“What happened?” Alex gasped, looking around with wide eyes. “Nick and Rachel were here a moment ago and I was in big trouble. Well, not me but .. almost me.”
“Time has moved on.”
“Oh .. so that means you’re my third and final companion on this journey of dubious discovery.”
“That is correct. It is now two thousand, two and I am the Specter of Things to Come.”
Alex, having seen the past and the present, and knowing the direction her alternate life had been heading, swallowed and shivered. “That doesn’t exactly fill me with optimism.”
“Why should you care? As you just said, this isn’t you. Your life is unaffected, except for whatever memories you choose to take away from this. You are a member of the Legacy. You investigate others. Others .. like her.”
Alex straightened. “I care because .. but for one decision, she is me and she is getting in way too deep with people who really don't care what happens to her. Just a few seconds ago, the Legacy was right here and she was the subject of an investigation into stolen artifacts. What happened? Was she scared off?”
“No. Alex Moreau, Chief Operating Officer of Hernandez International, isn’t the kind who scares easily. There again, neither does Alex Moreau, Legacy member. The world you both inhabit has its relative dangers. You know of the existence of evil, demons, devils, the Darkside, betrayal and treachery. She knows about corporate raiders, predatory sharks, business politics, the wheeler dealing of high finance and the shady, under the counter tactics of the not so honorable.”
“Then what happened to Nick and Rachel?” Alex persisted. “I know those guys. They don’t give up an’ walk away.”
“She listened to them, answered their questions and they left,” the Specter replied. “That visit was slightly over a month ago. In the interim, there has been Christmas and New Years. Activity is slow anyway. Tonight, she is meeting her boss and her lover and she will tell him of this visit. It is the first chance they’ve had to be alone together since the Luna Foundation called.”
“Does Jenny know about them yet?”
“She does not.”
Alex let out a sigh. “Okay, let’s get this finished so you can .. go back to wherever it is you come from and I can get on with my life. My real life. The life which .. to a large degree, is predictable and normal even if it is very unusual and not always safe.”
The scene shifted. Alex opened the door. “Victor, come on in. I wish you’d accept a key to this door.”
“Alex, my sweet,” he responded, kissing her, “it’s a complication neither of us need. My clinging vine of a wife would only ask to what door does the key belong.”
“She goes thru your pockets?” Alex asked, amused.
“Regularly,” he replied, sounding hugely aggrieved. “If it wasn’t for the fact that she’s worth millions, I’d never have married her, but you already know that. I’m just as mercenary as my dear Jenny. A pretty face will stir my heart but a bankroll wins me every time.”
Alex took a step back. “I don’t have millions, Victor.”
“No, that’s true, but you, my precious, have a devious mind. You are still a challenge. My soul is swayed by money, but my head acknowledges the superiority of an intellect to match my own. Besides, you control millions. Stolen artifacts, siphoned into a warehouse which is not part of the official corporation assets, generate us a great deal of money. And that’s ours. Pure profit, sixty forty split.”
“Hmm,” Alex breathed.
“Did you see that?” Alex asked the Specter. “Did you see how his eyes went like mirrors? Flat and cold.”
“We’re not going to debate the split again, are we, Alex?” Victor inquired, his voice cool.
“Oh .. no. It isn’t that. Before Christmas, I had a visit from two people – a man and a woman. The holidays mean a slow down anyway so I never mentioned it to you at the various functions. And it isn’t the kinda thing I could talk about over the phone. But these people said they’d come to see me about stolen artifacts. I was surprised because I’d believed we’d covered our tracks well enough. But they asked some pointed questions, Victor.”
“What did you tell them?” he frowned.
“I lied, of course. I answered by saying HI was a respectable company, with adequate funding so we didn’t need to steal artifacts. After that, I denied all knowledge.” She shrugged. “Eventually, they seemed to believe me and they left. They appeared to know your name.”
“Really?” He moved back. “Who were these people?”
Alex shook her head. “I can’t recall. The organization they worked for was the Luna Foundation.”
“Ah. That tells me a great deal.” Victor frowned, thinking hard. “Alex, put a halt on .. acquiring the artifacts.”
“What? Why? I’m not intimidated by some .. foundation on the other side of the country! And I sure as hell disagree with them stopping me building my retirement fund!”
“I know the Luna Foundation. It knows me. If we continue, so will they. They have resources you wouldn’t believe. Our retirement funds would disappear and we would go to jail. Yes, they can do that, and, yes, they will do that.”
“There must be something we can do,” she protested furiously.
“There is. Put a halt on activity.”
“We let them win.”
“No, we put them off the scent by not leaving a trail for them to follow. A year or two. We do business as usual and we utilize that time to install an unbreakable system and a labyrinthine paper trail which leads round in circles. Alex, I’m the Chairman of the Board. I love you dearly but I will have you fired if you don’t go along with what I want.” He took her hand, felt the angry, quivering tension in her arm, and pulled her closer. “Putting a halt on activity doesn’t mean forever. It doesn’t mean forgetting or discarding our plans. It just means shelving them, putting them on the backburner. No more, no less. The Luna Foundation is dangerous to me, to us, to our future together. A year or two in the grand scheme is nothing. Trust me.”
Alex glanced at the Specter. “Does it make me a bad person to wish that she disobeys him? I would rather she lose everything and go to jail if it means an end to what she’s doing. I really would.”
“Alex,” the Specter replied, “one of your finest qualities is your loyalty. Do you believe she would betray the man she loves?”
“No, I don’t. I wouldn’t, but then there’s more to this than just love, isn’t there? There’s money and she seems to love money and material possessions almost as much as she loves him. And he doesn’t deserve her love.”
“One thing is certain – the future is unknown, so let’s find out,” the Specter breathed.
The scene shifted and time moved on. The leaves were falling and people in the building were looking forward to Thanksgiving.
“Alex,” Jim said, “you got plans for Thanksgiving?”
“Why?” she asked, her eyes narrowing suspiciously.
“C’mon, I’m just being a friend. You always seem to spend the holidays alone. If you didn’t have plans .. you’d be very welcome at my place.”
“Tanya .. my sister .. has invited me this year,” Alex replied. “Her attempt to make peace between us.”
“And she chose Thanksgiving, the traditional time for family in-fighting?”
Alex laughed richly. “That’s my sister for you.”
“Will you go?” Jim asked.
She paused. “I don’t think so. Like you say, we’d only fight. She’d want a handout and I’m not a charity.”
“The offer’s on the table, Alex,” he remarked.
“Thank you, Jim. I will certainly think about it.”
Business as usual was, she had to admit, more relaxing than she’d imagined. She finalized the plans to give every member of the staff a bottle of champagne to celebrate the holiday, her way of saying thank you for their efforts in another successful year. The resentment she’d felt at being told to stop the other activity had faded and Alex, always a creature with energy to spare, had flung herself into an overhaul of the business – streamlining procedures, sharpening up practices, updating the training, and recharging motivation. She’d taken on more staff, expanded the sales teams, sent more people overseas. Victor Arkadi had fretted over the amount of money she’d spent but investment in the business and in the people was just as important, perhaps even more so, than in stocks, shares and bonds. Besides, she’d added, he’d told her business as usual .. and she might as well make a big success of it. The ordinary, routine day job was turning out to be fun.
Their affair was still going on but it had cooled since January. Some of the passion had fizzled out. Alex was beginning to see Victor as more a business partner than a lover.
Alex and the Specter watched her clear her desk at the end of another long day, switch off the computer and the lights, then take the elevator to the underground parking lot.
“Will she go to Jim’s for the holiday?” Alex asked.
“She has been so long on her own that being with others is uncomfortable now,” the Specter answered. “She will enjoy Thanksgiving alone and be thankful in her own way. Despite what you think of her life and her choices, Alex, she is happy.”
“She is now,” Alex conceded. “Nearly a whole year of .. doing it right, making a proper effort, directing her skills into things which count and being good at what she does .. it’s made her remember a few things about who she is and what her values are. If she would just end the affair – ”
“She’d lose her job. Have nothing.”
“A brand new, top of the line Mercedes? A penthouse apartment? That isn’t nothing,” Alex argued, following herself toward the automobile.
“She’d have to sell all that. Find another job. It isn’t easy to start over. She plans to retire at fifty,” the Specter responded. “Maybe even earlier, if she can.”
Alex halted and sighed. “This .. contentment .. isn’t permanent, is it?”
The Specter halted too. “This .. contentment, Alex, is it your imagination or her true feeling? She is very happy, very content. She has felt that way for some years now.”
“All right, the focus isn’t permanent. It’s an aberration. She’s enjoying it because it’s like a vacation to her. Soon as the embargo is lifted – ”
“It really will be business as usual,” the Specter confirmed.
“My optimistic assessment … ” Alex laughed shortly and shook her head. “When am I going to realize that the end result that I’m hoping for isn’t going to happen? We’re like .. two sides of the same coin. Made of the same material but stamped into different patterns and completely opposite. Someone .. fate, destiny, whatever, flipped the coin and, lucky for me, I joined the Legacy. If it had landed other side up .. I’d be spending Thanksgiving on my own and, at some time in the future, heading for a big fall which I totally deserve.”
“You don’t know that. The future is mutable, fluid. Often, it doesn’t evolve as we expect.”
“Are you saying I’m wrong?” Alex challenged, raising an amused eyebrow.
“I’m saying you’re judging the unknown future in advance of it happening when you cannot possibly know everything in play. There are tides and currents, winds of circumstance; all have a part in shaping the future as she will experience it.”
“Such as?” Alex demanded, hands on hips.
The scene shifted to a location Alex knew very well and wasn’t expecting to see in this lifetime. The Specter didn’t have to say a word. Alex turned a complete circle, and her heart squeezed with homesickness.
The library in the Legacy house in San Francisco held four people – Derek, Nick, Rachel and a woman Alex didn’t recognize.
“The reports are there, if you hunt for them,” Nick was saying.
“Tying them to one person is proving impossible,” concluded the stranger.
“It’s Victor Arkadi. I know it is,” Derek stated.
“Sure. We know that but there’s no proof,” Nick replied.
“Proof hasn’t stopped us before,” Rachel muttered. “We act on suspicion five times out of ten. And don’t tell me I’m wrong, Derek, because you’d be lying.”
Derek paced. The others – including Alex and the Specter – watched and waited for orders.
“Victor Arkadi, if he’s behind the recurrence of these thefts – ” the strange woman began.
“He is, have no doubt in your mind,” Derek insisted.
“Okay, well, he’s buried the trail so skillfully we can’t follow it. We have a start point. We have an assumed end location. The two never meet. They don’t even come close.”
“Diana, have you really searched?” Derek asked.
“Yes, Derek, I have put in the hours,” she replied. “Nick worked most of them with me.”
Nick was nodding. “What do you want us to do?”
“We can’t ignore it,” Derek responded, halting. “These artifacts are .. minor, insignificant in terms of power but that will change. The thefts are .. testing the water. Testing the system he has in place. And testing us.”
“But how do we continue? Hope this guy’s gonna make a mistake big enough for us to see?” Diana inquired.
“What about that women you went to question?” Derek recalled.
Nick shuffled thru his papers. “Alex Moreau. Chief Operating Officer of Hernandez International.”
“Her,” Derek nodded.
“She seemed legit, Derek. What she told us rang true. The company’s clean, it checks out.”
“And it’s owned by Victor Arkadi.”
“Not exactly. It’s owned by Arkadi’s wife. He is Chairman of the Board and he does have a say in what goes on but he isn’t involved day to day,” Rachel corrected. “Alex Moreau runs things. Hernandez International does, legally, import historical items including artifacts and, like Nick says, it’s clean. She told us it has adequate funding to buy the stock it sells to honest collectors. And it does.”
“We’ve examined their books,” Nick concluded with a shrug.
“When is this?” Alex asked the Specter.
“February, two thousand, four.”
“And .. Diana?”
“She replaced Ruth who was killed five years ago. Ruth was the one who joined the Legacy instead of you.”
“We keep a watching brief,” Derek decided. “Nick, stay on the reports. Diana, keep on trying to find a way to bring the two ends together. Rachel, check into Alex Moreau’s background. See if there’s a connection between her and Arkadi which goes beyond business.”
“Okay,” Nick agreed, pushing away from the table.
“One thing you can depend upon,” Derek added, “and it is that this will not end unless we end it. Find me the proof I need.”
The scene moved on, returning to the sultry south but not to the office block which Alex now knew nor the penthouse apartment. This time, she found herself in the dim, dusty shadows of an anonymous warehouse on the banks of the Mississippi.
“This is New Orleans,” she said. “I recognize the smell.”
“That’s right,” the Specter agreed.
“And, by the temperature, I’d say it’s high summer.”
“Again, you’re right,” the Specter nodded.
“Same year? Two thousand, four?”
The hood dipped in agreement.
Alex heard footsteps and turned toward them. Alex and Victor Arkadi rounded a seven feet high stack of wooden crates. They strolled, arm in arm. Alex felt a surge of disgust.
“This is it, my love,” Victor purred, patting her hand. “Our retirement fund.”
“How much is it worth now?” Alex asked.
“I’d say your share is .. around four hundred thousand dollars. But that is destined to grow substantially.”
Alex’s eyes narrowed. “How? I know collectors are prepared to pay extra for special items but .. apart from being stolen, there’s nothing particularly special here. Most of them are .. religious in some way and the collector market for that is highly selective.”
Arkadi smiled, his teeth flashing white in his tanned face. “They’re all religious artifacts, Alex. On their own, as you say, nothing particularly special. There’s no Holy Grail anywhere in here. But they have been specially chosen. Targeted. Destined for .. better things.”
“A ransom? You’ll sell them back at a much higher price?” Alex queried.
He halted and, his smile fading, turned to stare deeply into her eyes.
“What is it?” she asked, frowning slightly.
“I’m just wondering how much I can trust you, Alex.”
“Victor, that’s just a little insulting,” she remarked.
Alex backed away and drew closer to the black robed Specter. “My God .. I know what he’s going to tell her.”
“You speak from your experience in the Legacy, Alex.”
“A leopard can’t change its spots,” she commented. “He’s always been involved in black-market artifacts. She’s helping him. But this is worse. This will brand her as more than just a willing accomplice.”
“I don’t .. totally trust anyone, Alex. No insult meant to you, believe me,” Victor replied, his voice sincere. “But you .. you are special to me. You’ve stuck by me, thru thick and thin. You gave me to your .. best friend as a husband. So .. I’ll tell you how our investment will grow.”
He put a hand on one of the crates. “All religious artifacts have a modicum of power. It comes from belief, from faith. Over the centuries, the belief has granted these .. things of metal a kind of holiness. With the right treatment, that holiness can be turned. Corrupted. And the power increased by a factor of a thousand, at the very least. Once that has happened, their value in the proper marketplace soars.”
“Were you right?” the Specter inquired.
Alex was wringing her hands. “Yes, dammit! Can’t you do something? Can’t you warn her that, if she goes along with this, it places her beyond the law. Going to jail for theft is nothing compared to what will happen.”
“Might happen,” the Specter mildly amended.
“C’mon, the deliberate corruption of religious artifacts? Turning them to evil?”
“Nothing is guaranteed, Alex. And, no, I cannot do anything. I’m only a spectator. A witness to events, as are you.”
The other Alex hadn’t said anything yet. Her expression was unreadable. Victor was watching her very closely.
“Corrupting them ..?” she eventually murmured. “Is such a thing even possible?”
“Oh yes,” he replied. “Imagine the value of something like the Grail, twisted and perverted to serve the other side. We could name our price, Alex. A million, ten million .. and someone, somewhere, would buy.”
“We don’t have the Grail. You said so.”
“An example, nothing more,” he dismissed.
“How do we apply the .. ‘right treatment’?”
“Leave that to me,” Victor replied firmly. “HI must be kept separate from that. We simply continue to do what we’ve always done. Use HI’s shipping facilities to get the items back to the United States, everything above board. What’s one extra icon or goblet or piece of bone in a consignment? Similarly, when the time comes to sell .. we use HI to move the goods to our customer base.”
Alex nodded. “All right.”
“I can trust you, can’t I, Alex?”
She smiled. “Of course, Victor.”
“I don’t believe this,” Alex muttered, driven to pacing once more. Outside the window, the trees were starting to change color again as the fall approached. “She wants to retire at fifty. That’s in ten years. She could do so much in that time and still retire a wealthy woman without putting her soul at risk. I can’t believe she loves him that much that she’d go along with this crazy idea. I can’t believe she loves money that much.”
“Money is the root of all evil,” the Specter quoted.
“When I think back to how I was at twenty two .. what I said to Mark .. that was me. I have a brain, a mind, I wanted to use it .. but not like this. I grew up in a home where money wasn’t always available but it wasn’t a big deal. Tanya and I were loved and encouraged to make the most of the gifts God gave us, the gifts which were free. All this .. it’s wrong. It shouldn’t be happening.”
Alex sat at her desk working in silence. The phone buzzed. She scooped it up.
“Ms Moreau .. those people are back.”
Alex frowned. “What people?”
“From the Luna Foundation.”
Alex straightened, her eyes widening slightly. “Show them in.”
Alex, pacing past the Specter, turned as the door opened. “Nick! You have to force her to tell you the truth! Don’t believe her lies! Rachel, please, you have to do something!”
“Ms Moreau,” Nick began.
“Please, sit down,” Alex invited.
“They can no more hear you than she can, Alex,” the Specter calmly reminded.
“Does the word frustration have any meaning to you?” Alex inquired sarcastically.
“You remember my colleague – Dr Corrigan?” Nick asked.
“The face, yes, not the name. I see so many people in the course of the year, and it has been more than year since last we met.” Alex sat back and crossed one slender leg over the other. “What can I do for you this time?”
“We’re here again on the same matter as before,” Rachel replied. “The theft of religious artifacts.”
“Your employer, Victor Arkadi, is infamous for being involved in the black-market for artifacts. The only reason he isn’t serving several sentences in jail is because he’s also very clever at covering his tracks,” Nick went on. “In addition, the man’s a coward. When things go belly up, he bolts an’ leaves his partners, associates, whatever, to take the fall.”
“You’re an intelligent woman,” Rachel said, easing forward. “Don’t let him ruin your life.”
“He is the Chairman of the Board,” Alex said. “He has the authority to ruin a lot of lives around here.”
“He’s more than that to you,” Rachel challenged.
“We were involved, once.”
“Before he suddenly married your best friend.”
“Jenny and I were best friends in college, Dr Corrigan. That friendship cooled over time. Now .. we hardly ever meet, unless it’s on company business. She is the owner of Hernandez International.”
“And Arkadi’s the boss. Jenny Arkadi owns all this but she doesn’t run anything,” Nick pointed out. “He does.”
“No, Mr Boyle, I do,” Alex corrected.
“Okay, before this turns into a pissing contest, can we get back to the matter of stolen religious artifacts?” Nick inquired. “Arkadi’s a leading player in that market. He’s got contact with this company. This company imports artifacts. You’re a smart woman, Ms Moreau. You do the math.”
Alex regarded them. “You’re right. Victor has been using HI as a front.”
Standing next to the Specter, Alex felt her jaw sag open and her eyes widen in delighted disbelief. “What ..?”
Rachel shifted a little. “Why are you telling us this now?”
“Beyond the fact it’s what you want me to do? I’m not unreasonable, Dr Corrigan. I only recently found out. HI is a long established and respected company, founded by Jenny’s father who gave me my start here. I have a duty to repay his trust in me.”
“So you’ll assist in our investigation?” Nick asked.
“What do you need me to do?” Alex asked in reply.
Alex gave a whooping cry of triumph. She punched the air and swung round to the Specter. “I knew she’d come good in the end!”
“No, you didn’t. You’d written her off as damned,” the Specter responded.
“And, in my heart .. okay, I hoped she’d come good in the end, that .. she’d realized that theft is one thing but corrupting artifacts is totally another ballgame. You were right – you really can’t guess the future.”
Time had moved on. It was now the following spring. Alex and the Specter found themselves in a park. Alex sat on a bench, enjoying the sunshine.
She glanced round, shielding her eyes with one hand. “Yes.”
He sat down. “I’m Derek Rayne.”
Alex hesitated. “That name sounds familiar .. from a long way back. I think I was once going to a lecture you gave at my college but then I didn’t. But that isn’t why you’re here, is it?”
“No. I’m here to finish Victor Arkadi. He has long been a thorn in my side. Does he suspect you are betraying him?”
Alex gave a cool smile. “I can lie easily when I have a need, Mr Rayne. Victor suspects nothing. As your associate, Mr Boyle, told me, I’ve done nothing to upset the apple cart while you prepare your case against him.”
“And you gathered the evidence?”
“What, if I may ask, is the nature of your association with him?”
“He’s my lover. Or was. It was my idea he marry Jenny so the company wouldn’t be sold. She wasn’t interested in running it after her father died, and Victor was. After they married, Victor gave me what I wanted – control – and we still continued as lovers. I knew his intention was to shift our focus away from a mix of modern and historical to purely historical items and I knew some of the .. shall we say, rarer pieces were acquired thru not entirely legal means. Invariably, that was on a commission only basis. I wasn’t aware of the scale until the middle of last year. I don’t want HI ruined, Mr Rayne. I have employees who are completely innocent and who have been callously used. If you can remove Victor without damaging HI’s reputation, I will be in your debt.”
Alex sat on the other end of the bench to listen to this confession; the Specter stood behind.
“That isn’t exactly the truth,” Alex commented quietly.
“Do we not occasionally lie to protect ourselves, Alex? Would you willingly tell all the truth and plunge yourself into greater trouble? She has a company’s reputation to protect.”
Derek was nodding. “I will do what I can to keep Hernandez International out of the proceedings.”
“Thank you,” Alex responded.
“Do you have the dossier of evidence?”
“Yes.” Alex removed a folder from her attaché case and handed it to him. “I believe this contains everything you’ll need. He used me too, Mr Rayne. He took my love and my loyalty and my trust and he abused them. I’ll put up with a lot .. but not that.”
“Hell hath no fury like a woman .. mistreated.”
Alex smiled quickly. “Exactly. This is revenge, pure and simple.”
The other Alex was listening closely. “I guess that explains why she’s doing it.”
“Remember too, Alex, that she has no knowledge of the Legacy,” the Specter murmured. “The corruption of artifacts .. is a different world to the one she knows. She assumes the Luna Foundation would find the subject equally as impossible which may explain why she did not raise it. You knew what Victor Arkadi intended before he told her.”
“But I’m Legacy … ” Alex sat back. “Well .. at least Victor will be out of the picture. That has to be good. And that means things will go back to normal around here. I suppose I’m nearly at the end of my journey now.”
“Nearly,” the Specter confirmed.
Derek rose. “We’ll be in contact, Ms Moreau.”
She shook his hand. “Thank you for your help, Mr Rayne.”
The scene shifted. Alex jumped at the furious pounding on the penthouse door. “Who’s that? Victor?”
“We’re about to find out,” the Specter murmured as Alex uncoiled from the sofa and went to answer it.
Jenny Arkadi, her face livid, burst thru, her hands stretched like claws for Alex’s face. Alex slapped them away then slapped Jenny’s face. Her head snapped around but, when she faced front again, the rage was fading fast and being replaced by tears.
Holding a hand to her stinging cheek, she choked, “He said you’re to blame! You did this to him, Alex! How could you ..?”
“He’s gone ..?” Alex asked the Specter. “How much time has passed since she met with Derek?”
“Six months. This is late October, two thousand, five.”
“What he did was wrong,” Alex replied calmly. “He had to pay.”
“He’s my husband, Alex! He’ll be in jail for twenty years!”
“I didn’t force him to steal. He used the company as a front. What would you rather I’d done, Jenny? Brought it to you for a decision? Let him get away with it? Let the company go under and lose everything I’ve worked for? All those people who have also worked so hard for you, let them lose their jobs thru no fault of their own?” Alex stepped back and folded her arms. “Divorce him, or take a lover. He can’t do anything to you now.”
“What about the company?”
“Oh, please. Who’s got a tight rein on that place? I have. My contract, which you signed, says I can leave of my own free will but I cannot be dismissed. I have Hernandez International, Jenny, and I’ll take very good care of it. I’ve invested almost twenty years of my life in this and I’m not going to quit now. After all .. it’s in my best interests.”
Alex frowned and glanced at the Specter.
Jenny blinked. “What do you mean ..?”
“I mean it was my idea that Victor marry you. He was my lover at the time. He was my lover long after you married him.” Jenny gasped and held a hand to her mouth. “I got what I wanted – control of your father’s company, I kept my lover, and I got revenge on you for marrying Mark. And, now,” she smiled, “I get revenge again – by keeping the company and depriving you of your husband.” Alex smiled, but her eyes were stone cold. “You can’t fire me, Jenny. You wouldn’t want to. You can’t run things, not like I can. Live with it.” The smile faded. “Now get out!”
The door slammed in Jenny’s tear streaked face. Alex and the Specter were silent witnesses as Alex laughed briefly.
“Is she .. making a new start?” Alex wondered but her voice was uneasy at this turn of events.
“Victor, my love, you were an inspiration …” Alex breathed, coiling her legs under her on the sofa. “And now .. thanks to you trusting me so completely, I have everything. A warehouse full of potential, a list of contacts ready to apply the ‘right treatment’ and .. there is no split of the retirement fund. I get it all. Millions and millions of dollars .. all for me.”
“I think that rather depends on what you mean by a new start,” the Specter remarked.
Alex went white.
Alex was at her desk when she heard raised voices outside and then the door burst open. She looked calmly into the furious eyes of Derek Rayne as he stalked forward to plant his hands on the polished wood and lean menacingly forward.
“What the hell do you think you are doing?” he demanded.
“I’m sorry, Ms Moreau, I couldn’t stop him,” Helen apologized.
“It’s all right. Close the door,” she instructed. Once they were alone, Alex asked, “Is there a reason for you to come all this way, Mr Rayne? Something more I can give you?”
“Your word that you’ll stop what Arkadi started.”
“I don’t understand,” Alex responded.
“You’re lying. You understand perfectly,” Derek accused.
“If the problem persists even though you successfully got Victor put in jail, where he so definitely belongs, that isn’t my fault. Maybe you didn’t dig deep enough or cast your net wide enough.”
“Maybe it is more a case of cut off the head, the snake grows another,” he suggested with cold anger. Derek straightened, pushing away from her with an expression of loathing which tore holes in the other Alex’s heart. “I give you fair warning, Ms Moreau. The course you have set yourself upon is more than perilous. You are allying yourself with evil and I cannot be held responsible for what happens to you if you continue.”
She smiled. “Thank you. Don’t let me detain you, Mr Rayne. You found your way in, you can find your way out.”
Alex gave a small, helpless moan as Derek turned on his heel and walked away, slamming the door behind him. She couldn’t look at the Specter of Things to Come – it was like looking at the Grim Reaper.
“I think the future’s pretty much decided now,” she muttered. “Can we leave this? Please?”
“The journey is not yet done.”
“Look .. I chose to go to the lecture and then to join the Legacy. She chose not to go and to join this company. My life, her life .. totally different yet they’ve come back together. We’ve walked parallel paths and now .. the Legacy’s going to be all over her. I feel twisted inside out. I just .. want to wake up and know this is only a dream. I want to be where I belong, Specter, with the friends who are my family, friends I trust with my life. Please. End this. Give me some peace … You told me this was a special gift .. and you were right. It is very special. It has answered the question, and I’ve learned it’s a question I should never have asked.”
The Specter said nothing but lowered her head as if in sorrow. The scene spun, whirling and dissolving and reforming as the warehouse. Alex felt her chest tightening as she looked quickly around.
There were two Alex Moreaus there, one calm, one anxious, and two hooded black robed figures, both standing in silence. It was dark, the interior lit by thick, ocher colored candles which gave off a not very pleasant smell.
“When is this?” Alex whispered.
“Two days before Christmas, two thousand, five,” the Specter breathed.
“What’s going to happen?”
“I think you know, Alex.”
A pentagram was chalked on the floor. A beaten gold chalice, a little dented in places and the original engraving nearly gone with centuries of being handled by reverent hands, was set in the center. One black robed figure glided forward. One Alex watched with an almost detached interest but her dark, liquid eyes, lit by the flickering glow of the candles, betrayed a lust for money and power.
“Are you ready?”
“Yes,” Alex said, straightening. “I should be, I’ve waited long enough. Do it.”
“Once begun, the ritual cannot be stopped, and the consequences cannot be reversed.”
“I’m not paying you to be my conscience, I’m paying you to do a job of work. Do it!” she snapped.
Alex, the other one, watched helplessly as the ritual was started. It was horribly fast. A few words, a test-tube of blood tossed into the pentagram to shatter on the chalice and spatter the gold. The metal suddenly looked tarnished, faded from its glory and somehow a lesser object for its corruption.
Alex took a deep breath and closed her eyes as she swayed on her feet. “It’s growing, filling me. I can feel the power … ”
“I just bet you can.”
Alex groaned and shook her head. The Specter, her job almost done now, said nothing. The other black robed figure began to back away. The other Alex stood firm because she always did.
“This is private property. I advise you to leave before I call the police.”
“That would be interesting. I wonder what they’d make of all this. Candles. Definitely a fire hazard with these wooden crates. Chalk markings on the floor. They’d maybe think devil worship and call in the FBI. And we mustn’t forget all this stolen property now, must we? That would certainly take some explaining. Yeah, maybe calling the cops would be a smart move. Hey! You!” The figure in the robe froze. “Stay put. I’ll deal with you next.”
The young woman faced Alex who regarded her with a stony expression.
“I’m a businesswoman and I am used to people talking at me,” Alex said. “I’m also a very busy woman so .. can you get to the point?”
“Usually, I don’t say this but, this once, I’ve been asked to make an exception. A special request. Derek Rayne says ‘you were warned not to follow this course, Alex Moreau. You chose to ignore that warning. This is the consequence.’ And, as your hooded friend over there told you, it cannot be reversed.”
Alex shrieked as the flame enveloped her. One moment, a living, breathing woman. The next, an inferno. The other Alex felt the heat scorch her back and legs, smelled the stink of burning hair and melting flesh. She couldn’t watch. There was no way. Instead she watched the flames light Merlin’s face and illuminate the utter lack of expression in her eyes. It chilled her. This was .. just a job, and it had been ordered by Derek Rayne, Legacy Precept, the man whose lecture had played such a pivotal role in her life. It literally had been life and death.
“Alex,” the Specter whispered, “now the question has been answered. Your journey is over. This was your life without the Legacy. Merry Christmas.”
Alex woke with a start and sucked in a strangled breath. As she lay there, her heart slowing, knowing she was safe and that it had all been just a very vivid dream, she heard her clock chime the last stroke of midnight.