The plot thickens, items entirely too convenient to the continuation of the plot make an appearance as if I really do only get 20 pages, and I take a break from denying my gross moe urges.

Black Jack squinted and frowned, suddenly feeling very visible in the blue light thrown from the screen in an otherwise dark room. He switched on the desk lamp and leaned back in his chair.

“That shouldn't be.” Not in most cases, anyway. But Eleanor hadn't ever undergone a bone marrow transplant that might alter her type to the donor's over time.

He remembered Patrice stooped over his computer, pecking at the keyboard to try and brute force the password. What else could she have been doing? He'd known right away, but in the moment he hadn't stopped to wonder why.

Was it possible she'd been trying to intercept the lab results?

If so, he was dealing with more than a case of stolen identity. A father wouldn't mistake another woman for his own daughter, would he? He had to be in on it. The cousin, too, if Black Jack's suspicions about her were accurate.

He folded his hands behind his head and leaned back, told himself there was no need to panic. The chair didn't creak backward in the same satisfying way the one at home did, even with his coat slung over the back.

No, there was no need to panic. Just to think. He looked to the door, specifically to the chain lock, to remind himself he'd secured it. Yes. Good. Looking into the screen, his eyes unfocused as he turned scenarios over in his head.

Suppose one of the two sets of records was inaccurate. In that case, Eleanor had made a miraculous recovery from a complication that could have ended her life. She came off as thoroughly ungrateful for her good fortune, but plenty of people were like that. He shook them down to collect his fees fairly often. But why wait months and months if her child mattered so much to her? Would the same woman who decided to endanger her life to avoid termination then isolate herself on a mountain far from even basic care? Maybe.

But suppose they were both accurate, that Eleanor was not Eleanor. To what end, through what means, had the whole family come to support the farce? And why involve him?

And where was Eleanor Audrey?

Where was the woman he'd only concretely known as a set of medical records and charts? Where was the young mother that cold data informed him was doomed from the outset? If she was still ali- If she was still present, he had to know.

Black Jack got up abruptly, the wheels on his chair screeching, and stumbled. He caught himself on the arm of the chair, suddenly lightheaded and breathless.

“Ugh.” He put a hand to his face and grimaced before straightening up. “What in the world?”

Scombroid toxin could cause lightheadedness, but- He felt his face all over. Not flushed or hot at all, and he felt fine otherwise. Just necessarily exhausted. He shifted his mind's attention to his pulse. Slower than normal, and a drop in blood pressure explained the wooziness. It was entirely possible he was simply overtired and winding down rapidly. Normally, he had better stamina than this.

Sleep could wait. It had waited over forty eight hours in the past. For the time being, he wouldn't be able to sleep until he knew who was asleep in Eleanor Audrey's room. He stepped into his shoes and out into the hallway. It was dark, and a harsh draft squeezed in from outside rolled through it with enough force to stir his hair. A snowy typhoon. How unique.

Just as he rounded the corner at the end of the hall that would take him to the family's suites, a gale that yowled and rattled the windows in their casings bashed into the eastern side of the building. A second later, the wall sconces illuminating the hall died away, their amber light giving way to blackness and, once the wind quieted, a broad wedge of moonlight from a window up the hall.

Black Jack started. In his haste to confront Eleanor, he had let the shrieking wind drown out the smaller sounds he would have picked up in a less addled state of mind. Behind every other door in the hall, or so it seemed, someone was retching or hacking or whining.

It had been long enough now that anyone who'd gotten sick off the fish ought to be fine, or at least able to sleep it off. While he was pondering and listening, a door squealed open behind him. He turned straight into the beam of an upheld flashlight.

“Ohmigod.” The young woman, one he recognized from the read window of the lodge shuttle, put a hand over her chest. She sighed. Her face was drawn and harried. “Doc, hey- You're the doctor, right?”

“More or less. What's the problem?”

“My sister's sick. She's in the shower now, but can you take a look?”

He turned down the hall again. “Lots of people are sick tonight. Tell her to take antihistamine and go to sleep.”

Her steps and the jouncing beam of her light followed him. “It's not food poisoning. She's-” She cleared her throat and circled around to cut him off. “She eats meal bars and stuff, that's all. And she's not throwing up, she's, like, coughing real hard.”

By the sound of things, the girl in the shower wasn't the only guest developing a coughing problem. Black Jack sighed and turned again. “I'm busy, but I'll look.”

“Do you think this place has black mold or something?” the girl asked as they stepped into her room. It was lit well enough by the uncovered window. “I mean, it's been shut up for years, people are getting food poisoned and stuff, it might be this huge health hazard.”

“Could you please-” Black Jack fumbled for the little flashlight he kept in his breast pocket. Wait. “Shut up for years?”

“You shut up!”

“No, I mean, what do you mean when you say this place has been closed for years?” The hiss of the shower in the next room stopped.

“This is the first year it's been open properly in a long time, I guess.” She shrugged and crossed to the bathroom door. “Melody? You okay? I brought the doctor.”

“Which one?” came a ragged voice from the other side of the door.

“How many are there?”

“There's at least two, and one looks like a creeper I don't want in our room.” The young woman who stepped out was markedly thinner than her sister, but the resemblance was obvious for all the extra shadows on her face. She sighed when she saw Black Jack. “Thank Jesus.”

Black Jack smirked to himself. So he wasn't the 'creeper.' He'd have to file that away to cheer himself up later. “Your sister tells me you've been having coughing fits.”

“Yeah. Like, since we went to bed.” She sat on the foot of one bed and pushed the sleeves of her bathrobe up on her scrawny arms. “It's not so bad since I got in the shower, though.”

“Do you have a history of developing bronchitis?” Black Jack asked. “Is this a productive cough?”

“No and no.” Melody cleared her throat and stuck out her tongue. “It just feels, like, irritated.”

Black Jack frowned at the sister who never gave her name. “You pulled me away from work for a bad throat tickle?”

The girl puffed up and went around Black Jack to loom over her slighter sister. “You always do this!”

Black Jack was already out the door. “Food poisoning, black mold, colds, or whatever, I am currently not being paid to handle any of those things. The kid was a necessary charity, but you're a grown woman with a cold. Handle it yourself.”

Behind him, Melody started to cough. He walked faster when her sister started squawking for him to come back. Heavy, pounding steps up the hall caught him quickly. So did a warm, wet, sticky hand.

“She's bleeding, you heartless jerk!”

That was a different matter. “From her mouth?”

“Yes!” He could hear the tears in her voice without seeing her eyes.

Always more work. He sighed and took his hand back. The tacky wetness cooled instantly. “I need my stuff. Stay with her, keep her upright.”


He bolted for his room. The door didn't give. The knob wouldn't even turn. He screwed his face up and panned his light up at the plaque. Right room. Had he been so out of it that he locked himself out of his room with his tools inside? What a blunder.

He patted the front of his vest and, to his relief, found he'd stashed the keys in his wallet pocket instead of leaving them in his coat.


In the dark behind him, something shifted. Something sliding along the floor. His head snapped up only to get swatted forward and down by a sharp blow from behind. He staggered forward, vision sparking, and slid down the door's face and onto his knees.

The assailant's steps thundered away and started down the stairs before Black Jack got to his feet. He gave chase, stunned but far from knocked out. So, he wouldn't get a chance to resolve this peacefully after all.

Outside, the wind picked up and lightning snapped overhead, the short-lived flash through the lobby windows illuminating a figure in a long, hooded coat dashing for the front door.

“Hey!” Black Jack leaped the final few stairs. He reached for a scalpel only to realized a split second too late that- “Crap!” he'd left his coat behind.

All the rage of winter came rushing in a second later, when the attacker threw the front door open and darted outside. Black Jack followed. The flying snow stung his face.

They crossed the moonlit clearing, the stranger's dark coat standing out starkly against the snow.

The moonlight had a strange quality to it. It crawled up the trunks of the trees, bleeding up and out of the snow.

The whole world had a strange quality.

It blinked in and out of existence, almost.

He'd run a little, his eyes fixed on the attacker's back, and find himself hurtled forward in time and space to a spot that looked totally different. First the clearing outside the lodge, then the treeline with its crawling light, and now someplace shrouded in darkness where the snow came up to his knees.

Each and every patch of moonlight that managed to fight through the cloud cover and trees bled and spread like luminescent ink in dark water. A shady form moving through the trees far ahead caught his attention, and he took off for it without so much as a thought.

The bleeding reverse ink light left streaky trails in his vision.

He blinked forward in time again, to another clearing, and fell forward into the deep snow. Something was wrong, something was very wrong, not with the world but with him. Something more immediate than some bungling assassin. He forced his spinning brain to forget the chase, pushed himself up and out of the snow. He wavered on loose legs and caught himself on something cold and smooth. He breathed. Shallow, slow. Hard to take much in, even trying. The sharp, dry air made him cough. His throat whistled.

Respiratory depression. Increased heart rate to compensate. Loss of time to short term amnesia. He closed his eyes. The light trails lingered, and when he opened them again he observed a flickering light column beside every tree trunk. They flicker-danced away, growing smaller and smaller like he'd scared them off by noticing them.

And hallucinations.

He felt along the wall – yes, it was a stone wall – to find the corner without relying on his increasingly traitorous sight. The toes of his shoes, kicking through the snow drift built up against the wall, butted against dozens of fallen blocks and bricks before he found the entrance to the chapel.

Had he come here through some subconscious urging? Had he decided to seek shelter from the whipping storm in a moment the amnesia flashes erased?

It didn't matter. The storm was worse now than it had been the whole night, but the chapel walls kept the wind and snow at bay. Mostly.

And Black Jack couldn't be sure he was strong enough or even conscious enough to find his way back to the lodge in the storm.

His feet dragged on his way up the aisle, scraping the snow from the old slate floors as he made his way to the clearer end of the old building. The wall with the big circular window sheltered the altar well, and the altar itself made for an additional windbreak.

Once still, tucked up with his back against the altar, he was forced to acknowledge just how cold he was. He snarled at nothing but his own foolishness and gripped his arms. He now faced a difficult choice: Get up and try to hide his way back somewhere warm immediately, or sit in the cold trying to weather whatever had hold of him.

It was a choice that the amnesia stole from him. In the next instant, he was suspended in blackness again.


“Black Jack.”

He couldn't breathe. His lungs wouldn't inflate. He sucked in hard, and pain cut through him, and something small inside him recognized the pain and panicked. He made a pitiful, wordless noise he felt ring in his throat.

“Black Jack!”

More than anything, he wanted to snap back for the voice to leave him the Hell alone, but he couldn't take enough air to turn the command into words. A strange, sinking sensation overtook him, like the sound he made instead had been holding him aloft the whole time.

He was cold, he hurt, and with the stubborn remnants of his waking mind he knew he was all alone in the woods with his brain creating images and sounds to torment him. He tried to make himself move, to fight his way forward and up. The effort only stole his breath, and panic sunk in deeper.

Suddenly, though, he was propped up on one elbow. Something scooped under one of his arms to support him, wrapped around his back. Soft, loose fibers fell against his cheek and neck.

Breath came more easily.

“Hush, hush.”

His heart rate leveled.

The fog around his brain muddled anything familiar about the voice. It was the tone that made it soothing, and the nest of hair to let his face fall forward into, and the arms supporting him against a bigger body.

It was a good dream, suddenly, though it didn't last long.

He blinked his eyes open. The trees overhead were still again. The moon was bright overhead. Its light didn't bleed into the sky or leave ghosts of itself when he rocked his head from side to side.

“Black Jack.”

He squinted to bring the pale figure into focus.

“What are you doing out here?” Black Jack asked, propping himself up on one arm. It was then that he realized he was lying on the altar, not huddled up beside it.

Kiriko rose out of the kneeling position he'd taken by the altar and stashed a little black case in his shirt pocket. “What's it to you?”

“What's that you just put away?” Black Jack demanded.

“Medicine,” Kiriko said, reaching over to roll down Black Jack's right sleeve.

Black Jack sat bolt upright, the heavy wool blanket he'd been folded into falling open. “What did you do to me?”

“Cut the theatrics. You're an inconvenience to me, Black Jack, not an enemy worth killing at the first opportunity. He took the case out again and let Black Jack examine the syringes and vials inside. The name of the drug wasn't familiar at all. “It's an experimental synthetic drug I use to revive patients who've gotten impatient with me.”


“I want people to die peacefully, Black Jack, not miserably.” Kiriko took his tools back and stashed them again. “It reverses the worst effects of GHB overdose almost immediately. I don't know who doped you, but they got you good.”

Black Jack frowned. GHB? Would anyone have gotten the chance? He swung his legs over the edge of the altar and wavered, one hand coming up to hold his head.

Kiriko caught his shoulders. “Hold on, I can't be sure how long you're going to be dizzy. We can't stay out here, though, that's for sure.”

“Mm.” Black Jack took a big, grateful breath of air. “You left your coat in your room, too, huh? Lock yourself out?”

“You're sitting on my coat, doctor,” Kiriko said, his eye going very narrow. “I wasn't going to just leave you in the snow or lay you on a cold rock when snow's already melted into your clothes.”

Black Jack flinched and instantly hated that he couldn't blame the warmth spreading across his face on food poisoning. “Ah.” He slid off onto his feet, gripping the edge of the altar for balance. After a moment, he felt confident enough to stand fully upright and sweep Kiriko's coat over his shoulders. “I'll hang on to it for the time being, then.”

“Wear it like a coat, at least,” Kiriko said, shaking his head. He followed their tracks to the exit and Black Jack trailed behind.

It was slow going. With his compromised sense of balance, he had to take extra care walking on the icy stone in shoes made for walking on clear streets. Kiriko had reached the treeline at the edge of the chapel's yard by the time Black Jack got to the doorway.

He leaned hard of the door frame, his head lilting to one side, catching his breath. The broad collar of Kiriko's coat was frayed and pocked at the edges, the surface of the wool worn smooth with age and use. What good did it do him, noticing that?

Kiriko backtracked to him. “Think whoever jumped you is still out here?” he asked, arms folded. He looked like a parent negotiating with a willful child, and Black Jack might have smacked him if he trusted himself to push off the wall.

“Probably,” Black Jack breathed out.

“Then it's not going to do for me to stop and wait for you to catch up every ten yards,” Kiriko said. He took Black Jack by the shoulders and straightened him up. “Come on, put the coat on right and we'll go.”

Black Jack struggled into the sleeves. He shook his head, trying to clear it, but made no progress.

“How are your hands?”

“Sore.” Black Jack blinked and flexed his fingers. The entirety of him was sore, to tell the truth. Not frostbite sore, but some parts were damned close. “Why?”

“Here.” Kiriko slid his arm under Black Jack's arm and around his back again.

Wait. Again? Oh, no.

Black Jack scowled and drew back. “Hey.”

“Don't be a brat. This isn't fun for me, either.” Kiriko stooped a little to sweep his other arm behind Black Jack's legs and hoist him up.

With hardly any balance to start with, Black Jack couldn't put up much resistance. His feet left the ground and he felt himself tilting drastically backward. Nausea with no outlet made his stomach lurch, and his brain swam in his head like it did in the first instant of a sudden fall. He lashed his arms out on instinct to arrest the fall, but by the time his hands found purchase it was over. He was suspended over the snow, held flush to Kiriko's shirt.

Kiriko, to Black Jack's relative relief, looked appropriately unhappy to be carrying him like a swooned heroine. He didn't even look down at Black Jack, instead glowering into the forested path ahead. “Get. Your frozen hands. Off. My neck.”

Suddenly, Black Jack realized his hands weren't cold anymore. The human neck could be very warm indeed, especially under long hair. He sputtered and reeled his arms back in, folded his hands into tight fists under the open coat. “You could have warned me.”

“Had I warned you,” Kiriko said as he started down the path, “We would still be arguing about it.”

Black Jack made a small, thoughtful sound to concede the point. He let himself be quiet for a while and watched the trees overhead pass by through the cloudy screen of Kiriko's breath. In time, he could feel something besides bitterly, achingly cold. Burdened bodies wading through snow produced a lot of heat, after all. If it were anyone else, Black Jack might have felt bad for him.

He could roll his head to the right, away from Kiriko, and see the lodge in the distance by the time his head was clear enough to start piecing things together.

“How'd you know someone jumped me?”

“I was downstairs when you came tearing through after them, and I assumed,” Kiriko said. He shifted his hold on Black Jack to lift him a little higher.

“What for?”

“Curiosity. Whatever's affecting the guests here, it isn't food poisoning. I've seen three people with severe respiratory distress tonight, and only one of them ate dinner here.”

Black Jack snapped his gaze back to Kiriko's face. “Blood?”

Kiriko nodded. “Two bring up blood when they cough. The cursory examinations I did suggest they might have developed pneumonia, but that's a damned fast onset for people who were healthy hours ago.”

“The girl I saw was coughing blood, too,” Black Jack said. “So, were you snooping for signs they've been poisoned? That is your... concentration.”

“I believe it's not a bacterium or a virus, and I suspect it's airborne.” He mounted the porch steps and set Black Jack down so he could catch his own breath. “As for whether it's intentional, I have no idea.”

Something pulled at Black Jack's brain, but it slipped away when he tried to pull back. He groaned and leaned back onto the log wall beside the door, tipping his spinning head back. “Why poison everyone?”

Kiriko hummed. He cracked the door, waited a moment as if listening for any sound inside, and then slipped into the lobby. “I don't believe everyone has been poisoned. Whether that's by design or by mistake, I couldn't tell you. In the best case scenario, there's a connection between those affected that suggests something environmental, something incidental.”

Black Jack followed into the dark with short, cautious steps. “Yes. It's more than possible it doesn't come down to... intent.”

“But, then,” Kiriko mused as he stepped behind the check-in counter. “Somebody did dope you and attack you. Aha.”

Black Jack leaned over the counter to watch Kiriko pick through something on the shelf underneath it. “Aha what?”

“The second set of keys to your room is missing,” Kiriko said. He rose, a set of keys hooked on one finger. “I think I'll help myself to mine for insurance's sake.”

“Damn.” Black Jack grit his teeth and balled his hands up. “That means that weirdo probably has my computer.”

Kiriko came back around and tugged lightly on Black Jack's sleeve to lead him to the stairs. “What weirdo?”

It wasn't the kindest language, but Black Jack wasn't feeling kind. “I caught the woman who does the cooking here trying to bash out the password to my laptop when I left it in the lobby for a second.”

“Why would she be doing that?” Kiriko asked, almost casually, as he waited for Black Jack at the head of the stairs.

Huffing, Black Jack waved for Kiriko to quit dawdling. “Get us behind a locked door, and I'll tell you.”

Kiriko gave a soft, brief whistle and stepped away so Black Jack could lean on the bannister and breathe. “Right this way, please,” he said. He proceeded two doors down the hall and unlocked his door. “I like to be close to the exit, if I can. You understand.”

“Naturally.” Black Jack gravitated toward the bed in the center of the room and flopped down on it without so much as an invitation. He bent down to untie and toe off his snow-caked shoes.

Kiriko locked and chained the door. “So, this snooping weirdo you mentioned.”

“The lady of the house isn't who she says she is,” Black Jack said. Better to cut to the chase. “Identifying information in the labs I had done doesn't match anything in the records Eleanor Audrey's doctors sent me.”

“And you think the cook's a toady trying to delay your finding that out,” Kiriko said. He crossed the room to the desk against the window and opened the big suitcase he'd set atop it. “Am I following your logic?”

Before he remembered Kiriko couldn't exactly see him in the dark outside the light thrown from the window, Black Jack only nodded. “Yes. Or that makes the most sense.”

A halo of blue-white light moved across the room with Kiriko. He set the little camping lantern down on the bedside table and tossed an armload of clothes at Black Jack. “Take that and go change in the bathroom. More murder mystery talk when you're not losing heat through wet clothes.”

Black Jack took the lantern and clothes and stood. “I never said anything about murder.”

“What is the usual expected outcome of poisoning?” Kiriko asked Black Jack's back as he crossed to the bathroom door. “And where is Mr. Audrey?”

It would be a lie to say he hadn't thought of that, so he said nothing and went to change. Just being dry slowed the tremors that had been creeping across his skin for the past hour. He sat on the edge of the tub for a while after pulling on fresh socks, toweling his hair and paying special attention to the sore shells of his ears.

His face was still warm, but he'd ruled out any obvious cause a while ago.

Warmth returning in force now that ice wasn't stealing it, naturally. Maybe frigid hands detecting exceptional heat where there wasn't any.

He got back up, grabbed the lantern. He'd have to change again once he got back into his room. There wasn't a lot he wanted to do wearing nothing but somebody else's pajamas.

“Better?” Kiriko asked. He looked over from his seat at the desk, where he'd set up a travel stove and a little saucepan. Black Jack frowned, both at the concern and the fire hazard.

“Warmer,” he said. He sunk into the armchair opposite the bed. “What in the world are you doing?”

Kiriko switched the flame off and poured steaming water into a cup at his side. “Nothing complex or dangerous,” he said. He brought the cup and a fork over and handed them to Black Jack. “It's not healthy, but it's hot.”

Cup ramen. Not healthy in the least, but the heat of it soaked through the Styrofoam and into his cool hands, and it smelled very good to his empty stomach. “You're being awfully friendly.”

“I found you drugged and hypothermic in the middle of the woods,” Kiriko said. “Friendly has nothing to do with it.”

“I suppose,” Black Jack murmured. He hung his face over the steam coming through a gap in the paper lid.

“You'd do the same for me and you know it.”

It was true, but something about the sentiment going both ways aggravated Black Jack. He stirred his food and sipped at the broth. “What better way to spite you than to keep you alive?”

A subdued, secretive laugh. “It's been a long time since I wanted to die just for the sake of dying, so you'll have to try harder than that,” Kiriko said.

Black Jack flinched and discovered a new and deeper interest in the contents of his cup.

“Did I say too much?” He could hear the keen smile in Kiriko's voice. “Maybe don't get so smart when someone is trying to help you.”

Black Jack ate. Once he'd exhausted the solids in the cup, he resigned himself to sipping broth between sentences. “At any rate. Do you think the impostor thing has anything to do with everyone getting sick?”

Kiriko shrugged. Behind him, the window darkened. A fresh bank of storm clouds rolled over the moon. “Like I said, not everyone is sick. Did Patrice look well when you saw her?”

“Good point,” Black Jack conceded. He leaned back in the chair and shut his eyes. It was hard not to appreciate being warm and dry. “We need to get help out here before we do anything about Eleanor, though.”

“Little chance of that with the power out and no cell service,” Kiriko pointed out. “Not until morning, at least.”

Black Jack started and lurched forward in his seat. “You have a phone?”

Kiriko made a face. “Of course.”

“Did anyone ask about it when you checked in?”

“Why would they?”

The cup crackled in Black Jack's grip as his brain worked. A rap at the door tore his attention back into the present moment.

They both went still, listening, waiting.

“Doctor?” came an older female voice. “I'm sorry, can I- It's urgent.”

Kiriko stood and gestured for Black Jack to hang back. “What's the trouble?” he asked, going to the door.

“Your friend treated my son after dinner,” the woman said, her voice strained in its false composure. “What do you know about that kind of food poisoning?”

“Plenty.” Kiriko gave Black Jack a look before he opened the door. “Ma'am, is your son coughing or having trouble breathing?”

“No.” Her form in the doorway shifted from foot to foot. “But he was very... He was acting strangely earlier, and now I can't wake him up. He kicks and cries in his sleep, and I can't wake him up.”

All that new warmth drained out of Black Jack. Vomiting, erratic behavior, and an almost anesthetic sleep. He blew a monosyllabic laugh out his nose.

So, he was as much a victim of the poisoning as everyone else.