Emory had been imprisoned for a little under twelve hours. He knew this because the last thing he remembered before he lost consciousness was the face of his captor’s Patek Philippe watch. It had read 1:45. Now that same watch, just visible beneath the crisp French cuff that rested on the surface of the black marble table top between them, read 1:00. It actually took Emory several moments to focus on the numbers, and to make sense of them. He was groggy, and his head throbbed with the rhythm of his heart.
“Welcome back,” said the man with the watch. “I trust you had a pleasant rest.” His voice was smooth, his smile cool. Dark hair, dark eyes; sharp, elegant features. Long slim fingers, with nails that were professionally groomed. A custom tailored Italian suit, dark gray, pale blue silk tie. The watch.
Someone gripped Emory’s shoulder from behind and pushed him into a chair that was drawn up before the marble table. His hands were bound behind him with rough plastic cable ties, so tightly that his fingertips were cold. He could not remember how he got here. He looked at the man behind the table. Dark hair, blue silk tie. Patek Philippe watch. How did he know that?
The chair was upholstered in a green tapestry fabric, but its high back was uncomfortable and he had to lean forward to accommodate his bound hands. Seeing this, his captor gave a curt nod and Emory was shoved forward. A quick snick of a blade freed his hands.
Emory flexed his fingers and moved his arms in slow motion, eyes roaming around the room at the same heavy pace, focusing on one thing at a time, registering and analyzing with painful deliberation before moving on. His brain felt as though it were swimming in honey. The room was small, with carved panels painted cream. No windows. A large painting of a girl pouring water, framed in gold. A teardrop crystal chandelier overhead. A vase of fresh flowers on a cherry console. A wall of books, all of them with dark green leather covers. The black marble table. A pitcher with water and quartered lemons in the center. Next to it, a silver tray held a cut glass decanter filled with amber liquid and two glasses.
Emory said, “Where are we? Castle Devoncroix?” The hoarseness of his voice surprised him. His lips felt numb, his mouth filled with cotton.
The dark-eyed man seemed amused by this. “No.” In a solicitous gesture, he poured a tumbler of the lemon water and slid it across the table to Emory. “You must be thirsty.”
Emory massaged his fingers, not trusting them to reach for the glass. “Is it drugged?”
The other man smiled. “Only a little. To help with your hangover.”
Emory hesitated, then pulled the tumbler toward him. It was heavy cut glass, like the decanter. He had to use both hands to lift it. It would have made a good weapon, but he lacked the strength in his arms to use it. He drank the water down greedily and set the glass on the table, still thirsty. “It tastes like quinine.” He had no idea how he knew that.
His captor politely refilled the glass. “It will counteract the effects of the drug you were given.”
“Where are we?” Emory said. He knew he was repeating himself, but he could not seem to stop it, or remember the answer he had been given previously. The scientist in him was mildly intrigued by that. “Is this Castle Devoncroix?”
The other man just smiled, and poured himself a measure of the liquid from the decanter. “I expect you’ll feel better in a moment or two. In the meantime, shall we get better acquainted? My name is Rolfe, and I will be your host for the duration of your stay here. Can you tell me your name, by chance?”
“Hilliford.” Emory sipped the water, more slowly now. The throbbing in his head was beginning to ease. “Emory Hilliford.”
“Excellent.” He seemed pleased. “And what do you do, Mr. Hilliford?”
“Doctor, ” corrected Emory, frowning into the glass. “It’s Dr. Hilliford. I’m a professor of...” The word escaped him. “Something.”
“Anthropology,” prompted the man opposite.
“That’s right. I have tenure at l’Universite de Montreal.”
“And what else do you do besides give lectures to anthropology students?”
“I write books.”
“Is that all?”
Emory looked at him. “How long have I been here?”
Three days. Christ. He could not remember where he was three days ago, or what he had been doing. He could not even remember waking up, or walking into this room. He drank more of the water.
“You have several university degrees,” continued Rolfe conversationally. “Do you recall what some of them might be?”
“No.” Genetics, history, molecular biology. . . The headache was almost gone. His life was beginning to fall into place like pieces of a kaleidoscope, turning and tumbling and gradually forming a cohesive pattern. The picture that was being formed fascinated him.
Rolfe sipped his drink. “Let’s make a deal, you and I, shall we? Let’s not lie to each other. Things will go so much more smoothly if we don’t.”
“You kidnapped me.”
“So I did.”
“And I’m supposed to believe you won’t lie to me?”
The other man gave a careless shrug. “As you please. But I will know if you lie, and please believe me, it is not in your best interests to do so.”
“What will you do?” His voice held a surprising lack of interest. “Kill me?”
“No,” admitted the other man equitably. “I’ll merely make you wish I would.”
Then Emory smiled, and finished the water in his glass. The headache was gone. “Do you want to know what I do, Rolfe? Was that the question?”
He leaned back in his chair, watching his captor without fear or curiosity. He supposed he had the residue of the drug in his system to thank for that. He said, “I am an assassin. That is what I was raised to be, educated to be, destined to be. And it is what I am.”
Rolfe sipped again from his glass, his gaze thoughtful and unimpressed. Then he glanced over Emory’s shoulder, briefly and dismissively. “Thank you, Cameron. I’ll let you know if we need you.”
Emory heard the door open and close. It was entirely too much effort to turn his head to see who was leaving. He poured more water.
Rolfe said, “Did you kill Alexander Devoncroix?”
“No. Where am I?”
“Some place safe. Somewhere you’ll not be found unless we wish you to be found. What about Nicholas Devoncroix?”
“I heard he was dead.”
“Did you kill him?”
Rolfe lifted an eyebrow. “So far I find your skills as an assassin singularly unimpressive.”
“Somehow I think you already knew that.”
He smiled. “Ah. Feeling better, I see.”
“Who are you?”
He sipped his drink, expressionless. “For now, you may think of me as the man who holds your future in his hands.”
“What do you want from me?”
The other man was thoughtful for a time, regarding Emory with eyes that told nothing; cold, passionless, speculative. “It changed the world, you know,” he said after a time. “Six hundred years of peace, the entire financial industry, science, technology, global commerce... all of it collapsing in on itself like a slow-motion avalanche. It’s been fascinating to watch, really. And it all began on a single night, in a single place with what should have been a single simple murder. You were a part of history, my boy. How very powerful that must make you feel.”
Emory said, “I record history. I don’t make it.”
“Where is David Devoncroix?”
Emory looked down at his glass, lifted it, drank. “Dead.” His tone was flat. “I killed him.”
“Ah,” said Rolfe softly, “now I’m disappointed.”
Silence ticked away. Emory could feel the other man’s gaze like physical thing, a heaviness in his chest, a hotness in his skin, a chill film of sweat at the back of his neck. He looked at the glass again, started to drink, and then did not.
Rolfe noticed. “Our chemists are quite brilliant,” he remarked. “The drug we used to get you here is an amylase simulator that attaches itself to certain neurons that control short term memory and renders the subject astonishingly compliant, yet it can be eradicated from the system completely in a few hours. We’ve already obtained twenty-seven patents on its variants, one of which has proven quite remarkable in the treatment of dementia. We’re going to make a bloody fortune when it’s released to the public.”
Emory said, “Good for you.” He blotted his forehead with the back of his hand. His hairline felt damp.
“More water?” Rolfe lifted the pitcher, and when Emory just stared at him, put it down again. “Perhaps not. You’ve already had half a liter. Of course...” He sat back again, and picked up his glass, smiling a little as he gazed at Emory. “It might be nothing but a cure for a hangover. Or it might contain a curiously effective truth serum that renders even the most taciturn of men quite garrulous. Or it might contain a slow acting poison that will eventually lead to a long and agonizing death– unless, of course, you receive the antidote in time. A bit pulp fiction-like, that one, but I confess I rather like it.”
Emory met his eyes. His voice sounded as tired as he suddenly felt. “You should have done your research. Threats only work on men who have something to lose. Did it occur to you that I might not care what you do to me?”
“Oh, you’ll care,” Rolfe assured him. “Everyone does... eventually.”
He topped off his drink and pushed back a little from the table, crossing his legs. “You will pay for the lie you just told, by the way,” he added negligently, “just as I promised you would. Shall we say... one finger for each lie? Please be careful, I’m very good at keeping count and I am impeccable with my word. You’ve already lost one. But before I collect, you’ll tell me your story. All of it. I want to know how this began, how we came to this, and I want to know the details. We’ve gone to a great deal of trouble to bring you here, for the simple reason that you are the only one who knows those details. So let’s get started, shall we?”
Emory glanced down at his hands, and saw a fine ring of blood blisters had broken out beneath the skin of his right wrist. It might have been the result of his hands having been bound. Or it might have been the first sign of an internal hemorrhage. He leaned back in his chair. “I drank the water, didn’t I?”
The other man seemed mildly puzzled by the non-sequitur, and he showed it in a small, querying lift of his brow.
“I drank the water,” Emory repeated, “of my own free will. So you are wrong. I don’t care. Not about what you do to me, or much of anything else for that matter. I’m a dying man, didn’t you know that? And after the way I’ve lived these past ten years, any torture you can devise will be a relief. So you see I really do have nothing to lose. And that’s why I’ll tell you what you want to know. From the beginning, all of it. But will you tell me something first?”
Rolfe inclined his head politely. “If I can.”
Emory studied him for a moment. “Are you human?”
That seemed to amuse him. “You surely don’t mean to tell me that after all this time you cannot tell the difference.”
Rolfe regarded him speculatively for a time. “ Suppose that I am,” he said. “Would that make a difference in your story?”
Rolfe lifted the cut glass decanter with a questioning glance toward him, and Emory slid his glass forward. Rolfe poured a measure of the liquid into Emory’s glass, and then his own. Emory tasted it. “Armagnac,” he said, and let the taste linger in his mouth, cling to the back of his tongue, take him home. “I haven’t had this since Venice. It was a favorite of the prince.”
“I know,” Rolfe said.
Emory took another sip, and watched Rolfe silently for a time. He said, “There aren’t many secrets left.”
“So true,” agreed Rolfe. “But, as ever, the most important ones have yet to be told.”
“And you think I know them.”
Rolfe sipped his brandy. “Tell me your story, Dr. Hilliford,” he invited. “If I were human, what would you want me to know?”
After a moment, Emory began to laugh, softly. “Everything,” he said. “I’d want you to know everything.”