Time: Two years from the next Friday the 13th
Place: A Pacific Northwest island that does not exist…yet
“Fifty, fifty-five, sixty,” the white-haired tourist said. “There you go, chief, paid in full.”
Chief? Quinn Lebatarde’s lips tightened at the insult. The tourist’s clothes shouted money to burn, as did his Rolex watch and expensive digital SLR camera. Should’ve charged more.
Quinn pocketed the money and then held up the cheap, plaster replica of an ancient Kwadran woodcarving the man and his wife were buying. Hordes of tourists crowded the streets, celebrating the birth of the heir to Kwadra’s throne. Business was great. Only three more ‘carvings,’ a mask, and some miniature totem poles remained on his rickety street-side table. And now the prospect of conning this man made Quinn’s day even brighter.
“All original,” he said to the couple in the thick accent and broken English dumb tourists assumed was how Kwadrans talked. If you spoke too well, they didn’t believe you were from an alternate Earth. “Historic. Maybe I sell too cheap.”
Instead of giving them their mythological monster from Kwadra’s distant past, he clutched it to his chest. Not very hard, though. The trashy fakes broke under the least pressure.
“Too cheap, ahha. Thirty dollah more.”
“We had a deal,” the tourist’s wife said.
With a loving fingertip, Quinn stroked the carving’s ugly, wide-open lips. “Fifty dollah more.”
“Wait just one darned minute,” said the man. “Isn’t this against the law or something?”
“You no on America now. Merkin law useless.” Merkin was Kwadrans’ slang nickname for Americans, with sexual connotations most of them didn’t know—despite English being their native language, not his. “Where you from you no know that?”
“Oklahoma,” the man said. “Of course we know Kwadra is a sovereign nation.”
“Uncle Homa, eh?” Fleecing them became still more fun. He wondered if these two thought him a drunken Injun despite his people’s technology being more advanced than anything this version of Earth had yet invented. This one’s for all you downtrodden Oklahoma Indians.
“No heard of Uncle Homa,” he lied. “Seventy dollah more.”
The woman glowered at him. She shouldn’t do that. The extra wrinkles made her look old enough to have posed for the original carving of this repulsive monster. “Just give us our money back, you crook.”
As though he hadn’t heard, Quinn turned toward a boy of nine or ten who’d stopped to admire the miniature totem poles on the table. The boy wore a tattered t-shirt and a dirty White Sox baseball hat. Quinn didn’t understand American games but he knew all the teams, because the marks trusted you more if you knew junk like their favorite team. Unlike the Oklahomans, though, the lad looked too poor to be a mark.
“You like White Sox?” Quinn asked. “Me, too.”
The boy stroked the chin of a fake wooden mask. Girls wrinkled their noses at the grotesque animal spirits. Boys loved them.
“Our money,” said the old guy.
“Got special deal today for White Sox fans.”
The woman’s voice grew loud. “Give us back our money.”
Quinn turned with a sigh, cradling their carving in his arms. “Ninety dollah more.”
“That’s robbery.” The man’s face was red. Through thin white hair, his scalp showed red, too. “I ought to call one of your gendarmes.”
They sure as salmon guts weren’t his gendarmes. “Okay, okay,” Quinn said as though heartbroken. “You Uncle Homos too smart for simple Kwadran like me. Only forty dollah more.”
“That’s more like it.” The man dug out his wallet.
After Quinn took two twenty-dollar bills and handed over the carving, he glanced up at the huge window in the new Hilton Kwadra Island, a short distance uphill from this street. Though he couldn’t see details, he glimpsed the unmistakable purple-and-white uniform of Prince Reese Eaglesbrood. The prince climbed the grand stairway toward the hotel’s private suites, one arm around the waist of a woman in a pale blue dress. She was blond—Merkin, obviously, because Kwadrans had dark hair—and her shoulders were bare. Pretty soon Prince Reese would have the rest of her bare, too, and he’d show the klootch good, hard Kwadran lovemaking, over and over until she fainted from pleasure and exhaustion.
“Do her real good, prince,” Quinn whispered in his native language, Shanoog. “For our side.” His fantasy shifted so it was him pounding the bare-shouldered pixie. He’d do her even better than the prince would. Yeah…
The fantasy popped when a giant of a woman stepped in front of him. A woman he knew, which wasn’t good. Worse and worser—a woman who knew him.
“Well, well,” she said in Shanoog. “We meet again, Maquinna Lebatarde.”
“Merde,” Quinn whispered in the same language.
She stood three finger-widths taller than him and as many hand-widths broader. Covering her massive body was the severe garb of the Kwadra Island Gendarmerie. The black and white uniform was meant to evoke a killer whale, the terror of the seas, and on her, it looked predatory indeed. Sergeant Desrielle Squitt had arrested him six times and seemed gleefully intent on seven. In his overlarge experience, she was the smartest, strongest, most determined gendarme of all. A true pain in the blowhole.
An orca fin housing a camera and stun beam sat atop her helmet. Quinn stuck out his tongue at the camera and then, before she could demand his nonexistent business license, he upended the table, shattering priceless, phony carvings, knocking Squitt on her ass, and sending the twenty-dollar bills he held fluttering toward the ground. Quinn plucked the bills out of midair, kissed them, and ran.
Only a few steps, though. His escape hatch—he always had an escape hatch when pulling a scam—lay in the opposite direction, beyond where Squitt struggled underneath the table. Instead of escaping right away, though, he bent down to grab a mask and a totem pole that hadn’t broken. He shoved them in the White Sox fan’s arms and ruffled the boy’s hair.
“A gift, kid, from my world to yours.”
The delay gave Squitt almost enough time to lift the table off her. Quinn shoved it back down with one foot, trapping her again. Then he stomped across the table, drawing satisfying oofs from the gendarme.
He leaped down and extended a hand to help her up. Squitt glared, angrier than he’d ever seen her. For some reason—maybe it was bad breath?—he always seemed to infuriate her.
She raised her hand to accept his help. Grinning, Quinn snatched it away.
He’d dallied a second too long; tourists had gathered to watch the commotion. As he shoved through the crowd, apologizing to everyone he bumped, he heard a crash as Squitt flung the table aside. She roared. Yep, angrier than usual.
“Stop that man,” she bellowed—in Shanoog, which the tourists didn’t understand. No one stopped him.
The crowd on Rue Frank Kennedy was thin, so Quinn made decent speed to Princess Isabella Boulevard. He narrowly avoided a collision with a tough-looking Merkin almost as large as Squitt, with a baby strapped to his chest. In avoiding the husband and child, Quinn bumped into the mother. He grabbed her waist to keep her from falling.
“You hurted, madam?” he asked in his best English. She was pretty, in a tired sort of way, so why not take the time to be polite? After all, Squitt lumbered rather than sprinted.
“Watch where you’re going, jerk,” growled the husband. A body builder, Merkins called men like this. He balled a fist and flexed his biceps—but not even a scowling body builder could look fierce with a baby strapped to his chest.
“You’re Kwadran,” his wife said in a breathless voice, as though enthralled by meeting an alluring but dangerous prison escapee. Fresh off the ferryboat, Quinn guessed.
“Never fear,” he said to the thunder-browed man. “I shall kiss your wife and make her all better.”
And so he did, on the lips, for a count of five—the longest he dared under the circumstances. She tasted of hot dog and mustard. He kept his eyes open to watch the husband as well as the intersection where Squitt would appear, but the woman closed her eyes.
“What the hell you doing to my wife?” The body builder plodded forward, careful of his youthful burden. His care went for naught. The baby howled.
“Your wife, I am kissing her.” Quinn maneuvered back and forth to keep the woman between him and the angry husband. “You kiss her so infrequently you don’t recognize? Such a beautiful babe with such, you know,” he gestured with both hands to indicate her curves, “gets no kisses? Oh, for shame. You should treat her better.”
The wife fought a smile. The husband yelled. The baby cried. And Sergeant Squitt thundered around the corner of Rue Frank Kennedy.
Again Quinn had delayed too long, but it was more fun this way. With an ardent wave to the arguing couple and an airy flutter at the puffing, red-faced Squitt, Quinn ran. At a cul-de-sac off Princess Isabella Boulevard, he vaulted over a chain-link fence. He’d like to see the oversized sergeant do that.
His escape hatch lay inside an abandoned warehouse downhill from the hotel; prime real estate certain to be torn down now that his people were returning to the surface. The ruins had to be a century old, from before the environmental collapse that had driven Kwadrans underground and then to this alternate reality. Beneath a rotting carpet in the former boss’s office lay a trap door to a spooky tunnel into the hills. Living in the underbelly of society, Quinn’s freedom depended on escape routes that folks were too scared or fastidious to use.
After hurtling through a band of underbrush that tore at his clothes, he spotted the roofless, windowless warehouse. To get to it, he had to cross an ancient suspension footbridge over a deep ravine. Quinn treaded the splintery, grey boards warily, because they seemed eager to swallow him in a single bite.
He was almost across when Squitt bulled her way through the underbrush. “Aretta,” she cried in Shanoog.
Quinn didn’t aretta. Instead, he dived for the steep bank of the ravine—and then ducked low, because Squitt had taken out her service pistol.
“Put up your hands.” She aimed the noisy American weapon at his chest.
Although insulted by this uncalled-for escalation of their game of cat and mouse, Quinn knew better than to argue with a pistol. He knelt on the grass and raised his hands.
“Stay right there.” A dribble of blood ran from a scratch on her cheek. Her killer whale helmet was gone and her dark hair was littered with leaves, but her face was triumphant as she stomped across the creaking suspension footbridge. It swayed and jerked with each footstep.
She was almost across when she paused. Her eyes narrowed and her face went blank. Consulting her communications implant, probably, and the call must be awfully important to stop her in the middle of a hot pursuit. With luck she was being called away.
With wide eyes, Squitt stared up the ravine toward the vast window of the nearby ballroom. Clearly she expected something to happen, but what? From the tight-lipped glee on her face, she was both afraid and worried.
“No,” she shrieked, “delay for five seconds. Delay!” Then she cursed, grabbed the flimsy rope railing with both hands, and hunched over defensively.
And the world went insane.
A deep rumble, like a giant’s belch, battered the air. The ground shook in terror. The ballroom’s window shattered with the tinkling roar of a million oversized bees loosed from the depths of Hell.
Next came a blast of tornado-force wind, hot and overpowering. Quinn tumbled to the ground with his head pointing down the slope leading to a precipice.
Then smoke and clattering shards of glass filled the air. A book-sized chunk knifed into the ground between his thumb and forefinger, miraculously leaving his flesh intact. He yanked his hand away—
—which wrecked his balance and sent him sliding toward the cliff’s edge.
* * * *
“Folks out there in celebrity-stalking land,” Marianne Harmon slurred, pretending her flimsy dance shoe was a microphone, “you’re watching a modern update of the old fairy tale. At the royal ball, Prince Charming plied an innocent maiden with champagne and is now luring me—I mean, her—up to his hotel room.” She giggled. “Stay tuned for further shocking developments.”
With the stony expression of a bachelor tolerating the antics of a two-year-old, Reese opened his hotel room door. “Put your shoe back on, Marianne.”
“Oh, pooh. Prince Charming, you have no sense of humor.”
Prince Charming wasn’t his name, of course, but he was an honest-to-God prince and she knew from experience he could charm the pants off her. A year ago, Prince Reese Eaglesbrood had been her first lover, and there’d been no one since. That made it sound as though she loved him, and she really, truly should’ve. She’d tried to love him. She really, truly had.
A guard stood in the hall outside the room. Seeing him, Marianne cringed. “I’m drunk,” she whispered to Reese, hoping the guard wouldn’t hear. But he did. His indifferent glance probably masked contempt.
“And?” Reese asked.
“I don’t know the rules on your world, buddy, but on my planet gentlemen don’t take advantage of ineeb…ineep…drunken ladies.” She wagged a finger at him. “No, no, no.”
“Vast difference, m’dear, between tipsy and drunk.” Reese held up three fingers. “How many do you see?”
Without a trace of a smile, Reese looked at her. He always waited patiently when she tried to joke. It was his most annoying trait.
“Okay, three,” she grumbled. Sure, she was a lousy comedienne, but did he have to stare?
“Ahha.” That word, with an accent on the first syllable, meant yes in Shanoog. “Also, you walked down the hall without hitting the wall on either side. Tipsy, not drunk.”
“So that means my virtue is fair game? You just don’t want to admit I’m drunk so you can—” She stopped and snuck an embarrassed glance at the Royal Guardian.
But really, why not let Reese have his way with her? He wasn’t just a prince, he was young, vigorous, handsome, and familiar. His bronzed complexion proclaimed his Amerind heritage, and his long, black hair was braided elaborately but in quiet good taste. Everything about him proclaimed good taste—his expensive charcoal-grey suit, his cream-colored cravat, the discrete ruby pin in his lapel. He even smelled as though he’d taste good. Exotic cologne hinted at aromatic fruits from another world, and that struck her as the essence of Kwadra: fresh and natural, yet mysterious, alien, and unknown.
But she remained outside in the hall. “Let’s go back down to the ballroom. It’s so beautiful, and there are so many celebrities I haven’t met yet. Movie stars, the First Lady, the Prime Minister of England, and…and I can still hear the Blue Danube Waltz. Listen.”
“But I have a surprise, remember? If you don’t come in I shall be forced to show you your surprise out here in the hall, where everyone can see.”
Marianne looked first at his slacks, from whence the so-called surprise would spring, and then around the hallway. Everyone wouldn’t see, because everyone was downstairs in the hotel’s brand-new ballroom. There was only the bodyguard leaning against the wall, wearing the lime-green uniform of the Kwadran Royal Guardians.
But that was worse than a crowd of giggling gawkers. To most people, Guardians and totem poles were Kwadra Island. If she were sober, she’d enjoy meeting this man, because she adored the movies and books showing Guardians protecting Kwadra from savage marauders. For last year’s Halloween ball, she’d bought a lime green uniform…and she still donned it in private sometimes, even though she wasn’t brave enough to be a soldier. Having one of her heroes see her drunk and reeking of wine made her wish for Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. She settled for the next best thing—wobbling forward so Reese blocked her view of the Guardian.
“We aren’t lovers anymore,” she whispered to Reese. “I shouldn’t do this.”
“Pray tell why not?”
He went inside, but she stopped in the doorway. Her head swirled. “I…I don’t remember.”
All she could remember were reasons she should make love to him. Such as, sex might pierce the smog of her depression and make her feel alive for a few minutes. Such as, he knew how to please her, sometimes. Such as, she’d been celibate for nearly a year and her body often ached with yearning.
“I won’t make you do anything you don’t want to,” he said. “You know that.”
“Course. You’re one of the most trustworthy men I ever met. But—”
“Then trust me. This will be our private celebration. It’s a special night for both of us.”
Just what she needed, more pressure to pretend happiness. The doctor had warned that drinking would make her depression worse. She forced a smile and said, “Good point.”
The ball downstairs was the first ever on Kwadra Island—the kingdom’s coming-out party, the media called it—and it honored the birth of Prince Pierre, the new heir to the throne. Baby Pierre was very special, and not just because of his delightful pucker and astonishing shock of dark hair. In addition to being the most adorable baby ever, he was Marianne’s nephew. Her sister, now Queen Elinor of Kwadra, was married to Reese’s brother, King Tro.
“Since you’re my brother-in-law, doesn’t that make your surprise incest-in-law?”
The Royal Guardian startled her by snapping to attention. “You’re Marianne Harmon? Ma’am, I’ve admired you ever since you got shot protecting Queen Elinor from that anti-Kwadran fanatic last year.”
Warming from a blush, Marianne touched the tiny scar on her upper arm where a bullet had grazed it, requiring four stitches—not exactly a big self-sacrifice. And yet the Guardian admired her? She’d stood up for Ell because she was her sister, not because she was brave, like him.
He still stood at attention. Marianne didn’t have Ell’s grace or poise, but she knew her sister always treated admirers with courtesy and respect. How would Ell handle this situation?
By avoiding it, of course. She’d never be caught drunk outside a man’s hotel room.
Have to fake it, then. Straining to stand firm, Marianne came to attention and smiled. When the Guardian grinned back as though she’d made his day, she saluted him.
“That’s enough, Lieutenant Estefan,” Reese ordered.
His voice wasn’t as regal and commanding as his brother’s. She almost said that aloud, but stopped in time. Wouldn’t be polite.
“Marianne, inside. Now.”
Drained by the effort of appearing respectable, she had to grab the doorframe as she entered the suite.
Reese closed the door. She wished she hadn’t compared his voice to Tro’s, because Reese wasn’t quite as good as his brother in any way. Looks. Height. Skill. Charisma. Of course, she wasn’t as good as her sister Ell, either. A couple of second raters, the pair of them, drawn together by their second-rateness.
“Reese,” she whispered, “I need…”
She moistened her lips sexily. “I really need…”
“What? Anything, anything at all.” His voice was husky. He slipped his arms around her waist. “You need…?”
“To use your bathroom.”
He pulled back to stare at her. Then he raised one eyebrow. That was as close as she’d ever come to getting a laugh out of him.
When she returned, Reese was standing by a fireplace of polished stone. “Please, m’dear, make yourself comfortable while I get us something to drink.”
Ignoring the invitation, she wandered into his bedroom. A four-poster made of dark, lustrous wood dominated the room. A green-and-gold brocade canopy hung from the ceiling.
“Brandy or red wine?” asked Reese from the other room. “Both excellent vintages, since we’re celebrating.”
Celebrate, celibate. Too celibate too long. Too much celebration, too much champagne.
As though to prove it, she tripped over her long ball gown, staying on her feet only by grabbing a chest of drawers with both hands. She ended up facing a map of the Pacific Northwest hanging over the chest. It stilled her breath. For several seconds she stared at it, motionless.
Vancouver Island, the largest island off the west coast of the Americas, perched up in British Columbia where it belonged. But a few hundred miles south, off the coast of Washington, squatted a duplicate Vancouver Island: Kwadra Island, in all its impossible glory. A year ago it had ‘hopped’ here on a one-way trip from the future of an alternate timeline.
Marianne was downright conceited about her sister’s key role in integrating the island nation into her world. Marianne loved Kwadra, truly. Loved one Kwadran in particular—her nephew—and cared deeply for another—Reese. The nation’s arrival, though, was her generation’s Nine-Eleven, Challenger disaster, and Kennedy assassination rolled into one. Like those earlier disasters, Kwadra’s arrival had unsettled peoples’ assumptions about the world, about safety, about what was possible and impossible. It pulverized bedrock certainties and shook them until they rattled out of a person’s head and rolled across the floor.
The map sent a shiver of apprehension down her back. Sure, Kwadra was wonderful—but if it could appear out of nowhere, why not fiends from a nightmare?
She was alone for the moment. Relieved she didn’t need to joke and pretend, she slouched toward the window. Though large, it was tiny compared to the forty-foot high wall of glass in the ballroom. It faced the same direction, however, so she saw the same swatch of greenery along a ravine, the same roofs stretching down to the same white-capped strait, the same Olympic Mountains over in Washington State with their snowy peaks red from the same last kiss of summer’s lingering twilight.
Same, same, same. And, like her life, depressing despite its surface glamour.
“Wine?” Reese repeated in a louder voice.
Instead of answering, Marianne flopped onto the bed. She yanked the ball gown up to her waist. Might as well get this over with.
Guilt rose along with the hemline. She wasn’t doing Reese justice. He wasn’t a lecher—or if he was, only around her. He’d taken her virginity the instant she offered it, a month after Kwadra appeared as though by magic.
The similarities between the magical, mirror-image islands were superficial, while the differences were profound. On Reese’s world, Kwakiutl Indian princes, not Canadians, ruled the island. With Kwadra now the world’s most advanced nation, Native Americans’ pride skyrocketed and their alcoholism rate plummeted—while Marianne’s alcohol consumption increased. Not that it took much booze to get her smashed. Half of her fuzziness resulted from wanting to be drunk, to be anesthetized.
Her older sister, Ell, had made first contact with a man from the other Earth—Tro Eaglesbrood, the island’s ruler—and she’d married him. Marianne’s own first contact soon followed. She was Ell’s equal in nothing, though, and Marianne had ended her affair with Reese after a few months.
Yet he still sought her company, still flirted. As she joked to Ell, it made her question his intelligence. Ell always frowned.
Marianne remembered why she shouldn’t be here. It wasn’t fair to give him false hope.
“I have something to show you,” he said. Although she hadn’t heard him come in, he was standing beside the bed. Like a gentleman, he said nothing about her lewd posture.
The bed jiggled as he sat beside her and the movement made her lightheaded. When she reopened her eyes, he was watching her face, not her exposed thighs. Despite her American skepticism about hereditary royalty, he would’ve been worthy of the title prince even if he’d been a foundling.
But he had no sense of humor. How could any woman love a man who never laughed or cracked a joke?
“Have you heard the Kwadran legend of Shendeela?” he asked.
“Huh?” Realizing ravishment wasn’t imminent, she felt her neck go hot with embarrassment. She tugged the dress to her knees. The designer-original gown had five gossamer layers that more or less prevented indecent exposure, but she’d pulled down only one peek-a-boo layer. Feeling more exposed than before, she tugged at the other layers.
“Shendeela, Shendeela,” she temporized as she squirmed toward respectability. “Nope, never heard of it.”
“In brief, Shendeela is a legendary cavern holding a pirate treasure people on my Earth have written songs and stories about for a hundred years.”
Reese looked disappointed by her reaction, so she puckered her lips and made a smooching sound. He accepted the invitation and leaned down to kiss her. He was a nice guy. He deserved a kiss. She’d definitely led him on. But she hoped she didn’t vomit into his mouth. Pretty soon he’d unzip the surprise he wanted to show her, and after a dizzying bout of physical exertion she’d get what she really wanted: the comfort and protection of after-sex cuddling. She hoped she was still awake then.
When the kiss ended, Reese rested his hand on her bare shoulder. It felt kind of good when he brushed his thumb in the direction of her breast. Maybe she could get through lovemaking without disgracing herself—and him—with a deadening display of apathy. And afterward, she would apologize for doing it at all. What a screw-up she was.
He sighed. Had her kiss been that bad?
“Sorry, m’dear. Too many secrets clogging my brain.”
She tried hard to concentrate, because this seemed important. Until now, she’d never known Reese to be mysterious, except once when his mother had roped him into one of her schemes. Surely, though, he wasn’t thinking of Princess Isabella now.
“Here.” Reese reached into a jacket pocket and held up something between two fingers.
Marianne had a hard time focusing. “What is it?”
“Your surprise. I’ve been carrying it around for over a year, waiting for the perfect moment.”
“When I’m perfectly drunk? Sheesh.”
“Unfortunate, and I apologize—though all’s fair in love and war, etc. But what I referred to was the Royal Ball in our nephew’s honor.”
“It’s a ring.” Blinking, she struggled to sit up. “A huge ring. Since when can you afford jewelry like this?”
“I didn’t buy it. It’s from…but surely you can you guess?”
She put two and two together and actually got the right answer. “Shendeela?”
“Shendeela. But don’t tell anyone.”
The filigree ring was made of gold. Each intricate twist of metal was lined with pavé diamonds. In the middle of those glittery gems perched the largest, clearest ruby Marianne had ever seen, cut into an ovoid with incised designs in the Kwadran fashion, like Northwest Coast Indian art. Reese slipped it onto her left ring finger. It felt cold and heavy. The diamonds flashed and winked in the light, alive with splendor and legend—but she pulled drunkenly at the ring, wanting it off right now. Reese knew American customs well enough to understand the significance of that particular finger.
“Every day, every night,” he said as she pulled without success, “I am haunted by the memory of your laugh, your intelligence, your lissome body. Marianne Harmon, please make my life worth living again. Make my flesh explode with joy. Make my soul vibrate with excitement as no other woman can.”
“Reese, I, I—”
“Marianne, be my wife. My princess.”
She opened her mouth, not knowing what she could possibly say.
And she never did find out.
Without warning, the hotel shook from the deafening roar of an explosion. The map crashed to the floor. Plaster dust rained into the air. Marianne’s teeth rattled.
As though blown by a giant’s sneeze, she bounced off the bed and landed hard on her bottom.