Someone was following her. Carson recognized him from her stop at the sidewalk coffee vendor twenty minutes ago. She was at a Chinatown intersection, waiting for the walk signal to change color. And so was he. The same man. For one thing, his height was unmistakable. People crowded the corner, waiting like she was. When she glanced over her shoulder, she recognized him because she'd seen him twice already. His gaze swept across her, and she looked away quickly. Her heart beat so hard and so fast she had to breathe through her mouth. Streaks of color flashed at the edges of her vision, a sure precursor to total debilitation. If Magellan had sent him, she was as good as dead.
Please, she thought. Don't let me have an episode. Not now.
Her coffee was long gone, even though she clutched her empty cardboard cup, and she still had a splitting headache. In an hour, maybe less, she'd be prostrate, unable to do anything but lie in a darkened room and wait for her episode to fade. The outside clamor wasn't helping. She wasn't used to the noise or the sheer number of people around her. Carson rarely spent time in public. Almost never. By herself? Absolutely never. Even if she weren't being followed, she'd be keeping her arms in close, her empty coffee cup almost touching her chest. On edge and at sea no matter what. Now she wasn't sure she'd be able to stay on her feet long enough to make it back to the doorway where she'd spent the night.
More than anything, she wanted to go home, take a shower and curl up in her bed, in her room, in her house and feel safe. Her longing for the familiar brought a lump to her throat. She couldn't go home. Ever. Instead, she knew things she wished she didn't and had seen things she wished she hadn't. Yesterday she'd been living in a Tiburon mansion with the staff of fifteen it took to look after Álvaro Magellan. Today she was in San Francisco with a hundred dollars and clothes that used to belong to someone else.
The light changed. For half a breath no one moved. Two cars and a bike messenger zoomed through the intersection on the red. Normal, everyday people surged forward, and Carson went with them. The man following her crossed to the opposite side of the street. Halfway down the block, the crowd thinned. Carson stopped outside a jewelry store and stared at the window. But she watched his reflection in the glass, not the display, trying to think what to do.
The tall, muscled long-limbed man in faded jeans, an old tee-shirt and cowboy boots looked too scruffy to work for Magellan. She wasn't one of the paid staff, but she worked for Magellan too, just like everyone else in the house. Álvaro Magellan took on the yes, sir type. But, the words yes, sir never passed this guy's lips. His jeans were pale along his thighs and white at his knees. A two-day growth of beard shadowed his cheeks. He had the kind of dark hair that probably lightened several shades someplace with a real summer. A haircut would not be amiss.
The shop window didn't reflect the color of his eyes. He was too far away for that, but she could see him slouching against a wall like a Calvin Klein model. Her pulse slowed enough for her to breathe through her nose again. Her headache got worse. She took a few steps along the display window but moved her head to keep his reflection in view. For all she knew, he was some low-life looking to snatch her purse. If she was lucky, that's what he wanted.
She moved to the next store, pretending interest in a series of porcelain cats. She didn't see Mr. Boots's reflection in the window any more. Maybe he'd settled on someone else's purse.
The proprietor of a sidewalk display of Long-Life-Happy Balls held out a hand and circled the chiming metal balls around his palm. She looked up to acknowledge him, but his face vanished behind streaks of orange. Her skin prickled in a wave from the top of her head to the backs of her legs and along her neck. Cantonese pitched and rolled in her ears, and for an instant she understood the words. Then the meaning flashed out of her head, and all she heard was the impenetrable rhythm of a language born on the Asian subcontinent. Cantonese was dying out in China, displaced by Mandarin. But here, in cities like San Francisco, with Asian populations that immigrated during the Gold Rush and after, Chinese meant Cantonese.
Traffic sounds whirred in the background, horns blared, wheels rolled over asphalt, engines accelerated. Carbon particulates gave the air a sharp scent. Pigeons cooed from eaves, and she heard the Doppler Shift of conversation and tinny vocals from iPod earbuds as people flowed around her. Music from one of the open shop doors floated over the noise. She concentrated on breathing, but her headache didn't recede.
"Well, well, well," said a voice behind her. The words were soft and mellow. "If it isn't Magellan's witch."
Her symptoms vanished in a single instant of clarity. The streaking colors, distorted sounds, the chill in the pit of her stomach blinked out of existence. Her thoughts cleared. She was miles from home. In San Francisco. In Chinatown. Half a block past the intersection of California and Grant streets and about a mile from the doorway where she'd spent last night. If she were to keep walking, she'd end up in the Bay. Magellan knew she was gone, but he didn't know where. He couldn't. He'd never imagine she could make it all the way into San Francisco on her own. He thought she was helpless. Yesterday, she left everything behind, her purse, her clothes, her books and her medication. All she took was the cash she'd snatched from the drawer on her way out. Today, a stranger was following her. He wasn't one of Magellan's suits. And he wasn't a purse-snatcher because he knew Álvaro Magellan's name.
Carson turned and Mr. Cowboy Boots smiled at her with a friendly, open grin. "Every girl just loves to be called a witch," she said. "Thanks so much for the compliment. Really." Close up, he was even better looking than she'd thought. "Who are you?" she asked. "And why are you following me?"
"Hm," he said with another friendly smile, but drawing out the sound so it was plain he was going to lie. "Nikodemus."
"No last name?"
The pain came back, throbbing again, along with the sensation that her hair was electrified. When he said his name, his eyelids lowered halfway, but his gaze moved from her head to her feet and then back, at last, to her face. She'd been around men enough to know that, among other things, his perusal was a sexual assessment.
Nikodemus. What a crock. She tightened her grip on the scuffed black purse she'd pulled out of a bin at Good Will. Her knees shook. Her body felt like it might just float away. He was good looking, she hadn't mistaken that. He also wasn't what she expected of someone with a name straight from one of Magellan's papers. His eyes were grey with a hint of blue. His jeans fit tight around lean hips and thighs. Probably Nikodemus wasn't his real name. The name was probably his way of convincing her he knew Magellan. Another shiver streaked through her. He was dangerous. That much she knew. She pushed past him, heart pounding.
"Where are you going?" he said to her back. "That's pretty rude, you know."
She took maybe three steps, and there he was, walking backward on the sidewalk in front of her so she had to look at him, and everyone else had to get out of his way. Her breath caught in her lungs, and the deficit made her lightheaded.
"Sweetheart," he said, extending his arms wide. His voice invited her attention, begged for it in a beguiling tenor. "Why are you walking away?"
She kept walking but dug in her purse for a dollar. Her fingers shook. If anyone was watching and she gave him a dollar, maybe they'd think he was panhandling her instead of deliberately meeting up with her. She looked for money in the bottom of her bag, her fingers brushing the object nestled at the bottom, and she flinched. The little figurine felt hot. "Whoever you are, go away." Her voice trembled, too. She found a dollar and stopped to extend it to him. The paper quivered in the air. "If you're a friend of Álvaro Magellan, I don't want anything to do with you."
He clutched his chest with both hands and pretended to stumble. "A friend?"
"Quit bothering me." She glanced around like she was looking for a police officer. "Take this. Go away. Please."
He smiled. Despite the scruffy appearance and too-long hair, his teeth were white and even. "Thanks." He took the dollar. "Carson." When he moved his head, she noticed he wore a star ruby in one ear. The cabochon winked like an eye in the shifting light. She froze, arrested by the thought of the gemstone watching her. "Don't you think we ought to talk about what you're doing here? All by yourself?"
"No. I don't."
"I do." He must be six three at least, which made him a foot taller than her. The odds were against her. Considering her headache was shifting toward the debilitating, she wasn't going to outrun him, let alone win a physical struggle. He leaned toward her. "Magellan is number one on my hate list, Carson. If he's on yours too, we really need to talk."
Her knuckles hurt from squeezing the strap of her purse. She stared up and into his face, a lot further up than she expected. "Not here."
He smiled. "I'm starving," he said. "How about that restaurant across the street?"
Five minutes later, Carson was staring at a menu with no idea what any of the words meant. She had no connection to the culture that understood spring rolls or General Tso's chicken or Ma Po Tofu. Magellan never ate out and, therefore, neither had she. Sometimes the staff ordered out, but she never got invited. She lived in a no-woman's land. Not exactly on staff, but definitely not one of the family either. She sat on the chair facing the wall, but perched sideways because she wasn't stupid enough to put her unprotected back to a door she couldn't see. The dim light in the restaurant eased her headache a depressingly small amount.
Nikodemus slouched on the chair against the wall. Heads had turned when they walked in, male and female heads, because this was San Francisco, and he had the kind of presence that made people stare. She found that disconcerting. He grinned at her, not even bothering to look at the menu. "Carson Philips as I live and breathe."
She gazed at him, at a loss for words. If her head wasn't pounding so hard, she might already have figured out why he was calling himself Nikodemus. With no last name. That wasn't a name you just picked at random. Not when that name featured prominently in the myths Magellan studied. He'd written an entire paper on the subject of Nikodemus and the rituals attributed to his worship. The thing is, this Nikodemus, or whoever he was, didn't look all that dangerous now. He was young. Much closer to her age than Magellan's. He looked like someone who'd be fun to be around. He looked like someone who'd be interesting to know.
"Talk," he said.
"You must be from Harvard or Yale," she said.
He snorted. "Hardly."
She concentrated, but she was seeing flashes of color again. She willed them to go away. "A collector? Someone who lost out to Magellan at an auction?" She peered at his face through streaking colors. "Someone who acquires artifacts?"
He grinned. "No, no and no."
Their waitress came. He ordered in Chinese without looking at the menu. This time she didn't get even a glimmer of understanding. The words and their meaning remained impenetrable. Carson pointed to an item that was cheap and didn't sound too exotic. Afterward, there wasn't anything to do except look in the teapot to check the color of the water even though it was too soon to be drinkable tea. She leaned back. Nikodemus was watching her, his head tipped to one side. Her headache made her feel stupid and slow.
"Why were you following me?" she asked.
He cocked his head and looked at her like she was stupid, and maybe right now she was. She could hardly think straight. He shrugged. "You're Magellan's witch."
"At least you're not calling me something worse." Carson threw herself against her chair and then wished she hadn't. The sudden movement made her head hurt. "I'd appreciate it if you didn't call me that."
"I think you know what I mean."
She rubbed her temples. "Actually, I don't."
"Let's see if I can clarify for you." He pretended to think. "Carson Philips, you're a witch."
He sounded like he meant something more than name-calling by that, but his exact meaning refused to come clear in her overstimulated brain. She wondered if he'd read Magellan's paper on Nikodemus. He must have. "Right," she said. "I'm a witch about like you're a fiend thought to have first manifested in the Gobi desert five thousand years ago."
He didn't even crack a smile. "I like the weather here better."
"Hardy har har." She guessed he was about thirty, maybe younger. "How did you find me?" she asked.
"Why are you running from Magellan?"
"Who said I was?" Her fingers trembled, so she pressed her palms to the white tablecloth and stared at the back of her hands. "Can't a girl go shopping if she wants?" She sounded lighthearted, but her hands looked tense. She tried to relax her fingers and couldn't. He knew she was running from Magellan. How? How did he know anything about her, a stranger, when she barely knew the people who lived with her? After what she'd seen, she didn't know if she could trust their waitress, let alone Nikodemus with no last name.
"Maybe I can help," he said. And when she looked up, she couldn't stop the absurd thought that maybe he could. He leaned toward her. "Why don't you start by telling me about Magellan."
She couldn't feel the right side of her head anymore. Staring at the star ruby in his ear helped her focus. The throbbing pain dampened. "My parents died," she said. "I've lived with him since I was eight." Lived with him was about all it had been, too. Álvaro Magellan had been about as distant as any person could be from a child. "He made sure I knew he had a legal obligation to take care of me. If he hadn't been for my parents naming him my guardian or whatever, he wouldn't have had anything to do with him. So he fed me. Put a roof over my head. Paid for my clothes. Gave me an allowance. There was a string of nannies until I was twelve, a new one every year just about, and I was constantly warned never to bother him. Ever. There were huge areas of the house I was forbidden to enter. God forbid he should ever accidentally see me." She snorted. "I was closer to the cook than Magellan."
He pulled the paper wrapper off a pair of wooden chopsticks and broke them apart. "Bet he had you home schooled."
Why was he so certain? "I couldn't go to a regular school."
"No letting the likes of you run free in the world."
She wasn't sure what he meant. The likes of you. Just like she wasn't sure what he meant by calling her a witch. She didn't want to know. "A normal school would have been too stressful for me."
"Right," he said. Only he didn't sound like he agreed with her.
"It's true." She spent her childhood and most of her young adulthood going to specialists who did tests, who poked and prodded her and handed out pills in a rainbow of colors that did nothing to stop the headaches. They got worse and their sequelae longer lasting and more severe. "Ideopathic migraine with accompanying fatigue."
She licked her lips. He made her feel like her life was a lie. Which, actually, it seemed to have been. "He spent a lot of money on specialists."
"Yeah, Magellan's a great guy." He examined his chopsticks. Grey eyes with a hint of blue. Like the sky before morning had completely arrived. Really pretty eyes, she thought. "Upstanding citizen. The fucker."
"I don't think he liked children very much."
"Like I said."
Carson breathed in slowly. Did his dislike of Magellan give her sufficient reason to tell him more? And if so, how much? She didn't know. All she knew was she spent last night in a doorway and hating Álvaro Magellan wasn't such a bad thing to have in common with someone. "His work comes first."
"His work." Nikodemus didn't sound mellow anymore. He threw the chopsticks on the table. His tee-shirt, imprinted with the text Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, fit snug against his torso. Whenever he moved, muscles flexed somewhere. "You help him with his work, don't you?"
She winced because his voice hurt her ears. "Sometimes. He's famous, as you must know. Pre-eminent," she amended. She thought about leaving and almost stood up. Except, if she left, what then? "He's the world's foremost authority in the desert-fiend myth." She tried to decide from his expression how much he knew about Magellan and his arcane expertise. She couldn't tell. "People write to him constantly, asking for his opinion on some artifact or source of the myth. Wanting reprints of his papers. They write in with all kinds of crazy ideas. Someone has to answer the mail and keep things organized."
Nikodemus stared at her too long with eyes that held more than just the chill of anger. She held his gaze. Looking away first meant you were weak. It was like admitting you were less, and she never let anyone make her feel less. Not even Magellan. Nikodemus's eyes were a fortress. He could look out, but she'd never get in. She checked the tea again. It was still too pale to drink. "You think he studies myths about desert-fiends?" she heard him say.
Carson looked up and locked gazes with him again. He didn't seem so affable now. "Of course that's what he does." It wasn't. She knew that now, and Nikodemus, or whatever his real name was, seemed to know that, too. Her body started to shake. She didn't know what was safe to say or do.
He shook his head. "That's rich. That's really rich, Carson. Next thing you'll be telling me you don't deserve to die."