wake you up, but I persuaded him not to."

As Nick's vision cleared more, he saw that Michelle was dressed in one of his old T-shirts. Though the shirt hung big on her, and hung at a modest length, it still looked far sexier than Nick was ready to deal with at that hour of the morning. He swallowed convulsively and looked away. His gaze landed on the strapless evening gown she'd worn the night before, draped across one corner of the bed. He surmised that they hadn't wanted to fall asleep in their formalwear, but he couldn't remember getting undressed. Had he drunk that much the night before? He sighed, judging from the jackhammers in his head that he had, indeed, imbibed far more than he had in a while.

He also realized that he'd worn gym shorts to bed, something he rarely did if he had company. Instinctively, he knew that nothing had transpired between them.

Michelle seemed to understand his dawning realization. "No," she confirmed. Her eyes held the faintest traces of regret for what might have been, a regret that was nearly overwhelmed by the respect for the friendship that was.

"Thanks, Michelle." Gingerly, he attempted standing, and willed himself to complete the action.

To his grim satisfaction, he found he could manage it.

"Are you going to be all right?" Michelle asked, concerned. "You were trying to match me shot for shot last night."

Well, that explains the hangover, he thought. He risked a short nod and waved off Michelle's offer of assistance. He took a deep breath and moved under his own steam to the living room. Michelle accompanied him, walking just slightly ahead of him since she was steadier on her feet than he was.

He found Detective Harmon Frost, a balding, stocky-leaning-towards-overweight cop in his living room, openly drooling over the sight of Michelle.

Great. Just what I needed, he thought sourly.

"What's the matter, Wolfe? Amanda get tired of you?" Frost wisecracked. "Or maybe she got—"

"Are you here to conduct an investigation or to hurl insults to make up for your insecurity?" Michelle interrupted tartly. She resisted the instinctive urge to tug at the T-shirt's hem, hating the lecherous look in the cop's eyes, but knowing that if she moved, it would only call further attention to her attire. "If you're just here to insult two of my friends, then you can just leave and Nick and I will go back to sleep." She paused. "I think you're just jealous that Nick might be getting something you'll never get. Say, sex?"

Shocked, the officer fell silent.

Silently, Nick applauded the barb. No love was lost between him and Frost, and he relished watching Michelle put Frost in his place. Michelle didn't wait for Frost's reaction, proceeding to cross the open living space into his kitchen.

Nick then turned to Captain Magnus. "What's going on?"

"The Williams estate was robbed last night."

Nick recognized the place as the sprawling mansion where the charity event had been held the night before. "And this means what to me?" he asked as Michelle returned from the kitchen with a mug of coffee.

She pointedly ignored the policemen and moved to Nick. "Careful, it's hot," she warned as he accepted the mug.

He flashed her a grateful smile as he lowered himself into the couch and took a sip.

"We have witnesses who place you at the scene around ten o'clock, but not after."

"And you think Nick did it?" Michelle interjected incredulously, taking a seat beside him. "Whatever makes you suspect Nick?"

"His girlfriend's a thief," Frost said insinuatingly. "Maybe they argued over how to split the proceeds and that's why you're here this morning and not Amanda."

Michelle snickered. "Yeah, right. If you argue with Amanda, you invariably lose." To Nick, she observed, "They don't know Amanda well, do they?"

Nick swallowed coffee. "Nope."

"So where were you between ten o'clock last night and six o'clock this morning?" Captain Magnus asked.

"With Michelle." He took another fortifying sip of caffeine.


Nick tried to remember, but that only increased the pressure on his brain. He looked at Michelle, who understood his silent request.

"The Green Frog," Michelle supplied helpfully, naming the bars that they'd visited, "the Imperial, O'Malley's, um... Parrot, no, that's not it." She pursed her lips as she attempted to access the bar name from the recesses of her mental filing cabinet. "Oh, I remember now! The other two were Paradise, and Faces. Nick was showing me around, because I'm fairly new in town."

"And you are?" Magnus asked.

"Michelle Webster."

Captain Magnus looked at her, trying to place her. "That jewelry store that was hit the other night. You're the store manager."

"That's me," Michelle replied cheerfully. "I'd offer you a discount on your next purchase, but we're not that kind of store."

Magnus's gaze took in his old friend, who was clearly nursing a hangover, and Michelle's sobriety. "How come you aren't as drunk as Nick?"

"Fast metabolism," she answered honestly. "Besides, someone had to be the designated drunk, and it wasn't my turn."

Nick finished his coffee, feeling a bit more human. He set the empty mug on the side table next to the couch. "I hate you," he told Michelle, half-jokingly. "Remind me not go drinking with — " He nearly said 'Immortals", but caught himself in time. "You again."

She smiled. "I should've warned you ahead of time," she replied gently. "I thought you knew."

As there was nothing that he could say to that with an audience present, Nick rose to his feet. "If you have nothing further, guys?" he asked pointedly of the officers.

"Know where Amanda was while you two were out on the town?" Magnus asked abruptly.

Nick and Michelle looked at each other, caught off guard. "No," Nick admitted.

Magnus smiled wolfishly. "Then I guess we'll be going." Halfway to the door, he paused. "Guess it's a good thing you decided on a new girlfriend, Wolfe. I was beginning to think you'd really fallen in with the wrong crowd. Maybe there's hope for you yet."

Nick's temper flared, but he held his tongue as the officers departed.

"I hope Amanda's not behind this," Nick sighed. "I thought that maybe she was changing, especially after she'd learned how her thieving affects other people."

His guest snickered. "You'd have a better chance of winning the lottery, Nick. Once a thief, always a thief — that's Amanda." Michelle shrugged, comfortable with her former mentor's identity. "Just be glad that I didn't follow in her footsteps."

Nick remembered how deftly Michelle had picked his pocket, and Michelle's words at the store the previous day. "Thank God you have better sense."

Michelle smiled. "Thievery has its uses, Nick. Amanda taught me that. But to do it like she does — which is pretty much all the time — I couldn't." She shrugged again. "Amanda says it's because I grew up with people who taught me responsibility, even if I rebelled against it and caused my own death." She paused and rose to her feet. "But Amanda's more than just a thief, Nick, and you're judging her harshly if you think that's all that she's ever been or could be."

"So I'm finding out," Nick admitted softly. The edge of his hangover was gone, and he knew in a few hours, he'd be human again.

He looked at his unexpected guest. "So, do I really want to know how we managed to hit a gay bar, a strip club, a dance club, an Irish pub, and a bar frequented by cops all in one night?"

Michelle wrinkled her nose and shook her head. "No, but I could be persuaded to forget everything and not tell Amanda." She smiled flirtatiously. "Say, maybe you could scrub my back?"

Nick shot her a look that could have frozen fire. She chuckled and moved towards the bedroom.

"I know, Nick," she told him as he followed her, "but it was worth a shot. Can't blame a girl for trying, especially when we've shared a bed, can you?"

"You're starting to sound a lot like Amanda," Nick commented sourly as he gathered a change of clothes in preparation for a shower.

Michelle preened and struck a pose. "Why, thank you, Nick. I think, just for that, I won't tell Amanda."

Later that day

"You just had to do it, didn't you, Amanda?" Nick admonished her as soon as the door to her penthouse was shut behind his entrance.

"Do what?" she asked, puzzled, stepping away from the door to take up position on the couch.

"The Williams estate?" Nick continued exasperatedly. His long strides quickly brought him to a position in front of Amanda. "You're completely incorrigible, you know that?"

"What?!" Amanda threw up her hands. "Nick, stop talking in riddles and say what you mean."

"The Williams estate was hit last night. It's all over the news, or haven't you been paying attention?" Nick placed his hands on his hips. "Oh, I'm sorry," he said sarcastically. "You've been catching up on your beauty sleep after being out all night. I guess you've just been lucky that the police haven't been here yet."

"Oh, give me a break, Nick." Amanda rolled her eyes. "I haven't done anything," she lied blithely, hoping that Nick wouldn't catch her deception. "Besides," she said with a wave of her hand, "I rarely follow the news." She wrinkled her nose, as if smelling something distasteful. "It's been the same depressing story for centuries."

Nick sighed heavily and ran a hand through his hair. "I saw the news, Amanda. It fits your M.O. And I got paid a visit by the cops this morning."

"You can't stop being a cop, can you?" she asked exasperatedly. "I swear, every time I turn around, you're here, interrogating me. And don't tell me it's because the little details bother you; I heard that line before."

Nick's green eyes narrowed. "Well, Amanda, they do."

She shook her head. "I can't believe that every time there's a robbery, all the cops in this town think I'm the one to blame. There *are* other thieves in this town. Hell, Nick, did you grill Michelle this way?"

"No, but you *are* the thief with the longest history of not getting caught," Nick growled. "Besides, Michelle was with me last night."

She smiled, taking the first statement as a compliment, though her brow quirked at the second. "Well, doesn't it stand to reason that I'd teach Michelle how to do the same thing?" she asked reasonably.

Nick swallowed the retort he'd been about to make. Michelle *had* disappeared for quite a while during the fundraiser. Nick remembered that much of the previous night. Still, he was inclined to believe Michelle more than Amanda... Amanda had lied to him before, whereas Michelle had yet to do so. "Michelle said she's a lousy thief, and I believe her."

Amanda rolled her eyes and crossed her arms in exasperation. "You haven't known her that long and you believe her more than me? I'm hurt, Nick."

"Well, is she a lousy thief?"

Throwing her arms up in the air, Amanda answered, "Of course she is. She's not me." She paused. Cagily, she added, "She could be better, if she'd listen to me."

Nick eyed her warily. "You really expect me to believe you didn't do this."

"How many times must I tell you I didn't do it? What is it about the phrase you just can't seem to comprehend? I already told your old pals that I had nothing to do with last night, and they believed me." Amanda sighed dramatically. She conveniently forgot that she'd spent the morning in an interrogation room down at the station loudly declaring her 'innocence'. "Believe what you want, Nick." She rose and opened the front door pointedly. "I thought you understood me better than that by now, but I can see you're determined to believe the worst of me."

Nick took the hint. Just over the threshold, he paused. "If I find out you did this—"

"I know, I know," Amanda said sweetly, "you'll growl at me and be really angry. You're cute when you're angry, you know?"

With that, she shut the door and let out a relieved sigh, glad that Nick had bought her story.

Drawing another deep breath, she unconsciously straightened her shoulders and went to the coffee table, where a letter lay folded. Seating herself on the couch, she picked the letter up and unfolded it. Her eyes were troubled as she stared at the tiny silver dragon embossed on the top of the ivory parchment paper. She didn't need to read the words typed neatly below the dragon to know what it said.

I know what you did last night and a year ago. Meet me at O'Malley's at four p.m. if you don't want the cops involved.

Chapter Six
De Marci Jewelers
The following day

Michelle looked at her watch and sighed tiredly. Less than ten minutes to go before closing, and she wanted nothing more than to slip into a nice hot bath and stay there. She was glad that she had the following day off. Today had been a zoo, brought on by only the gods knew what. The weather had been gorgeous, De Marci's wasn't running a sale, and she'd planned to finish Dave Watkins' second-week evaluation and training, as well as the administrative paperwork that accompanied her position as store manager. Instead, he and the other five sales associates had been running around like the proverbial chickens trying to make sure that all the customers were attended to, while she'd been reduced to a glorified cashier. It made for a long, exhausting, though profitable, day.

She smiled as she remembered the high point of her day, when Jack Kryszka had arrived to pick up his special order, which had arrived that afternoon. Consequently, Michelle had started her shift with a call to Mr. Kryszka to let him know the order had arrived.

He'd picked it up around dinnertime, clearly delighted with the item, praising the jeweler's skill and De Marci's handling of his order. He'd continued to harp on her resemblance to his daughter, which had bothered Michelle somewhat.

Dave, who was scheduled to close with Michelle, was close enough to hear the sigh.

"Tired?" he asked solicitously.

"Where'd everybody come from?" she asked with a weary smile. "Did the price of diamonds drop?"

"Haven't you heard?" Dave joked. "That year 2000 bug is going to crash all the banks and we'll all be forced to trade in gold, silver, and gemstones."

"I don't know about that," Michelle returned, "but I'm glad that the crush is over for the night."

"Me too, but — " Dave's smile widened "— this is one day I'm glad I get a commission on store sales."

Michelle chuckled, sharing the sentiment. "I'm sure," she murmured. "We did well." She glanced at the clock. Five minutes to go. She made a decision. "I think it's close enough to closing time. Why don't you get the doors locked and I'll close the register?"

"Good idea," Dave agreed, moving to lock the doors. "You know, that last customer we had?" he called out to Michelle as he completed his assigned task.

"Let me guess," Michelle returned, keying in the sequence that would close out the register, "you think she's simply divine. That was a wedding band you sold her, wasn't it?"

Dave affected a wounded pose. "It's obvious to me," he huffed, "that he doesn't treat her right. Making her go out and buy a new ring because she flushed the other one down the toilet by accident."

Michelle rolled her eyes and pulled out the cash from the till. "And I suppose you would forgive her and buy a two-carat diamond solitaire without blinking."

The doors now secure, Dave leaned across the glass and began helping Michelle separate and count the money. "Well, of course I would," Dave responded dramatically. He waited a beat as Michelle picked up a stack of twenties to count. "I just wouldn't tell her I bought cubic zirconia."

Caught off guard by Dave's comment, Michelle had to stop what she was doing, lest she lose track entirely. "You," she sputtered, "are so, so — " She floundered for words.

In reply, he merely grinned, leaving Michelle at a loss for words. He continued to banter with her as they counted the till, polished the glass showcases, and prepared the store for the next day's business.

A half hour later, the store was completely shut down for the night, and Dave took his leave. Michelle followed a few minutes later, taking the time to switch off the remaining lights, lock up the day's receipts in the safe for morning deposit, and to grab her purse, ignoring the pile of administrative paperwork on her desk in the back room.

She stepped out to her brand-new electric blue Mustang, suddenly conscious of the forty-five second distance between the back door and her car as she dug into her purse for her keys. She didn't take her sword with her into the store, as she had yet to figure out a good place to stash it where her employees wouldn't accidentally find it. She also figured that any challenge she accepted would have to take place somewhere other than the vicinity of the store, thus allowing her time to grab her sword.

There's no one here, Michelle, she reminded herself. You'd know if there was.

Still, she couldn't help surveying the parking lot for possible threats to her safety. The lot was deserted, save for her car and a dark-colored Volvo sedan. Seeing it, Michelle assumed the sedan had broken down, and dismissed the other vehicle. She was having a devil's time locating her keys.

Damn it, I know my keys are in here somewhere. Annoyed, she reached her sports car and dropped her purse on to the hood to search for her keys. Finally, she grasped the edge of a key and fished the entire key ring out of the bottom of her purse. Figures

She had just unlocked the driver's side door when she felt a gloved hand grasp her arm. Instinctively, she turned to see who had grabbed her, but then she felt something prick her arm. She had only the briefest impression of a ski mask and an apology, whispered by a male voice, before the world went black. 

Someone was groaning, and it took a minute for Michelle to realize that sound was coming from her lips. Her head hurt, and her mouth tasted like cotton. She almost felt as bad as when she came back to life after being stabbed with a sword. The pounding in her head was certainly familiar enough. She tried opening her eyes, and, finding her vision blurry, shut them again.

She took a deep breath, trying to clear her head. Okay, so maybe we should try something else, she decided after a few minutes.

She tried to stand, but found that her feet were hobbled and chained to something solid but cold to the touch — a metal post, perhaps. She was kneeling on something soft and yielding. One hand was locked to the same chain that was connected to the cuffs on her ankles, thus holding her securely against the post. Something solid, but slick with condensation, was pressed into her free hand, and her slowly awakening senses recognized the contours of a glass.

She drank gratefully, relishing the way the water sluiced away the taste in her mouth. She risked opening her eyes, and found concerned brown eyes set in a round, weathered, male face staring back at her. Her gaze also told her she was secured to a headboard post of a brass four-poster style bed, in the middle of a large, distinctly feminine bedroom.

"I'm really sorry about that," he told her. "I do hate drugs, don't you?" Not waiting for a reply, apparently expecting none, he continued, "You had me worried, sweetheart. You were out for hours. I thought maybe I gave you too much. I forget you're still a little girl."

"Why are you doing this?" Michelle asked carefully, trying to place her captor. She fought the rising panic, trying to focus her energies on survival, as she'd been taught. God, he looks familiar. Where have I seen him? I know I know who he is, why can't I remember? Oh God, I don't know how to deal with this! If he was another Immortal, I could demand my sword, and a fair fight, but he's not. He looks like a kindly old man, except for his eyes. God, his eyes give me the creeps. What am I supposed to do now? Damn, was this something Amanda tried to teach me how to deal with and I didn't listen?

"They have to listen to me," he told her calmly. "I warned them it wasn't safe to work there. Someone could get hurt."

He took the glass from her and brushed a hand across her face. "You look so beautiful, Jennifer."

Michelle flinched at the familiarity of his touch even as alarm bells began ringing in her head. Panic welled in her throat, and she fought to compose herself. Crazily, her mind chose to remember the tag line from a deodorant commercial, and she latched onto the phrase like a lifeline.

Never let them see you sweat.

She breathed deeply, trying desperately to attain the impersonal distance she used professionally, and knowing somehow that she was falling miserably short. "I'm not Jennifer," she corrected, hoping he couldn't detect the apprehension his words wrought from showing in her voice. "I'm Michelle."

He blinked a bit at that, then smiled. "Of course, you aren't," he said soothingly. "You can be anyone you want to be."

He took her free hand and, without warning, bent her entire arm backwards and behind Michelle's back. She hissed at the sudden movement, the sharp, wrenching pain, even as her senses registered the click of a pair of handcuffs. She was now securely bound. She began to struggle, suddenly, viciously hating the loss of freedom.

Her captor patted her head like a child. "Right now, honey, Daddy has to tie you up because you've been a bad girl. I'm sorry, Jennifer, but it's all your fault. You shouldn't have died. Daddy didn't say you could go, but Daddy's going to make it all right. You'll see."

Michelle closed her eyes at the calm madness she saw in her captor's expression. She thought she was going to be sick, and she willed herself to keep from vomiting.

When she opened her eyes again, he was gone, leaving her alone to study the room in which she was held prisoner. It was, Michelle realized, a teenager's bedroom, not unlike the one she'd left behind years before in Seacouver. Directly across from her position on the bed was a white mirrored vanity flanked by matching four-drawer chests. Cosmetics and jewelry were scattered haphazardly across the vanity as if the wearer had been in too much of a rush to put them away before leaving. Several chest drawers were still partially open, one sticking out so far as to reveal an assortment of lacy lingerie.

Dragons of all shapes and kinds occupied nearly every available space, including the built-in bookshelf that ran the length of the wall to the left of the doorway. Meanwhile, posters of dragons and other fantastic creatures tried to obscure the rose wallpaper on the rest of the walls. Michelle's eyebrows rose at the picture of a dragon ravishing a clearly enthralled buxom blonde warrior, which hung in a frame on the door to what Michelle presumed to be the closet, since it was on the other side of the bed from the direction she'd heard her kidnapper leave.

A cheerleading uniform hung from the back of the white desk chair. Michelle could barely distinguish the computer from the disarray on the desk itself, which formed the corner nearest the door. Despite her situation, she found herself smiling wryly at the unknown young woman's organizational habits.

There were no windows. Michelle found herself wondering if the other young woman had compensated for the lack of a view by stepping into a fantasy world where dragons reigned supreme. She shivered at the thought; she couldn't stand not seeing the sky at least sometime.

Michelle wasn't much of reader, notwithstanding the repeated efforts of the nuns at the boarding school she'd attended, but she'd spent enough time around bookworms there to recognize an extensive collection when she saw one. What space wasn't occupied by dragon figurines and stuffed toys on the bookshelves was crammed with books. She suspected most would have a dragon or two in them, not that it mattered much anyway. The books wouldn't get her out of the steel handcuffs, nor would they slice the chain that linked the cuffs on her ankles with the ones on her wrists. The dragons wouldn't help either, even if, as Michelle remembered from somewhere, they were supposed to mean good luck.

Great, I'm surrounded by good luck charms. There's something not right with this picture. The thought brought a hysterical giggle to her lips.

Get a grip, Michelle. You can't stay here.

With a sigh, Michelle focused her attention on getting out of her predicament.

Damn, I should've paid more attention when Amanda was teaching me about how to pick locks with improvised tools, Michelle swore silently. What the hell was I thinking? She snorted, hindsight arriving too late to change the present. Probably something along the lines of "What does this crap have to do with learning to use a sword?" Stupid, stupid, stupid, that's what you were, Michelle. Well, I suppose it's a good thing I don't know, because it's not like I have anything to use as a lock picking tool at the moment.

She sighed heavily and tried to shift her weight. Her feet were going numb, and she wasn't sure she could feel her toes. She wondered how long it would take for them to lose complete circulation and drop off.

God, that's morbid, Michelle, she chastised herself.

Needing a distraction from the creeping edges of hysteria, she decided to look at something, anything. Her gaze fell on the vanity mirror, where a silver pendant necklace hung over the center of the mirror. She wondered why she hadn't noticed it before, then realized it was because she'd seen so many dragons at first, it had just been one among the many. The silver dragon's sapphire blue eyes winked at her above a raised wing. His diamond-encrusted tail was wrapped around his body in such a way that it reinforced the idea of a reluctant, bashful monster.

Michelle knew that necklace. She'd written up the order herself. She'd called the customer to let him know that it had arrived early. He'd picked it up that day, in fact, bubbling over the fact that his daughter would be so thrilled. She felt a wave of panic wash over her as her mind jumped on the only reasonable conclusion it could make.

"Oh my God," Michelle whispered, unable to suppress the convulsive shudder that rippled through her. "No, please, God, no." Her breathing quickened as the truth, so long to crystallize in her brain, hit. The room spun dizzily and she collapsed against her chains.

She must've fainted. The shock of realizing her kidnapper was the same man she'd so casually treated as yet another customer had been more than she'd been prepared to deal with, and her body had shut down in response.

She groaned as she blinked open her eyes and tried, unsuccessfully, to ease her strained muscles.

Well, that was certainly inspired, Michelle. I can hear Amanda's laughter now, she berated herself. You figure out you've been kidnapped by Jack Kryszka, and you faint.

The door to the bedroom opened as she shifted position again.

He — Michelle couldn't think of him as Jack — came through, bearing a tray of food. He prattled on about eating, but Michelle wasn't listening. She was desperately trying to remember what Amanda had taught her, skills she'd largely ignored because she hadn't had much cause to use them — or hadn't seen the point in learning them.

She realized abruptly that he was staring at her, waiting for a response. He gestured to the tray he held, and Michelle saw a bowl of soup, a glass of milk, and a wheat bread sandwich with lettuce sticking out of the sides. She bit back the instinctive urge to make a face; she wasn't hungry for one thing, and the choices weren't her preferences in the first place, but something told her it wasn't wise to say so. Taking a wild guess that he was looking for her approval, she said, "It's okay."

He beamed at her. "I made all your favorites, Jennifer." He set the tray down on the nightstand, then unsnapped the handcuffs.

Michelle suddenly saw her chance, finally remembering something Amanda had taught her. She snapped her head back.

He grunted in surprise and let go of the keys. They fell, jingling, to the bed.

Her hands free, she didn't stop to think, shut her mind to his kindly face. She punched him, using a wicked right cross..

He reeled back, collapsing in a heap against the nightstand.

Michelle twisted her body, glad that the chain had been more secured to the cuffs on her wrists than those on her ankles. She grabbed the keys and made short work of the lock on the second set of handcuffs. She ignored the needles of pain as the blood rushed to her feet when she stood. Casting the keys aside, she half-hobbled, half-ran out of the house and into the bright afternoon sunlight.

She had no idea where she was, but she was determined to get the hell out of there. She breathed a sigh of relief when she saw her Mustang parked in the driveway, and surmised that he must've used her car to drive her to this place. By some fortunate miracle, the car was unlocked, though she had no keys. She wasn't about to go back into the house to search for them.

It took her several agonizing tries, but she was eventually able to hot-wire the car and drive away.

Chapter Seven

It took Michelle several wrong turns to orient herself and figure out exactly where she was in relation to her apartment. Finally, she was able to reach the haven of her place. She realized just as she pulled into the parking lot of the complex that the leasing office was closed, as the clock in the dashboard of her car read ten minutes after five o'clock, and she had no means of getting into her apartment. Her purse had mysteriously been left in her car, but she never carried any spare keys, so that wasn't much help.

Exhausted, frustrated, and wanting nothing more than to crawl into her bed and sleep, Michelle banged her hand on the steering wheel.

Something tells me I shouldn't have even put on makeup yesterday morning. At least, I hope I've only lost a day.

She sighed resignedly and drove over to her building. Stepping out of her car, she surveyed the two-story, sixteen-unit structure a moment before walking through the foyer door and up the stairs to her front door, her purse and sword in hand.

Time to prove that Amanda taught you something other than how to hold a sword and pick a pocket, Michelle reminded herself sternly.

As she fumbled through her purse for a nail file, a credit card, anything that could be used as a makeshift lock pick, Michelle cursed her headstrong ways. It was no wonder that Amanda had left so often, tiring of having to repeat the same lessons over and over again, trying to make Michelle understand that she couldn't expect everyone to play fair. That was a lesson Michelle should've learned in the wake of Axel Whittaker, but Michelle had been stubborn, unwilling to believe things like breaking in and how to escape handcuffs would be essential to her survival.

Now Michelle was regretting her lack of maturity. Unable to remember exactly what Amanda had shown her, she resorted to copying the methods she'd seen some TV character employ, and was both shocked and gratified when they worked.

She pushed open the door and stumbled into her apartment, dropping her purse with a relieved sigh. She held onto her sword, though, reluctant to give up that security.

Now what? she asked herself. As tired as she was, she knew she should probably call the police, but would it matter? She was relatively unhurt, and she didn't think Jack would be going anywhere for a few days. She was pretty certain she'd broken his nose, at the least.

She supposed she could call Amanda, but she didn't have Amanda's number. She wasn't even sure where Amanda lived.

Her tired brain seized on the one friend she knew could help her. She smiled to herself as she realized how perfect the choice was. She laid her sword down on the floor near the futon and picked up the phone.

Nick arrived half an hour later to find the door unlocked and partly open. Instantly alarmed, he withdrew his gun.

"Michelle?" he called out. "Hello?"

The only sound he heard in reply was the insistent throb of hip-hop music.

Cautiously, he entered the apartment. A swift glance told him that it was decorated in an almost unrelenting mix of black metal, black upholstery, frosted glass, gold-edged mirrors, and only a spot or two of red to relieve the monochrome. The carpet was apartment-pile gray. Michelle's purse lay near the door, its contents spilling out haphazardly, as if she'd dropped it without remembering to shut it.

Still moving warily, Nick moved through the apartment. A chill ran through his spine as he saw Michelle's sword laying on the floor near the futon.

Calm down, Wolfe. Just because she doesn't have it nearby doesn't mean that she's in any danger.

He couldn't help the instinctive trepidation, though. He sincerely liked Michelle, and wanted to get to know her better. She was the first Immortal that he'd met who wasn't after Amanda's head, wasn't an assassin, insane, or worse. Aside from the fact that she was an avenue of information he hadn't had before, he liked her as a friend, and he hated to think of her dead somewhere.

He found her sound asleep on her bed. Relief crashed through him like a tsunami and he holstered his gun. She hadn't been specific on the phone about why she needed his help, but he would wait until she woke up to find out. He decided to not wait in her apartment; it hadn't taken him very long to get to her place from his.

Quietly, he made his way back into the living room and wrote her a note, telling her to call him when she woke up. He placed it on the nightstand near the bed. He was nearly to the door when his gaze landed on her sword.

He debated momentarily as to whether or not to move it near her, then decided to go with his instinct.

Picking it up, he placed it within Michelle's reach. A part of his brain recognized the differences between Amanda's sword and Michelle's, though he didn't have the technical names for them. Michelle's seemed lighter than he remembered Amanda's being, with a more ornate hilt. He wondered how significant those variations were in fighting, and promised himself to ask Michelle when she called him.

Still pondering that issue, he walked out to his sport utility vehicle. As he climbed into the driver's seat, he nodded a casual, instantly forgotten greeting to the chubby-cheeked man who climbed out of the dark blue four-door Volvo sedan parked next to his Ford.


Continued in Once a Thief Part Two

Posted 1.24.99 Raine Wynd

© Raine Wynd 1998-2015